The Hollow may not be one of Christie’s most ingenious and inventive mysteries, but it stands out as one of her more unusual crime novels, where the crime itself is a distant second to the character study.
Hercule Poirot is invited by the eccentric Lady Angkatell to spend a weekend at her country estate, The Hollow. Upon arriving, he’s very much irritated by the cheap melodramatic scene clearly staged for his benefit: a man lying at the edge of the pool, dripping red paint into the water, while a woman stands over him with a gun in her hand. Several other people hover around in pretend shock… or so Poirot thinks, until it dawns on him that the red paint is real blood and the man in front of him is really dying. However, during the murder investigation that follows, Poirot keeps coming back to that first gut impression of something artificial and staged. Something is off about the whole thing that, on the surface, looks like a simple crime of passion.
Before the tragic pool scene takes place, we spend time getting to know the other guests at The Hollow, which include John Christow, a respected and charismatic Harley Street doctor, and his meek wife Gerda, who is blindly devoted to her husband and worships the ground he walks on. There are also various cousins and relations of Lucy Angkatell, including Henrietta, a talented sculptor and John Christow’s latest paramour; Edward, who’s been in love with Henrietta forever despite her repeated rejections of marriage, and Midge, a poor relation who’s been carrying a torch for Edward. With so many deep undercurrents cooped up in close proximity, some sort of explosive drama was bound to happen on the weekend, though no one was expecting a murder of course.
As mentioned before, The Hollow is an interesting anomaly in Christie’s oeuvre, functioning more like a regular novel about characters and their relationships, rather than a conventional detective puzzle, despite the presence of the expected detective elements. It’s not unusual for her books to use multiple viewpoints in the narration, or spend time on the characters and delve into their thoughts, emotions and interior life. Here, however, a lot of the time it feels like character study for its own sake, rather than predominantly in service of the mystery or the plot. As a reader you get to know more of what the characters think and feel than in any other Christie novel I can think of.
Not all of it is successful – there’s one side character, another Angkatell relation, who feels rather extraneous – but Henrietta in particular is one of Christie’s most psychologically complex creations, with her identity as an artist at the core of her being and colouring everything else in her life. Christie also creates a strong sense of place – including one for a location that we never actually ever see and that exists only in the fond memories of the characters.
Christie herself lamented including Poirot into the story at all, and later she ruthlessly wrote him out when adapting The Hollow for stage. While this may sound a tad harsh, it’s hard to argue with the fact that Poirot’s presence, when you get down to it, is not essential. He is instrumental in uncovering the truth, of course, and has some intriguing semi-antagonistic interactions with Henrietta, but I can see Dame Agatha’s point; you could have reached the book’s affecting and poignant conclusion without the little Belgian.
P.S. I’m pretty sure that The Hollow was where I first read about Yggdrasil, the sacred tree in Norse mythology, which inspired the name for this blog.