Defending women in “Evil Under The Sun”
It’s now respectable to like and enjoy Agatha Christie, and I do, as I think previous posts have amply shown.
I’ve read nearly all the Christies, most of them more than once, and they are a great go-to comfort read; but some of them are perhaps more than that.
Recently I reread “Evil Under The Sun”.
SERIOUS SPOILERS FOLLOW
This is the tale of a red-haired actress who is strangled on one of the quieter beaches belonging to an island hotel. Poirot just happens to be among the guests staying there, and indeed is an important witness to the last time she was seen alive.
The story has a clever, if implausible, solution; and is an example of Christie’s Eternal Triangle motif, on which cleverer people than I have written papers. I felt this time that it wasn’t one of the greats – not enough book space and consideration are given to the minor suspects, such as Rev Stephen Lane, the crazy clergyman; and Poirot has to obtain a confession by delving into “previous-crimes-in-the-area”, which seems below his usual standard of detection.
But it is very interesting on the issue of women, in two ways.
Firstly, it has one of the most maddening “romantic” endings of any book, ever.
Ken Marshall grows up with Rosamond Darnley, but fails to notice that she loves him. Instead he marries a woman who has been acquitted of the murder of her husband. “There are plenty of women to marry in the world without going out of your way to marry one who’s stood her trial for murder,” as Rosamond says to Poirot. Years later, a widower, he marries Arlena Stuart, who has featured notoriously in a prominent divorce case but been subsequently dumped by her lover. “Again Marshall performs a rescue act,” as Poirot says. Note that the women Ken “rescues” aren’t suffering from poverty or illness, although I daresay there were quite a few hard-up war widows in 1940. He rescues them after they’ve been, in his view, exposed to public scorn or criticism.
When Arlena is murdered, he and Rosamond both think the other one killed her, and both separately decide to lie to the police to give the other an alibi. It is never explained why Rosamond and the Marshalls happened to choose the same rather small holiday destination.
Eventually, crime solved, Rosamond nudges him into the proposal he had already (he says) decided to make. “You’re going to be the persecuted female this time… You’re going to give up that damned dressmaking business of yours, and we’re going to live in the country.”
Rosamond is described as someone who Hercule Poirot “admired as much as any woman he had ever met.” She has (as she points out) made a great success of her business and social life, unlike, one might say, Kenneth. When she talks about this business, she does so with obvious pride and pleasure.
Nonetheless she is delighted by his “romantic” command.
However, the message of the story – and this Christie definitely has a message – has nothing to do with Rosamond. The title is intended to remind the reader of the book of Ecclesiastes, which is quoted – there is evil “everywhere under the sun”, even on a pleasant English beach on holiday. Surely one of the reasons a clergyman is present, in a setting where this is completely unnecessary, is to have someone who can plausibly quote the passage.
The victim, Arlena, was a famous actress before she gave up acting a few years after her marriage to Kenneth. She is still stunningly beautiful, so much so that when she first appears in chapter 1, wearing, not unreasonably, a bathing costume on a beach, all the men present (except her husband!) gaze at her with awe, and less respectable feelings.
But as the hotel maid says of her, “she wasn’t exactly a lady. What I mean is, she was more like an actress,” implying that these are not compatible.
The people on the beach have already been discussing the fact that there is, as Poirot says, “evil everywhere under the sun.” Poirot specifically agrees that “evil does walk the earth and can be recognised as such.”
Arlena Stuart Marshall only has to walk down the beach and attract the attention of one married man, before she is the focus of their thoughts. One woman says, “to my mind that woman’s a personification of evil!” and the clergyman says, “that woman is evil through and through.”
Few people waste their time expressing sympathy when she is strangled. They say things like “She was the kind of woman that to my mind is absolutely worthless… Useless, a parasite,” “a bad lot through and through,” “nothing more nor less than a nasty mess,” even “she asked for it.” Reverend Stephen Lane’s reaction is to compare her to Jezebel and Aholibah (who? a normal reader may ask) and to say she has been “struck down in her wickedness.”
(We later find out that this man is or has been mentally ill, with “an obsession with the devil – especially the devil in the guise of a woman.” This of course makes him a suspect, and to some extent undermines his opinion, but as a man of the gospel of love, he is still given to my mind a surprisingly easy ride.)
Incidentally, this book was first published in 1940. However many husbands Arlena lures away from their wives, there were surely better candidates for a “personification of evil” on the scene then. This point is not specifically made, but there is a mention in another context of Mussolini, a rare (I think) political name-check in Christie.
In fact the mud-slinging is a bit heavy-handed.
We may also find it offensive – but one suspects that in 1940 there were a lot of people who thought like that about women who were sleeping with other women’s husbands. Christie uses her readers’ prejudices, of course, to deceive them.
It still comes as a surprise when Poirot solves the crime, and does so by turning all this on its head. “I saw her, first, last, and all the time, as an eternal and predestined victim… it was assumed that she was the type of woman who wrecked lives and destroyed souls. But… It was not she who fatally attracted men – it was men who fatally attracted her.”
Her married lover rejected her, the young man she “ruined” took money from her to avoid prosecution for his fraud, and finally someone else milked her for her inherited fortune – and murdered her before her husband could find out.
Eighty years on, we may still disapprove of adultery, or “cheating”, as it’s now more gently known; but surely this was a brave and interesting take by Christie at the time. (Her own first husband left her for another woman.)
But here she shows a woman, admittedly not hugely admirable, who doesn’t merely lose her life. In the eyes of the otherwise likeable crowd at the hotel, Arlena also loses her moral right to stay alive – because, Christie surely implies, of society’s determination to blame women for sex.
(If you want to delve into Christie more deeply, Jem Bloomfield has recently posted about the links between three traditional detective stories, including Christie’s “Sleeping Murder”, and Webster’s classic play “The Duchess of Malfi.” The link is here
Read it and see if he persuades you that Christie, PD James and Ngaio Marsh were in the forefront of literary criticism’s reassessment of Jacobean tragedy.)
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