At the end of May, I had the bright idea of proposing a theme for my monthly round-up of classic crime in the blogosphere. The Minor Offences duly picked the year of 1963 at random. The Clocks is my submission, as it happens to be the only unread book from that year in the house.
At the Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau, Principal, Miss K. Martindale, September 9th had been a dull day, a day of routine.
Sheila Webb is a typist in the employ of the aforementioned Miss Martindale. On the afternoon of the 9th, a Miss Pebmarsh of 19 Wilbraham Crescent phones the agency to specifically request the services of Sheila (a call Miss Pebmarsh is subsequently to deny making) and asks her to arrive at three o’clock. When Sheila gets to number 19, she is shocked to find a body waiting for her. Immediately there is another even more unnerving moment, Miss Pebmarsh herself arrives on the scene and Sheila has to stop her treading on the body. For Miss Pebmarsh is blind.
Sheila runs screaming straight into the arms of a passing stranger called Colin Lamb, who gets in touch with his friend Inspector Hardcastle of the Crowdean police. The story follows Hardcastle and Lamb as they try to clear up the mystery.
Lamb is a marine biologist specialising in seaweeds, who arrives at the scene on a mysterious mission of his own (OK, he’s a spy), and narrates several chapters in the approved facetious young man style. For Colin the case is complicated by falling for Sheila, something everybody else notices immediately. Unfortunately, Sheila is squarely in the frame.
According to a business card found on his body, the dead man is an insurance salesman called Curry, but it soon transpires that there is no such person. The mystery is compounded by the presence of several clocks in the room.
‘And what about your other clocks?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Your other clocks seems all to be just over an hour fast.’
‘Fast? You mean the grandfather clock in the corner?’
‘Not that only – all the other clocks in the sitting room are the same.’
‘I don’t understand what you mean by the “other clocks”. There are no other clocks in the sitting room.’
And yet there they are, and all set to the same time: 4.13.
Colin eventually calls in an old friend of the family, Hercule Poirot. Poirot is old and bored and spends his time reading mystery novels and finding out why his cleaner has left some dried orange peel in the umbrella stand. He jumps at the chance to demonstrate his abilities and prove his contention that it is possible to solve a crime from your armchair. Much to Colin’s annoyance.
‘I’ve always understood from you that it was perfectly possible to lie back in one’s chair, just think about it all, and come up with the answer. that it was quite unnecessary to go and question people and run about looking for clues.’
‘It is what I have always maintained.’
‘Well, I’m calling your bluff,’ I said.
The investigation is limited in scope to the immediate neighbours of Miss Pebmarsh, who make an amusing cast. The next-door neighbour, the formidable Miss Waterhouse, minds her own business and has little to say about Miss Pebmarsh. On the other side, dotty Mrs Hemming cares only for her large collection of cats. At the foot of Miss Pebmarsh’s garden, the Blands at 61 are enjoying the fruits of his successful building concern. Mrs Ramsay at 62 is kept busy by two lively boys home from school, with no father on the scene to keep them occupied. The retired McNaughtons at 63 simply look after their garden – his compost is famous. All have their own secrets but none can shed much light on the murder. Until, that is, Poirot reads the interview transcripts.
I enjoyed The Clocks. It’s a light and entertaining quick read, but I didn’t experience what I think of as the Agatha Christie effect, best summed up as a that-is-such-an-obvious-trick-I’m-a-bit-annoyed-I-missed-it-must-be-an-off-day-I-definitely-won’t-fall-for-that-again feeling. Still, a nice way to pass some time.
Ela’s Book Blog. ‘The theme of identity runs through the whole novel. Lamb isn’t really Colin’s surname, but he has a well-known father whose name is probably Wolf; Sheila’s aunt, with whom she lives, has told her that her parents died when she was a baby, but she’s actually illegitimate; there’s the enemy agent or agents; and then there’s the mystery of the murdered man himself – whom no-one seems to know or want to claim.’
Traditional Mysteries: ‘A rather spiffing premise, if you ask me. It might not be fair to say that things went downhill from there, but there were a few things that didn’t exactly knock me out about this one. I’ve never been a fan of espionage and spy fiction and Christie seems to have set out to combine elements of that with the more traditional whodunits she was known for. Which didn’t really do it for me but I guess by 1963 Christie had written so many outstanding traditional mysteries that one can hardly begrudge her for wanting to mix it up a little.‘
Final destination: Back to the shelf
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.