The Hollow by Agatha Christie, published in 1946, explores a dangerous love triangle in this wonderful country house mystery. The great Belgian detective Poirot is holidaying at a nearby cottage. He is invited to join the Angkatell family for lunch, with their guests the Christows.
Lucy Angkatell invited Hercule Poirot to lunch. To tease the great detective, her guests stage a mock murder beside the swimming pool. Unfortunately, the victim plays the scene for real. As his blood drips into the water, John Christow gasps one final word: ‘Henrietta’. In the confusion, a gun sinks to the bottom of the pool.
Poirot’s enquiries reveal a complex web of romantic attachments. It seems everyone in the drama is a suspect – and each a victim of love.
In The Hollow, Agatha Christie explores themes of infidelity, jealousy, and the all consuming nature of art. This was one of several works that appeared to be influenced by her personal experience with her husband Archie, who left her for another woman.
Star physician John Christow is cheating on his devoted wife Gerda with Henrietta. Edward has proposed to Henrietta three times. Working class shop girl Midge is in love with Edward. Into this mix comes Veronica Cray, Christow’s ex fiancé, and one that ‘got away’.
“But I,” she thought, “am not a whole person. I belong not to myself, but to something outside of me.”
Christie stand-in Henrietta Savernake, is a cool, calm, superficially charming individual, whose fixation on her art consumes her. She compartmentalises her thoughts, lies easily and freely (with everyone except John) and goes out of her way to make people feel at ease. John characterises these behaviours as ‘insincere kindnesses’; but as Lady Angkatell pointed out, when she wanted to make Gerda feel better about an awful outfit, Henrietta didn’t just compliment Gerda’s terrible sweater; she bought the pattern and knitted her own version. The kindness may have been insincere, but by god, Henrietta followed through with it.
Christow’s wife, Gerda, while smarter than she appears, is clumsy, forgetful, slow to learn and has serious social difficulties. Christow’s ex, Veronica Cray, is successful, wealthy, intelligent and incredibly glamorous, with a brittle, artificial beauty and the manner of a spiteful, cruel child.
“Who had said that the real tragedy of life was that you got what you wanted?”
John Christow is a brilliant physician, pursuing a cure for Ridgeway’s disease. He married the plain, unassuming Gerda after a breakup with Vera Cray, a glamorous but controlling Hollywood starlet. Their relationship is plainly abusive, with him controlling and belittling Gerda at every turn. He has cheated on her throughout their marriage, with Henrietta as his current mistress. They are well matched in many ways; equally intelligent, attractive, and committed to something outside themselves. Their chief tension is that John resents that he is not Henrietta’s primary focus. She is indifferent to his bullying, controlling nature, and when he asserts that her response to his death would be to sculpt, she acknowledges that to be true. He despises Gerda for worshipping him, and hates that Henrietta will not.
“She is old – her hair is grey – there are lines in her face. Yet she has magic – she will always have magic…”
Lady Lucy Angkatell is their host for the murderous weekend. She is, while obviously sharp, oblivious to social cues, has no sense of hierarchy, and is so forgetful that she leaves kettles to boil over on a daily basis. Her charm, title and wealth mean that people excuse her ‘eccentricities’. Yet she has a darkness that even her own husband is worried about; he is perpetually worried that she will go too far.
Midge is a working class cousin who toils in a dress shop; she has a crush on Edward and envies her family their luxuries. David is a somewhat irrelevant Straw Socialist who makes little impact on the story. The family are served by a staff of long term servants, including the almost comically loyal butler, Gudgeon. He keeps a secret stock of identical kettles to replace the ones Lady Angkatell keeps ruining.
The ITV David Suchet adaptation of The Hollow downplays John Christow’s virtues and emphasises his faults. It also lacks the insight you get into John’s character via his inner thoughts. Gerda’s somewhat malicious and manipulative nature is also excluded. The result is that John Christow is transformed from a flawed, brilliant, charming rake – in the style of Amyas Crale – into a one dimensional cad who abuses and bullies his anxious and (possibly learning disabled) wife.
The characters of Henrietta Savernake and Lucy Angkatell are portrayed perfectly. The character of David is removed. The ending is altered slightly in a way that makes Gerda more sympathetic. Poirot’s involvement is increased, which makes sense for the adaptation, and the (slightly odd and manipulative) suicide attempt in the book is omitted. It was also nice to get a flavour of Poirot’s fastidious tendencies and hatred of the countryside.
In the End
“Don’t fret, ducks – what’s gorn’s gorn. You can’t ‘ave it back.”
The whole book is tinged with grief and loss, with the majority of the characters living faded or half lives. The aristocratic Angkatells are characterised as dissolute and aimless, with a streak of mental illness. Gerda lives for her husband, who bullies her and considers her a burden. Despite Gerda’s worship, it is clear that he has Christow has no particular moral virtue. Even his pursuit of a cure for Ridgeway’s disease is based on desire to solve a tough scientific problem, not altruism. Christow’s chief appeal to the women around him is that he is a bright, alive, vital presence. With the character of Henrietta, Christie explores the impact that being an artist has on a person’s relationships, clearly relating it to herself.
The characters in this novel are impeccable. Poirot himself is largely superfluous, but the rest are perfectly realised. I loved both the book and TV adaptation, and would heartily recommend both.