The latest Agatha Christie cinema flick is Kenneth Branagh’s third crack at Hercule Poirot, A Haunting In Venice. This is based extremely loosely on Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party.
In fact, “based” is a stretch (even the Christie estate seems to prefer “inspired” as a description instead). Screenwriter Michael Green has essentially taken just a handful of elements from the original novel, while crafting a completely different story. The most notable of these elements:
- Detective writer Ariadne Oliver, a recurring character in Poirot novels from the 1950’s onwards (though she’s changed from a Brit to an American, well played by Tina Fey)
- Setting the story at Halloween and including bobbing for apples as a potential murder method
- Grabbing a handful of character names from the novel (the surnames Drake and Reynolds being the most prominent)
And that’s it. The original wasn’t set in Venice, doesn’t take place in a single night and doesn’t involve anyone throwing a séance.
Nonetheless, the Christie estate has republished Hallowe’en Party under the new title, complete with an introduction from Green. You can see it pictured at the top of the post, along with the first paperback printing which I also own. (Publishing was slower in those days; the paperback of Hallowe’en Party didn’t appear until 1972, a full three years after the hardback original.)
That’s an understandable commercial decision, and Green’s introduction is interesting. But I take issue with his claims about the quality of the story, which he describes in unqualified terms as a “brilliant” novel:
For many of her fans it is a favourite, if not the favourite. With good reason.
Frankly, I highly doubt that. Hallowe’en Party displays all the faults of pretty much everything Christie wrote from the 1950s on, and particularly from 1960: repetitious and inconclusive dialogue and a distinct lack of tension. No reader who has encountered Death On The Nile or Five Little Pigs or Cards On The Table is going to rank this book higher than any of those.
Critic (and fellow crime author) Robert Barnard sums up the issues with Hallowe’en Party neatly in his study of Christie, A Talent To Deceive:
The plot of this late one is not too bad, but the telling is very poor: it is littered with loose ends, unrealized characters, and maintains only a marginal hold on the reader’s interest. Much of it reads as if spoken into a tape recorder and never read through afterwards.
I particularly remembered the rambling dialogue, which is typical of late-period Christie. That said, on re-reading the book after watching the movie I’m really struck by the huge amount of space dedicated to characters complaining about how there aren’t enough people being locked up in asylums anymore.
Here’s a typical but brief example – the longer ones are too depressing to put you through.
A lot of people who ought to be under mental restraint aren’t under mental restraint. No room in the asylums. They go about, nicely spoken, nicely got up, and looking like everybody else, looking for somebody they can do in.
Practically every character Poirot talks to voices a version of this sentiment. It’s telling in terms of Christie’s own views, but tedious and dispiriting for the reader. We know this isn’t going to be the solution, for one thing. Poirot’s around, so there’s going to be a motivated murder. And there is, albeit one which seems ludicrously over-complicated and unlikely to have escaped detection for as long as it did.
Bottom line? While it’s not a perfect movie, A Haunting In Venice is considerably better than Hallowee’en Party. But if the chance for another movie comes around, I frankly don’t think Green should be looking at anything Christie wrote after about 1954.