Evil Under the Sun (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, June 1941; USA: Dodd Mead, October 1941

Unquestionably one of her three or four best, so absolutely superb. Poirot is in grand form as he investigates the murder by strangling of a beauty at a fashionable beach resort, a murder which may be either the culmination of a romantic triangle or a sequel to two earlier, unsolved murders. Not only is the characterisation extremely good (notably the victim’s adolescent stepdaughter), but the plot is one of those extremely tricky alibi time-juggling puzzles which Christie can do better than anybody else, combined with a neat reversal of the triangle (seen, as always, from the wrong angle).

Blurb (UK)

Hercule Poirot, resplendent in a white duck suit, with a panama tilted over his eyes, his moustaches magnificently befurled, lay back in a deck chair on a sunny terrace overlooking the bathing beach.  Casually his fellow guests at the luxury hotel moved around him, talking, knitting, drying from their bathes, anointing themselves with oil.  It was August and the holiday mood ran high; there was laughter among the crowds on the sands, children’s voices from the surf; gay couples climbed on the cliff paths.  But, as Agatha Christie’s famous detective says, “there is evil everywhere under the sun,” and before long his languid holiday is disturbed by a more than usually urgent call for his professional aid.  No reader can help being fascinated by Poirot’s manner and methods.

Blurb (US)

“There’s evil in this place,” proclaimed the mysterious Reverend Lane, and Hercule Poirot, famous Belgian detective, was forced to nod his head in agreement.  Yet the Jolly Roger Hotel seemed a strange place for crime or violence.  Situated on the little island at Leathercombe Bay, the picturesque resort hotel was known for its good food, sports and congenial guests.

But at least one of the latter, while Poirot was vacationing there, was not at all congenial—was actually a cunning murderer.  The body of beautiful Arlena Marshall, found face down in the sand at a nearby cove, proved that the Reverend Lane’s proclamation had been correct.  While all the immediate evidence pointed to Captain Marshall, husband of the murdered actress, the final solution presented Poirot with one of the most baffling and surprising puzzles of his career.  Agatha Christie has never written a more cleverly woven story than this grim revelation of evil under the sun!

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 14th June 1941): POIROT IN ENGLAND

To maintain a place at the head of detective writers would be difficult enough without the ever increasing rivalry.  Even Miss Christie cannot stay there unchallenged though she has a following which will swear her books are best without reading the others.  Unbiased opinion may have given the verdict against her last season when new arrivals set a very hot pace; but Evil Under the Sun will take a lot of beating now.  Poirot is spending an English seaside holiday.  The beauty of the party is found strangled in a cove and several people have good cause to be glad of her death.  Miss Christie casts the shadow of guilt upon first one and then another with such casual ease that it is difficult for the reader not to be led by the nose.  Everybody is well aware that any character most strongly indicated is not a likely criminal; yet this guiding principle is forgotten when Miss Christie persuades you that you are more discerning than you really are.  Then she springs her secret like a land-mine.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 16th August 1941): DETECTION

Evil Under the Sun is another of Mrs. Christie’s chess problems, a murder in two moves.  A madly attractive, silly woman is throttled on a beach, at a time when no one with any motive could have been there.  There must be some funny business in the alibis, yet they all look soundly supported by unprejudiced outside evidence.  From which we quickly deduce that all the outside evidence cannot be as unprejudiced as it appears to be: there must be a hook-up we had not noticed.  Ah! here comes Mrs. Christie forging a sentimental link between two of the main suspects under our very noses.  Just what we were expecting—the red herring.  Now where’s the genuine solution?  And just at this point confidence ebbs.  We have been caught by Mrs. Christie too often.  We squint back over our shoulders at the red herring.  Surely it was a little too obvious.  Remember The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  Or is it so obvious just to make us be too clever and jump to the wrong conclusion?  Remember—but once you start remembering all the thirty odd times Mrs. Christie has misled you, you are utterly lost.  She not only knows all the tricks of her trade, but naturally she uses them time and time again.  She has used the plot of Evil Under the Sun before, but I am not going to tell on what occasion.  But I will take this opportunity (when there is such a dearth of good detection that it is hard to find enough worthy of review) to reveal my recipe for Christies.

Style: A certain eager enthusiasm proclaims that she has thought up some new device—so look out!  A languid style indicates that she has used the plot before.

Ingredients: She is the most economical writer of detection alive.  Every fact has some bearing on the solution.  There are no loose ends.  The red herrings can always be distinguished from the genuine article by the fact that they tie up into neat knots, but never include all the data.

Characters: The weak spot in her armoury.  Handsome, charming men and lively, attractive women are her favourite murderers.  She is especially fond of husbands killing wives and vice versa.  Men always tend to kill women and women men, but she is also partial to couples killing in collusion.

Motives: Either financial or sexual.  If sex is harped on in the story, it is safe to plump for sex.

Flaws: She never shrinks from the wildest physical improbabilities.  In a repeat version of a plot, such as Evil Under the Sun, when her interest flags a little, she sticks at nothing.

Ambiguity of Language: Her speciality.  Statements are couched in a carefully misleading form.  These are so smoothly introduced, often in what appears to be padding, that they are most difficult to detect, but once spotted they are infallible pointers to the villain.

Two out of three Christies can be solved by bearing this analysis in mind; yet such is her skill that the pleasure of seeing through it is even greater than that of being baffled by it.  I can give no higher praise in detection.

Spectator (John Fairfield, 13th June 1941, 170w): Agatha Christie does not disappoint her admirers in Evil Under the Sun; the puzzle is deftly mounted with the customary economy, and is then broken by Poirot with the precise pomp which so nearly resembles a Guards regiment manoeuvring at the slow march…  If one can make any objection it is that the weather is too good, a spell of unbroken fine weather outlasting a Poirot investigation on the Cornish coast strains the reader’s credulity almost to breaking-point.  The captious may also take exception to the way in which the fate of an unusually charming drug-trafficker is left in the air—but this is a minor point.

New Yorker (11th October 1941, 50w): Makes one wonder how Mrs. Christie can do this sort of thing year in and year out and do it so well.

Sat R of Lit (18th October 1941, 40w): Worked out with characteristic Christie cunning and subtle deception.  Poirot scintillates, but crime itself may take a heap of believing.  ‘Very slick.’

Books (Will Cuppy, 19th October 1941, 160w): Struck us as one of the best Christie numbers in a season or so, a regular fireworks display of her technical abilities, with a surprise conclusion of high voltage.  You can’t go wrong with this one.  Get your copy.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 19th October 1941, 180w): The murder is an elaborately planned affair—a little too much so for credibility, in view of the many possibilities of a slip-up somewhere along the way—but Poirot’s reasoning is flawless, as it always is.  Evil Under the Sun adds another to the already long list of Agatha Christie’s successful mystery tales.

Springfield Republican (19th October 1941, 240w): Being a Poirot book, there is much study in character, and being a Christie story, the plot is fashioned with skill and the solution, though surprising, is wholly acceptable.

Spectator: Mrs. Christie is even more ingenious than usual in her discovery of new fool-proof methods of murder.