Dust jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Michael Harvey|
|Genre||Crime novel, Spy novel|
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|7 November 1963|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||256 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|Preceded by||The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side|
|Followed by||A Caribbean Mystery|
The Clocks is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 7 November 1963 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. It features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The UK edition retailed at sixteen shillings (16/-) and the US edition at $4.50.
The novel is notable for the fact that Poirot never visits any of the crime scenes or speaks to any of the witnesses or suspects. He is challenged to prove his claim that a crime can be solved by the exercise of the intellect alone. The novel marks the return of partial first-person narrative, a technique that Christie had largely abandoned earlier in the Poirot sequence but which she had employed in the previous Ariadne Oliver novel, The Pale Horse (1961). There are two interwoven plots: the mystery Poirot works on from his armchair while the police work on the spot, and a Cold War spy story told in the first person narrative.
Sheila Webb, who works for Miss Martindale's typist-for-hire agency, arrives at her afternoon appointment on Wilbraham Crescent in Crowdean, Sussex. She finds a well-dressed corpse surrounded by six clocks, four of which are stopped at 4:13, while the cuckoo clock announces it is 3 o'clock. When a blind woman enters the house about to step on the corpse, Sheila runs screaming out of the house and into the arms of a young man passing down the street.
Special Branch agent Colin "Lamb" takes Sheila into his care. He is searching out a clue from a note found in a dead agent's pocket; letter M, number 61, and a sketch of a crescent moon written on a bit of hotel stationery (sketched in the book). At 19 Wilbraham Crescent, home of the blind Miss Pebmarsh, a police investigation begins into the murder. Information on the dead man's business card proves false; neither the company nor the salesman is real. The clothing reveals nothing else, as all labels have been removed. He was killed with an ordinary kitchen knife. Colin and Inspector Hardcastle interview the neighbours. Their homes adjoin the murder site on the street or from the back gardens in this unusually arranged Victorian housing development. Colin takes a liking to Sheila.
Hardcastle questions Mrs Lawton, the aunt who raised Rosemary Sheila Webb. Rosemary is the name on a clock found at the scene of the murder, but it disappeared before police gathered them up. Colin approaches Hercule Poirot, an old friend of his father, to investigate the case. He challenges Poirot to do so from his armchair. He gives Poirot detailed notes. Poirot accepts, then instructs Colin to talk further with the neighbours.
At the inquest, the medical examiner says a "Micky Finn" (chloral hydrate in alcohol) was given to the victim before he was murdered. After the inquest, Edna Brent, one of the secretaries, expresses confusion at something said in evidence. She tries but fails to convey this to Hardcastle. She is soon found dead in a telephone box on Wilbraham Crescent, strangled with her own scarf. The dead man's identity is yet unknown. Mrs Merlina Rival (original name Flossie Gapp) identifies the dead man as her one-time husband, Harry Castleton. Colin leaves Britain on his own case, travelling behind the Iron Curtain to Romania. He returns with the information he needed, but not the person he hoped to find. Following Poirot's advice, Colin talks with the neighbours. He finds a ten-year-old girl, Geraldine Brown, in the apartment block across the street. She has been observing and recording the events at Wilbraham Crescent while confined to her room with a broken leg. She reveals that a new laundry service delivered a heavy basket of laundry on the morning of the murder. Colin tells Hardcastle.
Hardcastle tells Mrs Rival that her description of the deceased is not accurate. Upset, she calls the person who involved her in this case. Despite police watching her, she is found dead at Victoria tube station, stabbed in the back. Poirot's initial view of this case is that the appearance of complexity must conceal quite a simple murder. The clocks are a red herring, as is the presence of Sheila, and the removal of the dead man's wallet and tailor marks in the clothing. Colin updates Poirot on succeeding visits.
At a room in a Crowdean hotel, Poirot tells Inspector Hardcastle and Colin Lamb what he has deduced. From a careful chronology, he deduces what Edna realised. She returned early to the secretarial bureau from lunch the day of the murder because of damage to her shoe, unnoticed by Miss Martindale, owner of Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau. Miss Martindale took no telephone call at the time she claimed she had, and is the one person with motive to murder Edna. From that fictitious call, the boss sent Sheila to Miss Pebmarsh's house for steno/typing service. Miss Pebmarsh denies requesting this service. Mrs Bland, one of the neighbours, mentioned she had a sister in the initial interview with Hardcastle. Poirot deduced the identity of this sister as Miss Martindale. The present Mrs Bland is the second Mrs Bland. Mr Bland said his wife was the sole living relative for her family inheritance but she cannot be sole heir and have a sister, at the same time. Mr Bland married in the Second World War but his wife was killed overseas in that war; he remarried soon after, to another Canadian woman. The family of his first wife had cut off communication with their daughter so thoroughly that they did not know she was dead. Sixteen years later, the first wife was announced to be the heiress to an overseas fortune as the last-known living relative. When this news reached the Blands, they decided the second Mrs Bland must pose as the first Mrs Bland. They fool a British firm of solicitors that sought the heir. When Quentin Duguesclin, who knew the first wife and her family, looked her up in England, a plan was laid to murder him. The plan was simple, with additions like the clocks taken from an unpublished mystery story that Miss Martindale had read in manuscript.
They murdered Mrs Rival before she could tell the police who hired her. Mr Bland and his sister-in-law thought their plan would baffle the police, while Mrs Bland felt she was a pawn in their schemes. Mr Bland took care to dispose of Duguesclin's passport on a trip to Boulogne, which trip he mentioned to Colin in casual conversation. Poirot holds that people reveal much in simple conversation. Poirot had assumed this trip took place, so the man's passport would be found in a country different from where he was murdered, and long after friends and family in Canada had missed him on his holiday in Europe. The missing clock, the one with Rosemary written on it, was traced. Colin realised that Sheila had taken it and tossed it in the neighbour's dustbin, seeing it was her very own clock, mislaid on the way to a repair shop. But the clock was taken by Miss Martindale, not mislaid by Sheila. Poirot succeeded.
Colin turns his note upside down, and it points him to 19 Wilbraham Crescent. Miss Pebmarsh is the centre of the ring passing information to the other side in the Cold War, using Braille to encode their messages. He has decided to marry Sheila and realises that Miss Pebmarsh is Sheila's mother. He gives her two hours warning of the net closing around her. She chose her cause over her child once, and does so again, finding a knife to defend herself. Colin disarms her, and the two wait for the arrest, each secure that their convictions are the true ones. The novel closes with two letters from Inspector Hardcastle to Poirot, telling him police have found all the hard evidence to close the case. Mrs Bland, less ruthless than her sister, admitted all under questioning.
Characters in The Clocks
- Hercule Poirot, the renowned Belgian detective
- Inspector Dick Hardcastle, the investigating officer
- Sergeant Cray, a policeman in the case
- Colin "Lamb", a British Intelligence agent, hinted to be a son of Superintendent Battle
- Miss Katherine Martindale, owner of the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau; sister of Valerie Bland. Nicknamed 'Sandy Cat' by the typists
- Sheila Webb, a typist with the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau
- Edna Brent, a typist with the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau
- Miss Millicent Pebmarsh, a blind teacher and inhabitant of 19 Wilbraham Crescent
- James Waterhouse, occupant of 18 Wilbraham Crescent
- Edith Waterhouse, James's sister
- Mrs Hemming, occupant of 20 Wilbraham Crescent
- Josiah Bland, a builder, occupant of 61 Wilbraham Crescent
- Valerie Bland, wife of Josiah Bland and sister of Miss Martindale
- Mrs Ramsay, occupant of 62 Wilbraham Crescent
- Bill Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay's small son
- Ted Ramsay, Mrs. Ramsay's small son
- Angus McNaughton, a retired professor, occupant of 63 Wilbraham Crescent
- Gretel McNaughton, Angus's wife
- Merlina Rival, a pawn of the murderers who is killed by them
- Colonel Beck, Colin's superior in British Intelligence
- Geraldine Brown, a young girl living across from 19 Wilbraham Crescent
Literary significance and reception
Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) reviewed the novel in The Guardian's issue of 20 December 1963 when he said, "I am not so sure. This begins well, with the discovery of a stranger in a suburban sitting-room, with four strange clocks all showing the same time; but thereafter the story, though as readable as ever, does tends to hang fire. Also there is one very corny item, the vital witness killed when on the point of disclosing crucial information, which is quite unworthy of Miss Christie."
Robert Barnard: "Lively, well-narrated, highly unlikely late specimen – you have to accept two spies and three murderers living in one small-town crescent. The business of the clocks, fantastic and intriguing in itself, fizzles out miserably at the end. Contains (chapter 14) Poirot's considered reflections on other fictional detectives, and the various styles and national schools of crime writing."
References to other works
- In Chapter 14, Poirot refers again to one of his favourite cases, the one related in The Nemean Lion, the first story of The Labours of Hercules.
- In Chapter 24 mention is made of Poirot's role in "the Girl Guide murder case". This had been retold in Dead Man's Folly.
- In Chapter 25, Lamb meets a little girl with her broken leg in a cast who spends the day looking out of the window at the neighbours, whom she has given fanciful descriptive names. The inspiration for this plot device is possibly Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film, Rear Window, a nod to a classic. In the same chapter, the little girl refers to a neighbour called Miss Bulstrode, though it seems unlikely that the character is the same Miss Bulstrode from Cat Among the Pigeons.
An adaptation for the ITV television series Agatha Christie's Poirot, with David Suchet as Poirot, was produced for the show's twelfth season, aired in the UK in 2010. Guest stars include Tom Burke as Lieutenant Colin Race, Jaime Winstone as Sheila Webb, Lesley Sharp as Miss Martindale, and Anna Massey as Miss Pebmarsh; this was Anna's last performance, before her death, and the ITV broadcast of the episode is dedicated to her memory. Charles Palmer (who also directed Hallowe'en Party for the series) directs this instalment, with the screenplay being written by Stewart Harcourt (who also wrote the screenplay for Murder on the Orient Express).
While the adaptation kept the main plot of the novel, several changes were made, including a modified sub-plot, the setting of the case being shifted to Dover, Kent, and occurring before World War II (thus keeping it in line with ITV's other adaptation of Poirot's cases set around the 1930s) instead of a Cold War story, while a number of characters were either removed or changed, with a few new ones included to work with the modified sub-plot. Changes included:
- Colonel Beck, Sergeant Cray, the McNaughtons and Geraldine Brown are omitted from the adaptation; the Ramseys are replaced with the characters of Christopher Mabbutt and his daughters, May & Jenny, who occupy No. 62 Wilbraham Crescent, and are involved with the modified sub-plot.
- Sheila was raised in a home, and not by an aunt; Colin's surname is changed to Race, a relation of Colonel Race, and he works as an officer for MI6; Edna Brent's first name is changed to Nora, and her murder occurs close to the Cavendish Bureau whilst she attempts to contact the police by her own will; James and Edith Waterhouse become Matthew and Rachel Waterhouse, are involved in the modified sub-plot, and are Jews who fled from Germany; Miss Pebmarsh is the mother of two sons who died in the First World War and has no relations to Shiela.
- Constable Jenkins, Vice Admiral Hamling, Annabel Larkin, Fiona Hanbury, and Professor Purdy are new characters to the story. Hamling replaces Beck as Colin's superior; Purdy is having a love affair with Sheila, secretly despised by Miss Martindale; Annabel and Fiona are workers at Dover Castle who die in a road accident during a confrontation between them – the former is caught by the latter smuggling documents to Pebmarsh's house, which Fiona makes a note of that is used by Colin, although he reads it upside down. Colin deeply regrets not being there for Fiona when she needed him, giving him a stronger reason for wanting to help Sheila.
- Poirot is more involved in the case from the beginning, when Colin goes to him for help. Thus he is present in the major interviews and with examining Wilbraham Crescent and the Cavendish Bureau and the street it is on.
- Some clues and events are changed or removed – Mrs Hemmings provides the clue about the laundry van; Mr Bland does not take a trip abroad to dispose of evidence; Sheila does not dispose of the clock she takes, because it came from a mother she never knew; Merlina is killed in Dover, not London, and her body is found by Hardcastle and Jenkins whilst tailing her; when Merlina identifies the murdered man, she calls him Harry Castleton.
- While toward the end of the novel, the murdered man is known as Quentin Duguesclin through private inestigations, in the adaptation, he is never named by anyone. Instead, at the end, Poirot simply reveals that he is either the relative or friend of the first Mrs Bland; because he is more involved in the case, Poirot makes a comment about the importance of finding out this fact, by saying to Hardcastle, "I do not think it is important who he is, but who he is."
- As the adaptation is set before World War II, the sub-plot is changed – Miss Pebmarsh sought to keep Britain weak if a war with Germany should occur, allowing the country to easily invaded. Her motive was to prevent the further loss of young life, after losing two sons in the First World War. Annabel helped to smuggle documents out of Dover Castle, Pebmarsh copied them, and Mabbutt smuggled the copies to France to be handed over to German agents. Poirot reveals the truth behind Fiona's clue to Colin, who promptly has Pebmarsh and Mabbutt arrested; Annabell died in a road accident with Fiona trying to stop her exposing Pebmarsh's and Mabbutt's scheme. The Waterhouses are wrongly accused of the business, until they reveal the truth about themselves.
- Poirot's denouement of the case is modified, in that he does so at the Cavendish Bureau, in the presence of the Blands, Miss Martindale, and Sheila, alongside Hardcastle and Colin, and that Mrs Bland confesses to them when he exposes the truth; she knew about the first murder, but didn't expect the other two. Other things revealed by Poirot – the use of the Gregson story is modified, in that it was published but the clocks were not part of it; the time of 4:13 has more significance to the case, hinting to Sheila's love affair with Purdy; Merlina is connected to Mrs Bland by their work in the theatre; the murder weapon used on the first victim has more involvement, as it is planted on Sheila at the inquest by Mrs Bland.
- 1963, Collins Crime Club (London), 7 November 1963, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1964, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 276 pp
- 1965, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 246 pp
- 1966, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 221 pp
- 1969, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 417 pp ISBN 0-85456-666-X
The novel was first serialised in the UK weekly magazine Woman's Own in six abridged instalments from 9 November – 14 December 1963 with illustrations by Herb Tauss. It was advertised as being serialised prior to the publication of the book; however this had already appeared on 7 November. In the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the January 1964 (Volume 156, Number 1) issue of Cosmopolitan with illustrations by Al Parker.
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 15)
- John Cooper and B. A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (pp. 82, 87) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- "American Tribute to Agatha Christie". insightbb.com.
- The Guardian, 20 December 1963 (p. 6)
- The Observer, 10 November 1963 (p. 25)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (p. 190). Fontana Books, 1990; ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- "Poirot The Clocks Film Focus". Kent Film Office. Dec 2012.