Agatha Christie wrote The Hollow at the height of her powers, writes Owen Dudley Edwards. Some rich digging through this novel and across all her writing reveals a Christie continually working through the disappointment, heartbreak and suffering of her personal life via the cute and beguiling morals of the whodunnit.
I hate the dreadful hollow behind the little wood,
Its lips in the field above are dabbled with blood-red heath,
The red-ribbed ledges drip with a silent horror of blood,
And Echo there whatever is asked her, answers ‘Death.’
— ALFRED TENNYSON, Maud — A Monodrama (1855) Part 1, I.i
The Hollow was published in 1946. It began with the above epigraph. Agatha Christie had made previous use of (nursery) rhymes to supply titles with varying success in the past. Five Little Pigs (1942/3) involved Hercule Poirot investigating a 16-year-old murder of the artist Amyas Crale for which his wife Caroline had been sentenced, dying in prison; Poirot’s chief evidence oral and written is from five survivors one of whom he finds to have been the actual murderer (Robert Barnard, in his A Talent to Deceive (1980) — perhaps the best critique of Christie — thought it her best): the crucial witnesses are admirably profiled as the individual pigs of the rhyme beginning ‘This Little Pig …’. Hickory Dickory Dock (1955) does nothing with its rhyme, and relatively little with anything else. The Hollow’s connection with its epigraph isn’t obvious, but richly rewards digging. For instance, during much of Maud the homicide narrator thinks he is dead, and at the end of The Hollow (1946) we discover that in his last word the murdered man had set up a most effective mechanism to prevent detection of his murderer. It may be the most haunting verse Christie ever used.
But we are once again deceived by her if we do not allow for her tongue in her cheek, when it suited her, and indeed for her temporary Leftward leanings shared by many of her normally conservative fellow-makers of mysteries as World War 2 advanced. In 1945, probably with The Hollow already taking initial shape, she wrote an essay ‘Detective Writers in England’ commissioned by the Ministry of Information (then under Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s closest political ally) for translation into Russian and publication in a magazine under the auspices of the UK’s wartime ally, the USSR. She had invented Hercule Poirot as a retired Belgian policeman now a refugee in 1917 in her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Her 1945 essay concluded by warning the Russians:
Hercule Poirot has made quite a place for himself in the world and is regarded perhaps with more affection by outsiders than by his own creator! I would give one piece of advice to young detective writers. Be very careful what central character you create — you may have him with you for a very long time!
At the time she had just killed him off, but nobody was allowed to read his last adventure (Curtain) until her own last days, thirty years later. Poirot’s Belgian antecedents put him nicely under UK patriotist auspices during World War I whose propaganda had declared Belgian neutrality to be the cause of UK participation in the war, but the Second World War had featured the surrender of Belgium to the Nazis by King Leopold III in World War II in June 1940, and Christie earlier in the year writing the first chapter of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe with Poirot at the dentist had him correct the usual assumption that he was French to which the dentist ecumenically replies: ‘I didn’t realise you were a Belgian. Very interesting. Very fine man, King Leopold, so I’ve always heard. I’m a great believer in the tradition of royalty myself. The training is good, you know. …’ On 27 May 1940 Leopold surrendered the Belgian Army to Hitler’s troops, believing it was his army rather than Belgium’s and it could not continue fighting, for which London newspapers denounced him as ‘Traitor King’ and ‘King Rat’. Christie had to finish her book, hand over her Devonshire home to evacuees and settle in blitz-torn London with small opportunity to revise or remember Chapter I, especially since the dentist is murdered between Chapters 1 and 2. But by 1945 she would have had captious critics or fair-weather friends deploring the dentist. One, Two is actually anti-Fascist with Poirot disgusted at having to save a Fascist suspect from the gallows (‘He disliked him very much. In his opinion Frank Carter was a bully, a liar, a swindler — altogether the type of young man the world could do well without’) and yet saving him since justice must be maintained where possible regardless of the eminence of its loser, fine propaganda in itself.
Christie wrote The Hollow at the height of her powers. Her immediately previous publications from outbreak of war in September 1939 were 10 murder mysteries (including 4 Poirot, 2 Miss Marple, 1 in ancient Egypt), 1 wartime thriller, and 1 serious novel, but by war’s end she had also completed — for publication after her death — Curtain in which Poirot commits murder and dies: it was published in 1975 just before her death. To the world Poirot made his first post-war appearance in optimum health in The Hollow after 4 of his (and Christie’s) greatest triumphs: to his author he was a resurrection. It was as though she had to convince herself that he was alive. She never liked his presence in the book, omitting him when she dramatised it. (Directed by Hubert Gregg, and running in London from 7 June 1951 for 376 performances over 11 months, The Hollow was produced by Peter Saunders whom she complimented with a dinner at Christmas, and presented with a new play for him to produce: The Mousetrap, which she thought with luck might survive for 6 months, and whose unequalled London run had completed about 28,000 performances usually with a new cast every year until (temporarily) stopped on 16 March 2020 by Covid-19, Gregg having directed it until 1960.) But Poirot is very much alive in The Hollow’s successor novel, Taken at the Flood (1947) where crucially (unlike the English whom he continually enlightens) he knows the difference between an Irish Protestant and an Irish Catholic. Quite apart from that, Christie’s sociological powers reached exceptional heights here, dissecting post-war England with insights maintained in her next two titles.
The Hollow seems set around 1938, though it exploits the World War 2 cinema idol Veronica Lake (famed for her ‘peek-a-boo’ bewitching lock of hair) who would have popped promptly into the minds of readers in 1946 when a film star pops herself into the story rejoicing in the name of Veronica Cray. Christie notoriously disliked talking films, but (whether she saw them or not) as a professional detective novelist she should have heard of two 1942 films starring Lake, publicized as ‘the Blonde Bombshell’ in This Gun for Hire based on Graham Greene’s thriller (British title A Gun for Sale (1936)), and as ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ in The Glass Key from Dashiell Hammett’s eponymous masterpiece (1931): she co-starred with Alan Ladd in both. Greene had written to Christie early in the war hoping to recruit her as war propagandist for which she felt inadequate, although creating a persuasive propaganda thriller in her N or M? (1941); she reflected in her fascinating Autobiography (1977) ‘If I could write like … Graham Greene I should jump to high heaven with delight’. (Her other insuperables were Elizabeth Bowen and Muriel Spark.) I read The Hollow when I was about 12 and knew whence Veronica, because a Catholic in Dublin must have observed the omnipresence of infant Veronicas. Most of us probably identified with film stars whether or not we admitted it, and Catholic suspicions of depraved Hollywood lives could be countered by the unknown and possibly mythical holy woman Veronica who wiped the face of Jesus on his road to Calvary commemorated in the sixth Station of the Cross. In the novel Veronica Cray is not only one of the suspects, but her intrusion causes the crisis triggering the murder.
Being a mid-twentieth-century Dublin Catholic child I knew nothing about sex. (We understood gynaecology all right but that was agriculture, zoology, or religion. Adultery was condemned by a Commandment, but we defined it as something adults did.) Christie disturbed little of my innocence. For instance in Lord Edgware Dies (1933) the depraved Lord Edgware provides an evident (if uninterpreted) clue to his wife’s yearning for divorce by employing an Apollo-like butler: if Christie had been more explicit about this, the book would have been banned by the Irish Censorship Board. As it was I probably hoped the butler would thus prove an Apollo-like archer such as Robin Hood, but their only resemblance was a common enthusiasm for relieving the wealthy of their excessive wealth. Butlers in crime fiction did not just mean an appeal to snobbish readers; to a Wodehouse worshipper like myself a butler or valet should prove his employer’s superior in intellect, literacy, and contrivance. A Christie butler (seldom visible beyond 1955) had different uses. In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) the butler provides a vital clue in his short sight confusing three different men with one another, one a legitimate if disreputable son of the monstrous millionaire and ultimate corpse Simeon Lee, the others discovered to be Lee’s bastards one of whom (the police superintendent) proving also his murderer. That gave this reader no problems: history was full of bastards, whose parents hadn’t married, nothing to do with sex (whatever that was). It seemed a bit odd for the superintendent to kill his father just for being his father, but clearly the story meant that somebody had to. Look at Edmund in King Lear (probably a precedent for Christie who expected her readers to know their Shakespeare pretty comprehensively, however censored their editions).
The Hollow’s butler, Gudgeon, borrows some statesmanship from the Wodehouse valet Jeeves. The story has several characters lousing up detection for different reasons, Gudgeon’s being specifically to protect his eccentric employers, particularly old Lady Angkatell who amuses herself by creating false trails to throw the detectives’ suspicion on herself as well as on various other innocent relatives. Christie’s plots used outside interference whether from detectives or self-interested individuals, but Lady Angkatell’s private enterprise seems unique, and with Poirot excluded from the play she became its star role, a suitably responsive male lead being provided by a Scots detective inspector. It gave the play a life beyond mystery drama. I saw Dame Cecily Courtneidge and her husband Jack Hulbert bring down the house with it in 1975, though Lady Angkatell is neither murderer, nor murdered man’s wife, current or former mistress, merely a distant relative or friend. She first appears in the novel in early morning, putting kettle on, thinking somebody might be glad of a cup of tea, forgetting all about it and going back to bed after which Gudgeon removes the burnt kettle, arranging for its substitute in place for our last sight of her ladyship, waking once more in the early morning, thinking someone would be glad of a cup of tea, Christie closing the paragraph ‘The kettle on the ring came to the boil and went on boiling’. In her time she shot and killed rebels ambushing her husband when an imperial governor. That coheres with the basic theme of the next Christie novel, Taken at the Flood (1948), whose murderer has served the UK in the recent war as a commando and thus considers himself licensed to kill. He is also an Anglo-Irish Protestant, hence from a displaced ruling class, resentful of its British cousins as well as its Irish Catholic supplanters.
The Hollow seems a novel on the way to a drama, appropriately with the major casualty perishing just as Hercule Poirot makes his entrance to encounter what he first regards as an ill-conceived joke in his honour by Lady Angkatell and her household to whose luncheon he is bound. A man (Dr John Christow) lies apparently dying with a woman standing over him holding a gun. Other people stand near. The supposedly dying man says one word: ‘Henrietta’. A woman who proves to be called Henrietta takes the gun from the woman holding it and then drops it into the swimming-pool where they stand. What follows might almost seem a charade in which different players seek to portray some separate interpretation of the murder scene, including the one professional actor among them, Veronica Cray, who enacts a more brazen and more self-serving script than anyone. Poirot ultimately discovers Christow had really been killed by his own wife Gerda when she witnesses his adultery with Veronica, and since Christow is a doctor zealous in preserving human life his dying wish is to protect and preserve his wife and therefore he conscripts his actual mistress Henrietta Savernake to prevent her arrest. The Hollow’s murderer is thus an exceptionally stupid one, masked by elaborate complexities crafted to save her by different hands. Protecting Gerda becomes remaking Gerda, symbolised because Henrietta had previously sculpted her as ‘The Worshipper’ (to John Christow’s considerable annoyance, chiefly because one’s mistress sculpting one’s wife makes one feel one is losing control). Henrietta realises at the end how lethal a worshipper may become when the idol has fallen. Sculpture in The Hollow also becomes a means of camouflage, Henrietta rapidly sculpting a figure of a horse in which she hides the real murder weapon, twin to the revolver which Gerda had held and Henrietta herself had drowned. It was in fact Gerda who had shown herself brighter than her protectors thought, having been shown the twin weapons in the Angkatell gun-room and stealing both, so that she could flourish one, having used and concealed the other. In fact the limits of Gerda’s stupidity become a matter of life or death at the end. She tries to poison Henrietta in a teacup but Poirot arrives at the Christow residence and switches the teacups so that Gerda herself drinks it and dies. Since Henrietta had just made it clear to Gerda she knows Gerda was the actual murderer, Gerda may have decided to kill Henrietta fearing ultimate betrayal although in fact unnecessary self-protection. But Christie (who occasionally might enjoy leaving a hidden mystery at end of story) could have been hinting that Gerda having killed John Christow for what was in fact a one-night stand with Veronica slowly realised that he had longer-standing adultery with Henrietta, whose solicitude might be more explicable by repentance. The idea of a charismatic protagonist fanatically posturing as faithful to his wife while distributing his charms elsewhere is commonplace in real life. The late Magnus Magnusson, crack reporter, popular historian, masterly interviewer, and master-mind chairing the Mastermind TV competition, automatically attracted friends who knew that to his wife and family Magnus neither drank nor smoked, nor wenched, although the friends knew that he did. The difference was that men don’t like John Christow, whereas most men seem to have liked Magnus and protected him, Platonically.
Christie had an interesting precedent in the protection of Gerda. Murder in the Orient Express (1934) culminates with Poirot realising twelve suspects had all participated in the murder of Cassetti alias Ratchett for the kidnapping and murder of little Daisy Armstrong, and then refusing to inform against them. The magnificent film directed by Sidney Lumet (1974) — the only film or TV version worth viewing — correctly linked it to the actual kidnap and murder of the pioneer Atlantic flier Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. But the murder as well as the murderer had its precedents. Murders of civil rights workers in US Southern states might involve many conspirators, some officially professional representatives of law and order. Many a village or other local community there or elsewhere might not aid or approve a murder, and yet the innocent neighbours would perjure themselves rather than let that murderer be executed irrespective of whether individually they liked him. Frank O’Connor’s story ‘In the Train’ brings to ominous life the rural witnesses returning home after such a trial in Dublin. Christie would have been absolutely correct in The Hollow to have Henrietta, Lady Angkatell and Gudgeon all covering up for Gerda without even discussing the matter with each other at any stage: none of them even seem to like her.
Christow as name of victim and murderer seems so obvious a clue to its own origins as to be perpetually ignored. That is characteristic of a Christie plot, as in The Hollow itself where the murderer is the most likely person, so likely that the reader, feeling force-fed, rebels and loses. Agatha Christie’s detective stories are often — perhaps even ‘most often’ — inspired by the triangular relationship destroying her marriage to Colonel Archie Christie who deserted their home in 1926 for Nancy Neele, divorce following in 1928. Her variations on that heartbreak in novels over the next 40 years are extraordinarily clever, a wonderful harvest from scorched earth. None of them noticeably include full portraits of herself, Archie Christie, or Neele. Agatha Christie denied basing characters on real people, although the first corpse in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) was certainly inspired by Katharine Lady Woolley, prima donna wife of the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. Lady Woolley died in November 1945 of multiple sclerosis; The Hollow was published in November 1946, and John Christow’s great virtue proves in the end to be his passionate zeal to find a cure for ‘Ridgeway’s Disease’ whose description is that of multiple sclerosis, with Christow’s chief patient for whom he has the utmost admiration being a working-class elderly woman. (Christie made little use of working-class characters, but when she seriously focussed on one, she showed respect where she could, as in the dignity she gave her working-class murderer in ‘Death by Drowning’ (The Thirteen Problems (1932)).
Robert Barnard pointed out that at her best as detective-story writer Christie is a cold and scientific plotter, however warm she appears in inferior work or in her admirable Autobiography (1977). She had had medical experience as (First World) war work, making it pay in reliable depictions of doctors and nurses (including those she would make murderers). John Christow’s redeeming feature is being a dedicated medical scientist but one respecting while exploiting the courage of a co-operating patient: it might seem an invitation to sentiment, but in fact it is there so that we will ultimately understand who he was, why he was killed, and why he protected his murderer. Twenty years earlier she had similarly dissected a doctor in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, its narrator Dr Sheppard, forced at the end to admit being narrator, blackmailer, murderer, and imminent suicide, his last words admitting no pity for his victims or for himself. In her last great triumph Endless Night (1967) her only other full-text narrator-murderer finally acknowledges pity for one victim, but almost as a cook might throw in an additional herb. John Christow’s admiration for his patient is too great for pity, a scientist’s verdict. Otherwise, he seems as self-centred as Archie Christie while a much greater loss to humanity than Archie would have been, perhaps creating an unusual final effect for a detective story that his death far outweighed the identity of his killer.
For John Christow as part of the Christie triangle, the constant reader battles against a fog of variations. Death on the Nile (1937) apparently tells how Rich Girl steals and marries Poor Boy-Friend of Poor Girl when in fact it is telling how Rich Girl is deceived and murdered by an uninterrupted conspiracy of Poor Girl and Boy-Friend. Five Little Pigs recalls a 16-year-old case (told in a book written 16 years after the Christie breakup) with Wife convicted of murdering artist Husband who wants to leave her for Girl-Friend when in fact he has been murdered by Girl-Friend when she discovers he will remain with Wife: here Husband’s professionalism is related to the actual betrayals, since he wants to keep Girl-Friend until he has finished painting her picture, to which all else must be subordinated. Both stories are obviously founded from a long-lost delusion that Archie Christie might prove faithful to his wife in the end, but when published it is the reader who has the delusions. The Hollow uses the same original delusion, but this time the betrayed wife, Gerda, has no such worldly pragmatism: it is clear at the end he would have remained permanently at her board if not perpetually in her bed, but to her his momentary intoxication with a resurrected Veronica which she thinks his first betrayal must also be his last. Meanwhile the protection of Gerda is carried out by Christow’s real mistress Henrietta, whom the dying Christow knows that if asked will do all she can to save Gerda, he being naturally indifferent to the possibility that the likely end will be Gerda, if saved, killing Henrietta — which in the novel she tries to do until she is killed by Poirot reversing the tea she has poisoned. (In the play Inspector Colquhoun unwittingly gives the poisoned drink to Gerda.) This is Poirot’s only homicide known to The Hollow’s readers, but in fact Christie had already made him a killer — of a multiple murderer — in the book she had written most recently, the suppressed Curtain.
Children are dangerous in a detective story, being likely to distract attention, confuse the issue, and deflate the detective. Christie had recently become a grandmother, but her daughter’s husband had then been killed in the war, so that little Mathew was her sole grandchild. She seems to have been very fond of him, arranging when he was 9 that he would have the profits of the newly-staged Mousetrap, a gift she assumed would be moderate at best, remarking some time afterwards ‘Mathew always was lucky’. But as the scientific professional author, children came under her cold-eyed inspection, not — like too many adult writers — to tell them how they should behave, but to tell adults how they did behave. The 89-year-old P. D. James, her most formidable successor as ‘Queen of Crime’,wrote in her last book, Talking About Detective Fiction (2009):
With other mystery writers of the Golden Age we can be reasonably confident that the murderer won’t be one of the attractive young lovers, a policeman, a servant or a child, but Agatha Christie has no favourites either with murderer or victim. Most mystery writers jib, as do I, at killing the very young, but Agatha Christie is tough, as ready to murder a child, admittedly a precocious unappealing one, as she is to despatch a blackmailer. (Pp. 84-85.)
James was evidently thinking of Murder is Easy (1939) in which the murdered child may have been a blackmailer. The Hollow takes its place in a progress showing Christie developing a child’s place in a murder story. She reached the apex in Crooked House (1949) where the 12-year-old Josephine proves the murderer; characteristically she gave her the name of the girl in children’s literature most likely to win reader identification, Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). But the road to Josephine had significant way-stations.
Murder in the Orient Express produced a dozen murderers in concert, together avenging little Daisy Armstrong. Half-American Christie makes the vital clue the multi-national composition of the suspects solely characteristic of the servants and friends of an American great house, but the most vivid memory of the dead infant is that of the Italian chauffeur: it is a minor detail, but ‘Tonio’ (as Daisy called him) is exactly the one most likely to show the greatest emotion, partly in Italian celebration of bambini, partly because he used to pretend with her that she drove the car. The last survivor of the guilty murderers in And Then There Were None (1939) is a governess who had allowed the boy she was guarding to drown by not maintaining prohibition of the lethal swim. The World War 2 thriller N or M? (1941) starred a child used as camouflage, a Fifth Columnist disguised as a boring mother having tricked a Polish mother of her child and killing her while making her seem kidnapper of what was actually her own infant, the detective ‘Tuppence’ Beresford belatedly remembering the Biblical story in which Solomon identified the real mother of a disputed child by her surrender rather than have the child killed. Evil Under the Sun (1941) made a murderer convince her victim’s neurotic stepchild that she had killed her stepmother by use of a wax image.
The Body in the Library (1942) profited by wartime schoolchildren collecting salvage so that a schoolboy in a story set in peacetime seeks murder souvenirs, and his step-grandfather narrowly rescued from the murderess reflects ‘Got a great feeling for crime, Peter has … Not only has he got the fingernail of the murdered girl — one of the murdered girls, anyway — but he was lucky enough to have a bit of Josie’s shawl caught in with the nail. So he’s got a souvenir of the murderess too! That makes him very happy!’ Mathew’s birth was a year away, but while a trifle chilling in itself it seems a charming anticipation of the gift of The Mousetrap. The wretched adaptation of the story for ‘Agatha Christie’s Marple’ TV series imposed a Lesbian love on his mother with the murderess Josie. Christie was unusually progressive for her time in portraying a deeply sympathetic Lesbian relationship in A Murder is Announced (1950) but for scriptwriter Kevin Elyot to shoehorn one into The Body in the Library — with not the slightest textual justification — asserted that Elyot knew better than Christie whose story had held audiences for 80 years: shame also attaches to the various authorities who permitted it. Five Little Pigs was also credited in Elyot’s TV adaptation with a male friendship ultimately proven homosexual on at least one side, but that was fair dealing since it was a reasonable interpretation of the original story. The child in that story is a schoolgirl Angela Warren whose stepsister Caroline Crale thought had murdered Amyas Crale, and because Caroline had never forgiven herself for having facially blemished Angela in a fit of temper when both were children she took trial, death sentence, and life imprisonment as a debt she must pay. What had really happened was that Angela had put catnip in Amyas’s beer infuriating but not endangering him, and he was actually poisoned by the mistress who had discovered his intention to discard her.
Children grow, and for the ‘detective-writer’ (Christie’s useful word, retranslated from the Russian), the child growing up is a suspect, observer, protagonist when it and those around it aren’t sure if it is adult enough to be responsible. Christie’s two novels written late in World War 2, The Moving Finger (1943) and Death Comes as the End (1945) use such adolescents. The former, Megan Hunter, is transformed from awkward schoolgirl to beautiful woman when shanghaied to London beauticians and then taught by Miss Marple to blackmail her stepfather (who has murdered her mother) so that he would try to murder Megan unaware of being under police observation. It isn’t a war novel although Christie shrewdly gave it a wartime flavour by a narrator recovering from crashing his plane, and when at the end he reproaches Miss Marple for endangering Megan’s life she answers with a message for war-saturated readers:
‘My dear young man, something had to be done. There was no evidence against this very clever and unscrupulous man. I needed someone to help me, someone of high courage and good brains. I found the person I needed.’
‘It was very dangerous for her.’
‘Yes, it was dangerous, but we are not put into this world, Mr Burton, to avoid danger when an innocent fellow-creature’s life is at stake. You understand me?’
Contextually, Megan was not in danger until she confronted her stepfather alleging she had been a witness to his poisoning her mother’s medicine, but in the real UK wartime world of author and readers, innocents in danger were in perpetual need of rescue. Death Comes as the End set in Ancient Egypt 2000 BC features three brothers of whom the youngest, Ipy, is much the most intelligent, knows it, and lets everyone know that he knows it:
‘… I am young still, but I am one of those people who are born to succeed. … You treat me, often, as an irresponsible boy. But I am more than that now. Every month will show the difference. Soon there will be no will except mine in this place. My father may give the orders, but though his voice speaks them, the brain that conceives them will be mine.’
Inevitably and rapidly in the plague of murders punctuating the story:
… it was by the lake that they found Ipy the next morning. He was sprawled face downwards with his face in the water where a hand had held him while he drowned.
So while intellectually superior he was still a child physically. The two stories anticipate the symbolism of The Hollow’s title and its epigraph, in both cases a nest of death needs to be broken which can only be done when the murderer is destroyed by persons hitherto protecting him or her.
Towards Zero (1944) shows the murderer — as yet unidentified, with adult murders as yet unperformed — having graduated in murder as a child, as remembered by a retired solicitor, Mr Treves:
‘… Two children were playing with bows and arrows. One child sent an arrow through the other child in a vital spot and death resulted. There was an inquest, the surviving child was completely distraught and the accident was commiserated and sympathy expressed for the unhappy author of the deed. … A farmer, some time previously, happened to have passed up a certain path in a wood nearby. There, in a little clearing, he saw a child practising with a bow and arrow. … it was stated at the inquest that the children were unused to bows and arrows and in consequence shot wildly and ignorantly. … Personally, I am of opinion that it was a particularly ingenious murder — a murder committed by a child and planned down to every detail beforehand. … there was a motive. Childish teasings, unkind words — enough to foment hatred. Children hate easily — … That child is a grown-up person to-day — somewhere in the world. The question is, has it still got a murderer’s heart? … It is a long time ago, but I would recognise my little murderer anywhere.’
Treves is murdered a few pages later.
We can see the line of Christie’s authorial development towards Josephine in Crooked House, a murderer still a child with little sign of the adult apart from murdering.
In The Hollow the Christies’ children, 12-year old Terence and 9-year-old Zena scarcely get walk-on parts, still in their London home during their parents’ homicidal weekend at the Angkatells’. Zena weeps her father’s death, Terence stirs into a slow anger. We hear nothing more of them, and Gerda’s guilt will be generally concealed but at the end Poirot says he thinks that some day he may tell Terence the truth. It is probably more disturbing than any further account of the children might be. We should realise that the hollow circle of death may be redrawn the death of the murderer. Christie knew her Greek mythology if not as professionally as she knew Egyptian archaeology, and the Oresteia is a grim precedent for sons who discover their mother has killed their father.
As Gilbert made Bunthorne sing in Patience while trying to be Dante Gabriel Rossetti,
‘OH, HOLLOW! HOLLOW! HOLLOW!’