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Literature / The Clocks

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The Clocks is detective fiction by Agatha Christie first published in 1963, and is a part of the Hercule Poirot series, even though the Belgian himself only plays a small role in the story.

The novel is set some time during the Cold War, and features a spy fiction sub-plot, narrated in first person by Colin Lamb, a British Intelligence agent trying to track down a spy who has been passing information to the enemy. Colin's investigation brought him to the scene of a rather peculiar murder case, in which an unknown man was found stabbed in the house of Miss Pebmarsh, a blind woman. The man carries no identification with him, and no one seems to recognise him. His body was discovered by Sheila Webb, a typist who was apparently hired by Miss Pebmarsh, although the latter denies making such an appointment. Colin then brings the case to Poirot, who agrees to investigate the murder through Colin's accounts.

In 2010, ITV adapted the story for the 12th season of Poirot.

This novel provides examples of the following:

  • 6 Is 9: Colin begins the story trying to find number 61 on a notoriously confusing street—based on a handwritten tip off—when he runs into a murder mystery at number 19. He doesn't connect the dots until the very end of the mystery, so maybe it's for the best that he decides to quit the intelligence services.
    • If that's not bad enough, Agent Harbury's drawing doesn't just have the number 61, it has a 61 with an M underneath it, next to a crescent. The murder takes place at 19 Wilbraham Crescent, and Colin still can't figure it out.
  • Absent-Minded Professor: Sheila often takes dictation from an archeologist who tends to forget the time as he talks.
  • The Alcoholic: Mrs. McNaughton comes home with bottles of whiskey hidden in her grocery bag. Colin figures out why she's "so bright and garrulous" and why she occasionally looks wobbly.
  • Colliding Criminal Conspiracies: An Inheritance Murder (or rather, murdering a man who could have identified the woman who got the inheritance as the wrong one) that happens to take place in the HQ of a Soviet spy ring.
  • Complexity Addiction: The murderers kill a guy and then go through an elaborate scheme in which they dump him nearby and then arrange for the corpse to be identified as a different person, instead of, say, just killing him and burying him in the woods somewhere.
  • Couple Theme Naming: The name on the dead man's fake card is "R. H. Curry", and the woman who says she is his widow is called Merlina Rival. Poirot figures out she is the murderer's accomplice, because he immediately recalls the Somerset village of Curry Rival and realizes the murderer, while printing the card, subconsciously picked a name to match Mrs. Rival's.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Mrs. Martindale received a bogus message requesting Sheila Webb in particular to a house where a dead body was planted... that just happened to be not just the headquarters of a Soviet spy ring but also her biological mother's home.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • A mention of gardening prompts Poirot to say that he once tried growing vegetable marrows. That's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
    • Poirot remembers investigating the case of a kidnapped Pekingese dog. That was one of the cases in The Labours of Hercules.
  • Crash-Into Hello: Colin is in the neighborhood investigating his case, a case of espionage, when he runs right into Sheila, who has come running out of a house screaming after finding a body.
  • Crazy Cat Lady: Mrs. Hemming, occupant of 20 Wilbraham Crescent, owns about 20 cats, and can't seem to talk about anything but cats.
  • Cuckoo Clock Gag: A cuckoo shoots out of a cuckoo clock to chime the hour, just as Sheila is entering on what she assumes will be a stenography job. It makes her nervous, but she gets more nervous two paragraphs later when she sees the dead guy.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Colin may initially seem like the protagonist, being the "outsider" who stumbles into the crime scene and was dragged into the subsequent investigation. However, his role in the case is secondary to Hardcastle. Even the suspects they interrogate see him as nothing more than Hardcastle's extra hand... though as Colin works in espionage, that's likely the impression he wanted them to get.
  • Dirty Commies: Colin is in the neighborhood to investigate possible Soviet agents transmitting intelligence back to Moscow. Microfilm is hidden in Braille books that are then sent across the Iron Curtain.
  • Everyone Can See It: Inspector Hardcastle, Poirot, and Colonel Beck (Colin's superior) all realise that Colin has fallen hard for Sheila due to his obstinate conviction that Sheila is innocent. Colin himself insists (truthfully) that he has a perfectly logical reason for believing her innocence, and does not admit that he has less-than-professional feelings towards her until halfway through the book.
  • For Want of a Nail: Poirot quotes the actual nursery rhyme regarding the fact that if Edna hadn't busted her shoe heel, she wouldn't have returned to the office at the right time to realize that there was no phone call asking for Sheila.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Zigzagged. Colin is only tangentially involved in the murder investigation, and barely makes any contribution in the interrogation of suspects. However, he's an undisputed lead of his own subplot. On the other hand, the first-person accounts only make up less than half of the actual narrative, as the novel is mostly written in third person.
  • Graceful Loser: Having been revealed as the spymaster, Miss Pebmarsh waits to be arrested rather than take the two hours' head start offered by Colin.
    We sat there in silence, each of us convinced that the other’s point of view was wrong.
  • Hero of Another Story: Despite being the (occasional) narrator of the novel, and the man whose accounts of the investigation lead Poirot to the solution of the mystery, Colin's main concern is to find The Mole who has been selling British secrets to the Soviets, a spy subplot that is somewhat glossed over in the actual events of the books.
  • Impersonation-Exclusive Character: Mrs. Valerie Bland is revealed to be Mrs. Hilda Bland, her husband's second wife, posing as the first one to get her inheritance. The only things we therefore know about the real Valerie was that she came from a rich Canadian family and had really poor judgment of men, considering her choice of husband.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Miss Martindale explains that, aside from typing manuscripts, the agency also does fact-checking, saying that "in the old days" readers didn't care about stuff like that, but "nowadays readers take it upon themselves" to write authors about errors.
  • Love at First Sight: Sheila Webb runs into Colin Lamb, and the latter immediately decides she is his girl.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Miss Pebmarsh is revealed to be Sheila's Missing Mom, although Sheila is never told of this fact.
  • Motor Mouth: Edna Brent is unable to stop talking, to the amusement (and sometimes annoyance) of her co-workers.
  • My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels: Colin gets some important info from Geraldine, a 10-year-old girl who just happened to spot something important as she was looking out her window. While she's revealing all that, Geraldine also reveals that she taught her Norwegian nanny to greet people at the door with "Get the hell out of here!"
  • Never One Murder: Edna, Sheila's fellow secretary, is killed because she caught the killer in a lie, and Mrs. Rival is then killed because she hit the killer up for more money.
  • Out of Focus: Hercule Poirot, who does no investigating on his own, but appears only in a few scenes when Colin comes to pick his brain about the murder case.
  • Parental Abandonment: Sheila lives with her aunt, who has told her that her parents are dead. In truth, she's an illegitimate child. Her mother, Mrs. Lawton's sister, gave her up because she was an ambitious woman who didn't want a child to hinder her career.
  • Phone-In Detective: Poirot never sets foot at the crime scene, nor does he actively take part in the investigation. He makes all his deductions based on Colin's verbal reports.
  • Red Herring:
    • The titular clocks are not as important to the plot as one would believe them to be, and were in fact placed there deliberately to confuse things.
    • While it turns out, coincidentally, to be connected to the murder plot, number 61 is a red herring in Colin's espionage investigation. He read the clue upside down, and it was tipping him off to #19 all along.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Inverted in-universe. The killer used an unpublished mystery novel manuscript as the basis of their murder scheme since she was the novelist's secretary.
  • Self-Deprecation: Colin says that the murder was overly dramatic, "like Ariadne Oliver in her worst moments." Later, when Colin is chatting with Poirot, Poirot disparages Oliver's early books. Poirot says they're improbable, they involve too much coincidence, and that Oliver made a mistake with making her detective a Finn when she knows nothing about Finland. Ariadne Oliver was an obvious Author Avatar for Agatha Christie and her Belgian detective.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Colin visits a girl who lives across the street from the murder scene who, confined to the apartment with a broken leg, passes the time watching her neighbors. Sound familiar?
    • Colin visits Poirot and finds that Poirot has launched himself into a study of detective fiction. Poirot likes the Arsène Lupin books and praises The Mystery Of The Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux.
  • Slipping a Mickey: The dead guy was drugged before he was killed, by being given a dose of chloral hydrate, which the coroner actually calls "Mickey Finn."
  • Spanner in the Works: Edna is killed because she was in the office when Mrs. Martindale supposedly received the phone call asking for Sheila.
  • The Summation: Poirot only appears in a few scenes in this book, but he still pops up to give Colin and Hardcastle a summation of how the murders went down.
  • Two Lines, No Waiting: Two separate investigations are taking place in Wilbraham Crescent. One is of the murder scene in Miss Pebmarsh's home, and one is an espionage plot where one of the occupants of the neighbourhood is believed to have been passing national information to the enemy. Aside from the fact that they take place in the same location and Colin is involved in both investigations, the two plots are not actually related to one another. Though it is worth noting the address Colin initially wants to investigate houses the murderer (well, some of them), and the house where the body was found is home to the spy Colin is searching for. Also, while it's never explicitly spelled out, Colin has his "Eureka!" Moment when he sees Hardcastle writing on some upside-down stationery — because he should have been investigating number 19, not 61, all along.
  • The Watson: Poirot praises Colin as a particularly good one, especially given his ability to recall conversations rather than the general gist of one.
  • You Are Already Dead: Detective Inspector Hardcastle describes the fatal stabbing of Mrs. Rival: "Don't suppose she even knew she'd been stabbed. People don't, you know. Remember that case of Barton in the Levitti Gang robbery? Walked the length of a street before he fell down dead. Just a sudden sharp pain—then you think you're all right again. But you're not. You're dead on your feet although you don't know it."
  • You Just Told Me: Hardcastle asks when Colin had lunch with Sheila. When Colin wonders how he knew Colin had lunch with Sheila, Hardcastle says "A damned good guess."