The Clocks is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on November 7, 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 oft-made boast that a crime can be solved by the exercise of the intellect alone. The novel also 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, a typist-for-hire, arrives at her afternoon appointment on Wilbraham Crescent in Crowdean on the Sussex coast to find 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.
It is while visiting Wilbraham Crescent one afternoon on his own business that Special Branch agent Colin “Lamb” takes the terrified Sheila into his arms. He is investigating areas connected with crescents or the moon while following up a clue to the route by which classified information is leaving the country. The clue is a note found in a dead agent's pocket; letter M, number 61, and a sketch of a crescent moon are all that is 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. The dead man has a business card in his pocket indicating that the bearer is an insurance salesman called R. H. Curry. Neither the company nor the salesman are real, police learn soon. The clothing reveal nothing else, as all labels have been removed. He was killed by a knife, an ordinary kitchen knife.
A colourful group of neighbours is interviewed by Inspector Hardcastle with his friend Lamb in attendance as his note-taking sergeant. The neighbouring homes adjoin the murder site on the street or from the back gardens in this unusually arranged Victorian housing development. The most interesting of the neighbours to Colin is the Ramsey family: the husband popped off for business travel days after his boys came home for the school vacation, as he does frequently for his 'constructional' profession. He is clearly taken with Sheila, an extra motive to aid his friend, the inspector.
Things look bleak for Sheila when the aunt who raised her, Mrs. Lawton, is questioned by Hardcastle. Her niece's full name is Rosemary Sheila, but the girl preferred Sheila from age 6. Rosemary is the name on a leather travel clock found at the scene of the murder, but lost before the police gathered up the clocks set to the incorrect time. Frustrated, Colin approaches Hercule Poirot, an old friend of his father, to investigate the case. He challenges Poirot to do so from his armchair as he had always claimed was possible. He leaves the celebrated detective with detailed notes on the investigation thus far. The celebrated detective accepts the challenge, then instructs Colin to talk with the neighbors beyond the initial interviews with Inspector Hardcastle.
At the inquest in Crowdean, the medical examiner reveals that the victim had been given a "Micky Finn" (chloral hydrate in alcohol) before he was murdered. After the inquest, Edna Brent, one of Sheila’s fellow secretaries, expresses her confusion at something said in evidence. What she said couldn't be true, she tells the young officer she first encounters. She attempts to draw it to Hardcastle’s attention, but that lower level officer deflects her. Within hours, she is found dead in a telephone box on Wilbraham Crescent, strangled with her own scarf.
The dead man's identity proves hard to discover, further frustrating Hardcastle. A letter from a woman called Mrs. Merlina Rival (original name Flossie Gapp) seems the first solid lead. She appears, identifies the dead man as her one-time husband, Harry Castleton, after careful questioning by the Inpsector. In that week, Colin has left 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 seeks to talk with the neighbors. He makes an important discovery in a ten-year-old girl, Geraldine Brown, who lives in the apartment block on the other side of the street. She has been observing the events at Wilbraham Crescent with a pair of opera glasses while confined to her room with a broken leg. She records events of interest. She reveals that a new laundry service delivered a heavy basket of laundry on the morning of the murder. Colin shares his discovery with Hardcastle.
Mrs. Rival wrote to the police to state that her late husband had a scar behind his left ear. Meeting her in London, Hardcastle tells her the scar is only a few years old, per medical examination, long after she had last seen him. Upset at this news, she calls the person who involved her in this case. Despite a police "tail" on her to find this link, she is found dead at Victoria tube station, stabbed in the back. Three murders now, the bodies are piling up, and the police are no closer to resolving their case. Hardcastle has one firm fact: Mrs. Rival was hired by the murderer to make the identification she did, and then killed for it.
Poirot’s initial view of this case is that the appearance of complexity must conceal quite a simple murder. The clocks are therefore a red herring, as is the presence of Sheila, and the removal of the dead man's wallet, tailor marks in the clothing. Colin updates Poirot on succeeding visits, teasing him for not yet finding the solution.
Poirot took a room in a Crowdean hotel to tell Inspector Hardcastle and Colin Lamb what he has deduced. From a careful chronology of events, 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 her boss, Miss Martindale. Edna knows that Miss Martindale took no telephone call at the time she testified that she had. Thus only one person had motive to murder poor Edna. From that fictitious call, the boss sent Sheila to Miss Pebmarsh’s house for steno/typing service. Miss Pebmarsh steadfastly denied ever requesting this service. Mrs. Bland, one of the neighbors of 19 Wilbraham Crescent, mentioned she had a sister in the initial interview with Insp. Hardcastle. Poirot deduced the identity of this sister. Miss Martindale, owner of Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau, is the sister of Mrs. Bland. Her typing service specialized in readying author's texts for publication, mystery authors and a few writers of seamy romances.
The present Mrs. Bland is the second Mrs. Bland, also deduced by Poirot. Mr. Bland said his wife was the sole living relative for her family inheritance — how could she be sole heir and have a sister, at the same time? Mr. Bland married in the war, but his wife was killed overseas in that same war; he remarried soon after, another Canadian woman. The Canadian family of his first wife had disapproved of him, cut off communication with their daughter so thoroughly that they did not know she was dead. Some 16 years later, the first wife was heiress to an overseas fortune, thought to be the last living relative. When news of it reached the Blands, they decided that the second Mrs. Bland must pose as the heiress in order to obtain the money, rather than admit the death. The couple succeeded in fooling the British law firm that sought the heir on behalf of the Canadian firm handling the will. When Quentin Duguesclin, who knew the first wife and her family, decided to look her up in England more than a year later, a plan was laid to murder him. The plan was simple, with additions like the clocks taken from an unpublished mystery story whose author had been a close client of Miss Martindale. She was avaricious and brutal but not imaginative.
Mrs. Rival was murdered before she could tell the police who asked her to make the false identification, just as Edna had been killed before she revealed what she inadvertently knew. 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, rather than the full partner she was. Mr. Bland took care to dispose of Mr. Duguesclin's passport on a quick trip to Boulogne, which trip he was bold enough to mention to Colin in casual conversation. Again proving Poirot's point that people reveal much in simple conversation. Poirot has assumed this trip, so the man's passport would be found in a country different than where he was murdered, and long after friends and family in Canada had missed him on his vacation in Europe.
The missing clock, the one with Rosemary written in faded letters, was traced as well. Colin realized that Sheila had taken it that afternoon, seeing it was her very own clock, mislaid on the way to a repair shop. She tossed it in the neighbor's trash. But she had not mislaid it initially; her boss, Miss Martindale, had taken it as part of her murder plot.
Following Poirot's resolution of the motives for these murders, Colin sees his error in reading the note he carries. Turned upside down, it points him to 19 Wilbraham Crescent. Miss Pebmarsh is the center of the ring passing information to the other side in the Cold War, using Braille system to encode their messages. He has decided to marry Sheila and realizes that Miss Pebmarsh is the real mother of his love. A true gentleman, he gives Miss Pebmarsh two hours warning of the net about to close around her, soon to be his mother-in-law. 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 "cracked" under questioning, and admitted all.
The two plots are tied in several points, but one is clever. Colin initially seeks, but did not find, 61 Wilbraham Crescent. That is home to the Blands, who committed the murder that Hardcastle and Poirot want to solve. Initially, the Blands are not suspected in the murder at all, and of no interest to Colin. The murdered body was found in 19 Wilbraham Crescent, a murder in which the owner had no involvement. Instead, it was the home of the person whom Colin sought, center of the spy ring, Miss Pebmarsh. It is important to have human curiosity, to turn the paper every direction.
Viewed from the 21st century, well past the Cold War, its flavor and feeling are well captured in this novel.
Characters in "The Clocks"
- Hercule Poirot, te Belgian detective living in London since the Great War
- Inspector Dick Hardcastle, the investigating officer
- Sergeant Cray, a policeman in the case
- Colin “Lamb”, a secret agent, (possibly the son of Superintendent Battle.)
- Miss Martindale, owner of the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau
- Sheila Webb, a typist with the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau
- Edna Brent, a typist with the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau
- Miss 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, Josiah’s wife
- 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
- Mrs McNaughton, Angus’s wife
- Gretel, the Danish housemaid of the McNaughtons
- Merlina Rival, a woman of questionable virtue
- Colonel Beck, Colin’s boss in intelligence
- Geraldine Brown, a young girl living across from 19 Wilbraham Crescent
- Dr Rigg, a physician who takes on the role of Coroner.
Literary significance and reception
Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) reviewed the novel in The Guardian's issue of December 20, 1963 when he said, "About Miss Agatha Christie's The Clocks 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."
Maurice Richardson of The Observer of November 10, 1963 concluded, "Not as zestful as usual. Plenty of ingenuity about the timing, though."
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 quite probably Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film, Rear Window, a nod to a classic.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
An adaptation for the ITV series Agatha Christie's Poirot, with David Suchet as Poirot, was produced for the show's twelfth season. Guest stars include Tom Burke as Lieutenant Colin Race, Jaime Winstone as Sheila Webb, Anna Massey as Miss Pebmarsh, and Lesley Sharp as Miss Martindale. 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).
A few changes were made to this version, but, unlike other adaptations for this series, the main plot structure was largely left in place. The plot includes two major threads, neither of which has anything to do with the other. The main thread involves a young secretary named Sheila Webb. She receives word from her employer, Miss Martindale (who runs the Cavendish Secretarial Bureau), that Sheila has been specifically requested at the home of Miss Pebmarsh at 3:00 that day. Sheila is told by Miss Martindale to let herself into Miss Pebmarsh's house if no one is home. Sheila does as she is told and sits in the parlour waiting for her client.
While waiting, she notices that there are five clocks in the room. One is a cuckoo clock that is set to the correct time. The other four clocks are all set to the same, wrong, time, 4:13. We later learn that Sheila is deeply unsettled by this number because it is the room number of a hotel where she is carrying out a meaningless affair with a professor, mostly out of a sense of loneliness. Further jarring Sheila is that one of the four clocks set to 4:13 belongs to her, in fact it is her most personal possession, as it was supposedly given by her mother before she was giving up for adoption as a baby. Sheila had lost the clock a few weeks before when she took it to a jeweller to be repaired. Sitting in Miss Pebmarsh's parlour, Sheila then sees the dead man lying on the floor, stabbed. Screaming, she runs out of the house and into the arms of the Colin Lamb figure (now bearing the surname of 'Race' and identified as Colonel Race's son), who happens to be on the street investigating the spy conspiracy that makes up the other main thread in the story. Race and the police investigate, and Sheila becomes the prime suspect, though Race has fallen in love with her and does not believe her to be guilty. The police find the missing clock in Sheila's possession. They assume it means she murdered the unknown man, but really she only took it because of its significance to her and because it might implicate her.
Sheila has a friend at the Cavendish Bureau named Nora. They attend the inquest together, at which many people testified. After the inquest, Nora desperately tries to inform the police about something, saying that someone who testified at the inquest was lying (and indicating this person is a woman). Before Nora can provide further information to the police, she is strangled in a public phone box.
The police have no luck identifying the dead man on Miss Pebmarsh's floor. Finally, a woman comes forward after reading his description in the newspaper and identifies him as her husband, who she has not seen for many years. To perfect the identification, she says he has a scar behind his left ear and this is found to be correct. However, she cannot explain why the police surgeon says it is only a couple of years old, when she has not seen him for much longer.
The police are about to arrest Sheila for the murder when Poirot intervenes (unlike the book, he is present during the entire police investigation). As in the book, Poirot learns that Miss Martindale is actually the sister of Mrs Bland, who lives in great wealth with her husband in a home quite near Miss Pebmarsh. The Blands say that their money came from an inheritance to Mrs Bland from her family in Canada; however, the first Mrs Bland, who died of natural causes, was the real heiress. When they learned that the dead Mrs Bland was due to inherit a lot of money, Mr Bland, the second Mrs Bland and her sister (Miss Martindale) devise a plan for the second Mrs Bland to impersonate her predecessor to inherit the fortune.
The dead man was an acquaintance of the first Mrs Bland; he happened to be travelling in England and wanted to visit her. Realising that he would see through the deception, Mr Bland and Miss Martindale lured him to the Blands' home, drugged his tea and had him delivered to Miss Pebmarsh's house hidden in a laundry delivery van. After getting him into Miss Pebmarsh's living room Mr Bland stabbed him.
Poirot realises that Mr Bland and Miss Martindale sought to establish a crime scene which was bizarre and included so many red herrings that it would confuse and confound the police. First, the dead man is very hard to identify because he is from Canada and has no connection to Dover. Second, he has no connection at all to Miss Pebmarsh, he was simply killed in her parlour to throw the police off. Third, it was set up so Sheila would discover the dead man, since she also had no connection to the dead man or the Blands. And fourth, the elaborate and bizarre ruse of the clocks, which had no real meaning but were intended to be confusing.
In fact, Miss Martindale read about the clocks and some of the other plot points in an unpublished novel by a detective fiction writer for whose estate she still provided secretarial services. In that story, the clocks and other devices were also used to act as red herrings to confuse the police. The only significance of the clocks was to be bizarre and unexplainable, and to distress Sheila with a reminder of her meaningless affair. However, Nora, who broke her shoe and returned from lunch early on the day of the murder, knew for a fact that Miss Martindale did not receive any phone call requesting that Sheila go to Miss Pebmarsh's house that day, as she testified at the inquest. When Nora tried to tell the police that “she” was lying at the inquest, she was referring to Miss Martindale. Overhearing this in the hallway outside the inquest, Miss Martindale took the opportunity to strangle Nora. Finally, the Blands and Miss Martindale hired an actress, Merlina Rival, to pretend to be the dead man's wife. When it became clear that she was falling apart and unable to cope with the police suspicion, Mr Bland lured her to a rendezvous and murdered her, bringing their death toll to three in all.
The second thread involved Miss Pebmarsh and her neighbour, who are caught by Lieutenant Race and Naval Intelligence smuggling secrets out of England for the benefit of Germany. Miss Pebmarsh's motive is that her sons died in World War I and she prefers England to have very weak defences so that any German invasion will succeed quickly and other English boys will not die. Two German neighbours of Miss Pebmarsh, posing as English academics, come under suspicion of being the spies, but they are found to be innocent Jews fleeing persecution. The McNaughtons do not appear.
The role of Miss Pebmarsh was Anna Massey's last before her death, and the ITV broadcast of the episode is dedicated to her memory.
- 1963, Collins Crime Club (London), November 7, 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 November 9 - December 14, 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 November 7.
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.
- Czech: Hodiny (The Clocks)
- Danish: Viseren peger på mord (The hand points at murder)
- Dutch: De vier klokken (The Four Clocks)
- French: Les Pendules (The Clocks)
- German: Auf doppelter Spur (To Be Onto A Double Trace)
- Hungarian: Órák (Clocks), Az órák (The Clocks)
- Italian: Sfida a Poirot (Challenge for Poirot)
- Polish: Przyjdź i zgiń (Come and die)
- Spanish: Los Relojes (The Clocks)
- Turkish: Ölüm saatleri (The clocks of Death)