In 1954 Agatha Christie wrote a novella which was intended to raise money for her local church. Upon completion she was so taken with the story that she decided to develop it into a full novel, and submitted a different story to the fundraising effort. The work she had originally written was called Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly, and this work was expanded and eventually published in 1956 as Dead Man’s Folly.
The story is set at Nasse House in Devon, a ‘big white Georgian house’ overlooking a river that is home to Sir George Stubbs and his young wife. Preparations are underway for a grand garden fête which will feature a Murder Hunt with clues leading to a sham murder. But as this is Christie the death turns out to be for real: that’s not a spoiler, it is blindingly obvious what the course of events will be from the earliest chapters – but as ever the big question is… ‘whodunnit’?
Before the folly can take centre-stage in the story, Christie has to ensure that Poirot knows what a folly is. A character explains to the detective that the folly is ‘one of those little sort of temple things, white with columns’, adding that he has ‘probably seen them at Kew’.
The grounds at Nasse House are also home to a ‘picturesque thatched’ boathouse and an architect is present with a commission to build a new tennis pavilion and repair the folly. Said architect is Michael Weyman, and he is not impressed with Sir George’s choice of location for the folly, which is lost in trees and functions as neither eye-catcher nor belvedere. And having been erected hurriedly only a year earlier (Poirot notes this clue), the temple is already listing on poor foundations. ‘These things were meant to be seen’ complains Weyman, and revealing his knowledge of landscape design in the 18th century he complains that the folly should be visible on a mound: ‘situated on an eminence – that’s how they phrased it’. The architect then reveals that he has been asked to design a tennis pavilion in the form of a ‘kind of Chinese Pagoda’, and grumbles that this is a ‘crime against good taste’.
Dead Man’s Folly was turned into a film in 1986, with Peter Ustinov in the role of Poirot. West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire became Nasse House, with the Temple of Venus playing the folly, although the statue of Venus seen in the photo’ was removed for filming.
A television adaptation was shown in 2013, and it marked the end of an era: it was the last episode to be filmed in the 13 series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot in which David Suchet played the detective. Dead Man’s Folly was filmed at Greenway House, Christie’s own summer retreat which she bought in 1938, and which was clearly the model for the ‘big white Georgian house’ at Nasse. Christie’s own boathouse becomes the scene of the murder but, as Greenway has no folly, a temporary temple had to be built for the episode (a square temple rather than a rotunda). The closing scenes reveal the crucial role the folly plays in the story.
Christie first came up with idea for a murder mystery based around a folly in 1954, only a year after Barbara Jones had raised awareness of garden buildings when she published Follies & Grottoes in 1953. The Folly Flâneuse would love to know if Mrs Mallowan, as Christie then was in her private life, had seen a copy.
For more on Greenway visit https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/devon/greenway
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