The Agatha Christie Challenge – Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

Lord Edgware DiesIn which the talented, beautiful but spoilt actress Jane Wilkinson, aka Lady Edgware, challenges Poirot to help her “get rid of my husband”, shortly after which Lord Edgware Dies. Well, the title told you that anyway, so it’s no surprise. Poirot and Hastings investigate this, and other, deaths but it’s only a chance remark that Poirot overhears that alerts his little grey cells to what really happened that fateful night and brings the guilty party to book. Because of this, Poirot counts this case as one of his failures; but Hastings’ narrative shows us that Poirot is being unnecessarily and uncharacteristically modest! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

skeletonThe book is dedicated to Dr. and Mrs. Campbell Thompson. Reginald Thompson, eminent British archaeologist, led an expedition to Nineveh in 1930 on which Max Mallowan worked and Agatha Christie was allowed to accompany him. It was during this dig that she wrote “Lord Edgware Dies”, and in fact, when they discovered a skeleton in a shallow grave they named him Lord Edgware in honour of the late, but fictitious, George Alfred St Vincent Marsh, fourth Baron Edgware.

Red HerringMy initial reaction to this book is that it is a brilliant read, full of great characters, an intriguing plot, a misleading denouement and it all hangs together beautifully. Red herrings abound, and, if you’re tempted to play along with Poirot and make your own guess as to whodunit, you won’t see the wood for the trees until the final few pages. Sadly, there are a few racist comments in the text that today hit you as being wholly inappropriate, but those were the times they lived in.

thirteenThe title to the American edition is Thirteen at Dinner – which was also used as the name of the 1985 film starring Peter Ustinov and Faye Dunaway. Its relevance to the story comes from Donald Ross’ observation that there were thirteen guests at the dinner party, and there are all sorts of superstitions that arise from having thirteen at dinner – arising from the account of the Last Supper in the Bible. It does concentrate on one relatively small part of the story though, and I personally don’t rate it as a title!

moustache2Poirot is on top form with all his vanity and egocentric nature on constant display. It reveals itself from the very start with Lady Edgware’s attention – and of course, Hastings cannot help himself from encouraging his friend to look even more foolish: “”You have made a hit, Poirot. The fair Lady Edgware can hardly take her eyes off you.” “Doubtless she has been informed of my identity,“ said Poirot, trying to look modest and failing. “I think it is the famous moustaches,” I said. “She is carried away by their beauty.” Poirot caressed them surreptitiously. “It is true that they are unique,” he admitted.” On another occasion, all detective work comes to a sudden halt when Poirot discovers a tiny grease spot on his clothing and rushes to procure the cleaning materials to repair his appearance. That manicured look is so important to him, and there are occasions when he picks Hastings up on his dress sense and personal grooming, like a bickering old couple.

waving-handsHowever, Poirot’s self-obsession does not mean he is not self-critical. Far from it; in this book he is devastated that it takes an overheard conversation to direct his thoughts on the right path. He precedes his denouement speech with a self-chastising preamble: “I am going to be humble […] I am going to show you every step of the way – I am going to reveal how I was hoodwinked, how I displayed the gross imbecility, how it needed the conversation of my friend Hastings and a chance remark by a total stranger to put me on the right track.” His anxiety at not being able to see through the crime clearly makes him behave rather peculiarly at times, which gives rise to Inspector Japp (back in Christie-land since we last saw him in Peril at End House) again suggesting that Poirot is losing it: “”When we got back here I started to question him. He waved his arms, seized his hat and rushed out again.” We looked at it each other. Japp tapped his forehead significantly. “Must be”, he said.”

butlerHastings is his usual self, loyal to his friend although not beyond teasing him either; talking about the attractiveness of the women at the party like a couple of (admittedly well-behaved) schoolboys, stunned by the beauty of Lady Edgware. There’s no auburn hair on offer for him to admire, just the effeminacy of Lord Edgware’s butler for him to despise in a lightly homophobic way, which comes across as rather tasteless. Together they continue to be a great team, with Poirot on one hand criticising Hastings for any number of failings (as he sees them) yet also being unusually kind to him: “as we sipped our coffee, Poirot smiled affectionately across the table at me. “My good friend,” he said. “I depend upon you more than you know.” I was confused and delighted by these unexpected words. He had never said anything of the kind to me before.” Working together, there are a number of excellently written passages where they both consider the evidence to hand, asking questions and formulating theories – or ideas, as Poirot would have it; these are the real nuts and bolts of the book that make it so satisfying.

bookstallAs narrator, Hastings offers us a facsimile, as he has done in previous novels – this time of the torn letter that appears to incriminate one particular suspect; and Hastings’ style (as passed on to us by Christie) of having a number of relatively short chapters keeps the pace of the story going at a furious rate, making it a very exciting read. There are, however, a couple of words and phrases that Christie/Hastings overuse, so that they stand out detrimentally. On several occasions, Poirot is described as looking or speaking “dreamily”. The word doesn’t have much of a meaning or much of an impact, but it’s very noticeable through its repetition. Even more annoying, there are at least eight occasions where they phrase “at anyrate” appears. It’s particularly irritating due to the contemporary spelling of “anyrate” as one word – it doesn’t appear in my copy of the OED. However, Christie redeems herself with a nice little joke when the new Lord Edgware is giving his account to Poirot of how he approached his father to ask for money. “”And I went away without getting any. And that same evening – that very same evening – Lord Edgware dies. Good title that, by the way. Lord Edgware Dies. Look well on a bookstall.” He paused. Still Poirot said nothing.” As an aside, I was uncertain in the last book, Peril at End House, whether Captain and Mrs Hastings were back in England for good or if she was still a brave lonely outpost in The Argentine. With the knowledge that a couple of days after Poirot revealed the murderer, Hastings was recalled to The Argentine and therefore missed the trial, we know that he is still only here “on business”.

MadnessA couple of interesting philosophical questions are raised during the course of the book. The opening scene shows new stage star Carlotta Adams performing her act which includes an impersonation of Lady Edgware – because to most people she is the American actress Jane Wilkinson. Hastings muses on this point: “Watching Carlotta Adams’ clever but perhaps slightly malicious imitation, it occurred to me to wonder how such imitations were regarded by the subject selected. Where they pleased at the notoriety – at the advertisement it afforded? Or were they annoyed at what was, after all, a deliberate exposing of the tricks of their trade?” We get to discover Jane Wilkinson’s true reaction to the impersonation later in the book. But that’s certainly a question – in a world of celebrities – that is simply never going to go away. There’s also the question of a murderer’s mental state at the time they commit the crime. Can they possibly be fully sane to commit such an act? “”All murderers are mentally deficient – of that I am assured,” said Mrs Carroll. “Internal gland secretion.”” It’s a subject Christie’s raised in the past and no doubt will do again in the future.

leadpipingThere are a few references to Poirot’s earlier cases. When the redoubtable Duchess of Merton pays a call on Poirot, she informs him that it was Lady Yardly who had told her about him. If that name rings a bell, she featured in the short story The Adventure of “The Western Star” which appears in the book Poirot Investigates. Elsewhere Poirot reminisces on a case: ““I found a clue once,” said Poirot dreamily. “But since it was four feet long instead of four centimetres no one would believe in it.”” That is largely taken to refer to a piece of lead-piping that Poirot found in The Murder on the Links. Whilst Poirot is waiting for evidence to turn up, he helps out in a few other cases, including “the strange disappearance of an Ambassador’s boots”. This sounds very much like The Ambassador’s Boots from Partners in Crime, but it is Tommy and Tuppence who solve that little mystery. Some identity confusion, perhaps?

SavoyUnusually this story takes place entirely within the confines of London. Only Inspector Japp takes a trip outside, to Paris, which he believes was a wasted journey. Apart from that, the locations of the story are at London theatres and restaurants, Poirot’s flat, Lord Edgware’s house in Regent Gate, Jenny Driver’s hat shop in Moffat Street and Jane Wilkinson’s suite at the Savoy. That magnificent building of course exists; there isn’t a Regent Gate in London as such but Prince Regent’s Gate would be about right for the Edgwares’ stately pile; again there is no Moffat Street near Bond Street; I’m not sure Ms Driver’s hats would sell that well in Moffat Road, Tooting.

duckA few references took my interest: the first, brash, appearance of young Ronald Marsh, later to become the fifth Baron Edgware, causes Mrs Widburn to declaim: “You mustn’t take any notice of him. Most brilliant as a boy in the O.U.D.S. You’d hardly think so now, would you?” I recognised that acronym instantly as I, dear reader, was also once a member of the Oxford University Drama Society. And Japp uses a delightful image which was prevalent in the 19th century but has really gone out of fashion: “Sorry M. Poirot […] But you did look for all the world like a dying duck in a thunderstorm.”

elizabeth-canningWhen the detectives are trying to work out how it could be that Jane Wilkinson was seen in more than one place at the same time, Japp recalls: “Reminds me of the Elizabeth Canning Case […] You remember? How at least a score of witnesses on either side swore they had seen the gipsy, Mary Squires, in two different parts of England. Good reputable witnesses, too. And she with such a hideous face there couldn’t be two like it. That mystery was never cleared up.” The Elizabeth Canning case was indeed real, and concerned a famous kidnapping case back in 1753 that you can read about here.

post-boxJenny Driver recollects how Carlotta Adams would send a letter every week to her sister in Washington. But on this occasion she missed the post. “”Then it is here still?” “No sir, I posted it. She remembered last night just as she was getting into bed. And I said I’d run out with it. By putting an extra stamp on it and putting it in the late fee box it would be all right.” Extra stamp? Late fee box? Indeed, this was a common practice so that you could post a letter after the normal final collection time for an extra fee. The boxes were frequently placed in railway stations. I’m not sure when this practice died out – but it must have been jolly useful.

rose-descartesAlso in the world of the hat shop Chez Genevieve, “Mrs. Lester’s coming in about that Rose Descartes model we’re making for her.” Rose Descartes? (Actually my copy reads “Rose Descrates” but I think that’s a misprint). There was an old style of rose called the Rene Descartes – a stunning orangey red. If it’s the same hue, I’m sure the hat will look fab. Anyone of my generation or older will just about remember the wonderful chain of London eateries that was the Lyons Corner House – Carlotta Adams was seen at the Strand branch at 11pm on the night Lord Edgware died. I fondly remember my dad ordering the Super Bingo meal at the branch on Coventry Street, which he enjoyed so much that he had another one for dessert! Apparently they ceased trading in 1977 – I didn’t realise it was that recent. And the evening newspaper that covers the story is called the Evening Shriek. That’s a jazzy title. The London evening papers at the time would have been the Star, News and Standard (as the paper vendors used to shout out). Maybe it’s that shouting that Christie is trying to recreate with this newspaper name.

PoundRegular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. The £100 cheque that Lord Edgware cashed the day before he died would today be worth about £5000. Moreover, the $10,000 that Carlotta refers to in her letter to her sister comes in at a whopping £146,000 at today’s rates.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Lord Edgware Dies:

Publication Details:
1933. Fontana paperback, 13th impression, published in July 1976, priced 60p. The rather creepy cover illustration by Tom Adams shows an ornate dagger with a claw finial plunged high into the neck of a grey haired male victim – presumably Lord Edgware.

How many pages until the first death: 31. A perfect length really; enough to lay some useful groundwork before getting into the meat, as it were. Of course, Lord Edgware’s death is referred to in the first paragraph, and, indeed, in the title. No one will ever be under the misapprehension that Lord Edgware survives unscathed in this book.

Funny lines out of context: as usual, words and ideas that seemed perfectly reasonably in the 1930s have acquired a different sense today:

“You don’t know my husband, M.Poirot […] He’s a queer man – he’s not like other people.”

“He seems to have taken a fancy to me[…] A man like that behind you means a lot.”

“Unfortunately, he has got a queer sort of prejudice against divorce. I tried to overcome it but it was no good, and I had to be careful, because he was a very kinky sort of person.”

“Finally, after various ejaculations, Poirot spoke.”

Memorable characters:

Jane Wilkinson/Lady Edgware is a very well drawn, very lively and very believable over-the-top character who brings the page to life whenever she appears. In his first description of her, Hastings points out her histrionic character; unusually, she even beats Poirot in the self-obsessed stakes. Mrs Widburn describes her as an egoist; Bryan Martin says she’s amoral. I see her as a real life and slightly more unhinged version of the Muppets’ Miss Piggy. Everything has to be about her or because of her. Hers is the only opinion that is to be counted, hers the only needs to be met.

Young Ronald March, the fifth Baron Edgware, is also a live wire; coming across as a leftover from a 1920s Christie novel of Bright Young Things – maybe his natural home would have been in The Secret of Chimneys. It’s a shame that a lot of what he says when you first meet him is considered so distasteful now. I think Christie intended for us to think of him as a rather charming Jack-the-Lad; however, times change (see below.)

The character of Carlotta Adams is based on the real life American dramatist Ruth Draper, who specialized in character-driven monologues and whom Christie saw give a performance that made her think “how clever she was and how good her impersonations were; the wonderful way she could transform herself from a nagging wife to a peasant girl kneeling in a cathedral” (from Christie’s Autobiography.)

Christie the Poison expert:
There is a noticeable similarity to the murder methods in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Ackroyd is killed by an antique silver dagger – Edgware by an ornate pin. In the first book, Mrs Ferrars dies through an overdose of veronal – and that is also the method used for a second murder in this book.

Class/social issues of the time:

Perhaps there are not quite so many references to the social issues in this book as in others, although there is unfortunately quite a lot of casual racism.

Lord Edgware’s housekeeper, Miss Carroll, has firm ideas about the kind of person who would and would not commit a murder. “”Had Lord Edgware any enemies?” asked Poirot suddenly. “Nonsense,” said Miss Carroll. “How do you mean – nonsense, Mademoiselle?” “Enemies! People in these days don’t have enemies. Not English people!” “Yet Lord Edgware was murdered.” “That was his wife,” said Miss Carroll. “A wife is not an enemy – no?” “I’m sure it was a most extraordinary thing to happen. I’ve never heard of such a thing happening – I mean to anyone in our class of life.” It was clearly Miss Carroll’s idea that murderers were only committed by drunken members of the lower classes.”

Interestingly, Poirot, who normally understands the British class system so well, gets it severely wrong with his interrogation of the Duke of Merton: “”I should like to ask you outright, your Grace. Are you shortly going to marry Miss Jane Wilkinson?” “When I am engaged to marry anyone the fact will be announced in the newspapers. I consider your question an impertinence.” He stood up. “Good-morning.” Poirot stood up also. He looked awkward. He hung his head. He stammered. “I did not mean…I…Je vous demande pardone..” “Good-morning,” repeated the Duke, a little louder.”

But it’s Hastings who shows the true British class spirit when he discovers Poirot was reading the Duke’s letter upside down at the same time as stammering. “”Poirot!” I cried, scandalised, stopping him […] I felt very upset, He was so naively pleased with his performance. “Poirot,” I cried. “You can’t do at thing like that. Overlook a private letter […] It’s not – not playing the game.”

Let’s turn to a few more unpleasant aspects of the book. There’s a lot of casual antisemitism running through it, from descriptions of Rachel Dortheimer’s “long Jewish nose”, through Sir Montagu’s “distinctly Jewish cast of countenance.” It is Poirot who points out to Hastings, about Carlotta, that: “”You observed without doubt that she is a Jewess?” I had not, But now that he mentioned it, I saw the faint traces of Semitic ancestry.” But Poirot instantly relates the fact that Carlotta is Jewish to her undoubtedly having ““love of money. Love of money might lead such a one from the prudent and cautious path.” “It might do that to all of us,” I said. “That is true, but at anyrate you or I would see the danger involved. We could weigh the pros and cons, If you care for money too much, it is only the money you see, everything else is in shadow.”” Christie takes that theme a step further with Carlotta’s excitement at the $10,000 offer.

In addition to the antisemitism, our first encounter with a rather drunk Captain March includes him referring to “Chinks” and a very unfortunate few lines: “He shook his head sadly, then cheered up suddenly and drank off some more champagne. “Anyway,” he said. “I’m not a damned n*****.” This reflection seemed to cause him such elation that he presently made several remarks of a hopeful character.” Because that language is simply no longer acceptable, it prevents today’s reader from having the sympathetic view of the character of March that I am sure Christie intended us to have.

Classic denouement: Very nearly – the only thing it lacks is the moment of accusation to the guilty party, who isn’t present. But it does lead you down a delightful garden path when you think at least two other people are going to be proved the murderer before Poirot lays his Straight Flush.

Happy ending? Happy enough I think. In what has become a typical Christie finish, two of the characters end up engaged, and there’s nothing particularly bad that happens to any of the other innocent participants.

Did the story ring true? Again, true enough. It relies on one character impersonating another over a prolonged period which is rather far-fetched. Apart from that, very believable characterisation of the main people in the story help to make it feel credible.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. A strong exciting story, with fascinating characters, very nicely written and with a solution that ticks all the boxes. It would have been 10/10 if it hadn’t been for the racist comments!

The Hound of DeathThanks for reading my blog of Lord Edgware Dies and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the short story format with The Hound of Death; but they’re not so much detective stories as tales of the supernatural – so that should be interesting! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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