In which Hercule Poirot’s plans for a cosy Christmas Eve as guest of Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, go awry when local bigwig Simeon Lee is found murdered in his locked bedroom that evening (that’s Lee’s bedroom, not Johnson’s – that would have been a very different tale). Poirot joins Johnson and local Superintendent Sugden to work out which of the Lee family Christmas visitors did the heinous deed. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is prefaced by a letter in the form of a dedication: “My dear James, you have always been one of the most faithful and kindly of my readers, and I was therefore seriously perturbed when I received from you a word of criticism. You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. You yearned for a “good violent murder with lots of blood.” A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder! So this is your special story – written for you. I hope it may please. Your affectionate sister-in-law, Agatha”. The James in question was James Watts, who had married Agatha’s sister Madge in 1902. He owned Abney Hall, in Cheshire, where Christie would later write The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and After the Funeral, and which she had already used as the inspiration for Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. The book also starts with a quotation from Macbeth, that reappears later in the story too: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” Of course, Shakespeare was referring to the murder of King Duncan, but it applies just as well to Simeon Lee.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas had quite a torturous route to the bookshelves. It was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly from November 1938 to January 1939, under the title Murder for Christmas. In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in twenty parts in November and December 1938, under the slightly different title Murder at Christmas. The full book was first published in the UK on 19th December 1938 by Collins Crime Club as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1939, again as Murder for Christmas. A 1947 US paperback edition by Avon Books changed the title again to A Holiday for Murder, and it seems to me that both these latter titles are now equally used in America.
This is an exciting, well-structured book, taking place over the seven days of a Christmas week, split into seven parts (one per day) and with several smaller sections in each part. The structure gives it extra pace and also an inevitability – you know in advance, just by looking at the chapter breakdown, that everything will be solved by December 28th. What is lacking, however, for the most part, is any sense of Christmas. It’s as though Christie has taken the festive season simply as an excuse to get a warring family together, but nothing happens that would be thought of as “Christmassy”. There isn’t a big meal. There is no talk of presents. The valet goes out on Christmas Eve to the pictures like he does every Friday night, he doesn’t do anything special. Similarly, and oddly, there’s no mention of any Christmas plans by any of the police or the other staff – it’s all just like any other day, or week. Odd.
Christie employs simple, third party narration throughout the whole book apart from a few paragraphs shortly before the body of Simeon Lee is discovered, where Tressilian, the butler, takes over and gives us his thoughts. It’s a very interesting device, to change the perspective and see it all through his eyes, and it breaks up the standard narration technique. But the early part of the book is very heavy with exposition, listening in to conversations between the various Lee sons and their wives, where they appear to be talking about the family structure and relationship difficulties for the first time ever – which is highly unlikely – all for the benefit of filling in some useful facts for the reader before the action really gets underway. I thought that was rather heavy-handed of Christie; she can do better!
Another slightly disappointing element to the story is that we see very little of Poirot’s fun and games that he normally can’t resist in his previous cases. There are no conversations where you get a closer understanding of his personality; there’s little humour in his language; there’s none of his usual vanity. The only thing he does that is true to form is to create a truly exciting denouement, where your suspicions hop from suspect to suspect before he finally reveals the truth. You feel that Poirot misses Hastings in this book; he doesn’t really have another person to spark off. Colonel Johnson is a nice enough chap, but the two men don’t have that special understanding that encourages Poirot to be outspoken and candid. Superintendent Sugden is a rather bombastic bruiser of a man with none of the lightness of touch that Poirot would normally admire. So Poirot ends up being quite isolated in this story; and for the most part he could be just any old detective who was good at solving crime. Interestingly, Christie took a break from Poirot for a few years after this book; his next appearance would be in Sad Cypress in 1941. Let’s hope he comes back to form next time out.
By late 1938, Franco’s hold on Spain, through the Spanish Civil War, was getting progressively tighter. It would only be a few months later that Barcelona, and then Madrid, would fall and he would assume complete control of the country. There had been massive amounts of bloodshed for over two years; and, of course, the Second World War would start the following year too. It was a fascinating choice on the part of Christie to have her Spanish character, Pilar, so prominent in this book. She is the second character that we meet, and a lot of time is given over to her experiences, her motivations and her personality. She talks about how back in Spain the mayor is pro-government and the priest is pro-Franco. She has seen bombs destroy houses and kill car drivers. Colonel Johnson’s comment: “can’t be very pleasant being in Spain just at present” is the epitome of English understatement. When the family are deciding whether to make a financial allowance for Pilar, Alfred isn’t keen; “he is so British”, says his wife Lydia, “he doesn’t really like Lee money going to a Spanish subject.” Whether that’s typical Christie distrust of foreigners, or a specific reaction to the war, isn’t clear. But Spain was clearly at the forefront of people’s minds at the time. Even the film that Horbury, the valet, goes to see on Christmas Eve is entitled Love in Old Seville. It’s a Christie invention, by the way, no such film exists.
There aren’t many references to follow up in this book. All the place names (apart from Madrid, obviously) are made up by Christie: the Lee family home is Gorston Hall, Longdale, Addlesfield, which bears no similarity to any real place I can find – there is a Long Dale in the Derbyshire Dales (and also a place in Oklahoma with the same name) but that’s about it. Mr Lee was said to have been in contact with the vice consul in Aliquara, trying to locate Pilar; there’s no such place in Spain. Colonel Johnson is the Chief Constable of Middleshire; I suppose at a push one might think that represents Middlesex. Superintendent Sugden says he comes from the nearby county of Reeveshire, which I think is no more than a play on words; reverse the two parts of the name and you get Shire Reeve, which is the derivation of Sheriff, which basically describes Sugden’s role.
Much notice is taken of David Lee’s quote when his father dies: “the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.” I’d never heard this phrase before; apparently it suggests the certainty of eventual divine retribution. It’s a direct quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his translation of a 17th-century poem, Retribution, by Friedrich von Logau. But it seems to be from an original concept by Plutarch. Unusual to find such a cultured family and police force! Colonel Johnson knows of Poirot because of his superb sleuthing in the case of Sir Bartholomew Strange, better known as Three Act Tragedy; but if you can’t remember him from that tale, that’s because actually he doesn’t appear in it.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. In her last book, Appointment with Death, there were no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so that eliminated the need for that paragraph! However, this time round there are a couple of interesting sums. Just how rich is Simeon Lee? He is described as a millionaire twice over. So if we convert £2 million in 1938, in today’s value that works out as £94 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. So even if his sons all had to share in that inheritance, it’s still an extraordinary amount of money. His diamonds, said to be valued at between £9 – £10,000, today would be worth between £420,000 and £470,000. Definitely worth stealing.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas:
Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in March 1977, price 65p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a miserable old man surrounded by grotesquely ornate candlesticks and what appears to be the front two legs of a prancing horse – don’t quite understand that. Embellishing the picture are some red-berried sprigs of holly dripping with blood. The blood works well in the picture – not sure about the rest, not certain this one of Tom Adams’ best illustrations!
How many pages until the first death: 48. By that stage in the book – Christmas Eve – all the family members have arrived at the house and no further characters are introduced apart from Horbury’s cinema date, although we never actually meet her. As far as the reader is concerned, the death comes along just at the right time.
Funny lines out of context: None that I could discern. It isn’t a particularly funny book, to be fair.
In the same way that Mrs Boynton stands out in Appointment with Death, as being the tyrannical ruler of a subjugated family, Simeon Lee takes precisely the same role in this book. To my mind he’s not quite so striking a character because his cruelty is less psychological and more real, as a grumpy shouter of instructions and insulter of sons. But there’s no doubt that, like Mrs Boynton, he deserves everything coming his way.
Pilar is also a strong character; Christie imbues her with the exotic mystery of passionate Spain, and she has none of the English reserve that characterises so many members of the Lee family. She openly talks about how handsome Sugden is, much to his embarrassment. She makes no concession to the delicate subject of money and speaks openly about her desire for an inheritance from Simeon, which is an area where the other characters would fear to tread.
Christie the Poison expert:
Poison doesn’t play a part in this book, apart from Johnson’s recollection of the Three Act Tragedy case. This gives rise to a brief conversation about the pros and cons of solving a case where poisoning is the method. But it has no bearing on this crime.
Class/social issues of the time:
Usually one can find something in a Christie book where she propounds what she feels is the natural British (or English) distrust of foreigners. But there are very few instances of it in this book. In the conversation about poison referred to above, Poirot notes that murder by poison might be thought of as “unEnglish” – “a device of foreigners! Unsportsmanlike!” Elsewhere there’s the strangely ironic conversation between Stephen and Pilar where he says “it’s just a little bit more than tiresome, my dear. Then there’s that lunatic foreigner prowling about. I don’t suppose he’s any good but he makes me feel jumpy”. So let’s just get this straight: here we have a South African man whingeing about a “lunatic foreigner” to a Spanish woman. Funny how when you have a prejudice against someone you never question its reasonableness.
One other thread that is developed here, that you find in some other Christie books of this time, is the role of women in society. In the past Christie has shown herself to be no feminist. But in this book she changes tack halfway through. Consider the motivations of Simeon Lee’s late wife, the mother whose death the character of David can’t quite get over, often comes into question in conversations between the family members.
David remembers her in conversation with his wife Hilda. “”She was so sweet, Hilda, and so patient. Lying there, often in pain, but bearing it – enduring everything. And when I think of my father” – his face darkened – “bringing all that misery into her life – humiliating her – boasting of his love affairs – constantly unfaithful to her and never troubling to conceal it.” Hilda Lee said: “She should not have put up with it. She should have left him.” He said with a touch of reproof: “She was too good for that. She thought is was her duty to remain. Besides, it was her home – where else should she go?” “She could have made a life of her own.” David said fretfully: “Not in those days! You don’t understand. Women didn’t behave like that. They put up with things. They endured patiently. She had us to consider. Even if she divorced my father, what would have happened? He would probably have married again. There might have been a second family. Our interests might have gone to the wall. She had to think of all those considerations. […] No, she did right. She was a saint! She endured to the end – uncomplainingly.””
Sorry about the long quotation. But the detail into which David goes to express his appreciation of his mother’s selflessness suggests (to me) that this is a continuation of Christie’s usual anti-feminist stance. However, there’s an interesting comparison with (who else?) Pilar, who justifies what Stephen calls her “gold-digging”, when he confronts her over her attitude to Simeon’s will. (Slight spoiler alert, although it still doesn’t tell you whodunit) She tells Stephen: ““If that old man had lived, he would have made another will. He would have left money to me – a lot of money! Perhaps in time he would have left me all the money!” Stephen said smiling: “That wouldn’t have been very fair either, would it?” “Why not? He would have liked me best, that is all. […] The world is very cruel to women. They must do what they can for themselves – while they are young. When they are old and ugly no one will help them.”” This approach to a design for life doesn’t really sit comfortably with Christie’s usual moral tone but it does suggest a change in her philosophy about the role of women. For (I believe) the first time in a Christie novel, you might say sisters are doing it for themselves.
One small observation: it’s certainly a different era from today when a Superintendent of Police could be believed to be usefully spending his time visiting houses collecting for the Police Orphanage.
Classic denouement: Yes! All the suspects are present, Poirot goes through a long rigmarole explaining why everyone could have done it, only then to explain how one-by-one they didn’t do it, whilst the reader turns the pages with bated breath not knowing what to believe. It’s an extremely exciting ending, with a classic “J’accuse” moment, and an unrepentant murderer.
Happy ending? Yes. One whirlwind romance culminates in the promise of a marriage, and there’s a general sense that the majority of the family members will be able to put their problems behind them and move on.
Did the story ring true? Chance meetings and coincidences obscure the truth of the case but yes, on the whole, this is one of Christie’s more believable stories.
Overall satisfaction rating: On the plus side, it’s an exciting read, with an excellent denouement and a suitably surprising solution to the crime. On the negative side, Poirot isn’t himself; there are no references to little grey cells, no moments of breathtaking vanity. And the whole idea of the amount of blood involved playing a significant part in the story doesn’t really hold water. So for me this averages out as an 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas 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 is Murder is Easy; my memories of this book are of reading it on holiday in Spain as a teenager and really enjoying it. I think we may be in for lots of murders! And I don’t think I can remember whodunit, which is always a bonus. As usual, 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!