In which Hercule Poirot is brought into make sense of some strange thefts and minor acts of vandalism at a students’ hostel managed by his secretary, Miss Lemon,’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. But when the thefts turn into deaths, his job is to discover who is behind a series of very serious crimes and prevent more murders from taking place. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
This is the first book written by Christie to bear no dedication since Crooked House was published in 1949. However, even that book started with a foreword. This is the first book to launch straight into the first chapter without any preamble since Sparkling Cyanide in 1945. Hickory Dickory Dock was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine, from May to July 1955. In the US, the novel was first serialised in the Collier’s Weekly in three abridged instalments between October and November 1955 under the title Hickory Dickory Death. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 31st October 1955, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the following month.
I had been looking forward to re-reading Hickory Dickory Dock and for the most part it did not disappoint. In many respects, it’s the classic Christie gripping read – a sequence of deaths occurring in a closed environment, and, although there’s no reason why the murderer should not be someone from outside, you really hope that it is one of the obvious suspects and not some unexpected external influence. The characterisations are good, and you really get a feel for how they behave individually. It’s very difficult – if not impossible – for the reader to ascertain the reason for all the individual thefts and minor crimes that Poirot is initially consulted on – in fact, you don’t try, you just let Poirot’s intelligence wash all over you. As far as the identity of the murderer is concerned, it’s curiously both obvious and completely obfuscated. I remember when I first read this book as a child that I guessed who had done it and was both chuffed to have got it right and disappointed not to enjoy a big surprise.
As with many of her other books, the title is taken from a nursery rhyme or well-known quotation. It’s a great title; but to be fair it’s lazily applied. For example, there’s no relevant mouse or clock involved in the story. Its only relevance is just the fact that the name of the street where the students live is Hickory Road. You can tell that the title came first. The book begins and ends with a couple of old characters whom we’ve met before. Poirot’s super-efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, appears in the first chapter, startling Poirot by making mistakes in her letters. This is not the Miss Lemon that he has become used to over the years, and nor do we expect her mind to be elsewhere when she is “on the job”. We first encountered her in Parker Pyne Investigates, as one of that super-sleuth’s industrious bank of general staff. By 1947, she has joined Poirot’s team, as we reacquaint ourselves with her in The Labours of Hercules. The opening scene, where Miss Lemon makes a (shock!) mistake with the typing, is written with heaps of humour and is a delightful and very funny introduction. At the end of the book, Poirot catches up with “old Mr Endicott” with whom he had worked on the Abernethy case. This refers to After the Funeral; but whether it’s by error or judgment Christie has slightly changed the details from that previous book, where the family’s name was spelt Abernethie and the solicitor in the case was old Mr Entwhistle. Those changes of name seem very curious to me.
There are a few other callbacks to other Christie novels in this book. For example, there is the repetition of the name Mrs Hubbard, who is Miss Lemon’s sister who works at the students’ hostel, but is also one of the American guests travelling on the Orient Express in Murder on the Orient Express. When the students are expecting the arrival of Poirot to give a lecture, one of them says “there was a man who was condemned to death for the murder of a charwoman and this detective got him off at the last moment by finding the real person” – that’s the story of Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Poirot also refers to a soap manufacturer from Liège – that’s Sir Joseph Hoggin in The Nemean Lion, part of The Labours of Hercules. Inspector Sharpe remembers Poirot from a previous case – “remember that business down at Crays Hill?” This doesn’t seem to be a definite reference to any of the other works though. Poirot himself is reminded fleetingly of his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff – being so much more splendid a woman than these drab young students. The Countess featured most heavily in The Big Four but also appears in The Labours of Hercules and will reappear in an early short story, The Double Clue, which we won’t get to read until Poirot’s Early Cases will be published in 1974.
Apart from his rather lacking love-life, is there anything new for us to learn about Poirot in this encounter? Not much. We last saw him two years before in After the Funeral, but of course Poirot never really ages; he started off elderly in The Mysterious Affair of Styles and appears to have been frozen in time ever since! The students in Hickory Road have heard of him, of course, when Mrs Hubbard invites him to give an address, and he displays all his well-renowned oratory skills. “Poirot rose to his feet and spoke with his usual aplomb. The sound of his own voice was always pleasant to him and he spoke for three-quarters of an hour in a light and amusing fashion, recalling those of his experiences that lent themselves to an agreeable exaggeration. If he managed to suggest, in a subtle fashion, that he was, perhaps, something of a mountebank, it was not too obviously contrived.”
We do also get to meet Inspector Sharpe. Personally, I don’t warm to Inspector Sharpe much. He thinks a lot of himself, on the quiet. He’s very patronising, calling Geronimo “sonny”; he’s very ham-fisted in his attempts to be racially fair (at times in Hickory Dickory Dock, you feel like you’ve been transported to that old ITV 70s sitcom Mind Your Language, in its unsubtle treatment of foreign nationals!) Sharpe prides himself on his ability to get information out of people by conversation and by his general amiability; but I think he’s just big-headed, to be honest. However, he does get the job done and is a careful and thoughtful sleuth with good insight and ability. He doesn’t reappear in any other Christie books – and I can’t say that I’m disappointed.
In Destination Unknown, Christie uses her usual tactic of writing short chapters, or short divisions within chapters, to increase a sense of speed, excitement and tension. She does this in the opening part of the book and it works extremely well. In Hickory Dickory Dock, she uses the same technique but later in the book. At times, she sets up a veritable frenzy of short scenes, which really keeps the pace driving forwards. It’s quite filmatic (is that the word?) in style, where you see a series of unconnected events one after the other and they build up to an overall picture of many people’s activities all at the same time. It’s a very exciting technique. Another successful technique is when a character is involved in a conversation with another character but Christie doesn’t tell us who that second character is – and for good reason, because that second character is just about to murder the first. That works extremely well in this book.
Hickory Dickory Dock has a relatively high number of cast characters. Apart from Poirot and Sharpe, Miss Lemon and George, and a couple of other police/security types, all the other characters live or work at Hickory Road – and there are at least seventeen of them. So there’s a wide range of characters who have to be introduced fairly rapidly to the reader. Christie employs the device of introducing the list of petty acts of theft or vandalism early on and then having Mrs Hubbard explain which of the characters was most affected by each little crime. It’s a very clever way of introducing such a large cast of characters and associating each one directly with one aspect of the case. It also offers the reader plenty of options as to whom they think might be responsible for the crimes; however, as I mentioned earlier, although there are many possibilities, suspicion largely falls on a limited number of residents – and it’s not a hard one to guess.
Now we’ll look at some of the references in this book. I would normally start with the locations, but, almost uniquely in the Christie oeuvre, there’s only one location in this book apart from Poirot’s own apartments, and that’s the student hostel in Hickory Road. No surprise that this is a completely made up address; there is a Hickory Road in London, but it’s London, Ontario! The only other Hickory Road in the UK that I can unearth is in Lincoln. So we can assume it’s purely an invention.
There are quite a few other references though, some more intractable than others. Of Miss Lemon, Christie notes that “on questions of surmise, she was lost. Not for her the state of mind of Cortez’ men upon the peak in Darien.” That one perplexed me. But that was poor, I needed look no further than my copy of Keats. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: “I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken;/ Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He stared at the Pacific—and all his men/ Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” But that still doesn’t explain who Cortez was or where Darien is. I’ll hand you over to Wikipedia: “Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century.” The Darien in question is a province in Panama, at the far east of the country. To be honest, I’m not remotely surprised Miss Lemon didn’t worry about it.
“The parsley sinking into the butter on a hot day” murmurs Poirot to himself, intrigued by Miss Lemon’s lack of concentration. He explains to her that it’s a quotation from Sherlock Holmes but he doesn’t tell us more. “You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.” This is from the short story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons from the book The Return of Sherlock Holmes. So now you know. Although I’m still not sure what relevance butter and parsley have to anything. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Holmes.
When Poirot is presented with the list of items that have been either stolen or vandalised, he says it reminds him of a game he was forced to play by young friends during Christmas, called The Three Horned Lady. He explains that it’s a memory game and if you forget the items in your list you get awarded a horn. Then you become a one-horned lady. If you forget two more times you become a three-horned lady and you’re out. I’d never heard of this particular game, but Google shows that it was described in The Girl’s Own Book dated 1844 – I don’t know if that’s its first time in print, but that shows that it was at least 100 years old when Christie wrote about it.
Sally Finch is said to be studying in the UK on a Fulbrite (sic) scholarship – The Fulbright Programme is designed to improve intercultural relations, cultural diplomacy, and intercultural competence between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills. It was started in 1946, with the first UK – US exchange taking place in 1948, and it still continues to this day. In a breakfast argument between Valerie and Nigel, she refers to The Oxford Group – again I point you towards Wikipedia: “The Oxford Group was a Christian organization first known as First Century Christian Fellowship founded by the American Lutheran Christian priest Frank Buchman in 1921. Buchman believed that the root of all problems were the personal problems of fear and selfishness.” Over the years the Oxford Group became Moral Re-Armament, and in 2001 became Initiatives of Change, which is still active today.
Valerie jokes that “you can’t get a man with a gun” – which of course I am sure you are aware is a song that comes from the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun. Mrs Nicoletis is described as being “cheese-paring”, a phrase that was new to me, meaning “extremely careful with money”. I guess the derivation is that if you pare the cheese, it goes further. Elizabeth Johnston strongly disapproves of the American “witch hunts, their hysterical spy mania, their obsession over Communism.” In 1955, America was just getting over the worst of McCarthyism. “I know two things about the horse and one of them is rather coarse”, quotes Sharpe, much to Poirot’s surprise. This amusing little rhyme was by Naomi Royde-Smith and was published in the Weekend Book of 1928. Patricia’s paperweight depicted a Lion of Lucerne – which is a rock relief in Lucerne, Switzerland, that commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. It is one of the most famous monuments in Switzerland. But I’ve never seen or heard of it. And that completes the references for this book.
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Len Bateson bets Nigel Chapman £5 that he couldn’t obtain three different types of poison by three different methods. Nigel wins his bet. £5 in 1955 would be worth £91 today so that’s quite a lot of money for a spontaneous bet. Superintendent Wilding confirms that “you can pack ten or twenty thousand pounds’ worth of heroin in a very small space”. I’m no expert on the street value of heroin today, but ten to twenty thousand pounds in 1955 equates to a massive £1.8m – £3.6m today. And the five or six thousand pounds’ worth of drugs that Wilding estimates could be easily imported on one simple journey is the equivalent of £91,000 to £110,000 today. Not bad pocket money.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hickory Dickory Dock:
Publication Details: 1955. My copy is a Fontana paperback, fifth impression, dated June 1972, with a price of 25p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a green-lit face with big staring eyes looking out at a mouse perched on top of a hand, with a dazzling jewelled ring on one of the fingers. Only the jewel has any relevance. It’s an atmospheric image but not overly appropriate!
How many pages until the first death: 55 – but there’s been plenty of other crime and investigation already by then.
Funny lines out of context: basically, to find these funny, you have to have a dirty mind. But I think I know my readers well enough.
“Sergeant Cobb said “Good morning Madam,” and produced his credentials.”
“…he now proceeded to take the drawers out and turn them upside down. He uttered an ejaculation of pleasure. “Here we are, my lad” he said.”
This book is very strong on all its supplementary characters. You’ve got the brash Valerie, the immature Nigel, the constantly perplexed Akibombo, the aggressive Colin, the assertive Elizabeth, and the ghastly Mrs Nicoletis. The dialogue between the students is lively and well captured, and you get an excellent insight into many of their characters.
Christie the Poison expert:
Christie would have dug deep to bring to mind the several poisons that are cited in this book. One death is caused by morphine tartrate, which today is used as part of the active ingredients in an injection of Cyclimorph, used to relieve moderate to severe pain. A drug named Vegenin is referred to a couple of times, which is a mixture or paracetamol, codeine and caffeine; I’d never heard of it but it is still sold as a proprietary brand today. Liquor arsenicalis, or Fowler’s Solution, is mentioned; this is a pharmacopoeial preparation made by boiling arsenious acid and carbonate of potassium in water, and then adding compound tincture of lavender. It is highly poisonous, but was very useful in small doses in certain skin diseases and in some forms of dyspepsia. Originally produced by Thomas Fowler in 1786, this has been out of regular use for a very long time.
When Nigel collects his three poisons, in addition to the morphine tartrate he also obtains hyoscine tablets and a bottle of tincture of digitalin. Hyoscine is a common drug used against motion sickness, and postoperative nausea; it can also be used in cases of irritable bowel syndrome or colic. You can buy it under the brand name Kwells. Digitalin is obtained from the foxglove and has been used in medicine for almost 250 years, primarily in cardiac treatment. However, the wrong dose can be fatal. Chandra Lal uses boracic for his eyes – from borax, this is a crystalline salt; they also refer to sulphuric acid which of course is another lethal compound used mainly in cleaning products and for industrial use. Finally there is Medinal, the first commercially available barbiturate, used as sleeping aid from 1903 until the 1950s. There is probably more poison in this book than in any other Christie!
Class/social issues of the time:
One social issue that was raised in Destination Unknown continues in this next book – that of Communism. It’s introduced gently in the early stages of the book, with just some hearsay about the causes why the police were called to the hostel in the past. “”It wouldn’t be the first time,” said Mrs Hubbard, recalling various unpleasant incidents. “There was that West Indian student who was wanted for living on immoral earning and that notorious young Communist agitator who came here under a false name…”
Sally agrees with Sharpe that there is something of which she is afraid: “The whole place […] isn’t what it seems. No, no, Inspector, I don’t mean Communists. I can see that just trembling on your lips. It’s not Communists I mean. Perhaps it isn’t even criminal.” Sharpe clearly betrayed a small sense of knee-jerk suspicion about Communism, which Sally refutes. We’ve already seen that Elizabeth strongly condemns American McCarthyism. However, when it is discovered that she is a card-carrying member of the Communist party herself, Poirot, interestingly, swings to the opposite conclusion. “I should think she was a valuable recruit to the Party […] she is a young woman of quite unusual intelligence, I should say.” Sharpe continues: “It was interesting to me […] because she has never paraded those sympathies, apparently, she’s kept very quiet about it at Hickory Road. I don’t see that it has any significance […] but it’s a thing to bear in mind.”
Jean Tomlinson, however, offers the other view. ““Of course, one isn’t surprised at anything Colin McNabb does […] I’m sure he’s an atheist and a most disbelieving, mocking, unpleasant young man. He’s rude to everybody. It’s my opinion that he’s a Communist!” “Ah!” said Inspector Sharpe. “Bad!”” Communism is clearly seen as something to be feared, an intellectual but illegal and immoral activity; but one with which, maybe, Poirot has some sympathy?
Race and xenophobia often turn up in Christie’s works but perhaps not so regularly as they do here. Having a hostel full of students of all nationalities is bound to stoke some opinions that today feel extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately, the N word never appears, but the C one (as in coloured) does on a few occasions. As part of Miss Lemon’s opening anxiety about the welfare of her sister Mrs Hubbard, she tells Poirot, “She’s always been fond of young people and good with them, and having lived in the East so long she understands racial differences and people’s susceptibilities. Because these students at the hostel are of all nationalities; mostly English, but some of them actually black, I believe.” Interestingly, she goes on to observe: “half the nurses in our hospitals seem to be black nowadays […] and I understand much pleasanter and more attentive than the English ones”, which is perhaps not an opinion that one might have expected. But this book would have coincided with the growth in the NHS and the search for nursing staff from overseas. Plus ça change…
Even Mrs Hubbard is not immune from the xenophobia. When Mrs Nicoletis accuses the Italian cook of swindling her, Mrs H steps in: “I can assure you that no foreigner is going to put anything over on me”, with an implication that foreigners are either less intelligent or less adept than the indigenous Brits and it’s a matter of honour for them to be seen as top dog. West Indian Elizabeth is given the nickname “Black Bess” by all the housemates, and it’s seen as an affectionate term – Black Bess was of course the name of Dick Turpin’s horse. Today we’d consider that potentially insensitive at the very least. Christie doesn’t help matters by giving the Italian cook and housekeeper the name Geronimo, who was originally an Apache leader, and comedy catchphrase – it’s what someone might have yelled in a 60s cartoon before jumping into the abyss. Perhaps even more extraordinary, the West African student is named Akibombo, which sounds like an onomatopoeic ridiculing of the language from that region. In his defence, at least Akibombo comes across as a relatively decent and likeable character. Christie can’t resist a little bit of fun-poking when she writes: “owing to his colour, Mr Akibombo was not able to blush, but his eyelids blinked in a discomfited manner.”
There’s a sweeping statement about the behaviour of some racial minorities; Jean again, who isn’t the most forward thinking of the students: “I think it’s much more likely to be Mr Akibombo […] Jealousy. All these coloured people are very jealous of each other and very hysterical.” Christie also puts these words in the mouth of Mr Chandra Lal: “Deliberate oppression of native races. Contempt and prejudice, colour prejudice. It is here well authenticated.” I really can’t see an Indian student of political science using the phrase “native races.” However, despite all these examples of uncomfortable use of language, I don’t think you come away from this book feeling that it’s actively racist. It’s definitely a child of its time, and Christie is exploring a number of attitudes to the coming together of people from all over the world.
One interesting little subject that rears its ugly head ever so slightly is that of pornography. Christie, with the utmost gentility, reveals that “Mr Achmed Ali has some extremely pornographic literature and postcards which explains why he went up in the air over the search”. Such postcards today would be collectors’ items. My guess is that they were probably just pin-up girls from the movies… but who knows?
The final – again minor – subject that reappears is that of inherited insanity. It’s revealed that one character has a father who is a certified patient in a Mental Hospital. Again, the detectives affirm that it probably has no bearing on the matter but that they will bear it in mind. The sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon the sons.
Classic denouement: No, not a classic in the sense of Poirot herding everyone into a room, raising the suspicion with one person only to fox us with a j’accuse of someone completely different. It is however, a very successful denouement, and possibly unique in the Christie canon; and a long one, running over several chapters. The identity of the murderer is revealed in a discussion purely between the detectives, and is then confirmed by Poirot’s discussion with a third party, an additional revelation made about another of the characters, followed by a follow-up chapter where you see everyone else’s reactions. It’s one of those denouements where you never actually get to see the culprit get accused – which is slightly disappointing.
Happy ending? Moderately, yes. An engagement is announced between two young people and a third is delighted to be asked to be Best Man.
Did the story ring true? From the plotting, the interactions between the detectives and between the suspects, there’s something about this book that feels surprisingly very realistic. So yes, I believe this story completely!
Overall satisfaction rating: Re-reading this book alerted me to one or two areas in which it disappoints you slightly; the unusual denoument, the fact that you guess whodunit (well, I did), the uncomfortable racial language. Nevertheless, there’s just something about this story that makes it a personal favourite and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of re-reading it. So for me, it’s a 10/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Hickory Dickory Dock 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 Dead Man’s Folly, and the return of both Hercule Poirot and the redoubtable Mrs Oliver, no doubt festooned with apples. I don’t have much memory of it, so I’m looking forward to tackling this one over the next few weeks. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!