In which murder comes to the exclusive girls’ school Meadowbank, run by the redoubtable Miss Bulstrode, and Middle Eastern espionage clashes with young ladies’ tennis practice. The police don’t seem to have much of an idea until one of the girls escapes to London to ask the help of family friend Hercule Poirot. And he sees through the lies and offers a thrilling solution. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The book is dedicated “for Stella and Larry Kirwan”. Sir Archibald Laurence “Larry” Patrick Kirwan was an archaeologist who worked mainly in Egypt and Arabia. Although Christie doesn’t directly mention the Kirwans in her autobiography, one presumes they all knew each other from their shared interest in archaeology. The book was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in September and October 1959, and in the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the November 1959 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 2nd November 1959, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in March 1960.
I had looked forward to re-reading this book because I’ve always thought of it as my favourite Christie. And, despite realising a few whopping great coincidences, sighing at a few too many xenophobic remarks, and a couple of downright flaws, my opinion hasn’t changed. This is a breeze of a delight to read. Christie is on top form with her lightness of touch, some dramatic asides and confiding moments to the reader, some well-placed comedy, plenty of activity and very nicely dovetailing the posh school/Middle Eastern revolution/50s teenagers/well-meaning but ambitious teacher elements.
Using short chapters, short chapter parts, even copying us into the letters sent out by some of the characters, Christie presents all the aspects of the book early on, so our head is bombarded with lots of fascinating information right from the start. The return to Meadowbank for the summer term is seen from the points of view of the teachers, the non-teaching staff, the pupils and the parents. Then we’re whisked away to Ramat for the opening salvos of the revolution, and we see how it overlaps with the school, with one of the parents being the sister to the Prince’s pilot and best friend, taking one of the schoolchildren on an extravagant holiday before term starts. We meet the diplomatic staff left to handle the revolution and the British involvement as best they can, again returning to see the way the school is caught up in the events. As a result, when the murders start happening, the investigations become a joint operation between the local CID and Secret Service staff. And that’s before Poirot becomes involved!
And, unusually, Poirot doesn’t appear until 70% of the way through the book. He’s very much brought into the case so that he can employ his little grey cells (although he doesn’t mention them), and Poirot as a character doesn’t particularly develop in this book. His attributes are those which we already know, and the only time his personality really stands out is when he takes full charge of a super-powerful classic denouement, more of which later. It’s up to Inspector Kelsey to make sense of the facts of the case, alongside “Adam Goodman” (not his real name), who’s masquerading as a junior gardener at the school. To be honest, we get a greater feeling for Adam’s characteristics – “he was tall, dark, muscular, and had a gay and rather impertinent manner”. Of Kelsey, all we know is Christie’s description that he “was a perceptive man. He was always willing to deviate from the course of routine if a remark struck him as unusual or worth following up.” He also – apparently – worked with Poirot in the past, in a case when a Chief Inspector Warrender as in charge. “I was a fairly raw sergeant, knowing my place” he explained. This doesn’t appear to refer to a previous Poirot story, it’s just a bit of filler.
Whilst Christie’s on great form with her style and her delivery, I can’t help but think she’s made a couple of errors. Firstly, when considering everyone’s alibi for the second murder, Kelsey mentions that Miss Rich was staying that night at the “Alton Grange Hotel, twenty miles away.” Twenty-two pages later, he tells Poirot she was staying at the “Morton Marsh Hotel, twenty miles away.” Which is it?! There’s no suggestion that Miss Rich made an error in her alibi and has since corrected it. This is just an inconsistency error.
I’d also take Poirot to task for an unaccountable lapse of logic during the denouement. It’s going to be difficult for me to express this without giving too much of a game away, but I’ll try. Poirot maintains: “[A] could, of course, have killed [B] but she could not have killed [C], and would have had no motive to kill anybody, not was such a thing required of her.” However, a few paragraphs earlier he had clarified that “[A] was set down by the car in the first large town where she at once resumed her own personality.” So, in fact, she was totally at liberty in a nearby town when B was murdered! Not being watched by the police or secret service staff, I contend she certainly had the opportunity to murder B if she wished. I agree though that she had no motive. But I think Poirot had something of a lucky break there.
But we forgive Christie these trespasses, because the flow of the writing is exceptional. From portentous comments at the end of chapters foreboding ill, to an amusing exposé of Princess Shaista’s bra situation, to the totally convincing Julia/Jennifer conversations that really get into the mindset of that kind of jolly hockey-stick young girl, to a suspenseful scene where Julia is in bed and someone is trying to creep into her room, to absolute honesty with the clues – there’s at least a couple of scenes where Christie virtually tells us who is guilty but still we don’t pick it up – it’s just a beautifully written book.
One thing that occurred to me during this book, and I realise has been an assumption in virtually every book of hers, is the dismissal of the possibility that domestic staff will have played a part in the crime. When Kelsey and Miss Bulstrode are considering the alibis of the staff, he adds, as an afterthought, ““As for your servants, frankly I can’t see any of them as murderers. They’re all local too…” Miss Bulstrode nodded pleasantly. “I quite agree with your reasoning.”” What reasoning?! It’s pure assumption. “I can’t see any of them as murderers” is hardly forensic detection. Yet wherever there are servants or domestic staff in one of Christie’s books, they only ever get asked basic witness questions and are never in the running to do a crime. Only perhaps in Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None does this not apply. Odd that!
It was when reading 4.50 from Paddington recently that I picked up on Christie’s rather curious antipathy towards gardeners. The usually pleasant Miss Marple really gets her teeth into criticising them for being lazy or doing generally poor quality work. In Cat Among the Pigeons, Miss Bulstrode laments the fact that they have been left “short-handed except for local labour.” Mrs Upjohn is equally critical. “Of course the trouble nowadays […] is that what one calls a gardener usually isn’t a gardener, just a milkman who wants to do something in his spare time, or an old man of eighty”. Christie allows us to see this argument from the other side, with Head Gardener Briggs moaning to Adam about Miss Bulstrode’s interference with what he sees as his domain. “Now, along this here […] we’ll put some nice asters out. She don’t like asters – but I pay no attention. Females has their whims, but if you don’t pay no attention, ten to one they never notice. Though I will say She is the noticing kind on the whole. You’d think she ‘ad enough to bother her head about, running a place like this.” Christie rather cleverly gives us a little insight into Briggs’ attitude that backs up both the gardener’s and the employer’s issue with each other. Each one always knows best.
Now we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. This is largely a book of fictional localities; apart from Poirot’s London residence, and a ransom note that’s postmarked Portsmouth, all the other places are Christie inventions. Ramat is the most interesting; it’s a Hebrew word, meaning Heights, and there are dozens of places in Israel that have Ramat as part of its name. Christie names the main hotel there, the Ritz Savoy, which is a combination of two very separate hotel entities, but we get the flavour of the place. The local tourist site appears to be the Kalat Diwa Dam, but that is another Christie invention – in fact, Google Translate suggests that Kalat Diwa is Arabic for she called, which sounds rather unlikely. A plane wreck is discovered in the Arolez Mountains, which is also fictional; if you search on Arolez, however, you find a Turkish manufacturer of pastries and ice creams! However, Julia believes that her mother’s Anatolian bus journey will take her to Van, which is a real life city in the east of Turkey.
Closer to home, Miss Johnson’s alibi was that she was staying with her sister at Limeston on Sea, and Miss Blake’s that she was with friends in Littleport. There is of course a Littleport in real life – it’s a large village in Cambridgeshire. Limeston on Sea doesn’t exist though; and the location where the ransom money was to be handed over, Alderton Priors, is also fictional, although there is a village called Alderton near Tewkesbury, which has a road named Prior’s Hill. Unlike the majority of Christie books, you don’t get a sense of whereabouts in the country the book is set. Normally there are some clues, but in this book you draw a blank. Alderton Priors is said to be in Wallshire; where that is, is anyone’s guess.
And now for the other references. Miss Bulstrode butters up the difficult Mrs Hope by admiring her “Balenciaga model.” Cristobal Balenciaga was a Spanish couturier for over fifty years from 1917 – and after he died, and the brand name ceased, it was taken up again in 1986, and the brand is now owned by the French multinational holding company Kering. Mrs Sutcliffe and Jennifer return to England on board the Eastern Queen; that was a passenger/cargo ship built in Scotland; but in 1959 it was being used by the French Government. It was broken up in 1974.
Shaista admires the American tennis champion Ruth Allen, primarily for her smart sportswear; sadly she’s a concoction of Christie’s. Unlike Neil Cream, whom Mrs Sutcliffe remembers as being a multi-murderer; he was real enough, and is better known colloquially as the Lambeth Poisoner. Joyce Grenfell, whom Julia likens to Miss Vansittart, however, was certainly alive and kicking; a much loved actress and comedian who died in 1979. When Julia sees the hidden treasure, she has a vision of “Marguerite and her casket of jewels” – a scene from Gounod’s Faust – and also The Hope Diamond, a stunning blue jewel currently housed by the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, with an estimated value of $350 million.
Julia Upjohn uses the fact that her mother and Poirot have a mutual friend in order to gain access to meet the great man. The mutual friend is Mrs Summerhayes, in whose guest house Poirot spent an awkward but not unfriendly time whilst solving the case of Mrs McGinty’s Dead.
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. There are two sums mentioned in this book, one of which is of vital importance; the value of the property that Bob Rawlinson passes on to Mrs Sutcliffe and which Julia Upjohn eventually finds – approximately three quarters of a million pounds. That’s a lot of money even in today’s terms, but back in 1959 that was the equivalent of £12.2 millions today. The ransom note – which rather gets forgotten about, oddly – demands the sum of £20,000 which is also no feeble sum, equalling £325,000 at today’s rate.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Cat Among the Pigeons:
Publication Details: 1959. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eighth impression, dated July 1969, with no price on the covers – this may have been because it was sold in Spain (I bought it on holiday in the Costa Dorada in 1972!) The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, is extremely simple considering some of his work – it just shows a tennis ball, some priceless jewels, and a pistol; all extremely relevant to the plot.
How many pages until the first death: Strictly speaking, 23 – but although this isn’t a death by natural causes, it isn’t a death that’s being examined by the British police (or indeed, Poirot). For the first “murder”, we have to wait a little longer – 59 pages. But there’s a lot to take in and be entertained by whilst we’re waiting.
Funny lines out of context: Not a classic, but a wryly amusing example of Christie’s use of the E word. ““Nom d’un nom d’un nom” ejaculated Poirot in an awe-inspired whisper.”
Miss Bulstrode is also guilty of making the understatement of the year. “”I’m very sorry about this, Miss Bulstrode, very sorry indeed,” said the Chief Constable. “I suppose it’s – well – a bad thing for you.” “Murder’s a bad thing for any school, yes,” said Miss Bulstrode. “It’s no good dwelling on that now though.”
“Miss Bulstrode had her rules, she did not accept morons.”
There are many strong personalities at work here, but they’re all cast in the shade by Miss Bulstrode herself. Bully, or The Bull by nickname, exudes inner strength and the ability to command, and hardly ever gets thrown off course. She inspires love and respect from teachers and pupils alike – and even Adam is mindblown by her abilities. Jennifer Sutcliffe takes after her mother’s prejudices and sounds like a little Brexit Party member with her scorn for foreign countries and their dishonest inhabitants. Jennifer and Julia make a very interesting partnership.
Christie the Poison expert:
No mention of poison in this book; the murders are committed either by shooting or being coshed over the head.
Class/social issues of the time:
Meadowbank is a very upmarket and high class school, so, as you might expect, class issues are discussed, but with some maturity and care. Miss Bulstrode is planning her retirement and initially considers Miss Vansittart as her most suitable successor, because she is a safe pair of hands who will run the school exactly on Miss Bulstrode’s terms. Miss Rich, on the other hand, who is clearly of a lower social standing, would have different ideas, more progressive and more challenging. Rich’s idea of the future of the school would try to minimise class differentiation, whereas Bulstrode and Vansittart would maintain the status quo.
Jennifer Sutcliffe, too, wasn’t inclined to go to Meadowbank because it was too exclusive and she didn’t feel as though she would fit in; nevertheless, she quickly does. Perhaps the biggest exposure of class difference is revealed right at the end of the book, where we find out a little more about Prince Ali Yusuf – but I can’t tell you that without spoiling a big surprise!
Otherwise there’s the usual dollop of xenophobia/racism; perhaps slightly more than usual. For some reason, the French really get it in the neck in this book. Julia Upjohn tells her mother that Mlle Blanche doesn’t keep order very well; “Jennifer says French people can’t”. Miss Chadwick, the older teacher, didn’t like Mlle Blanche, nor her predecessor, calling them sly. “Miss Bulstrode did not pay very much attention in this criticism. Chaddy always accused the French mistresses of being sly.” Kelsey picks up on this later, and considers Mlle Blanche’s slyness in her potential for being a suspect, but Miss Bulstrode interrupts him. “Miss Bulstrode waved that aside impatiently. “Miss Chadwick always finds the French Mistresses sly. She’s got a thing about them.”” Even Kelsey’s assistant, Sgt Bond, agrees, after they’ve interviewed Mlle Blanche. “”Touchy”, said Bond. “All the French are touchy.”” It makes you wonder if Christie has had an unfortunate incident with a French person.
Miss Bulstrode doesn’t hold with these xenophobic assumptions. Wondering whether one of the girls might have made an assignation to meet someone, Miss Johnson gasps. ““One of our Italian girls, perhaps. Foreigners are much more precocious than English girls.” “Don’t be so insular,” said Miss Bulstrode. “We’ve had plenty of English girls trying to make unsuitable assignations.””
Generally, there’s a little of the usual racist language of the era. Briggs refers to “Eye-ties”, and Adam refers to the Emir as “Wog Notable”, which feels particularly uncomfortable today. The systemic racism of the time is emphasised at the end of the book when we discover that Alice’s child is called Allen, and not the original name Ali. She explains: “it was the nearest name to Ali. I couldn’t call him Ali – too difficult for him, and the neighbours and all.” There’s also some of Christie’s sexism, which she often finds difficult to conceal. Inspector Kelsey’s immediate reaction to meeting Miss Rich was “ugly as sin” which does him no credit at all. Christie also has a tongue-in-cheek description of another of Miss Bulstrode’s strengths: “Miss Bulstrode had another faculty which demonstrated her superiority over most other women. She could listen.” Such strengths lead Adam to think of her as “remarkable”. Women were definitely underestimated in 1959!
Other minor themes and comments give us an indication of what life was like in those days. Kelsey says there will be as little publicity as possible, and that they’ll “let it get about that we think it was a local affair. Young thugs – or juvenile delinquents, as we have to call them nowadays – out with guns among them, trigger happy.” So Kelsey clearly disapproves of the use of what we would think of today as the more PC terminology. “I don’t know what England’s coming to”, grumbles Mr Sutcliffe like an old Colonel from the last days of the Raj, when he hears about the murders at the school. And as a forerunner of the more sexually liberated 60s that were just around the corner, Colonel Pikeaway warns Adam about his conduct when he’s working at the school. “If any oversexed teenagers make passes at you, Heaven help you if you respond.”
Classic denouement: 100% – this is up there with the absolute cream of the crop. Poirot assembles everyone, makes us think that an innocent person is the guilty party to take us down one dead end – then reveals a surprise witness and the guilty person explodes with fury. It’s very dramatic, and very exciting; one of those denouements you can read again and again. There’s another twist too – the first time that Christie ever employs this particular device, but I can’t say more if you haven’t read it!
Happy ending? A grey area – but it’s a happy ending in some respects. Christie happy endings are usually rather Shakespearean, with any number of couples getting engaged or getting married, but there’s no suggestion of any of that here. However, we do see how the prospects for Meadowbank might improve; and unexpected wealth is bestowed on two surprised recipients.
Did the story ring true? Yes and no. Yes, in that all the events that take place in Meadowbank are totally believable and make logical sense. However, there are a few extraordinary coincidences. Why would one of the other mistresses be in Ramat at the same time as the Sutciffes and the Revolution? (And the mistress in question’s response of “why shouldn’t I go to Ramat?” doesn’t quite cut it.) Worse, is the coincidence that Mrs Upjohn worked in undercover missions in Switzerland during the war, and recognises one of the “enemy” at least fifteen years later, going about their business at home. And to cap it all, Christie puts Mrs Upjohn on a bus around Anatolia for three weeks, totally uncontactable, simply to extend the length of time it takes to solve the crime. Had she stayed at home, this could all have been done and dusted over the course of a weekend. But then, of course, there would have been no novel!
Overall satisfaction rating: Despite all its flaws I am a huge fan of this book and it’s one of the most accessible, understandable and exciting of all her works. 10/10 with no hesitation.
Thanks for reading my blog of Cat Among the Pigeons, 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 The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, a selection of six stories – three short, three not so short – five of them featuring Hercule Poirot and one with Miss Marple. 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!