The Agatha Christie Challenge – Third Girl (1966)

Third GirlIn which Hercule Poirot’s breakfast is disturbed by the arrival of a young lady who confesses that she might have committed a murder – but, then again, she might not! With Poirot’s curiosity piqued, he decides to find out more about this strange confession – but when the girl goes to ground, what can he usefully find out? Fortunately, Mrs Oliver knows the family, and she assists by trailing suspects around London – until she herself is attacked! Will Poirot discover whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom? Of course he will! And, as usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

DedicationThe book is dedicated “to Nora Blackborow.” She was the secretary of Edmund Clark, Christie’s Literary Agent, and, apparently, she was the first point of contact for permission to use Christie’s works. Third Girl was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1966, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. A condensed version of the novel was published in the US in April 1967 in Redbook Magazine.

TwiggyAfter a very intriguing and entertaining start, the reader’s disbelief in this book stacks up quickly, with a highly unlikely preponderance of coincidences that simply make it hard to accept. Important clues aren’t dropped unassumingly with her usual flair, but heavily telegraphed, so that even if you don’t quite get what they mean, you certainly know that they are clues. Whilst it is diverting to see Poirot and Mrs Oliver caught up in the seedier side of trendy London 60s life, with drug taking, louche arty tastes and can’t tell the boys from the girls fashions, a lot of the book feels very ploddy. Whilst we, as always, admire Poirot for his ability to think a solution through from the bare bones of the evidence, Christie spends an inordinate amount of time sifting through his little grey cells, without much in the way of action taking place. It also feels quite repetitive, with Mrs Oliver twice ringing him up to disturb his thoughts, almost Groundhog Day-style, but neither time does this achieve anything except to irritate Poirot. Christie also uses the device of Poirot employing Mr Goby (whom we’ve seen before in The Mystery of the Blue Train and After the Funeral), as a rather easy, shorthand way of cutting corners with her writing, in order to come up with a lot of evidence without Poirot having to do any work. In the final analysis, although the crime itself is ingenious, it lacks credibility, and the loose ends get tied up far too easily for my liking.

Talking to each otherAnd that’s all a shame, because there’s plenty in the book to enjoy, including the return of many regular characters, some fascinating new ones, and a few genuinely exciting scenes. Unusually, Poirot takes centre stage in this book right from the start, where we find him winding up his magnum opus – an analysis of the great writers of detective fiction – a work in which he was deeply involved in his last appearance, The Clocks. Third Girl doesn’t really tell us anything new about Poirot, but it underlines a few aspects of his personality that we’ve noted before. His ability to gain people’s confidence comes in very useful with Norma Restarick – “for some reason, Poirot had always been a person it was easy to talk to” – and Mary Restarick – “Poirot had the capacity to attract confidences. It was as though when people were talking to him they hardly realised who it was they were talking to.” Poirot has always been quick to admire a well turned-out woman, but even quicker to show dismay at a poorly turned-out one. Poirot’s first meeting with Norma: “anyone of Poirot’s age and generation would have had only one desire. To drop the girl into a bath as soon as possible. He had often felt this same reaction walking along the streets. There were hundreds of girls looking exactly the same. They all looked dirty.”

Old ManBut Norma really hits Poirot in his weakest spot – his age. Poirot was an old man at the time of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, so he’s an exceedingly old man now. Rather cleverly, Christie does not pass judgement on Poirot’s age when we first meet him in this book – she leaves that to Norma. “You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old.  I really don’t want to be rude but – there it is. You’re too old. I’m really very sorry.” This observation knocks Poirot’s self-esteem back by what feels like several decades. Later that day he gives Mrs Oliver an outpouring of self-pity, culminating in the simple, but devastated, “it wounded me.” Later, when he is failing to make sense of everything he has found out about the case, he returns to an unexpected self-doubt. ““Perhaps I am too old,” said Hercule Poirot, at the bottom depths of despair.”

Frustrated writerAnd what of Mrs Oliver, the character that Christie invented to bring herself closer into her own books? She seems to have progressed into a less sympathetic direction than before. Whereas in the past we might have seen her struggling to write, or being eccentric with her fondness for apples, here those aspects have given way to a short temper and even an element of hatred. She sends off her latest book to her publishers whilst scolding herself for its shortcomings. ““I hope you like it! I don’t. It think it’s lousy! […] You just wait and see,” said Mrs Oliver vengefully.” And when she’s chasing Poirot up for news of developments in the case, she is appallingly impatient. ““What are you doing? What have you done? […] Is that all? {…] What progress have you made? […] Really, M. Poirot, you really must take a grip on yourself […] What about that woman who threw herself out of a window. Haven’t you got anything out of that? […] Well? […] Really!” At a loss for further comment, Mrs Oliver rang off.”

Union JackGeorge is still his incomparable self, and Miss Lemon is possibly even more po-faced than usual, with her rigorous attention to administration. “She asked no questions and she displayed no curiosity. She did not tell Poirot how she would occupy her time whilst he was away. She did not need to tell him. She always knew what she was going to do and she was always right in what she did.” On the one occasion Poirot asks her opinion – of the young lady Sonia who accompanied Sir Roderick – her first reaction was merely to answer “foreign”; when pressed, she explains “I always say that it’s better to know where you are when you are employing someone, and buy British.” Miss Lemon is obviously an early Brexiteer. Other repeat characters appear in the form of the aforementioned Mr Goby, who has an inability to look Poirot in the eye, Chief Inspector Neele (merely Inspector Neele when he took charge of the case in A Pocket Full of Rye) and Dr Stillingfleet, that rather gung ho and outspoken psychiatrist who featured in The Dream in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and in Sad Cypress. Amusingly, when Poirot is bluffing with Sir Roderick, to make him think they were old colleagues, Poirot lets drop his acquaintanceship with Colonel Race (Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile, Sparkling Cyanide and The Man in the Brown Suit) and M. Giraud (The Murder on the Links). An unusual number of Christie cross-references pepper this story!

Mermaid TheatreLike Christie’s previous book, At Bertram’s Hotel, this is a very London-centric book, with just occasional references to the Restarick family home in the village of Long Basing – presumably this is somewhere close to Market Basing, which appears as a location in many Christie books. Otherwise, the action of the book takes place either at Poirot’s flat in London, the flat at 67 Borodene Mansions where the three girls live (an invention of Christie’s) or in the murky back streets of London where Mrs Oliver attempts to trail David Baker. When she phones Poirot to say she has spotted Norma and Baker, she says she is somewhere between St. Paul’s and the Mermaid Theatre – Calthorpe Street. There is a Calthorpe Street in London, but it’s not in that locale – it’s off Gray’s Inn Road. The Mermaid Theatre – alas, now a mere conference centre – was located at Puddle Dock, Blackfriars.

Bohemian girlThere are only a few other references to consider; Mrs Oliver recalls a string of song quotes when she’s trying to remember Norma’s name. “Thora? Speak to me, Thora […] Myra? Oh Myra my love is all for thee […] I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls. Norma?” One by one: that’s a 1905 song by Fred Weatherly and Stephen Adams called Thora; the Myra song appears to be a complete invention; and the last is an aria from Balfe’s 1843 opera The Bohemian Girl. Ten points if you knew that!

MontgomerySir Roderick also does some name-dropping when it comes to famous war folk who have been writing their memoirs; Montgomery, Alanbrooke, Auchinleck and Moran. Again, one by one: Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (we all know him); Field Marshal Alan Brooke; Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Supreme Commander India and Pakistan 1947-8; and I haven’t a clue who Moran is!

M'NaughtenStillingfleet refers to the M’Naughten Act – this is a ruling concerning a plea of insanity in a criminal case, and I refer you to those wise people at Wikipedia, who describe it thus: “every man is to be presumed to be sane, and … that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong”.

PoundRegular 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’s only one in this book – the sum of £5, which is given by Miss Reece-Holland to Mr Goby’s informant to help him forget about the presence of blood in the courtyard. Today that would be worth £65. Quite a generous tip!

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Third Girl:

 

Publication Details: 1966. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, fourth impression, published in October 1970, bearing the price on the back cover of 5/- (25p). The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows the loose house numbers 6 and 7, together with a hand holding a bloodied dagger, surrounded by peacock feathers. All very appropriate, but not quite giving the game away.

How many pages until the first death: Slightly difficult to answer, as there is the report of a death which may, or may not be part of the crime (the reader must decide at the time), which is given after 46 pages. Otherwise, the first obvious murder doesn’t take place until page 159, which is a long wait.

Funny lines out of context: These seem to come less and less regularly as Christie got older and the times grew more modern – so none.

Memorable characters: As I have written quite often recently, most of the characters are not particularly interesting or well-drawn. Amongst the very minor characters, she created a couple of amusing battle-axes in the form of Miss Battersby, the principal at Norma’s school, and Miss Jacobs, who lives in one of the neighbouring flats and discovers a gruesome sight. Apart from these, the character of David Baker is interesting in that he is what Mrs Oliver refers to as the peacock, because of his fine clothes and strutting air; a young man in the Dedicated Follower of Fashion style. The reader can play with his appearance in their mind’s eye and make this character as fanciful and foppish as they like. But the interest in him is only skin-deep (or, clothing-deep).

Christie the Poison expert: Poison doesn’t play a massive role in this book, but there is a suggestion that Mrs Restarick might be receiving a regular slow dose of arsenic, and one of the unexpected things that Norma found hidden in her own desk drawer was a bottle of weed killer.

Class/social issues of the time:

It’s very much a book of its time, with a lot of descriptions of swinging sixties’ lifestyles, fashions, drug taking and so on. As I mentioned earlier, David Baker is often referred to as a beautiful young man, but it’s not meant to be complimentary. “”Beautiful?” said Mrs Oliver, “I don’t know that I like beautiful young men.” “Girls do,” said Poirot. “Yes, you’re quite right. They like beautiful young men. I don’t mean good-looking young men or smart-looking young men or well-dressed or well washed looking young men. I mean they either like young men looking as though they were just going on in a Restoration comedy, or else very dirty young men looking as though they were just going to take some awful tramp’s job.””

It’s not just the personal clothing fashions that are criticised; I like the way Christie takes a side-swipe at the gaudy wallpaper of the day. “As for the wallpaper… “these cherries – they are new?” he waved a teaspoon. It was, he felt, rather like being in a cherry orchard. “Are there too many of them, do you think?” said Mrs Oliver. “So hard to tell beforehand with wallpaper. Do you think my old one was better?” Poirot cast his mind back dimly to what he seemed to remember as large quantities of bright coloured tropical birds in a forest. He felt inclined to remark, plus ça change, plus c’est le meme chose, but restrained himself.”

The respectable/authority types are very critical and surprised by all the drug taking. But even the younger ones are in two minds about it. Frances was at Basil’s party: “Basil would make us try some new pills – Emerald Dreams. I don’t think it’s really worth trying all these silly things.” Stillingfleet remarks how Norma is “full of drugs. I’d say she’d been taking purple hearts, and dream bombs, and probably LSD”. Neele’s observation about Baker is that “he’s one of the usual mob. Riff-raff – go about in gangs and break up night clubs. Live on purple hearts – heroin – coke – girls go mad about them.”

There’s a recurrence of the more recent theme that mental illness might be an inherited factor, and much is made of inquiring into Norma’s past and parentage to see if there could be any links. There’s a long conversation between Norma and Stillingfleet about suicide that today you might suggest warrants a trigger warning.

Elsewhere, there is an interesting observation about how the elderly are prejudiced against the young – which probably largely stems from condemnation of the “permissive society” and the hippie clothing and lifestyle that the older generation just couldn’t understand. There’s a little combination of xenophobia and homophobia from Sir Roderick, describing Poirot as “a thorough frog […], you know, mincing and dancing…”. And Restarick reveals himself as no true feminist when he describes his wife as “as good as a man in some ways.”

Classic denouement:  It’s an unconventional denouement, in that it grows organically out of what appears to be some quite routine questioning of the witness, Miss Jacobs. You wouldn’t necessarily know that Poirot had planned it. Although, knowing him, he probably did.

Happy ending? Yes, but it feels extremely artificial and forced.

Did the story ring true? No. Again, this book relies too heavily on coincidences. The first is that Mrs Oliver should have chanced upon Norma Restarick because friends took her over there for drinks. Without that chance meeting there would have been no book. The next is that she should, amazingly, discover her and David in a café when they were trying to track her down. In all the cafes, in all the cities, she should just walk into the same one. Wow. The third is that the nature of the crime involved a degree of impersonation. That’s not the first time that Christie has pulled this trick in one of her books. But never has the amount of impersonation carried on for such a long time. It simply stretches credibility too far.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a shame that the book starts so promisingly, with an intriguing character presenting an intriguing case, but then it quickly turns into a Hunt the Lady game, which kind of goes nowhere, and gets quite dull in parts. It’s lifted by the revelation of fairly extraordinary and creative crime activity; but which also quickly palls when you realise how unlikely it is. I’m not sure I can give this more than a 6/10, I’m afraid.

Endless NightThanks for reading my blog of Third Girl, 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 her next book, Endless Night, of which I have no recollection at all apart from remembering it being around in the house at the time that my father died – either I or my mother must have been reading it at the time – and so I always associate the book with personal sadness. I’m not actually sure I’ve read it since then, so I’m looking forward to putting that right, and hopefully eradicating sad memories. 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!

Leave a Reply