Five individual short stories – four of which were reworked into other works, and which were published in the John Curran books Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making, and Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The Man Who Knew
Believed to have been written shortly after the end of the First World War, but before the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Never published in Christie’s lifetime, but she reworked it into The Red Signal, which was first published in issue 232 of The Grand Magazine in June 1924, and subsequently as part of The Hound of Death collection in the UK in 1933. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.
Derek Lawson returns from a theatre trip with friends to discover a revolver has been planted in one of his drawers, and a note has been scrawled on his theatre programme, don’t go home. With the news that his uncle, the Harley Street specialist Sir James Lawson has been shot, he puts two and two together, and resolves to take action to prevent himself from being accused of the crime.
Atmospheric and engaging, this (very) short story has all the hallmarks of a young writer finding her feet, establishing for herself what works and what doesn’t. It’s very limited to the bare bones of its own story, with hardly any embellishments – Christie would put that right when she created The Red Signal, which is a far, far more expansive and gripping piece of writing.
As John Curran points out, it’s extraordinary that this manuscript has survived; most haven’t. Whilst taken on its own, it’s not earth-shattering, but it is an interesting insight into Christie’s early imagination.
The Wife of the Kenite
Unlike the other stories in this selection, The Wife of the Kenite had been published before, in The Home Magazine, in Sydney, Australia, in 1922. Since then it had gone to ground and wasn’t available in print again until its appearance in Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library in 2018.
Soldier for hire, Herr Schaefer has escaped Johannesberg and is on the run – on the lookout for a contact, Mr Henschel. He discovers Henschel’s farmhouse; he isn’t there, but his wife is. She recognises him – but doesn’t tell him; and he doesn’t recognise her. He admires a woman who reads her Bible, but can’t quite remember the significance of Chapter Four of the Book of Judges…
Starkly and powerfully written, this is an eerie tale of revenge being served best cold. Christie plays nicely on our imaginations, and we can almost see the sparse South African landscape (she had visited South Africa with Archie Christie) and sense the grit and Germanic forcefulness of Herr Schaefer and the grimness of Henschel’s wife. The final act of the story is also left to our imagination, and that works very well.
Field Marshal Jan Smuts gets mentioned twice – at the time this was written, he was Prime Minister of South Africa; and mealies is a South African term for maize plants. Voogplaat, the Belgian village that used to be where the woman lived, sounds very credible but is in fact a name made up by Christie.
As for Judges 4, verses 17 – 21: “Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’ ” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”
War crimes are never forgotten.
The Incident of the Dog’s Ball
This is one of two unpublished short stories that were discovered by Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks in 2004 in an attic. John Curran suggests it was written around 1933, but never saw the light of day as Christie decided to rework and expand it into her novel Dumb Witness, published in 1937. However, it may have been written earlier than this as the majority of short stories that feature both Poirot and Hastings date from the 1920s. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.
Poirot receives an intriguing letter from Miss Matilda Wheeler asking for his help in a very unspecific sort of way; something was wrong, ever since “the incident of the dog’s ball”. But the letter has inexplicably taken a number of months to reach him. His curiosity piqued, he decides to see Miss Wheeler; however, on arrival at her house, they discover that she has died. Poirot’s not going to let that mystery go unexplained!
Although never published and clearly regarded by Christie as a stepping stone to writing Dumb Witness, The Incident of the Dog’s Ball stands up pretty well as a short story on its own. There are a couple of errors, that would no doubt have been picked up if it had been properly proof-read, but apart from that it’s an entertaining and pacey read. It’s set in the village of Little Hemel; there really ought to be a place near Hemel Hempstead that shares this name, but alas no. In any case, Christie decides to locate Little Hemel in Kent, just to confound us. And Hastings has been awarded the O.B.E.! I wonder if it was for services to detection?!
Curiously, the story has a different murderer and explanation of the crime from Dumb Witness, so even if you have read the longer novel, there’s no reason to miss out on this little gem. There are some passages of the short story that have been transported straight into the novel; and Curran points out that there is a very similar letter to Miss Wheeler’s in Christie’s short story How Does Your Garden Grow? which was featured in the collection Poirot’s Early Cases.
I think this little tale is somewhat underestimated!
The Capture of Cerberus
This is the other story that Rosalind Hicks found in an attic in 2004, and you can also read this one in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. It is the original twelfth story in the collection The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. The first eleven stories were originally published in The Strand Magazine, but this one was rejected. And, considering its subject matter, and the time that it was written, it’s no surprise that it was rejected. The story The Capture of Cerberus that was included in The Labours of Hercules is a completely different story, although both tales included Poirot getting reacquainted with the only love of his life, Countess Vera Rossakoff. So, again, if you’ve read The Labours of Hercules in full, that’s no reason not to read this original Cerberus story.
During a chance meeting in Geneva, Vera Rossakoff introduces Poirot to a Dr Keiserbach. Vera tells Keiserbach of Poirot’s extraordinary abilities – “he can even bring the dead back to life”. Impressed by this, Keiserbach privately later reveals to Poirot his true identity, Lutzmann; his son has famously shot the “dictator of all dictators”, August Hertzlein – but was torn to pieces by the baying mob and died on the spot. But Lutzmann is convinced that it wasn’t his son who killed Hertzlein: “he loved that man. He worshipped him […] he was a Nazi through and through.” So who did kill Hertzlein?
Given this was probably written in 1939 before the outbreak of war, it’s no surprise that the Strand magazine would have wanted this story suppressed. August Hertzlein is a clear reference to Adolf Hitler, and this story is almost unique in Christie’s works as being so obviously overtly political. Consequently, it’s a very entertaining and engrossing read, with Poirot on fine form, employing the most devious tactics to get to the truth.
It’s also superbly written, with a much more mature and adept use of language and some terrific turns of phrase, such as you would expect from the author pretty much at the height of her powers. There are some excellent new insights into Poirot’s character and beliefs. “To arouse enthusiasm was not his gift and never had been. Brains, he thought with his usual lack of modesty, were his speciality. And men with great brains were seldom great leaders or great orators. Possibly because they were too astute to be taken in by themselves.”
There’s a fascinating description of why Poirot is so attracted by Rossakoff, even though she is now older and heavily made up: “the original woman underneath the makeup had long been hidden from sight, Nevertheless, to Hercule Poirot, she still represented the sumptuous, the alluring. The bourgeois in him was thrilled by the aristocrat.”
And I was very much amused by Vera’s enthusiastic over-the-top praising of Poirot to Keiserbach: “He knows everything! He can do anything! Murderers hang themselves to save time when they know he is on their track.”
The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife
This unpublished story is approximately 80% identical to The Case of the Caretaker, that appears in the collection Miss Marple’s Final Cases, with very much the same story and the same solution. John Curran speculates that it was written in 1940, given its appearance in Christie’s notebooks, and you can find it in his book Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.
Here’s how I précised the story as it appears in Miss Marple’s Final Cases: “Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?” And there’s no reason to change that for this version of the story!
There are three main differences between the two versions. The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife is more openly set in St Mary Mead, with its usual cast of characters – Mrs Price-Ridley, Miss Hartnell and Miss Wetherby, rather than Mrs Price, Miss Harmon and Miss Brent. This story is told in a straightforward narrative, rather than being bookended by Dr Haydock giving Miss Marple a written-out mystery to solve to keep her spirits up whilst she’s getting over flu. And this story is expanded a little to include an interview between Miss Marple and Mrs Murgatroyd, and removes the clumsy and unlikely scene in The Case of the Caretaker where a hypodermic syringe falls out of a miscreant’s pocket.
John Curran points out – which I hadn’t recognised when I read Miss Marple’s Final Cases – that this is a precursor to Christie’s excellent 1967 novel, Endless Night.
All in all, Caretaker’s Wife is probably a better story than Caretaker, but if you’ve already read the one, there’s no real need to read the other!
And not only does that conclude my look at these five unpublished stories – and I’ll award this little selection with an overall mark of 7/10 – it also concludes my re-reading of all of Christie’s detective fiction! Thanks for sticking with me over the past eight years on this one. I can’t let this end here, so I will be back with one last summing-up of Christie’s works. What do we know of Poirot, Marple, and all the other major characters in her works? What themes and ideas did she deal with most prominently throughout her long career? And which are the best and which are the worst? I’ll be back with my final thoughts in the not too distant future – and, in the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!