The Agatha Christie Challenge – Curtain (1975)

CurtainIn which Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings are reunited for one final time – back at the scene of their first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The old mansion is now a guest house, where Poirot is a resident, accompanied by a new valet, Curtiss. But Poirot has a surprise up his sleeve – he confides in Hastings that one of the guests is a serial murderer, and he wants Hastings to be his eyes and ears so that they can prevent another murder from taking place. There’s just one main problem: Poirot won’t tell Hastings who the murderer is! Is Hastings perceptive enough to pick up all the vital clues? Can he prevent another murder? And how will Poirot end his distinguished detective career? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

1940s calendarAs the book was written at some point in the early 1940s, when Christie was at her inventive best, but without the future knowledge of exactly when it would be published, it’s perhaps appropriate that, unusually, she didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Curtain was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1975, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it has been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1975.

Red HerringFor the contemporary reader in 1975, Curtain was a breath of fresh air, after the disappointments of Christie’s more recent publications. Much research has taken place to try to establish exactly when it was written, but it’s hard to be more specific other than early in the 1940s. To end Hercule Poirot’s career on a highlight – for the reader, if not for Poirot himself, arguably – must have been Christie’s chief goal, and so she set about writing a superbly plotted, intricate story, full of red herrings and manipulative mind-games, and a classic Christie cast of old soldiers, young whippersnappers, hen-pecked husbands and research-crazed scientists. The result is a riveting read and a denouement finale that’s very different from a traditional Christie but has you on your seat with twists and surprises.

The Mysterious Affair at StylesSetting the story back in Styles, where Poirot and Hastings had cemented their friendship back in 1916, provides a very satisfactory circular structure to their detective days together – indeed to Christie’s works as a whole. Of course, the timings mean there are all sorts of inconsistencies regarding their ages, respective health conditions and life experiences. 55 years had elapsed between the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain, and Poirot was already an old man way back then. Hastings tells us at the beginning of this book, “I had not seen my old friend for nearly a year”; whereas the last book that Hastings narrates is Dumb Witness, published in 1937 – so there’s some inconsistency there. Hastings is now widowed, his late wife buried back in The Argentine where they lived. His daughter Judith, who plays a significant role in Curtain, is only 21, which again requires the reader to have some elasticity of understanding! Hastings is, in his own words, not “Heaven help me, a clever man. I blundered – made mistakes.” Christie paints Hastings as not only a bit of a chump when it comes to helping Poirot solve the case, but also rather Neanderthal in his reaction to his belief that Judith is spending too much time with Allerton, a man whom Hastings instinctively dislikes. We know that fathers can get very possessive of their daughters, but Christie took Hastings down some very torturous paths of personal discovery! Fortunately, All’s Well that Ends Well on that front, although there is a darker aspect to Hastings’ over-the-top reaction, but that’s for further discussion after you’ve read the book!

PoirotAnd what of our much-loved and respected hero, Poirot? Of course, we see him through Hastings’ eyes, as this “limping figure with the large moustache”. But on closer inspection, “crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself about in a wheeled chair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now. His face was lined and wrinkled. His moustache and hair, it is true, were still of a jet black colour […] only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling”. And of course, age hasn’t taken its toll on Poirot’s vanity: “mercifully, though the outside decays, the core is still sound […] the brain, mon cher, is what I mean by the core, My brain, I still functions magnificently.” Good to see that some things never change. What is occasionally a little distressing is to read how Poirot rounds upon Hastings with frustration and fury at the latter’s denseness. “Go away. You are obstinate and extremely stupid and I wish that there were someone else whom I could trust, but I suppose I shall have to put up with you and your absurd ideas of fair play.” Harsh words, Hercule; particularly as Hastings is still coming to terms with his new widowed status: “I’m not much of a fellow. You’ve said I’m stupid – well, in a way it’s true. And I’m only half the man I was. Since Cinders’ death…” Still, I suppose we can extend Poirot a hand of sympathy as he gets older and more infirm; as Hastings notes, “now, when he was indeed a sick man, he feared, perhaps, admitting the reality of his illness. He made light of it because he was afraid.”

CookTimes may have moved on, but some of Poirot’s views are still firmly in the past (unsurprising, as that’s when the book was written!) In conversation with Judith, he criticises her keenness on working for Dr Franklin at the expense of finding a husband. ““Your middle finger is stained with methyliine blue. It is not a good thing for your husband if you take no interest in his stomach.” “I dare say I shan’t have a husband.” “Certainly you will have a husband. What did the bon Dieu create you for?” “Many things, I hope,” said Judith. “Le marriage first of all.””

private detectiveThere’s one curious inconsistency of Poirot’s philosophy that is at odds with his stated views in other books. Faced with the task of preventing a murder, he asserts that it is impossible to stop a murderer from carrying out their intentions; and he goes into great detail about the only possible methods one can use, and how they are all likely to fail. However, in Poirot’s Early Cases, which was published only a year earlier (albeit the tales were written much earlier), that is more or less exactly what he achieves in the story Wasps’ Nest.

scaredThis is a beautifully written book, with an extremely clever set up and tight plotting. Christie manages to achieve a sense of unease at many key moments in the story, which almost lend it a supernatural element; there is much debate, for example, to what extent the previous death that occurred at Styles has left its mark on the fabric of the building. ““The atmosphere of the place […] something wrong, if you know what I mean?” I was silent a moment considering […] Did the fact that death by violence – by malice aforethought – had taken place in a certain spot leave its impression on that spot so strongly that it was perceptible after many years? Psychic people said so. Did Styles definitely bear traces of that event that had occurred so long ago? Here, within these walls, in these gardens, thoughts of murder had lingered and grown stronger and had at last come to fruition in the final act. Did they still taint the air?”

BinocularsThere’s also the scene where Norton fumbles with his binoculars, is embarrassed about what he has accidentally seen and refuses to elucidate further; it’s a very uneasy moment and you feel that something extremely significant has happened – but you’re not quite certain why. It’s all very cunningly written, and when you discover exactly what has happened at the end of the book, all these significant moments make sense. There was a time when Christie would enjoy including what I call a “presaging moment” in her books, which always create tension and nervousness, and Curtain includes a fine example: “How little we realized then that Norton’s hobby might have an important part to play in the events that were to come.” There’s another scene when Franklin upsets a box of chocolates and they spill out on to the floor; as a Christie fan you read much more into such an event than it might necessarily warrant – will this be an opportunity for a murderer to swap a chocolate for a poisoned one, for example? As I said earlier, the book is littered with delightful red herrings.

TadcasterThere are just three locations in the book. It almost exclusively takes place at Styles House, in the village of Styles St Mary, which we know is reached by crossing “flat Essex landscape”. There’s also the setting for the Coroner’s Enquiry, and Boyd Carrington’s house. The only other location mentioned is the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, where Franklin and Judith drove to get some laboratory supplies. Tadcaster? That’s hardly convenient for Essex! I think the proof-readers didn’t do their job properly there.

AsquithNow for the references and quotations in this book. Has tings asks if there were any similarity between this case and the case of Evelyn Carlisle. This is the book Sad Cypress, published in 1940, which perhaps gives us a closer clue as to when Curtain was written. Again, I wonder if the proof-readers took the afternoon off as the character’s name is actually Elinor Carlisle. Poirot also refers to “your Mr Asquith in the last war”. Herbert Asquith was the Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916 – so you wouldn’t think of him as being from the time of “the last war” in 1975!

CowperHastings wonders who it was who wrote “the darkest day, lived till tomorrow, will have passed away”. This is a slight misquote; the original is “the darkest day, if you live till tomorrow, will have passed away” and is by William Cowper, from The Needless Alarm, 1790. There are more quotes, from Shakespeare; O, beware, my lord, of jealousy… and Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world…, both of which are spoken by Iago in Act Three, Scene Three of Othello. There is also a reference to Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes; he was an invading Assyrian general, and she was a Hebrew widow who beheaded him when he was drunk.

St John ErvineMrs Franklin wore a negligee of pale eau-de-Nil; this is a pale yellowish-green colour, said to be coined by Flaubert in the mid-19th century when France was obsessed by Egypt. And of the two clues that Poirot leaves to Hastings, one is a copy of John Ferguson by St John Ervine – this is a 1915 play by (according to Wikipedia, so it must be true) the most prominent Ulster writer of the early twentieth century and a major Irish dramatist whose work influenced the plays of W. B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. So there you go.

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

Publication Details: 1975. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first paperback edition published in 1977, bearing the price on the back cover of 70p. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration simply shows a bowler hat placed atop a walking cane. Classy.

How many pages until the first death: 127. That’s a good two thirds of the way into the book, but it’s such a good read that you’re not remotely impatient for a death to investigate.

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: The book is much more interested in presenting a deeply woven plot rather than memorable characters, so there’s not much meat here. However, Hastings’ daughter Judith is an interesting character, largely because she presents herself as a highly unpleasant person, and not at all what you might expect coming from the kindly loins of Hastings. Consider this little opinion piece: “I don’t hold life as sacred as all you people do. Unfit lives, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.” Nice lady.

Christie the Poison expert: A veritable cornucopia of poisons and chemical treatments litter this book – Christie must have had a field day. Arsenic, morphine, cyanide, strychnine; plus the alkaloids of the physostigmine family, and the sleeping draughts veronal and the fictional slumberyl, all play a small or not so small part.

Class/social issues of the time: Bearing in mind that the “time” in question is probably during the Second World War, it’s fascinating to read Hastings’ description of the period – specifically in terms of no longer producing men of the standard of Colonel Luttrell – as “these degenerate days”. You’d say that was an opinion that didn’t bear much optimism for the future.

Hastings has a very tricky relationship with Judith; perhaps that has always been the way for fathers and daughters, but his possessiveness towards her becomes quite aggressive, as does her resistance to his protection. Poirot admits that “the mauvais sujet – always women are attracted to him”. As women were making their way in the workplace with much greater strides than in previous eras, it would be inevitable that they would have to learn the ways to deal with bad boys independently, and not just rush to the protection of Daddy. But all this takes a very hard toll on Hastings.

One of Christie’s traditional bugbears gets a good airing with some major discussions about divorce. There is a passage where Hastings lists and comments on the individual attitudes to divorce of many of the residents at Styles. Hastings describes himself as “essentially an old-fashioned person, yet I was on the side of divorce – of cutting one’s losses and starting afresh.” Boyd Carrington, who had had an unhappy marriage, was nevertheless against divorce. “He had, he said, the utmost reverence for the institution of marriage. It was the foundation of the state. Norton, with no ties and no personal angle, was of my way of thinking, Franklin, the modern scientific thinker, was, strangely enough, resolutely opposed to divorce. It offended, apparently, his ideal of clear-cut thinking and action.” By listing these opposing and perhaps unpredictable attitudes, Christie shows what a state of indecision society was in at the time in respect of divorce.

I did think it was an extraordinary state of affairs that someone who is convinced they have had a heart attack – Poirot, no less – would refuse to see a doctor. Perhaps there was a mistrust of the medical profession at the time? But, on the other hand, this refusal might be a clue as to the final “whodunit” aspect of the book – so I won’t say any more on the subject!

Classic denouement:  No – but it’s an absolute humdinger, where Christie reserves one of her very finest solutions till the final moment.

Happy ending? That’s a hard one to call. One couple appear to be looking forward to a happy relationship together, which is a positive result. However, there can be absolutely no doubt at all that this is the end of Hercule Poirot, and you may find that sad!

Did the story ring true? This is one of Christie’s ultimate plotting successes, so  yes, it rings absolutely true.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s one of her undoubted best – no wonder she kept it in a drawer for when it was needed! 10/10

Sleeping MurderThanks for reading my blog of Curtain, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was the last book to be published in Christie’s lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge. Next up is another book that she wrote at an earlier time and is the swansong for Miss Marple – Sleeping Murder. I can remember one vital aspect of this story – but the rest of it is a blank, so I’m looking forward to giving it a re-read. 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!