In which Superintendent Spence is not satisfied that James Bentley is guilty of the murder of charwoman Mrs McGinty, and asks that owner of magnificent moustaches, Hercule Poirot, to delve into the case to see if he can discover the real culprit. Poirot accepts the challenge, and, enduring a stay at a grotty B&B all in the pursuit of justice, unearths the real murderer and saves Bentley from the gallows. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The book is dedicated “To Peter Saunders, in gratitude for his kindness to authors”. Peter Saunders was the theatre impresario who produced The Mousetrap, amongst other successes. Mrs McGinty’s Dead was first published in the US in thirteen instalments in the Chicago Tribune Sunday editions from October to December 1951, under the title Blood Will Tell. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in February 1952 and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, on 3rd March 1952, almost exactly a year after the publication of They Came from Baghdad.
This was one of the last books by Christie that I read first time around, primarily because I had seen the Miss Marple/Margaret Rutherford film Murder Most Foul, which is (allegedly) an adaptation of Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and thought that, as I now knew whodunit, there wasn’t a lot of point reading it. How wrong I was! Whilst it is a tremendously fun film, Murder Most Foul bears as much similarity to Mrs McGinty’s Dead as does the Book of Common Prayer. So, if you find yourself in the same situation, don’t lose any sleep over it!
Whether it’s because it is so unlike that film, I’m not sure, but I always have difficulty recalling the plot, characters and identity of the murder whenever I read this book. As a result, personally, it’s an entertaining read, as it’s as though I’m coming to it new. However, I do also find this book rather ploddy at times, particularly in those early, expositional chapters. It did take me some time to complete it. There are also a quite a large number of characters, and therefore possible suspects, and it’s one of those books where you have to stop and think exactly who we’re reading about in this chapter and what association they have to the rest of the book.
Nevertheless, it’s entertainingly written, with plenty of humorous episodes, enjoyable characterisations and a few tongue-in-cheek references to the ardours of writing detective fiction. Yes, Mrs Oliver is back, Christie’s thinly veiled self-creation, obsessed with apples, struggling with storylines, exasperated that she made her detective a Finn, a vegetarian and too old – exactly the same problems that Christie had created for herself with Poirot. There are some very funny moments in the scenes between Mrs Oliver and Robin Upward, the very theatrical playwright who is adapting one of her books for the stage; his vision of her characters and plot is so very different from hers, and one can indeed imagine that this could be a real source of anguish for any author whose works are highly adaptable.
There’s an intriguing conversation between Mrs Oliver and Robin when he gets the idea that she should write a book where her detective Sven Hjerson is murdered. “No fear,” she replies, “what about the money? Any money to be made out of murders I want now”. But of course, by this time, Christie had already written and squirrelled away Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the books which end the careers of Poirot and Miss Marple, to be published after her death. And from my memory, what Robin suggests should happen to Sven happens to one of her detectives… we’ll just leave that idea hanging there.
Mrs McGinty’s Dead is our first meet-up with Poirot for four years – we last encountered him in Taken at the Flood. Given Mrs Oliver’s petulance about Sven Hjerson, I guess we can conclude that Christie had temporarily had enough of our Belgian hero and wanted to write some different characters – hence the interim books Crooked House and They Came to Baghdad featured neither Poirot nor Marple. She re-establishes the character in the opening paragraphs of the book, fondling his moustaches, creating an art form out of eating, drinking revoltingly luminescent sweet liqueurs, missing his old pal Hastings – even though his vanity only permits him to consider him as a stooge – and not regretting giving up the cultivation of vegetable marrows, a hobby which he gamely embarked on in The Mysterious Affair at Styles but it never caught on.
We also meet Superintendent Spence again, having also become acquainted with him in Taken at the Flood. He’s a bit more of a rounded character in this book; considered, intelligent, honourable and tenacious. Christie allows Poirot to point out the major difference between her two detectives, when Poirot gets frustrated at not making quicker progress: “I get nowhere – nowhere […] There is nothing – no little gleam. I can well understand the despair of Superintendent Spence. But it should be different for me. Superintendent Spence, he is a very good and painstaking police officer, but me, I am Hercule Poirot. For me, there should be illumination!”
At times the book feels almost like a travelogue, with our hero Poirot moving from residence to residence, interrogating the occupants, trying to get to the bottom of what happened. As a result, there are a multitude of characters, most of whom play a minor role, but the consequence of that is we get a surfeit of suspects. This tends to confuse and frustrate rather than make it more exciting or difficult to crack. But the book redeems itself with its comic scenes (Poirot trying to make himself at home in the Summerhayes household is very funny) and the portrayal of Robin and all his theatrical chums is cheeky and entertaining.
As usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The main activity of the book takes place in Broadhinny, and the neighbouring towns and villages of Kilchester, Cullenquay, Parminster, Cullavon, and Drymouth all play a part. Of course, these are all fictional; Parminster might be based on Warminster – one tends to think of Christie-land as being the West Country – although perhaps Kilchester is based on Colchester. The book starts with Poirot emerging from the Vieille Grand’mère restaurant into Soho; there are many Vieille Grand’mère’s all around the world but I can’t identify one in Soho.
The title Mrs McGinty’s Dead refers to a children’s playground game. “Question and answer all down the line,” says Spence. “Mrs McGinty’s Dead! How did she die? Down on one knee just like I! – and then the next question […] Holding her hand out just like I”. I have to say I don’t recall that game from my childhood. Do any of my gentle readers? When Mrs Oliver and Poirot meet, they recall their shared experience regarding a Mr Shaitana. He was the victim in that excellent book Cards on the Table.
“Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead”, quotes Poirot in conversation with Spence. Evelyn Hope, as far as this story is concerned, was Eva Kane’s assumed name once she’d fled after being suspected in the Craig case. But the quote is from Robert Browning’s poem, Evelyn Hope. This is not the first time that Christie has named a character after someone in a poem; Enoch Arden, who is frequently referred to in Taken at the Flood, is the name of a poem by Browning’s contemporary, Tennyson.
“If we hanged Edith Thompson, we certainly ought to have hanged Janice Courtland”, avers Superintendent Spence. But who was Edith Thompson? She, together with her lover Frederick Bywaters, was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1922 – even today, the guilty verdict against her seems very harsh, based on a series of love letters but no hard evidence. “Do you know, cher ami, what is a secret de Polichinelle?” asks Poirot of Spence. He answers his own question. It “is a secret that everyone can know.” It comes from a 1903 play of the same name by French dramatist Pierre Wolff.
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. The cash amounts mentioned in this book aren’t particularly expensive, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Bentley is accused of having stolen £30 from Mrs McGinty. That’s about £600 today – quite a lot to steal from an older lady. All Mrs McGinty had in the bank was £200, to be bequeathed to her niece – that’s the equivalent of about £4000 today. Bentley’s board and lodgings cost him £3 a week – that’s £60 a week today, which is very good value for what he got. Mrs McGinty used to charge 1s 10d per hour for her cleaning services – about £1.80 today, way below the minimum wage. One other interesting fact; stamps to send a letter cost one penny. That’s just 10p today. Someone in the Royal Mail is obviously raking it in at the moment, I’ll say no more than that!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Mrs McGinty’s Dead:
Publication Details: 1952. My copy is a Fontana paperback, seventh impression, dated August 1974, with a price of 35p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a massive fly hovering over a tea table, in an old-fashioned parlour. And is that a shoe attached to a foot attached to a leg at the bottom of the picture?
How many pages until the first death: The first death takes place before the book starts, and is referred to on the third page. However, there’s quite a long wait before the second death – 126 pages in all.
Funny lines out of context: sadly, none spring to mind.
Quite a lot to enjoy here. There’s the hopeless but likeable Maureen Summerhayes with her wayward children, awful cooking skills and “comfortable” guest house that’s more like an assault course. There’s the gutsy Maude Williams, willing to risk her own safety in a bid to help trap the guilty party, in the best tradition of Christie gutsy young women. There’s the haughty Mrs Carpenter, who can’t believe that her word doesn’t carry more weight in law than a mere servant’s. But most fun of all is the flouncy Robin Upward with his coterie of actors, ostentatiously referring to his mother as Madre, fussing and preening wherever he goes.
Christie the Poison expert:
Again, no real references to death by poisoning in this book. All the murders are much more violent and brutal.
Class/social issues of the time:
The early 1950s were known for being a time of dismal austerity. “The war has complicated things,” laments Superintendent Spence, although he is thinking specifically of the opportunity for the unscrupulous to change wartime records, identity cards, and so on, for their own dubious gains. The only hopeful new aspect to everyday life was the National Health service – but even there, people were cynical. In the words of Mrs Sweetiman, “nowadays even if you’ve got a chilblain you run to the doctor with it so as to get your money’s worth out of the National Health. Too much of this health business we’ve got. Never did you any good thinking how bad you feel.” Come to think of it, who gets chilblains nowadays? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone having them.
Most of the class/social references in the book are spiteful little comments about foreigners, the homeless and – thinking primarily about Robin Upward – the use of the word “pansy” to describe a man who’s not particularly into women. Mrs Sweetiman refers to “nasty tramps” in their area who might have broken into Mrs McGinty’s house. Deirdre Henderson is of the same mind, referring in a later conversation with Mrs Oliver that there are “horrid tramps” in the area.
Elsewhere, as has happened in the past, Poirot is considered to be a “funny little foreigner” (again by Deirdre Henderson); Mrs Sweetiman’s assistant Edna needs to inform the police of a development but feels she can’t approach Poirot – “not a foreigner, I couldn’t.” Poirot contacts Mrs Wetherby ostensibly to suggest a replacement for their cook, Frieda, and she is relieved that Maude is “no, not foreign – English, thank goodness.”
You might expect the class system to be at its most pompous in an English village, where the lowly born serve the high and mighty. Mrs McGinty had few admirers, even though many relied on her work to keep their houses clean. Even though she had worked for her, and she was now dead, Mrs Carpenter still can’t bring herself to think of Mrs McGinty as more than just “some old charwoman”. But then again, neither Mrs Carpenter nor her husband are Nice People.
Classic denouement: Yes! And the first since Towards Zero, eight years earlier. It’s one of those occasions where Poirot gathers everyone into a room, he lays a trap to make it seem like one person is responsible for the killings when all along it is someone else in the room, who at first tries to brave it out but then snaps. The best kind of end to a Christie book.
Happy ending? In a sense yes, although it’s very low-key and under-emphasised. There is a supposition that a relationship might blossom at the end of the book, but it’s not the one you might have expected and even then it’s only in the suspicious minds of the detectives. All a bit dark and gloomy, to be honest.
Did the story ring true? Nothing is so bizarre that you read it and think, oh Mrs Christie how could you possibly think we’d believe that – and given the fact that so many of the world’s problems today come from the unscrupulous and biased news media, for me it rings very true that the crime and solution came from a newspaper cutting.
Overall satisfaction rating: A little chewy occasionally, but with a very exciting second half and a banger of a denouement. 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Mrs McGinty’s Dead 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 They do it with Mirrors, and the chance to reacquaint ourselves with Miss Marple. This is another book I find it hard to remember, so it will be a journey of discovery re-reading the book. 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!
In which young widow Rosaleen Cloade becomes a very wealthy widow a second time, much to the annoyance of the rest of her late husband Gordon’s family, who were counting on his generosity to keep them in the manner to which they have been accustomed. If only they could prove that her late first husband Underhay is still alive, once again they would be rich. But is he alive? Will this cause Rosaleen and her brother David to be blackmailed? And will there be murders for Hercule Poirot to solve? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book bears no dedication, but it does begin with an epigraph: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.” This is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a line spoken by Brutus as a justification for his complicity in betrayal and plotting. Unlike most of Christie’s other books to date, Taken at the Flood was not serialised in either the UK or the US before its publication in novel format. It was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in March 1948 under the title There is a Tide, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club, as Taken at the Flood.
I remember hearing a BBC radio adaptation of this book as “Book at Bedtime” on Radio 4, way back in the 1970s; I recorded it onto cassette so that I could listen to it at a more “awake” time. Oddly, although I could remember some of the character names, I couldn’t recall anything about the story and certainly not whodunit. And when I started to re-read this book, I found it strangely confusing. There are several sets of Mr and Mrs Cloade, and after a while they start to become hard to differentiate in your head. Christie also uses the convention of calling the married women both by their formal names (i.e. Mrs Lionel Cloade) and by their own names (Katherine Cloade) and by their family names (Aunt Kathie) – in that example, all three names are used to describe the same woman. If you’re not paying attention you can get horribly lost.
But I don’t think it’s only the names that confuse. I never really felt that Christie provided a strong, identifiable description of many of the main characters, so that many of the introductory chapters feel ploddy, wading though mud, almost. It took me many attempts to keep reading. After about sixty pages, the mood and the style cheer up and suddenly the book becomes interesting. But it’s a distinctly slow start.
Disappointingly, although we continue our acquaintance with Hercule Poirot that we have maintained over the last few books, we really learn absolutely nothing new about him in this book. All his attributes and quirks have been seen before, so, character-wise, we’re very much treading water in this book. Similarly, we also meet Superintendent Spence for the first time, and I’m afraid he’s not very interesting, just a workaday character designed to ask questions to keep the plot ticking over rather than sparkling. We’ll meet him again in Mrs McGinty’s Dead – and I hope he’s more inspirational there! Fortunately, when it gets going, the story itself is very intricate and enjoyable, so it’s worth sticking with it.
Unusually, Christie is very precise with her time-setting for this book. The opening scene, where Poirot overhears an old duffer reminisce in his gentlemen’s club, is specifically set in Autumn 1944; the rest of the book takes place in late Spring, 1946. The first part of the story recalls an episode that happened during an air-raid over London. The innocent deaths of an entire family wiped out in the Blitz was a matter of recent memory for Christie’s readers; an easily relatable tragedy that many people with which many people would be familiar.
The remainder takes place in the aftermath of the War. It’s an atmosphere of discontent; the initial relief and happiness that the War is over is now long gone, and the realities of life are sinking in. Lynn, the late Gordon Cloade’s niece, who has returned to London after being a Wren on active service, notes that hate is everywhere. “I’ve noticed it ever since I got home. It’s the aftermath war has left. Ill will. Ill feeling. It’s everywhere. On railways and buses and in shops and amongst workers and clerks and even agricultural labourers. An I suppose in mines and factories. Ill will.” In a later conversation with will-she won’t-she fiancé Rowley Cloade, she explains her absence through the daily routines everyone must now endure. “It’s all the chores – you know. Running round with a basket, waiting for fish and queueing up for a bit of quite disgusting cake.” David Hunter is a prime example of a type of character who might be well recognised by the first readers of this book – a further look at his character will follow later in this blog.
As usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The book opens with a scene at the Coronation Club, where Major Porter is the “club bore”. “Coronation Club” is actually a very common name for clubs of all sorts, all around the English-speaking world; but there is no such gentleman’s club in London. The air-raid on the Cloade house took place at Campden Hill, which is a real address in Holland Park, London; and Rosaleen and David’s London flat is found at Shepherds Court, Mayfair which is very nearly a real address too (there’s Shepherd Court and Shepherd Market). The rest of the story takes place at the “small old-world village” of Warmsley Vale. Despite the details of its being three miles from the golf course and 28 miles from London, there is no such village, nor, of course, is there an Oastshire – although I guess we may presume that’s Kent.
As for the other references, I remembered the character Enoch Arden from my school days; when I heard that radio adaptation as a teenager, we had been studying Tennyson, so it clicked in my brain. Enoch Arden is the hero of Tennyson’s eponymous poem; a man who was shipwrecked for ten years but escapes home only to find that his wife has happily remarried, and he never reveals his identity to her. It’s a very appropriate nom-de-plume for the returning Underhay (Rosaleen’s first husband – if that is indeed who he is). Frances Cloade recollects that Jeremy had “all those Stanley Weymans in his bedroom”. I’d never heard of Weyman – in fact he was a very successful writer of romance novels during the late Victorian/Edwardian era. He died in 1928.
There are a couple of quotations that I thought I should investigate. When Lynn is considering whether she still loves Rowley, a line of poetry comes to mind: “Life and the world and mine own self are changed”. This is from Christina Rossetti’s poem, Mirage, published in 1879. And Rowley quotes: “Just the man she left behind her”; however, I can find no link to what this may have been taken from. It sounds like an old Music Hall song to me. Any ideas, gentle reader?
I’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Money is an important theme in this book. We quickly learn that Gordon Cloade’s fortune amassed to more than £1 million. Taking the date for this estimate as 1944 – which is when Christie stipulates the first part of the story took place – that would be a current value of over £31 million, which sure is some inheritance. Adela Marchmont asks Rosaleen for £500 to help her out of some domestic difficulties – that’s about £15,000 at today’s rates. When Frances Cloade asks for a gift of £10,000, she gets short shrift back from David. Not surprisingly really, as that sum is worth almost £300,000 today.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Taken at the Flood:
Publication Details: 1948. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in March 1973, price 30p. The vivid cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts a house bombed during the war, with the redness of fire permeating the whole design. There’s also a luscious pair of lips having red lipstick applied to them, and I’ve got no idea where that fits into the story!
How many pages until the first death: 81. One of the reasons the book seems slow and ponderous to start is that there’s no death to investigate. However, to be fair to Christie, she does make up for it later in the book with more deaths and clever plotting. Nothing is quite what it seems in this book.
Funny lines out of context: Christie recounts how Frances Cloade, as a child, had played with a visiting bailiff, which must have been awkward: “She had found the bum in question very agreeable to play with.”
For me, the Cloade family members are rather indistinguishable, apart from the Madame Arcati-like Katherine, and the country bumpkin-like Rowley. By far the most interesting character is David Hunter, who scrounges off his sister’s inheritance, and exudes arrogance wherever he goes. Superintendent Spence says he knows Hunter’s type. “It’s a type that’s done well during the war. Any amount of physical courage. Audacity and a reckless disregard of personal safety. The sort that will face any odds. It’s the kind that is likely to win the V.C. – though, mind you, it’s often a posthumous one. Yes, in wartime, a man like that is a hero. But in peace – well, in peace such men usually end up in prison. They like excitement and they can’t run straight, and they don’t give a damn for society – and finally they’ve no regard for human life.”
Christie the Poison expert:
Only one of the deaths in the book involves poison; one of the characters dies through morphine administration, called Morphia in the book. But Christie doesn’t go into any great detail on the subject.
Class/social issues of the time:
Unusually, there’s only issue I can identify – but it features in a big way – and that’s xenophobia and mistrust of foreigners. When Major Porter looks up from his reminiscences and sees the very exotic appearance of Hercule Poirot in front of him, his first thought is “foreign, of course. That explained the shoes. “Really,” thought Major Porter, “what’s the club coming to? Can’t get away from foreigners even here.””
But there’s worse to come. Christie needed a witness character for a scene later in the book and she created the redoubtable and absolutely horrible Mrs Leadbetter. ““You’re a foreigner”, she says to Poirot. “Yes,” replied Hercule Poirot. “In my opinion,” said the old lady, “you should all Go Back.” “Go back where?” inquired Poirot. “To where you came from,” said the old lady firmly. She added as a kind of rider, sotto voce: “Foreigners!” and snorted.” She’s a typical racist. She goes on to say that “that’s what we fought the war for” – how many times have you heard that old chestnut?
Later she goes on to criticise what she sees as the governmental error of “sending the mothers to work in factories. Only let ‘em off if they’ve got young children. Young children, stuff and nonsense! Anyone can look after a baby! A baby doesn’t go running round after soldiers. Girls from fourteen to eighteen, they’re the ones that need looking after!” Mrs Leadbetter clearly doesn’t have much time for the young women of her era. It gets worse; and I apologise for the use of language but when you see it written down it really does stress how out of place her words are. “It takes a mother to know just what a girl is up to. Soldiers! Airmen! That’s all they think about. Americans! Niggers! Polish riff-raff!” Sadly, the impression I got from reading this is that it’s meant to be almost an amusing interlude act, and that Mrs Leadbetter is a figure of fun for her outdated opinions. There’s nothing remotely amusing about the character, and I think the episode sours my entire interpretation of the book.
Classic denouement: No. It’s another of these unusual denouements that creep up on you unexpectedly, where Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and we discover the all the ins and outs after we know the identity of the murderer and not before – which I think is always a little disappointing. However, as I indicated earlier, the actual plotting and planning of the crime is very cleverly done, so a “classic” denouement probably wouldn’t have fitted the story as well as this surprise denouement. Whether you feel justice is seen to be done is very much up to the reader’s conscience when you realise exactly what had happened.
Happy ending?Not exactly. There may be happiness ahead for one couple – it depends on the outcome of the trial.
Did the story ring true? A side issue of the fact that this is a complicated plot is that there is one particular element that I consider to be too far-fetched to be possible. So although the background of the story is highly believable, the actual minutiae of some elements of the crime don’t hang together sufficiently for me to believe them.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a clever, inventive story; but slow to start, with an unbelievable element, some very unpleasant racism and a not entirely satisfactory ending. I don’t think I can give it more than 7/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Taken at the Flood 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 Crooked House, which I remember reading on the lawn at school when I was about 12. One of Christie’s shock solutions – I instantly remember the identity of the murderer – so it will be interesting to re-read and see if everything hangs true. 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!
In which Poirot, following an idea planted in his brain by his friend Dr Burton, decides to sniff out and solve twelve cases that mirror the ancient classical labours of Hercules. Each case is written as a short story, preceded by a foreword which explains how Burton gave Poirot the idea.
The book is dedicated “to Edmund Cork of whose labours on behalf of Hercule Poirot I am deeply appreciative this book is affectionately dedicated”. Cork was Christie’s literary agent, “a young man with a slight stammer” as she described him in her autobiography, and someone who became a lifelong friend. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in 1939 and 1940, with the exception of The Capture of Cerberus which was rejected by the magazine and was not published as part of the series. In the US, they were all published between 1939 and 1947 in either This Week magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The collection was first published in the format The Labours of Hercules in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1947 and the UK, by Collins Crime Club, in November of that year.
As with Poirot Investigates and The Listerdale Mystery, even though they’re just bite-sized stories, they still contain many of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies. I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately – and, as usual, don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!
The brief, scene-setting foreword reveals Poirot entertaining his friend Dr Burton, Fellow of All Souls, chatting over a glass of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, relaxing in Poirot’s chromium, modernistic furnishings. Burton quizzes Poirot over his unusual first name – and indeed, recollects that Poirot has a brother, Achille, whom we encountered in The Big Four. Burton takes Poirot to task for never having read the Classics, and while Poirot appears to look forward to a retirement cultivating vegetable marrows (“magnificent vegetables – but they lack flavour”), secretly his curiosity is piqued. So he instructs his trusted secretary Miss Lemon to amass as much information about Hercules as possible. Disappointed to discover that Hercules is, for the most part, an unsophisticated brute, he nevertheless decides to seek out twelve cases to be his retirement swansong – and we await the arrival of the first case.
Although only six pages, this is a very entertainingly written introduction to the rest of the book, with some excellent insights into Poirot’s character, and some vague connections to other books. Long ago, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we read that Poirot was to retire to cultivate vegetable marrows. It looks as though he still hasn’t got around to starting that yet. In Christie’s previous book, The Hollow, we saw Poirot weekending in a country cottage – whilst still presumably having his flat up in town – and the modern description of his urban surroundings still makes it sound as though his country pursuits aren’t really suitable to his personality. We will see in the first story, The Nemean Lion, how Poirot enjoys both the warmth and the design of his “electric radiator”. There’s progress for you.
We also become reacquainted with Miss Lemon, last seen in Parker Pyne Investigates, as a secretary, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Whilst she had appeared in a 1935 short story, How Does Your Garden Grow, that did not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. But more of her in the first of these cases shortly.
A couple of brief references to start with: Burton waxes lyrical with his classical quotation: “by skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens the swift ship buffeted by the winds”. This comes from Book 2 of Homer’s Odyssey. And Poirot refers to the case of Adolphe Durand, a butcher, tried at Lyon in 1895, “a creature of ox-like strength who had killed several children.” Convincing though M. Durand is, I think this is one of Christie’s mischievous inventions.
The Nemean Lion
This first story was originally published in the November 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in September 1944’s edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US, under the title, The Case of the Kidnapped Pekinese. It’s a smart little tale, deftly told, of Pekinese dogs being stolen from posh ladies – or rather from their walkers – whilst in the park, and then a heavy ransom being demanded for their return. Christie, being Christie, can’t resist a few of her usual themes, although the direction she’s taking might not quite be what you would expect.
For instance, and unusually, there’s an element of true socialism – communism almost – in the motive for the crimes and, even more unusually, Christie, speaking through the voice of Poirot, is sympathetic to the cause. Although “justice isn’t seen to be done” in this case, a natural kind of justice does take place. Nevertheless, Christie is complicit in siding with the men in the battle of the sexes that takes place with the use of language in this story. “You can’t expect a woman to behave with any sense” avers Sir Joseph, and Poirot doesn’t contradict him. “I know I’ve only got a woman’s brain” says Miss Carnaby, and she means it. Christie belittles the character of Mrs Samuelson by having her declare “men think of nothing but money”, whilst admiring her own bracelet and rings. Fortunately, Miss Lemon is there to redress the balance. When she suggests the case of the missing Pekinese to Poirot as a suitable case for his attention, he assumes the worst: “Poirot was shaken; shaken and embittered. Miss Lemon, the efficient Miss Lemon, had let him down! […] Words trembled on his lips – witty caustic words […]” But after some thought, and some reflection, he reassesses her behaviour: “as usual, Miss Lemon had been right.”
There’s a very unfortunate note of racism in one scene, when a character remarks how some dogs look like each other: “You see, to most people, one Pekinese is very much like another. (Just as we think the Chinese are.)” Oh, no, Mrs Christie, you don’t want to be thinking that.
There are a few London addresses mentioned: Bloomsbury Road Square, Clonmel Gardens, and Rosholm Mansions; all very believable, but none of them exist in real life. Reference is also made to the village of Kellington in Essex; there is a Kellington, but it’s in Yorkshire. There are also a couple of sums mentioned – £200 and £300, being two of the ransom demands made for the return of the Pekinese dogs. Given that the story was first published in 1939, that would be an equivalent of £9100 or £13,700 today. No wonder Mr Samuelson was annoyed.
There’s also a suggestion of poisoning – although I won’t spoil it for you by elaborating further. A gentle, but intriguing start to the Labours.
The Lernean Hydra
An enjoyable little story, originally published in the December 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in the 3rd September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine in the US, under the title, Invisible Enemy. Rumour has it that Dr Oldfield poisoned his wife, which he strenuously denies, although it’s true that there is a romantic frisson between him and his assistant Jean. It goes without saying that it doesn’t take Poirot long to ferret out the truth of the matter.
The story takes place in the wholly believable but entirely made up town of Market Loughborough in Berkshire. We also discover that the town of Darnington is a bus ride away, and that there’s a Woolworths store there. There’s no such place of course, and, sadly, no more Woolworths stores nowadays.
Christie’s interest in poison comes to the fore in this story with the suspicion that Mrs Oldfield died by arsenic, the symptoms of gastric inflammation and arsenical poisoning being – apparently – similar. The character of Jean appears to know a lot about “vegetable alkaloid” poisons, but then again, she is a medical dispenser, which may also be cause for suspicion.
The real world does cross over into this story, with references to Crippen, Le Neve and Armstrong; Crippen, of course, murdered his wife, Ethel le Neve was his mistress; Herbert Rowse Armstrong was the only solicitor ever to have been hanged in Great Britain, for the murder of his wife.
There’s a minor xenophobic remark, when Poirot is called “an exotic little foreigner” – almost a compliment by Christie’s terms – and the sum of £30,000 is mentioned, being the amount that Mrs Oldfield left her husband in her will. That’s a whopping £1.3m in today’s money.
One unintentionally funny line: When Poirot asks Jean if she intends to marry Oldfield, she says he hasn’t asked her – “because I’ve choked him off”. Urban Dictionary attributes a meaning to that phrase that I’m sure Christie never intended.
The Arcadian Deer
This short and sweet little story was originally published in the January 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 19th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Vanishing Lady. Whilst his car is being repaired, Poirot meets the mechanic, Ted Williamson, and is struck by his handsomeness – a Greek God indeed. Knowing Poirot’s fame, Williamson asks him to trace a lady – she was a maid attending on a Russian ballerina staying at a local house – with whom he had instantly fallen in love. But she didn’t keep their second assignation and appears to have gone to ground.
In a heart-warming mission of mercy, Poirot visits many addresses and questions many possible witnesses, including in London, Switzerland and Pisa. Eventually he comes to the truth of the matter; it’s an open-ended affair, but a rather sweet and poignant denouement. It’s a nicely written short story, with plenty of brief, pithy chapters which help Poirot’s chasing down of Nita to gain pace; and at one stage you think it’s actually going to have a very sad ending, whereas, in fact, the opposite is the case.
I don’t know if Poirot was going through some kind of middle-age sexuality crisis, but he appears to be totally besotted with young Ted. “Here, he thought, was one of the handsomest specimens of humanity he had ever seen, a simple young man with the outward semblance of a Greek god […] the young man plunged eagerly into technical details. Poirot nodded his head gently, but he was not listening. Perfect physique was a thing he admired greatly.” He imagines Ted as a “young shepherd in Arcady” – in other words, Arcadia, the ancient district in the Peloponnese.
Other reference points in the story include the village of Hartly Dene, where Poirot’s Messarro Gratz had given up the ghost; both village and car are inventions of Christie. Nita’s last known address was 17 Upper Renfrew Lane, N15, and the ballerina, Madame Samoushenka, now lives in Vagray les Alpes, in Switzerland. Again, both are completely fictitious; although the dancer says her maid was from Pisa, which of course does exist.
There’s a moment of near-xenophobia when the woman who lives at Upper Renfrew Lane can only remember the dancer’s name as Madame Semolina, and describes her as “real Eyetalian”. And there’s one significant sum mentioned in the book – £5 (or maybe even £10) – that’s the amount that Ted is prepared to pay Poirot for his assistance. I rather doubt that Poirot would stoop so low as to ask for such lowly payment – between £200-£400 at today’s value.
The Erymanthian Boar
This cunning and clever short story was originally published in the February 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 5th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Murder Mountain. Poirot has moved on to the Swiss Alps for a little sightseeing when he is contacted by the local Commissaire of Police to help track down a Parisian gangster, Marrascaud, who has holed himself up in an exclusive and remote mountain resort. There are a few shady characters up there, any one of which could be the criminal at large. By careful deduction Poirot identifies the miscreant who is satisfactorily brought to book.
With a nod to wartime sentiments, the story features a suspicious Jewish doctor who was turfed out of Austria by the Nazis, and there is an American tourist, also with a German name, who might be the target of a wartime reader’s xenophobic concerns. The locations of the story are largely real; Schwartz has visited Paris and has seen all the genuine sights; Poirot has visited Chamonix, Montreux and Aldermatt, all of which exist. As the story takes us higher in the Alps, Poirot travels through Les Avines, Caurouchet and finally Rochers Neiges, where the bulk of the action takes place. These places don’t exist, although there is Rochers-de-Naye, which is almost certainly the inspiration.
Christie refers to the Bertillon photograph of the suspect, which is a term we have heard before in The Murder on the Links; Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. Poirot manages to contact the Swiss Police by using a heliograph – which was something we came across in And Then There Were None; it’s a form of morse code.
There’s one of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: “Schwartz ejaculated: “Marrascaud!””
Nothing much more to be said; a successful little tale that keeps its secret beautifully until the final pages.
The Augean Stables
This story was originally published in the March 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, but there was no US magazine publication until the complete collection was published in 1947. From a really good story to a rather silly one! Poirot is asked for help by none other than the Prime Minister, whose father-in-law, the previous Prime Minister, is about to be revealed as a cheat and a scoundrel by a nasty daily rag. Rumours start about the Prime Minister’s wife, but to what extent are the stories true and who’s manipulating who?
The story starts with a lot of unnecessary and dull detail about the characters which doesn’t really add to our understanding of the situation. There is some talk of the People’s Party, which is clearly an invention of Christie’s, and some unsubtle references to a Herculean task and the Augean Stables, which admittedly is what decides Poirot to take the case but it does come across as very heavy-handed. The repeated phrase “People were talking” introduces some short staccato chapters but it all feels very clumsily written to me.
The village of Little Wimplington, unsurprisingly, doesn’t exist (such a far-fetched name!) and there’s also some latent racism with the use of the phrase, “Dago skunks”.
There’s one financial value mentioned, that of £500, which is the amount paid to Thelma Anderson for her work. That’s the best part of £20,000. No wonder she took the job.
I found this story rather boring, totally predictable and an hour I’ll never get back!
The Stymphalean Birds
Let’s hope for better luck with this one. The Stymphalean Birds (sic, as printed in my copy, although it’s usually spelled Stymphalian) was originally published in the April 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 17th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Vulture Women. Under-secretary of state Harold Waring is holidaying in Herzoslovakia, Christie’s made up all-purpose Eastern European state that represents all things non-English (and, by implication, uncivilised), where he encounters mother and daughter Mrs Rice and Elsie Clayton. Elsie is in an abusive relationship with a dreadful husband and Harold begins to feel the urge to protect her. Clayton bursts in on Elsie and Harold having an innocent conversation but suspects the worst. Elsie throws a paperweight at him – and kills him. Scandal! What will this do to Harold’s career? And all along, two ugly, mean-looking Polish sisters are moping around the resort, eavesdropping and preparing to blackmail Harold and Elsie. But all is not as it seems, and Poirot quickly sorts the wheat from the chaff and the villains are brought to justice.
It’s an enjoyable story despite a) being incredibly far-fetched and b) immured in racism. All the way through the Polish ladies are the source of suspicion and dislike, simply because of their looks, their lack of English, and their general foreign-ness. Anything English is good, anything foreign is bad. When the Polish sisters first arrive on the scene, Harold notes “I may be fanciful, but I distinctly felt that there was something evil about them […]” “We’ll find out from the concierge who they are. Not English, I presume?” “Oh no.” When the characters talk of the corruption of the officials of Herzoslovakia, and the amount that has had to be paid to the police to shut them up, Harold says, “”Thank God our police force isn’t like that”. And in a British and superior mood he went down to lunch.” “This isn’t England”, says Mrs Rice. “We’re not in England, worse luck” says Harold. It’s incredibly xenophobic.
It’s also not very forward-thinking when it comes to sexual equality. “Two women living alone are not the best judges of a man’s character,” avows Mrs Rice, and Harold agrees. But it’s rather delightfully old-fashioned in its belief that a simple scandal like the one that Harold unwittingly finds himself immersed would be enough to put an end to a political career. How times have changed!!
It’s a very moral tale; one that I quite easily saw through, primarily because Christie lays the xenophobia on so heavily that it must be a decoy! Enjoyable, despite everything.
The Cretan Bull
This curious short story was originally published in the May 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 24th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Midnight Madness. Diana Maberly contacts Poirot alarmed that her fiancé Hugh Chandler has broken off their engagement because he is going mad. She’s not convinced of his madness at all, but there are some strange events taking place, like Chandler waking up in the morning covered with blood and overnight someone has attacked and killed livestock, or a cat, and so on. But is there some other evil at large here? Trust Poirot to get to the truth.
Christie seems to have a problem with some of her phraseology here; the phrase “do better to keep his mouth shut” is repeated within a couple of pages and it feels clumsy and poorly thought through. Elsewhere, Poirot is once again impressed by a man’s “magnificent physique” (see The Arcadian Deer above – is he on the turn?) This story doesn’t have much time for the medical profession; Admiral Chandler describes doctors as “humbug merchants” and Poirot himself says “I am not an alienist” (an early term for a psychiatrist). Hugh Chandler mocks Poirot with the quote “Canst thou then minister to a mind diseased?”, which is Macbeth’s plea to the doctor to help his, now insane, wife.
However, Christie the poison expert does come to the fore; Colonel Frobisher mentions a common practice from his Indian days, datura poisoning. Datura is the Latin name for the devil’s trumpet plant, strongly poisonous especially in their seeds and flowers which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, hallucinations, psychosis, and sometimes death. Datura were used to source atropine sulphate which was used for eye treatments. This was fairly specialised knowledge, I suspect!
An interesting story – again, though, brought down by its extremely far-fetched nature. Although you can appreciate the solution, it’s very hard to imagine how this crime worked in practice.
The Horses of Diomedes
The Horses of Diomedes was originally published in the June 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US, much later, in the January 1945 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, under the title The Case of the Drug Peddler. A young friend of Poirot, Dr Michael Stoddart, is concerned about cocaine taking by a group of people including someone with whom he has amorous intentions, Sheila Grant. Is there anything he can do to help? Well, there is actually – and in doing so, he identifies and brings to justice a drugs ring.
“Drugs ruin people”, says Dr Stoddart, “body and soul. Drink’s a gentle little picnic compared to drugs.” Far be it from me to disagree with the wise doctor, but of all the works of Christie that I have read this is probably the one that has dated the worst. The notion today that a case could be brought about someone coercing someone else to take cocaine is almost sweet in its naivete. How times change. Even so, I still found this a most unlikely and unsatisfactory story.
The story is set in fictional Mertonshire, which had previously housed Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, nicely described thus: “it is practically impossible to live in Mertonshire unless you have an income that runs into four figures, and what with income-tax and one thing and another, five figures is better. At today’s rate, £1000 is the equivalent of £39,000; a five figure sum starts at £390,000. I think we understand Christie’s drift. Two other sum comparators in this story are the £10 that the homeless victim accepted as a bribe – that’s (obviously) £390 in today’s equivalent, and the £50, which is the sum that Mrs Larkin encashed for herself at the bank, which today would be just short of £2000.
The site of the wild parties is 17 Conningby Mews, which, of course, doesn’t exist. There’s a reference to the Brighton Trunk Murders; these took place in 1934 and remained unsolved until the culprit, Tony Mancini, confessed in 1976.
I did enjoy a brief passage, where General Grant describes living in the country: “I liked the country when it was the country – not all this motoring and jazz and that blasted, eternal radio.”
But all in all, this is a very poor effort from Christie.
The Girdle of Hyppolita
And this one’s not a lot better! It was originally published in the July 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 10th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Disappearance of Winnie King. The case of a missing schoolgirl and the case of a stolen Rubens come together in this slight, far-fetched, underwhelming and instantly forgettable story. Poirot solves the case, but I can’t help but think he’s boxing below his weight with these tales. It’s unfortunate that he is so attached to his project to complete his own version of the twelve labours of Hercules that it means he has to solve such silly cases, just because they fit in with the title.
The story is written from a very snobbish perspective; with one of the characters referring to “those miserable idiots of unemployed” who had been “pursuing their tactics of lying down on street crossings”. It’s enough to coax the socialist out of anyone! Even Poirot comes out with halfwit statements like “women […] are a miraculous sex” as he considers how ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans.
The schoolgirl Winnie comes from Cranchester, which doesn’t exist, but really sounds like it ought. Miss Pope’s establishment is in Neuilly, which certainly does exist – a western suburb of Paris.
At least we get the chance to meet Inspector Japp again, which adds a touch of life to this otherwise dull tale.
The Flock of Geryon
This short story was originally published in the August 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 26th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Weird Monster. It’s hello again to Miss Carnaby, whom we met in The Nemean Lion earlier in this book. She is concerned that a friend has been subsumed in some kind of religious sect, as she has willed all her possessions to the cult and previous women who have done that have ended up dead. After some negotiations with Inspector Japp, Miss Carnaby infiltrates the cult. Is she in danger? Will its leader, Andersen, be brought to book? Have a guess.
Not really a whodunit but certainly with elements of thriller, this isn’t a bad story by any means. Christie clearly likes Miss Carnaby, and admires her powers of dissimulation; Poirot describes her as “a woman of great courage and determination […] good histrionic powers” and she shows a lot of spirit and wit in her assistance in this case. She also gives us an amusing insight into anything other than pure English Protestantism: “though I do not approve of Roman Catholics, they are at least recognised”; xenophobia through religion, fascinating! I’m surprised that she never returns in any of Christie’s other works.
Christie the Poison Expert becomes Christie the Spliff Expert with her references to Cannabis Indica, hashish and blang, which seems to have gone completely out of the language relating to this meaning; maybe she was on something when she wrote it.
Newton Woodbury sounds a most pleasant little place; it doesn’t exist, but it really should.
The Apples of The Hesperides
This short story was originally published in the September 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 12th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Poison Cup. Poirot is contacted by Emery Power, a rich antiques collector, trying to find a gold goblet that he had won at auction but which was instantly stolen and never returned. Poirot follows up all the leads in the case and eventually his investigations take him to a convent on the west coast of Ireland…
Rather a moral tale this, not bad, not riveting, but definitely hokey. I like how Christie portrays Poirot so out of place in Ireland, wearing his totally inappropriate patent leather shoes, observing that the Romans had never built a decent road; thinking of it as “a land where common sense and an orderly way of life were unknown.” There’s a little bit of latent racism from Inspector Wagstaffe, who refers to the Italian police as the “Macaronis”; he definitely deserves to be referred to as a rostbif.
Power paid £30,000 for the goblet; that’s almost £1.2 million at today’s value. No wonder he’s keen for it to be returned. Other references in the tale are a story called the “Bust of Napoleon”, which appears to be of Christie’s own invention; Hercules Bicycles, which was a successful bicycle manufacturer in the UK, launched in 1910 but sold to Raleigh in 1960, and now defunct (although the brand lives on in India); and a quote from a song: “The Apple Tree, the Singing and the Gold…” which is from Euripides’ Hippolytus. Poirot has a very eclectic musical taste.
A horse called Hercules wins the Boynan Stakes at 60-1. Now that’s a coincidence.
The Capture of Cerberus
This final story was first published in the US in the 16th March 1947 edition of This Week Magazine, seven years after most of the others, under the title Meet Me in Hell. It was rejected by the Strand Magazine – which must have been a bold editorial step on their part – because it was too involved in the politics of its time… read on…
Poirot encounters his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff on the London Underground who invites him to meet her in Hell – which, as the reliable Miss Lemon points out – is a fashionable new nightclub in town. There he meets Vera’s daughter-in-law-to-be, Alice Cunningham, who’s writing a book about criminal psychology, and using the club members as her subject matter. The police, however, know the place as a front for a drugs ring. Can Poirot sort out the good guys from the bad ones, and which side is the Countess on?
This is one of the more entertaining stories in this volume, nicely written and full of lively characterisations. It’s enjoyable for us to watch Poirot become reacquainted with Vera Rossakoff, the only woman he has truly loved. “It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after large and flamboyant women”, maintains Christie, cheekily, in this story. Poirot last saw Vera in The Big Four, although his first encounter with her was in the short story The Double Clue, which we didn’t get to read in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. Christie clearly loves writing about her, revelling in her sultry appearance, over-emphasising her Russian-ness.
So why was it rejected, on political grounds, by The Strand? Not, surely, because of the amusing observation that “nobody minds a Tory politician spending his own money – but when it’s a Labour man the public feel it’s their money he’s spending” – quite a shrewd observation, in fact. No – the original story, which only came to light when Christie’s secret notebooks were first examined a little over ten years ago, was set in Switzerland and involved the assassination of one August Hertzlein, a thinly disguised characterisation of Hitler. Remember this was 1940!
Other interesting observations include Christie’s description of Miss Lemon as “unbelievably ugly”. That’s not very nice, is it? Poirot observes at length the dowdiness of women on the Underground, and their predilection for knitting; times have changed. Corduroy wearers at the nightclub are described as “Bohemian”; and there’s reference to Peverel, the Battersea murderer, but this is not a real-life case.
Poirot spends the grand sum of £11 8/6 on flowers for the Countess; that’s £447 in today’s money. That’s one helluva bouquet.
Is it just me, or is there something outrageously naughty about the Countess’s description of discovering the emeralds? “I feel through the velvet something hard inside. I slip my hand in, I find what I know by touch to be jewels”. Oh, matron!
And that concludes, at length, (sorry about that) all twelve stories in The Labours of Hercules. At times that was fun, at others incredibly stodgy and unrewarding, not to mention laborious; and, overall, I couldn’t score this book more than 6/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.
Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book I remember being serialised on BBC Radio when I was about 16, Taken at the Flood, and I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!
In which devoted doctor John Christow is found dead by the swimming pool, with his wife Gerda holding a gun in her hand. An open and shut case, surely? But as investigations start to take shape, it’s a much murkier affair than first thought. It takes Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian detective, to have the brains to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify the real murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated “for Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene for a murder”. Larry was better known as Francis L Sullivan, an actor who had played Hercule Poirot on the London stage in the plays Black Coffee and Peril at End House, and would go on to appear in Witness for the Prosecution on Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award. He died in 1956. The Hollow was first serialised in the US in a four-part shortened version in Collier’s Weekly in May 1946 under the title The Outraged Heart. There was no serialisation in the UK. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1946, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club. A later paperback edition in the US by Dell Books in 1954 changed the title to Murder after Hours, but the book is primarily known as The Hollow in the US too.
Re-reading this book was rather an odd experience. I found it very slow to start, and I felt little or no interest in any of the characters for several pages until the whole crime element gained traction and the story really got going. Once we’d met Poirot and he was taking an active interest in the crime alongside Inspector Grange, it became unputdownable; before then it had been the reverse! Critical opinion at the time praised this book highly, and it was largely thought to be one of Christie’s best works. However, I think much of it succeeds or fails on how endearing or otherwise you find the character of Lady Angkatell; can anyone be that daft as a brush and remain a functioning individual? Ironically, Christie herself thought she had ruined the book by including Poirot in it; my own feeling is that, on the contrary, he makes it.
Structurally, this book feels at odds with most of Christie’s output to date. It starts, with no explanatory introduction, with a relatively in-depth and confusing conversation between two characters, about whom you know nothing except their names. Christie plunges us straight into the nitty-gritty of these characters, without any background insights. The second chapter again confuses us with the account of Henrietta Savernake making a sculpture of Doris Saunders; again with no explanation as to who these characters are and why this should be happening. Knowing that Christie rarely wastes words, it’s unclear why she spent so much effort on explaining the creative process behind sculpting; and, even when you’ve finished the book, it still strikes me as unnecessary padding. True, there is an element of bookending the story – starting with an artistic creative process and ending with a complementary process, which you may consider makes a satisfying whole. But the final moments of the book are also rather weird, ending, in my humble opinion, with more than a whimper than a bang.
This is our first catch-up with Hercule Poirot for four years (he was last seen in 1943’s Five Little Pigs). Four years on, he’s even older (naturally) and more withdrawn from work than he was before. He has now retired to the country – for weekends at least – living at Resthaven, a neatly symmetrical little place that satisfies his need for order, with just a Belgian gardener, Victor, and his wife/cook, Françoise. You sense that Poirot decided on this move against his better judgement. There’s nothing in the English countryside, with its great variety of wildness, discomfort and lack of sophistication, that’s going to make him happy. He’d be much better off in a warm apartment in London, with all its distractions and people to stimulate his little grey cells.
Nevertheless, he is delighted to receive the lunch invitation to the Angkatells because he is, as he says, “un peu snob”; he walks the long way round to their front door rather than cutting through the back shortcut because of his sense of formality and because he is a “stickler for etiquette”. The snob in Poirot is very easily flattered – even though he indeed recognises it for what it is. Consider the reasons why Henrietta comes to him, rather than Inspector Grange, to discuss the case. “”Well, M. Poirot, what does one do? Go to Inspector Grange and say – what does one say to a moustache like that? It’s such a domestic, family moustache.” Poirot’s hand crawled upwards to his own proudly borne adornment. “Whereas mine, Mademoiselle?” “Your moustache, M. Poirot, is an artistic triumph. It has no associations with anything but itself. It is, I am sure, unique.” “Absolutely.” “And it is probably the reason why I am talking to you as I am.””
It’s during this conversation with Henrietta that Poirot discusses the kind of clues that he is interested in – always a good insight into his modus operandi. Poirot speaks first: “”That is one of Inspector Grange’s men. He seems to be looking for something.” “Clues, I suppose. Don’t policemen look for clues? Cigarette ash, footprints, burnt matches.” Her voice held a kind of bitter mockery. Poirot answered seriously. “Yes, they look for these things – and sometimes they find them. But the real clues, Miss Savernake, in a case like this, usually lie in the personal relationships of the people concerned.” “I don’t think I understand you.” “Little things,” said Poirot, his head thrown back, his eyes half-closed. “Not cigarette ash, or a rubber heel mark – but a gesture, a look, an unexpected action…” And with that he verbally pounces on Henrietta with a challenging and difficult question.
As mentioned earlier, in this book we meet Inspector Grange, a stalwart from the Wealdshire Police Force, “a large, heavily built man, with a down-drooping, pessimistic moustache”. He speaks, “without excitement, just with knowledge and quiet pessimism”. He doesn’t have time for his Chief Constable, whom he believes to be a “fussy despot”. Grange is efficient, well-meaning, courteous to Poirot, calm and (for a Christie policeman) relatively wise. His film heroine is Hedy Lamarr. Christie completely side-steps Grange when it comes to the denouement and the official police have no part in the story after the Coroner issues his verdict.
One aspect of the case that really perplexes Poirot is how he suspects that he has been presented with a staged scene. Invited to the Angkatells, the first thing he sees after Gudgeon the butler has shown him through to the swimming pool pavilion is a frozen tableau. Indeed, he thinks the Angkatells are teasing him, presenting him with an artificial murder game for him to pretend-investigate, as it were. Poirot’s little grey cells are not to be mocked so lightly. “By the side of the pool was the body, artistically arranged with an outflung arm and even some red paint dripping gently over the edge of the concrete into the pool […] Standing over the body, revolver in hand, was a woman, a short powerfully-built middle-aged woman with a curiously blank expression […] On the far side of the pool was a tall young woman […] she had a basket in her hand full of dahlia heads. A little farther off was a man […] carrying a gun. And immediately on his left, with a basket of eggs in her hand, was his hostess, Lady Angkatell […] It was all very mathematical and artificial […] Really, the whole thing was very stupid – not spirituel at all! […] And suddenly, with a terrific shock, Hercule Poirot realised that this artificially-set scene had a point of reality. For what he was looking down at was, if not a dead, at least a dying man.” Poirot’s continued suspicion throughout the book that he was looking at an artificial scene, even though it’s known that a real murder took place, partly makes one suspect a Murder on the Orient Express type solution. I’ll say no more on that topic.
As usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The route from London to The Hollow goes via Shovel Down, which sounds more like gardening terminology than a place name. Shovel Down does exist – it’s an area of Dartmoor with some standing stones and other Bronze Age monuments. If Wealdshire (which obviously doesn’t exist) is meant to represent Cornwall, then I guess it’s possible that this is where Christie intends us to think. However, the journey that John Christow proposes, from Albert Bridge, to Clapham Common, Crystal Palace, Croydon, Purley Way, (all of which are real) then Metherly Hill and Haverston Ridge (both of which aren’t), doesn’t seem to take us towards Devon. Market Depleach, convincing though it sounds, is an invention of Christie’s, and as for the much mentioned and longed-for Ainswick, that too isn’t real, although there is of course a Painswick in Gloucestershire. And, of course, John’s and Veronica’s memories take them back to their romance in San Miguel, which could be anywhere. The most significant San Miguel is in the Philippines; again, Christie probably chose it because it’s a good name.
And now some other references, that I didn’t recognise so thought I should check. When we first meet Henrietta she’s sculpting the head of Nausicaa. In Homer’s Odyssey, she is the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia. Amongst other things, Nausicaa was the first person in literature to be described playing with a ball. Who knew? Dr Christow devotes his time to finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease; that, in itself, does not exist by that name, but commentators associate Christie’s description of it with Multiple Sclerosis. Henrietta also reflects on Peer Gynt, referring to the Button Moulder’s ladle. He’s a character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who threatens to melt Peer’s soul unless he gives him a list of his sins. All very dark and complex.
There are a couple of cars that were new to me; Henrietta drives a Delage, which was a classic, luxury French car – the Delage company ceased operation in 1953. And the police trail Henrietta in a Ventnor 10, but I’m blowed if I can find any information about that model. Can you help? When playing cards Lady Angkatell suggests a round of Animal Grab. This was an early 20th century card game like snap, but you had to make the sound of the animal who’s card you laid down. For example, if you laid a dog card you had to say “bow-wow”. It must have been… hilarious. Veronica Cray is said to have appeared in the film Lady Rides on Tiger. No such film exists, however, its title comes from an old Chinese proverb which says, he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. No prizes for understanding why.
One of the reasons Grange doesn’t like his Chief Constable is because he considers him to be a tuft-hunter. I’ve never heard that expression before, but it means a snob, someone who seeks association with persons of title or high social status. So now you know.
Christie must have been reading her poetry anthologies when she wrote this book because there are a couple of allusions to poems. Henrietta quotes to Poirot: “The days passed slowly one by one. I fed the ducks, reproved my wife, played Handel’s Largo on the fife, and took the dog a run.” It’s from Harry Graham’s poem, Creature Comforts. He was a popular writer of comic verse in the early part of the 20th century, a kind of Edwardian Pam Ayres. Poirot himself quotes the much better known “I hate the dreadful Hollow behind the little wood”, which not only gives the book its title but is also from Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855. As for The Clue of the Dripping Fountain, a gripping read that John Christow had been devouring, alas there is no trace. But what a sensational book it must be.
I’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book, the very precise amount of £342, which is the cost of a certain engagement ring that a character buys for another – I won’t tell you who, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. That’s around £10,000 in today’s value, so he must have thought a lot of her.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Hollow:
Publication Details: 1946. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in May 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams clearly shows the gun that’s sitting in the basket of eggs, that features in the story. No confusion there.
How many pages until the first death: 64. That’s a reasonably long wait, and I must say the book gets much more interesting once there is a murder to investigate.
Funny lines out of context: None that I could see, sadly.
Christie is on better form with her characters in this book, with the decidedly batty Lady Angkatell leading the field; a woman whose conversations are a list of non-sequiturs, and who, Poirot realises, has a dangerous ability to make people remember things in a different way because of her bizarre spin on facts. Funny or irritating, you decide, but she’s definitely memorable. I also liked the description of Gerda’s hopelessness; her inability to carve a joint of meat or to drive properly, simply because she’s always under the watchful eye of her husband. I think we all know someone like that. Henrietta’s a cool customer, maybe a little too perfectly drawn to be properly memorable; and I also enjoyed David’s quiet Socialist condemnation of everyone around him.
Christie the Poison expert:
She’s both a poison expert and a general chemistry expert in this book, with John and Gerda’s son Terence keen to construct a nitro-glycerine bomb with his pal Nicholson Minor, and a deadly, unspecified substance that laces a cup of tea and turns the victim’s lips blue – so probably cyanide.
Class/social issues of the time:
A couple of Christie’s favourite themes crop up just once or twice in this book; and one another theme makes a few unwelcome appearances. First, class. There’s an early scene where John Christow, contemplating his treatment of Mrs Crabtree, is surprised to learn that she wants to fight her disease. “She was on his side, she wanted to live – though God knew why, considering the slum she lived in, with a husband who drank and a brood of unruly children, and she herself obliged to work day in day out, scrubbing endless floors of endless offices. Hard unremitting drudgery and few pleasures! […] It wasn’t the circumstances of life they enjoyed, it was life itself – the zest of existence. Curious – a thing one couldn’t explain.” With those words Christow reveals himself to be a patronising, unempathetic snob, disgusted by the lives of the working class.
There’s also another example of Christie’s inability to understand mental illness, with Lady Angkatell’s account of why they read the News of the World. “”We pretend we get it for the servants, but Gudgeon is very understanding and never takes it out until after tea. It is a most interesting paper, all about women who put their heads in gas ovens – an incredible number of them!” “What will they do in the houses of the future which are all electric?” asked Edward Angkatell with a faint smile. “I suppose they will just have to decide to make the best of things – so much more sensible.”” It’s a thoroughly unpleasant exchange, laughing at people considering suicide.
The other recurrent theme is that of xenophobia/racism. There are mild elements of it in Inspector Grange’s belief that “foreigners […] don’t know how to make tea” and the reason Miss Cray admits she didn’t call on Poirot the first time: “I just thought he was some little foreigner and I thought, you know, he might become a bore.” When Lady Angkatell is denying that she set up the death scene, she avows – picking a race out of the blue to patronise – “one can’t ask someone to be your guest and then arrange accidents. Even Arabs are most particular about hospitality.”
There’s a whole lot more unpleasant exchange about Madame Alfrege, Midge’s boss at the upmarket shop. Not only does Christie give Madame Alfrege an outrageous speech defect, she also indulges in some anti-Semitism: “Midge set her chin resolutely and picked up the receiver. It was all just as unpleasant as he had imagined it would be. The raucous voice of the vitriolic little Jewess came angrily over the wires. “What wath that, Mith Hardcathle? A death? A funeral? Do you not know very well I am short-handed? Do you think I am going to stand for these excutheth? Oh, yeth, you are having a good time, I dare thay!”” And so the conversation continues. Later, Midge describes Madame Alfrege as “a Whitechapel Jewess with dyed hair and a voice like a corncrake”.
There’s also some very unfortunate use of the N word. Mrs Crabtree, her words carefully chosen by Christie to emphasise her working class accent and language, describes what it was like to have her hair permed: “It wasn’t ‘alf a difficult business then. Looked like a n*****, I did. Couldn’t get a comb through it.” But also titled people used that word; Lady Angkatell says she hoped her cook, Mrs Medway, “would make a really rich N***** in his Shirt […] chocolate, you know, and eggs – and then covered with whipped cream. Just the sort of sweet a foreigner would like for lunch.” This wasn’t an accepted name for a dessert at the time, but purely an invention of Christie’s. All I can say is, hmmm. Sir Henry describes the problems that Lady Angkatell can cause with her foot-in-mouth language: “she’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table, and run riot over the colour question!” I bet she has. It was about this time that Christie’s American readers began to disapprove of this latent racism in her books; I believe her American publisher’s simple solution to this problem was to remove these references from her new books without her knowledge. Seems wise to me.
Classic denouement: Not classic, but unusual; Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and as a result, the unfolding of the details of the crime all takes place in retrospect, and justice isn’t seen to be done.
Happy ending? Although there is a wedding ahead, there’s also an intense air of gloom, with one character’s life doomed to die through illness, and another unable to come to terms with everything that’s happened. So, no, not happy at all.
Did the story ring true? One of the strengths of this book is that although the plot is unlikely – naturally – it does ring true, and you can completely understand how the characters would act in the way that they did.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s clever, it’s believable, and once it gets going it’s very exciting. However, it is dull to start, and the latent racism is unpleasant. Structurally, it also feels strangely anti-climactic. So, after much reflection, I’m giving it 7/10. If you think that’s harsh, I do understand your concern.
Thanks for reading my blog of The Hollow 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 Labours of Hercules, twelve short stories which were expected to be Hercule Poirot’s swansong – but of course, that didn’t happen! I can’t remember any of the stories, so this should be a lot of fun. 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!
In which Hercule Poirot is asked to consider a case that took place sixteen years earlier, where Caroline Crale was found guilty of the murder of her husband Amyas. But her daughter is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to reassure her fiancé of that fact. So Poirot exercises his little grey cells and examines the evidence and memories of the five little pigs, who would be the only other people who could have murdered Crale, and proves that you can solve a murder just by thinking. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated “To Stephen Glanville”. He was a friend of Agatha and Max, and, at the time, was Professor of Egyptology at University College London. During the Second World War, he and Max were both in the RAF together. It was Stephen Glanville who challenged Christie to write a detective story set in ancient Egypt – this would result in Death Comes as the End, which would be published in 1945. After the war Glanville became Provost of King’s College Cambridge, and he died in 1956 at the age of 56. Five Little Pigs was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in ten parts between September and November 1941, under the title Murder in Retrospect. The full book was first published in the US in May 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in January 1943. So there was over a year between its first appearance in magazine form in the US and in book form in the UK.
My main memory of this book is buying it at a jumble sale when I was about ten! When I came to re-reading it recently, I remembered the structural premise – that it consists of five people giving their evidence in retrospect, but I couldn’t remember if that meant it was a little repetitive, or if the unusual structure kept the interest going. I was pretty sure I remembered whodunit – and I was right, which is always slightly disappointing on a re-read. It is an enjoyable book, but I did feel it was a bit of a bind hearing the story told at least five times from the five different suspects. I see that the critic in the Times Literary Supplement proclaimed: “No crime enthusiast will object that the story of how the painter died has to be told many times, for this, even if it creates an interest which is more problem than plot, demonstrates the author’s uncanny skill. The answer to the riddle is brilliant.” Sadly, I can’t agree. Not that the answer to the riddle is brilliant – there’s no doubt about that, it’s inventive and clever and the facts had been staring us all in the face for ages, but we ignore them. But I did find the repetitive nature of the story meant it was a bit of a slog to work my way through. Interestingly, that wasn’t the case in Murder on the Orient Express, where you also have Poirot questioning a series of people about a death, in a similarly structured manner. Maybe Five Little Pigs lacks glamour! To be honest, I also don’t think aligning the story so closely to the nursery rhyme of the five little pigs adds much to the intrigue; it feels rather forced.
As the story was variously published between 1941 and 1943, sixteen years earlier – which is when the crime was committed and much of the action is set – takes us back to somewhere between 1925 and 1927. In those days, Poirot was investigating the Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and coming to terms with the ridiculous The Big Four. That seems a long time ago, even in this little Agatha Christie project! I think a major stumbling block with taking this book seriously is how extraordinarily well everyone remembers the minutest detail from sixteen years ago. I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to recollect details from 2002 I’d be absolutely stumped.
It’s been a year or so since we’ve caught up with Poirot, so how is he getting on? “I am old, am I not? Older than you imagined?” he asks Carla Lemarchant on the first page of the book. Nevertheless, he hasn’t lost any of his pride. “”Rest assured”, said Hercule Poirot. “I am the best”.” More than ever now, Poirot understands his trump card, which is his foreignness: “Hercule Poirot shrugged his shoulders. He was at his most foreign today. He was out to be despised but patronised.” And a few paragraphs later, Christie would confirm that his intended effect was working perfectly on Philip Blake: “”Actually, I am a detective.” The modesty of this remark had probably not been equalled before in Poirot’s conversation. “Of course you are. We all know that. The famous Hercule Poirot!” But his tone held a subtly mocking note. Intrinsically, Philip Blake was too much of an Englishman to take the pretensions of a foreigner seriously. To his cronies he would have said: “Quaint little mountebank. Oh well, I expect his stuff goes down with women all right.””
What do the other suspects think of him? “Meredith Blake received Poirot in a state of some perplexity […] here was the man himself. Really a most impossible person – the wrong clothes – button boots! – an incredible moustache! Not his – Meredith Blake’s – kind of fellow at all. Didn’t look as though he’d ever hunted or shot – or even played a decent game. A foreigner. Slightly amused, Hercule Poirot read accurately these thoughts passing through the other’s head.” Miss Williams bristles at some of Poirot’s questioning techniques: “”You mean that they were more like lovers than like husband and wife?” Miss Williams, with a slight frown of distaste for foreign phraseology, said: “You could certainly put it that way”.”
But what about the real Poirot, are there any new insights into his character? We already know from previous cases that Poirot likes to understand the psychology of any case. Here, he can meet the five suspects, but he never had the chance to meet either Amyas or Caroline Crale. He specifically needs to know about them to get to the bottom of this mystery. “”Have you ever reflected, Mr Blake, that the reason for murder is nearly always to be found by a study of the person murdered?” “I hadn’t exactly – yes, I suppose I see what you mean.” Poirot said: “Until you know exactly what sort of a person the victim was, you cannot begin to see the circumstances of a crime clearly.””
Another aspect of Poirot that I don’t think has been pointed out this obviously in Christie’s texts so far, is Poirot’s penchant for not telling the truth. “Clear, incisive and insistent, the voice of Miss Williams repeated its demand. “You want my recollections of the Crale case? May I ask why?” It had been said of Hercule Poirot by some of his friends and associates, at moments when he has maddened them most, that he prefers lies to truth and will go out of his way to gain his ends by means of elaborate false statement, rather than trust to the simple truth. But in this case his decision was quickly made […] Miss Williams had what every successful child educator must have, that mysterious quality – authority! […] So in this case Hercule Poirot proffered no specious explanation of a book to be written on bygone crimes. Instead he narrated simply the circumstances in which Carla Lemarchant had sought him out.”
This is quite a solitary case for Poirot; of course, he meets a number of people during his investigation – not only the suspects, and Miss Lemarchant, but also all the solicitors and police officers involved in the original case. But he has no Hastings or other confidant with whom to discuss his findings. As a result, we don’t really see the little grey cells at work at the time – just the reporting of his suspicions and discoveries as a done deal. He comes up with a brilliant explanation, but – if this was the equivalent of a maths exam – we never get to see his workings out, which is a little disappointing.
Regular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. There aren’t many places named in this book – Philip Blake lives at St. George’s Hill, Meredith and the Crales at Alderbury, and Miss Williams at Gillespie Buildings. St George’s Hill is the name of a private estate in Weybridge, which would be very appropriate for the stockbroker Philip Blake. Alderbury is the name of a village in Wiltshire, near Salisbury. I can’t find any trace of a Gillespie Buildings in London, but Lady Dittisham lives in Brook Street, which has featured in Christie’s books before as a desirable area of London, and Angela Warren lives in Regent’s Park. So this book contains many more “real” locations than most of Christie’s books!
Let’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. I was intrigued that Christie called the Prosecution counsel Quentin Fogg; I wondered if she was thinking of Quintin Hogg when she named him? The former Lord Hailsham, around the time that this book was written, was MP for Oxford, so would definitely have had a public profile. Amyas Crale’s mother is described as “an admirer of Kingsley. That’s why she called her son Amyas.” The Kingsley in question would be Charles Kingsley, priest, university professor, social reformer, historian and novelist – he wrote Westward Ho! in 1855, a story about a young man named Amyas Leigh who follows Francis Drake to sea.
Caleb Jonathan, the Crale’s family solicitor, becomes all maudlin and delivers a lengthy quote that starts “If that thy bent of love be honourable” and ends with “follow thee my lord throughout the world”. That’s the bit of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet agrees to marry Romeo, if his intentions are honourable. He clearly equates Elsa to Juliet. Angela Warren also has a penchant for quotations; in her narrative that she sends to Poirot she recalls walking along the kitchen garden path saying to herself “under the glassy green translucent wave”. That’s Milton, from Comus. She’s very well read.
Meredith Blake is friends with Lady Mary Lytton-Gore. I was sure I recognised that name from somewhere. I did. She was in Three Act Tragedy; she’s Egg’s mother. I wonder if Egg’s found herself a husband yet. Blake also tells Poirot that he read out to the assembled guests the passage from the Phaedo describing Socrates’ death. That’s because Socrates also used coniine to kill himself.
Lady Dittisham’s house in Brook Street is decorated with Darwin tulips in the window boxes. According to a gardening site I visited, Darwin tulips are “A very tough tulip type that withstands locations that are not ideal. A perennial favourite mix that’s durable and tough and has the perfect old-fashioned appearance. Planted extensively in parks and communities throughout Europe for centuries.” So now you know.
Miss Williams describes Angela Warren as hoydenish. It’s a very old-fashioned word. My OED defines it – of course – as behaving like a hoyden. And a hoyden is “a noisy, rude or boisterous girl or woman” late 17th century, Old Dutch. I guess today we’d think of her as being a tomboy.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Five Little Pigs:
Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in July 1968. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a model brass cannon, on some pavement tiles, together with a ball of wool or string and a pipette. To be honest, I’m clueless as to the relevance of nearly all that.
How many pages until the first death: Not a straightforward question in this book, as no one dies during the “present” aspects of the story, only in the past. However, we discover that Amyas Crale had been murdered, and that Caroline Crale had died the following year, on the second page of the book. Funny lines out of context: None that I could see.
Probably the best drawn characters, and most intriguing people are the late Amyas and Caroline, who seem to have had a very weird relationship from time to time. From the living, I think really only Miss Williams stands out as a strong character, with her no-nonsense bossy governess outlook. I’m not sure the other characters have that much personality between them.
Christie the Poison expert:
Amyas was killed by coniine poisoning; this, as Christie points out, is from the spotted hemlock, and apparently ingesting less than a tenth of a gram of coniine can be fatal for an adult human. Superintendent Hale specifically describes the poison as coniine hydrobromide, as opposed to coniine hydrochloride, but I don’t think we need worry about that too much.
Class/social issues of the time:
Christie doesn’t get too carried away with many of her pet hates in this book, but almost all of them receive a cursory nod from time to time. There’s normally a hint of xenophobia somewhere; she’s already allowed Poirot to act up as foreign as he can, in order to wheedle information out of the suspects. I thought a very nice observation – and to my eyes, absolute nonsense – comes with Meredith Blake’s pejorative comment about foreigners that they “will shake hands at breakfast…” Some people will just get offended at anything!
Christie’s always been uncomfortable with the notion of divorce, no doubt in part due to her own experiences with her first husband Archie. But there’s an interesting observation about the differences between the way divorce was looked at in the 20s, when the Crale story took place, and in the 40s, when Poirot is investigating. Meredith Blake is explaining to Poirot that Amyas, as a married man with a child, ought to have taken his marriage more seriously: ““Amyas had a wife and child – he ought to have stuck to them.” “But Miss Greer thought that point of view out of date?” “Yes. Mind you, sixteen years ago, divorce wasn’t looked on quite so much as a matter of course as it is now.””
Christie has also expressed mixed views about feminism and women’s place in society. Miss Williams, of course, has her own opinion of relationships; how women ought to behave and – good grief – even entertaining the hideous thought of men. Of the Crales, she tells Poirot: “They were a devoted couple. But he, of course, was a man.” Miss Williams contrived to put into that last word a wholly Victorian significance. “Men –“ said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says “Bolsheviks” – as an earnest Communist says “Captialists!” – as a good housewife says “Blackbeetles” – so did Miss Williams say “Men!” From her spinster’s governess’s life, there rose up a blast of fierce feminism. Nobody hearing her speak could doubt that to Miss Williams Men were the Enemy! Poirot said: “You hold no brief for men?” She answered drily: “Men have the best of this world. I hope that it will not always be so.”
Christie allows Poirot a big presumption of misogyny when he deduces that the suggestion that Amyas Crale should pack Elsa’s case is all wrong. “Why should Amyas Crale pack for the girl? It is absurd, that! There was Mrs Crale, there was Miss Williams, there was a housemaid. It is a woman’s job to pack – not a man’s.” Not many shades of grey in that opinion.
I think there’s always been a tendency to view artists with suspicion – the disliked Mr Ellsworthy in Murder is Easy is considered “arty”, and here again, there are plenty of opportunities to deride the lifestyle and skill of Amyas Crale. “Never have understood anything about art myself” confesses Philip Blake. And being an artist becomes an excuse for all sorts of strange behaviours. From Meredith Blake: “If ever there were extenuating circumstances, there were in this case. Amyas Crale was an old friend […] but one has to admit that his conduct was, frankly, outrageous. He was an artist, of course, and presumably that explains it. But there it is – he allowed a most extraordinary set of affairs to arise. The position was one that no ordinary decent man could have contemplated for a moment […] the whole point is that Amyas never was an ordinary man! He was a painter, you see, and with him painting came first […] I don’t understand these so-called artistic people myself – never have.”
There’s one lovely line that is packed with all Christie’s fond awareness of class distinction – here’s Meredith talking about Elsa: “I’ve never seen such grief and such frenzied hate. All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see that her father and her father’s mother and father had been millhands. Deprived of her lover, she was just elemental woman.”
Classic denouement: Not far off. All the suspects are gathered, slowly Poirot sums up the evidence, then he allows you to think that X is the murderer, and then he twists it round so that it’s Y. The only thing it lacks is a conclusive ending; the murderer refuses to confess and walks freely away, because there’s no active criminal investigation taking place. We assume that Poirot is going to inform the authorities – he says he will – but we’ve no idea what their reaction will be and what, if any, action will be taken against the presumably guilty party.
Happy ending?No indication one way or the other. One guesses that Carla Lemarchant satisfies her fiancé of the innocence of her mother, so that they can live happily ever after. But this is a book with both feet firmly in the past, and there’s no real interest in what’s going to happen in the future.
Did the story ring true? Yes, in all respects bar one. It’s very believable, not only the manner in which the murder took place, and the motivation, but also in the reasoning why Caroline Crale did not defend herself against the accusation of murder. The only thing I can’t quite accept is the brilliant memory recall of everyone involved!
Overall satisfaction rating: Very clever plotting, an unusual structure, and a good ending. On the other hand, it’s very repetitive. So I think that balances out as an 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Five Little Pigs 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 Moving Finger, and the welcome return of Miss Marple to work out who’s been sending poison pen letters around the village of Lymstock. 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!
In which Hercule Poirot is enjoying a quiet holiday in a discreet island off the coast of Devon, when one of his fellow holidaymakers is found strangled on a beach. Naturally the local police ask Poirot to assist – and just before they call in Scotland Yard his little grey cells come to the rescue. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated to “John in memory of our last season in Syria.” This was John Rose, who befriended Agatha and her husband Max at an archaeological dig at Ur, in 1928. She would also dedicate her later book, A Caribbean Mystery, to him. Evil Under the Sun was first serialised in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from December 1940 to February 1941. The full book was first published in the UK in June 1941 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US in October the same year. The title is a quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 6, Verses 1-2: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men. A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.” My guess is that the observation is that the character of Arlena has everything that money could buy, but is she happy?
I could only remember a few hints of the story as I was re-reading this book, which meant that the denouement at the end came as a thoroughly enjoyable surprise. I have fond memories of the film; primarily because it had such a brilliant soundtrack of songs by Cole Porter, and the soundtrack album was perfect fodder for whenever you needed a little nostalgic easy listening. The film, however, did take many liberties with the book, and I couldn’t recommend it if you are a Christie purist.
This is a very enjoyable book but it has a few downsides for me. A few of the characters are deliberately dull and boring people, incessantly jabbering on about nothing in particular (like Mrs Gardener) or constantly referring back to India of old (Major Barry). And the trouble with reading conversations of police-style investigations with these people is that it becomes a boring read. Every time Mrs Gardener started yet again droning on about nothing in particular, my attention wandered. I have a sense it was meant to be funny; no, it’s just boring.
One is also used to a reasonable amount of sexism in a Christie book; she was never going to be the type to burn her bra, for example, but this book has such an extraordinarily sexist ending that I gasped out loud. I can’t really go into detail too much without giving the game away but, believe me, it really takes the biscuit. It actually ruined (for me, at least) what was otherwise a really exciting conclusion to the book.
Where Evil Under the Sun truly excels is introducing us to the world of early 20th century British seaside holidays. In the first chapter, when explaining how the Jolly Roger hotel came into being, Christie refers to the “great cult of the Seaside for Holidays” when “the coast of Devon and Cornwall was no longer thought too hot in the summer”. Christie paints a lively picture of this quaint, exclusive resort, with its well-to-do holidaymakers who bathe before breakfast (by which she means go for a dip in the sea, not get washed) and discover secluded coves for sketching and sunbathing. Proprietress Mrs Castle is as refined as you can get, with Christie conveying her over-the-top strangulated vowel sounds and ridiculously upper-middle-class language. The one thing that unites all the tourists staying at the hotel is that they are monied; they may not have taste, or class, but they’ve got the wherewithal.
With this, her third Poirot book on the run, Christie really mastered her thriller-writer-style; longer chapters broken up by shorter, numbered scenes, each of which contained one vital piece of information. That could be an introduction to a character; an account of a detective/police interview with one particular suspect; the discovery of one individual clue, or even one significant observation. This style helps keep you reading; you know the next chapter section is only going to be brief, so there’s always time for just one more chapter – and before you know it, you’re almost at the end. It builds the pace and the suspense very nicely, and Christie even provides the reader with a map of the island, which may, or may not, aid our amateur sleuthing.
Poirot is once again on excellent form; persistent, unscrupulous, meddling, devious, even cruel – but always in the search for the truth. We first see Poirot disapproving of what he considers the impersonal and deplorable modern practice of lying out in the sun “in rows. What are they? They are not men and women. There is nothing personal about them. They are just – bodies! […] What appeal is there? What mystery? I, I am old, of the old school. When I was young, one saw barely the ankle. The glimpse of a foamy petticoat, how alluring! The gentle swelling of the calf – a knee – a beribboned garter…” Steady Poirot, you’ll have us breaking out in a sweat.
He is, as he says, old. Blatt says of him, “I thought he was dead…Dash it, he ought to be dead.” Rosamund remarks to Kenneth Marshall that “he’s pretty old. Probably more or less ga ga”. Blatt thinks that Devon would be a hostile environment to the poor old chap, “a man like you would be at Deauville or Le Touquet, or down at Juan les Pins”, and Poirot concedes that in wet weather those resorts would be more welcoming. Christie herself passes comment on one aspect of Poirot’s appearance and personality: “Poirot, in his turn, extracted his cigarette case and lit one of those tiny cigarettes which it was his affectation to smoke.” Affectation – interesting choice of word. Poirot is always concerned about how he looks to the outside world, whether it be a mark on his shoe, or a fleck of dust on a suit, or something not being entirely symmetrical.
He’s clearly missing his old pal, Hastings, although, as we discover in a nice little aside, Christie confirms that Poirot updates him on all his escapades sometime in the future. But Poirot always needs someone off whom to bounce an idea or two. In One, Two, Buckle my Shoe it was George, his manservant. In this latest case, Poirot enjoys a good working relationship with both Chief Constable Colonel Weston, with whom he worked in Peril at End House, and on a day-to-day basis with Inspector Colgate. When we first meet them, Christie normally describes her police officers with a few bleak adjectives, but we’re left to make our own mind up about Colgate. He seems dogged but polite, very deferential towards both Weston and Poirot; he speaks “soothingly” to witnesses, and is perfectly happy to sit quietly and listen to everything everyone else says before offering a comment. He’s clearly one who employs his own little grey cells; and this wins Poirot’s trust and friendship. A long way into the case, Christie tells us: “To Hercule Poirot, sitting on the ledge overlooking the sea, came Inspector Colgate. Poirot liked Inspector Colgate. He liked his rugged face, his shrewd eyes, and his slow unhurried manner.” And that’s as near as Poirot gets to finding a replacement for Hastings in this book.
Poirot shows his lack of scruples by listening in to private conversations; he doesn’t absent himself when Christine and Patrick Redfern are talking about Patrick’s infatuation with Arlena (even Hastings disapproves). He doesn’t flinch from brutally confronting 16-year-old Linda Marshall with a visceral description of her stepmother’s death, the inappropriateness of which shocked even the Chief Constable.
Poirot gives us an insight into why he questions brutally and relentlessly – and the reason why Poirot admonishes Kenneth Marshall through frustration with the responses he is getting: “there is no such thing as a plain fact of murder. Murder springs, nine times out of ten, out of the character and circumstances of the murdered person. Because the victim was the kind of person he or she was, therefore was he or she murdered! Until we can understand fully and completely exactly what kind of person Arlena Marshall was, we shall not be able to see clearly the kind of person who murdered her.” It’s always the character analysis that most interests Poirot and, of course, that makes it more interesting for the reader.
There’s a further insight into Poirot’s methodology when Mrs Gardener asks him to explain how he goes about solving a crime, whilst she’s wrestling with a jigsaw puzzle. “It is a little like your puzzle, Madame. One assembles the pieces. It is like a mosaic – many colours and patterns – and every strange-shaped little piece must be fitted into its own place. […] And sometimes it is like that piece of your puzzle just now. One arranges very methodically the pieces of the puzzle – one sorts the colours – and then perhaps a piece of one colour that should fit in with – say, the fur rug, fits instead in a black cat’s tail. […] Almost every one here in this hotel has given me a piece for my puzzle. You amongst them.” And when Mrs Gardener is thrilled to find out what she has said to influence his thoughts, he refuses with the ironically amusing response: “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.”
As if to make life easier for the reader, Christie lists for us, as she is recounting Poirot’s thoughts, all the clues (for want of a better word) that he accumulates during the course of the investigation, as a challenge to see if we can crack the case before he does: “Gabrielle No 8. A pair of scissors. A broken pipe stem. A bottle thrown from a window. A green calendar. A packet of candles. A mirror and a typewriter. A skein of magenta wool. A girl’s wrist-watch. Bathwater rushing down the waste-pipe. Each of these unrelated facts must fit into its appointed place. There must be no loose ends.” This is the jigsaw puzzle relating to Evil Under the Sun.
Regular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. We know from the start that Leathercombe Bay, where the island is located, is in the West Country; although this isn’t firmly stated; it’s an assumption we make after she has already mentioned Devon and Cornwall. There is no such place of course; but, like And Then There Were None, it was based on Burgh Island just by Bigbury-on-Sea. Mr Lane goes for a country walk to Harford; there is a village of that name in the Dartmoor National Park but it would be an awfully long round walk – a good 15 miles each way. Shipley, Sheepstor and Tintagel are mentioned – these are real places; however, St Petrock-in-the-Combe is made up, although there are many churches and roads in the area with St Petroc (no “k”) in the title. Whiteridge, Mr Lane’s Surrey address, doesn’t exist; and although Rosamund’s business address of 622 Brook Street, London, sounds convincing, the numbers in this Mayfair street don’t go anywhere near that high.
The hotel register lists the addresses of its guests: The Cowans live at Rydal’s Mount, Leatherhead (Leatherhead is real, of course, and Rydal Mount is a house in the Lake District, the home of William Wordsworth, but the two don’t go together). The Mastermans live in Marlborough Avenue, London, NW (there is a Marlborough Avenue in London but it’s in Hackney). The Redferns live at Crossgates, Seldon, Princes Risborough (there’s no such village near Princes Risborough). Major Barry lives in Cardon Street, St James, London (no such street). Rosamund Darnley lives in Cardigan Court, W1 (it doesn’t exist). Emily Brewster lives at Southgates, in Sunbury on Thames (I can’t trace a Southgates there) and the Marshalls live in Upcott Mansions London SW7 (no such place). Poirot’s own address of Whitehaven Mansions London W1 is also a Christie fabrication. Shame.
Let’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. Do you know what a duck suit is? I didn’t. Our first sight of Poirot is “resplendent in a white duck suit”. It’s nothing to do with ducks. Duck is a heavy, plain woven cotton fabric. The name comes from the Dutch doek, meaning linen canvas. I guessed what was meant by the term “earth closet” (the Gardeners describe the facilities in a guesthouse on the moors in that way) and it is of course the opposite of a water closet.
Arlena Marshall was in a revue called Come and Go – that’s another of Christie’s inventions. However, there’s nothing fictional about the characters of Mussolini or Princess Elizabeth (now the Queen) mentioned by Rosamund Darnley when discussing her childhood game of If not yourself, who would you be. Nor are A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers or Mary Augusta Ward’s The Marriage of William Ashe, and the many other distinguished tomes that appear on Linda Marshall’s bookshelves.
Mrs Gardener wants to make a visit to the “convict prison” at Princetown. That’s what we now call HM Dartmoor Prison, built in 1809. And, talking of convicts, the Wallace to whom Colgate refers when reflecting on the cool reaction from Marshall to the fact that his wife has been murdered, was William Herbert Wallace of Anfield, Liverpool, who was found guilty of the murder of his wife but then later had the conviction quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. Whilst reflecting on the facts of the case, Colonel Weston concludes that the murderer is “some monomaniac who happened to be in the neighbourhood”. Monomania was the term used to describe a partial insanity, conceived as single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind. The term fell from favour in the mid-19th century, so Weston’s use of it approximately a hundred years later is very archaic.
If you know your Bible (and I confess I am a little weak on parts of it) then you probably know about Aholibah. Reverend Lane compares Arlena to Jezebel and Aholibah in his insistence that she was evil. If you check Ezekiel Chapter 23 you’ll find that Aholibah is from Jerusalem and lusts after Egyptian men whose genitals resemble donkeys’ and whose emission is like that of horses. Funnily enough that passage was excised from my Children’s Bible! And what about Gabrielle No 8 perfume? Gabrielle was the real name of Coco Chanel, whose No 5 was taking the world by storm. I think we can see what Christie was getting up to here.
Christie also makes a few references to her own books. We’ve already seen that Colonel Weston originally appeared in Peril at End House, which in this book he refers to as “that affair at St. Loo”. Mr and Mrs Gardener are friends with Cornelia Robson who appeared in Death on the Nile. There are also some similarities with the plot of Triangle at Rhodes, which forms part of the Murder in the Mews collection. I’ll say no more, lest I give the game away.
I’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount left to Arlena in the will of her old friend Sir Robert Erskine, and which is still assumed to be untouched in her bank accounts. Colgate concludes that Arlena was a rich woman. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.7 million. So, yes, fairly wealthy and worth murdering for!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Evil Under the Sun:
Publication Details: 1941. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in November 1967. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a voodoo doll of a woman in a bikini, surrounded by shells and seaweed, with pins stuck in her body. That certainly captures one aspect of the story, at least. There’s also some magenta wool, which refers us back to Poirot’s list of clue anomalies that has to be explained before the truth is revealed.
How many pages until the first death: 49. That gives us plenty of time to examine the situation and anticipate a crime before anything actually happens. Maybe if the crime were to have been discovered just a little earlier the book might have felt more punchy?
Funny lines out of context: Perhaps not an accidentally funny line out of context but I loved this early observation from Mrs Gardener, together with Christie’s own icy reaction:
“”These girls that lie out like that in the sun will grow hair on their legs and arms. I’ve said so to Irene – that’s my daughter, M. Poirot. Irene, I said to her, if you lie out like that in the sun, you’ll have hair all over you, hair on your arms and hair on your legs and hair on your bosom, and what will you look like then? I said to her. DIdn’t I, Odell?” “Yes, darling,” said Mr Gardener. Every one was silent, perhaps making a mental picture of Irene when the worst had happened.”
Effective use of language: “Mr Lane was a tall vigorous clergyman of fifty odd. His face was tanned and his dark grey flannel trousers were holidayfied and disreputable.”
“The Reverend Stephen Lane drew in his breath with a little hiss and his figure stiffened.”
Arlena Marshall is an enigma; someone who is so beautiful, so charismatic, but yet so thoroughly empty and self-centred at the same time. Kenneth Marshall is also an enigma; his completely passionless response to the murder is hard to comprehend, even if he didn’t like her very much. Emily Brewster, with her gruff voice and her athletic prowess is, I guess, an early attempt by Christie to portray a very manly woman. Mrs Castle’s over-refined speech patterns and voice are quite amusing. But, despite these minor fascinations, as is often the case, the characters don’t stand out in the same way that the story itself does.
Christie the Poison expert:
Kenneth Marshall’s first wife was acquitted of the murder of her husband, who “was proved to have been an arsenic eater”. That’s the only reference to poison I can find. However, an intricate sub-plot in this story involves dealing in heroin, or Diamorphine Hydrochloride, as Dr Neasdon carefully explains. Interestingly, Christie talks of drugs like heroin in terms of their chemical compounds, in the same clinical way in which she views poison.
Class/social issues of the time:
This book is very unusual for its almost complete lack of typical Christie-like observations on class and social issues. Because everyone staying at the Jolly Roger is wealthy, the only working-class character in the book is Gladys the chambermaid, but it’s a very small part. True, Christie condescends a little towards Horace Blatt, who, although rich, has neither taste nor the awareness of personal boundaries of the upper middle-class.
There’s only one area of contention in this book – and that’s Christie’s innate sexism when it comes to equal opportunities for men and women. Rosamund Darnley is depicted as a successful businesswoman; unmarried through choice, although Poirot pussyfoots around the subject with: “Mademoiselle, if you are not married, it is because none of my sex have been sufficiently eloquent.” Poirot, perhaps surprisingly, approves of the way she has carved out her own independent living: “to marry and have children, that is the common lot of women. Only one woman in a hundred – more, in a thousand, can make for herself a name and a position as you have done.” That’s why the appallingly sexist ending – you’ll have to read it for yourself – stands out like the sorest thumb in A&E.
Classic denouement: Yes! This is one of those occasions where the majority of the suspects are gathered around to hear what Poirot has concluded, although it’s actually even more exciting as you don’t realise the denouement is taking place until it’s thoroughly progressed; it sneaks up on you as you actually think you’re there to find out something else. It even has one of those extremely satisfying moments when the accused party loses the plot and goes to attack Poirot.
Happy ending? In a sense. A couple are clearly going to get it together and live happily ever after. However, the terms on which this happens are pretty repulsive from today’s perspective.
Did the story ring true? It’s all very convoluted and highly unlikely; but I can imagine how, with chutzpah and some lucky breaks, the crime was committed. Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a very good read, and the crime is very satisfactory, from the reader’s point of view. But as I said earlier, some of the characters are rather boring, and that ending is a killer (and not in a good sense.) So I don’t think I can go higher than 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Evil Under the Sun 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 N or M?, and we leave Hercule Poirot behind to catch up with what Tommy and Tuppence are doing to help the war effort. 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!
In which Hercule Poirot unwillingly attends an appointment at the dentists, only to find out that a murder takes place at the dental surgery later on the same day. Inspector Japp invites him in to help discover what really happened, and soon Poirot is immersed in a web of political intrigue and activists – but is it a crime of passion or of politics? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated to “Dorothy North who likes detective stories and cream, in the hope it may make up to her for the absence of the latter.” Dorothy North, daughter-in-law to the 12th Baron North, was a close member of Christie’s London social circle in the 1930s. North’s daughter, Susan and Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, were best friends in their 20s, and in fact it was Dorothy who presented the eighteen-year-old Rosalind at Court; as Christie was had been divorced, she was not entitled to have the honour herself. And presumably you couldn’t get your hands on cream during the war.
One, Two, Buckle my Shoe was first serialised in the US in Colliers’ Weekly in August and September 1940, under the title The Patriotic Murders. Interestingly, and unusually, it does not appear to have been previously serialised in the UK. The full book was first published in the UK in November 1940 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1941, still as The Patriotic Murders. A later American edition in 1953 republished the book under the title An Overdose of Death. But I understand that today it is usually known as One, Two, Buckle my Shoe in the US as well.
When I started to re-read this book, I instantly remembered the dental surgery scene and that a murder would be committed there. However, I had completely forgotten by whom, and what the whole story was about, so it was very enjoyable to get re-acquainted with it. It’s an enjoyable book, but a highly complex crime, and it takes a lot of concentration for the reader to really get to grips with what’s going on, and not just rely on Poirot to do the work for you. It’s definitely a book of its time, with a number of references and influences relating to the political turmoil at the beginning of the Second World War. The original American title, The Patriotic Murders, both helps and hinders the reader with the motive for the crimes committed within its covers.
Just like And then there were none, A Pocket Full of Rye, Five Little Pigs and Hickory Dickory Dock, Christie named this book after a nursery rhyme. But it’s in this book that the association with the rhyme is tied in most strongly, as the ten chapters are named after the various lines of the rhyme. However, I’m not entirely satisfied that the association works that well. The significance of the shoe buckle in the first part of the rhyme is strong and immediate, but from then on, the rhyme gets progressively weaker and more irrelevant in its association. In fact the denouement – perhaps the most important part of the book – comes in the chapter Seventeen, Eighteen, Maids in Waiting which title has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever!
Have you noticed how the plots of many of Christie’s books run over quite a short time scale? Frequently it’s only a matter of days that elapse between the beginning of the story and the denouement. One, Two, Buckle my Shoe isn’t like that. I’ve worked out that it takes a good eight weeks, maybe more, between Poirot’s dentist’s appointment and the solution to the crime. Given the complexity of the story, that’s probably not an unreasonable length of time for it all to be sorted out.
Christie doesn’t adopt one simple narration style in this book. Whilst most of it is in the 3rd person narrative, a few passages are written purely as conversations, almost as though they are lines from a play written in prose format. That gives greater emphasis on the information offered in those passages, and less on the characters involved; and also makes the account feel livelier and up-to-date. By contrast, Poirot’s talk with Mrs Adams isn’t expressed as a conversation but as a reported account. This has a different effect, distancing us from it, increasing a sense of irony and detachment.
Without giving the game away, a major stumbling block in Poirot’s contemplations over this case is to what extent this is a “private” crime or a “public” crime; in other words a crime motivated by the usual personal reasons like money, greed, love, revenge and so on, or a crime motivated by a desire for political purposes, the right ideology, backing the correct political party, eradicating activists who work against the cause of the party. As a result, the story almost relocates itself half-way through, away from the dentists and the London addresses of all those who were present there on that day, to the private home and offices of the rich banker Alistair Blunt, reflecting the relocation of suspicion away from a domestic situation and towards international affairs. But is that a clever ruse on Christie’s part to blind us from the real motive for the crime, or is it simply natural plot development? You can clearly see how the book is very carefully plotted and structured – in addition to its artificially being tied to the various elements of the nursery rhyme.
It’s taken a while, but regular Christie readers would have at last rejoiced in a book that brought Poirot back to his usual, meddling, opinionated best. But on our first encounter with him, we have the upper hand. He is terrified of the dentist, and cuts a tragic, if not cowardly figure as he clutches at straws hoping the appointment will be cancelled. It’s a very funny, and recognisable scene, if you too are not completely relaxed when you visit the dentist, right down to the observation that he didn’t find the jokes in Punch funny (who did?) “There are certain humiliating moments in the lives of the greatest of men. It has been said that no man is a hero to his valet. To that may be added that few men are heroes to themselves at the moment of visiting their dentist.” Poirot’s “morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair.” Of course, once he’s reached that nadir, the only way is up. Poirot’s natural vanity is beautifully expressed when Morley, the dentist in question, talks about the important Mr Blunt in one respect and “you and me” in another: “A momentary resentment rose in Poirot at this off-hand coupling of names. Mr Morley was a good dentist, yes, but there were other good dentists in London. There was only one Hercule Poirot.”
Do we get any new insights into Poirot in this book? Perhaps. Certainly, his outer appearance gets many a mention, raising the usual Christie spectre of xenophobia, with Miss Sainsbury Seale calling him “a very peculiar looking foreigner”, Mrs Adams says he is a “quaint little foreigner” and Frank Carter swears he is a “ruddy little foreigner”. Not enormously inventive invective there. Jane Oliveira has a very low opinion of him, cornering Poirot with this outburst: “You’re a spy, that’s what you are! A miserable, low, snooping spy, nosing around and making trouble!” It’s not often that Poirot is confronted like that.
Mind you, Poirot is not above having a low opinion of others, even those of comparable social standing. Whilst he’s waiting, petrified, in the dentist’s waiting room, he observes Colonel Abercrombie eyeing him back. Abercrombie shares the usual distrust of foreigners: “he looked at Poirot with an air of one considering some noxious insect”. Poirot, in response, says to himself: “In verity, there are some Englishmen who are altogether so unpleasing and ridiculous that they should have been put out of their misery at birth.” In truth, Poirot finds many aspects of England depressing; from the lack of chic amongst the girls in Regent’s Park, to the national obsession with its favourite beverage. Consider his thoughts when Gladys Nevill comes to call, and Poirot suggests having a cup of tea. “”Well, really, M. Poirot, that’s very kind of you. Not that it’s so very long since breakfast, but one can always do with a cup of tea, can’t one?” Poirot who could always do without one, assented mendaciously.”
We do get a reminder of Poirot’s love interest; memories of the Countess Vera Rossakoff come flooding back whilst he’s watching the young ladies in Regent’s Park; the Countess primarily featured in The Big Four but also in the short story The Double Clue which we won’t get around to reading until we reach Poirot’s Early Cases published in 1974. We also meet Poirot’s manservant George again; in the absence of Hastings, George provides Poirot a board to bounce ideas off, without the professional tension of always needing to be correct in front of Japp. However, in this case, George’s only insight is that Poirot will need to find a new dentist.
Two other points directly relating to Poirot in this book; firstly, his age. When he is completely baffled by the “contradictory and impossible problem of Miss Sainsbury Seale”, Poirot asks himself, “with astonishment in the thought: “Is it possible that I am growing old?”” Well, yes, Monsieur Poirot, it is. Poirot’s age is always a matter of some blurring; but if we go back to his first outing, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it is noted that he and Japp first worked together on the Abercrombie Forgery Case in 1904. That is stated as a fact. But by the time he is working on the Styles case, he is retired. Let’s say he retired at the age of 65 in 1916 – that would make him 89 at the time of One, Two, Buckle my Shoe. Of course, Poirot never ages; not until his final case, Curtain, anyway. But yes, one must always think of Poirot as in that indistinct age bracket between, say, 65 and 85.
Another absolute fact about Poirot: for the first time, he reveals his telephone number! Whitehall 7272 – conveniently similar to Scotland Yard’s Whitehall 1212! The WHI of the exchange converted to the numbers 944, so today that number would be 0207 944 7272. Google searches don’t come up with anything interesting for that number, sadly. It would be great to ring it, only to hear a “funny little foreigner” say “Allo?”
Regular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see if they’re genuine, made up, or a blur between the two. Much of this book is set in various locations around London, but they are largely fictitious. Amberiotis is living at the Savoy, which is of course real; Japp has been investigating fraud in Wigmore Street (real – but there’s no Lavenhams in Wigmore Street); Chelsea Embankment is real but there’s no Gothic House; Morley’s dental surgery is in Queen Charlotte Street (fictional – but there is a Charlotte Street in Mayfair). All the other London locations are made up. Outside London, Blunt lives in Exsham – completely made up; but the interview with Agnes takes place in a tea shop in Hertford (I bet there’s at least one), and Poirot admires a garden which makes him recollect other orderly gardens in Ostend, which also definitely exists! So, as usual; a mix of the real and not-so-real.
On two occasions, mention is made of “unrest in India” in the previous year – and there is an attempt on the life of the Prime Minister in this book by an Indian national. Certainly it was a time of uncertainty in India – with British action in the Second World War having a knock on effect on the government of India, and with Gandhi mobilising the crowds and many internal local governments resigning. In other references, Morley mentions Hitler and Mussolini, and King Leopold of Belgium, all of whom would have been at the forefront of the news. When they are looking for Miss Sainsbury Seale, Japp asks Poirot, “I suppose you’re hinting that she’s been murdered now and that we’ll find her in a quarry, cut up in little pieces like Mrs Ruxton?” This refers to the real-life case of the Bodies Under the Bridge, the murder of Isabella Ruxton and her housemaid Mary Jane Rogerson, by Buck Ruxton in 1935; one of the most significant murder enquiries of the 20th century, and a landmark in the use of forensic techniques.
Alfred’s book, Death at 11.45, however, is pure fiction; and the reference to “a thriller by a lady novelist” is very tongue-in-cheek, as the theory Poirot is propounding at the time, the drowning of a woman in the Thames, with weights attached to her body, thrown in to the river from a cellar in Limehouse, is precisely what happens in The Big Four; the second reference to that book in this. Quite apart from those references, I was frequently reminded of The Big Four whilst reading this book, with the constant suggestions that there are organised gangs out there committing crime on a worldwide stage.
Japp is not convinced by many of these more outlandish ideas about what might have happened to the missing woman – all my eye and Betty Martin, he says. What? And how come I’ve never heard of that phrase before? It means – as you’ve probably guessed – total and complete nonsense. But where on earth did it come from? Apparently it was first used in 1781 – but is very rare nowadays. There are a few other weird and wonderful expressions in this book: “Mistletoe bough up-to-date!” exclaims Japp at one point. “Na Poo!” he says at another. Again, these are quite beyond me. The first refers to the Legend of the Mistletoe Bough, where a new bride played hide and seek by hiding herself in a chest, but she was unable to escape and died there. The latter is a military slang meaning all finished or dead – probably a corruption of the French “il n′y a plus”.
Japp also says to himself, when he’s thoroughly confused by the crime, “Shades of Phillips Oppenheim, Valentine Williams and William le Queux, I think I’m going mad!” Those three gentlemen were all successful thriller writers in the early part of the 20th century – but where are their fans nowadays? And Christie can’t resist but to promote another of her stories, hidden amongst the lines of this book; Japp comments: ““Who’s the Home Secretary’s little pet? You are. Who’s got half the Cabinet in his pocket? You have. Hushing up their scandals for them.” Poirot’s mind flew for a moment to that case that he had named the Case of the Augean Stables. He murmured, not without complacence: “It was ingenious, yes? You must admit it.”” The Case of the Augean Stables features in the book The Labours of Hercules, which would be published seven years later in 1947, but it had been published in the Strand magazine in March 1940.
You’ll know, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There aren’t many high value sums mentioned in this book, but just for completeness… Morley leaves Gladys £100 in his will – which is the equivalent of no more than £4000. You can therefore extrapolate that the £10 a week that Frank says he’s earning in his new job is no more than £400 today. The £2 15/- that Blunt pays his new gardener is only £108 a week today (that’s not very generous). But the £4000 a year that Barnes believes would be paid to anyone keeping Blunt safe and working on behalf of the good of the country would equate to over £150,000 a year today. Nice work if you can get it.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for One, Two Buckle my Shoe:
Publication Details: 1940. Fontana paperback, 5th impression, published in December 1968. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a hand (unquestionably a man’s hand, with all those Hobbit-like hairs) pointing a pistol through a tear in a print of the One, Two Buckle my Shoe rhyme. Slightly fanciful, not entirely true to the story, but an intriguing design which will definitely have brought about some sales simply on the strength of the picture!
How many pages until the first death: 14. Nice. No hanging about and waiting for stuff to happen.
Funny lines out of context: Two great examples, involving that favourite old word of Christie’s that has undergone some semantic change over the past fifty years.
“There was a fierce thump on the door. Alfred’s face then appeared round it. His goggling eyes took in each detail of the two visitors as he ejaculated”
“As they went down the stairs again to No. 42, Japp ejaculated with feeling”
As in her previous book, Sad Cypress, no one really stands out. I enjoyed how Jane Oliveira stands up to Poirot and tells him what for, and she has no trouble justifying her general rudeness: “I’m rich and I’m moderately good-looking, and I’ve got a lot of influential friends – and none of those unfortunate disabilities they talk about so freely in the advertisements nowadays. I can get along all right without manners”. You wouldn’t want to meet her though. Apart from her, Morley, the dentist, who is despatched early on, amuses us in the first scene with his breakfast grumpiness. It’s a very well written chapter.
Christie the Poison expert:
No poisons as such, but overdoses of medicine. Two people are killed in this way. One with a combination of adrenaline, which is a hormone, and novocaine, which is a drug, also known as procaine. The other is killed with Medinal, which is a long-acting barbiturate that depresses most metabolic processes at high doses. It is used as a hypnotic and sedative; so basically, the victim was, literally, put to sleep.
Class/social issues of the time:
There’s a smattering of all the usual -isms found in Christie’s work of the time. Miss Morley offers us a little anti-Irish sentiment; when asked how her brother got on with Mr Reilly, she replies: “as well as you can ever hope to get on with an Irishman! […] Irishmen have hot tempers and they thoroughly enjoy a row of any kind.” Mr. Blunt’s wife is described as “a very notorious Jewess” – which is unacceptable language today whether you think of it in terms of race or religion. There’s even an unfortunate instance of the N word, when Frank is describing how hard Morley made Gladys work. In modern editions, the phrase in question has been changed to “worked like a dog”.
There’s also a little clash of the classes, as is often the case. When Christie relates anything that the character of Alfred says, she phrases and spells it in what you might call Condescending Cockney: “I can tell you orl right, […] it was orl just as usual, […] if I’d knowed a Mr Morley had done himself in […] oo-er-he wasn’t murdered, was he? […] Cor, I never thought of that”. Rather like happens in Sad Cypress, there’s also an observation that excess education can be a bad thing. Here’s Japp explaining some of the police investigations: “We didn’t really think it would lead to anything. You’ve no idea of how many of these false alarms we’ve had. However, I sent Sergeant Beddoes along – he’s a bright young fellow. A bit too much of this high-class education but he can’t help that. It’s fashionable now.”
But perhaps the most interesting theme of the time – and it’s unsurprising considering it’s 1940 – is the predominance of politics. Japp only gets involved in this case because Alastair Blunt is involved. “Blunt is the kind of person we take care of in this country” says Japp. “You mean that there are people who would like him – out of the way?” asks Poirot. “You bet there are”, he replies. “The Reds, to begin with – and our Blackshirted friends too.”
It was a time of great social and political division. Indeed, a number of the characters in the book may be seen as an embodiment of their “brand” of politics. One hand you have the American Howard Raikes, whom Poirot labels as an “idealist” but in Christie’s eyes is simply a leftie. Consider his attitude to threats made against the banker, Blunt’s, life. “You can’t save him, you know. He’s got to go – and everything he stands for! There’s got to be a new deal – the old corrupt system of finance has got to go – this cursed net of bankers all over the world like a spider’s web […] I’ve nothing against Blunt personally – but he’s the type of man I hate. He’s mediocre – he’s smug […] He’s an obstruction in the way of Progress and he’s got to be removed […] There’s got to be a new world.” On the other hand, you have Frank Carter, a fascist, “he’s one of those Imperial Shirts, you know – they march with banners and have a ridiculous salute” says Gladys. Politically, he’s not so well drawn, just a stock character from the Imperial Fascist League, presumably; but as a character, he is: “he was an unpleasant young bully of the kind that appeals to women.”
And in between you have Mr Barnes, a respectable retired Home Office man, “conservative to the backbone” who considers people like Raikes, “long-haired, earnest-eyed and full of ideals of a better world […] furtive little rats with beards and foreign accents” as enemies of the people. And Blunt himself, three times described as “stodgy”, think of these activists as “long-haired woolly idealists without one practical bit of knowledge in their heads.”
Classic denouement: Not really a classic, but nevertheless very effective; it takes the simple form of a private discussion between Poirot and the guilty party, after which two men come in (presumably police officers) and we know no more. There is however, a really smart little secret that doesn’t get revealed right until the very last page; it has no bearing on the case as such, but it does nicely tie up a very loose end. Although another loose end – that of the telegram that sends Gladys away – is never really addressed.
Happy ending? Just as I said in my Sad Cypress blog, “Probably, but it’s not a dead cert. And definitely not within the confines of the book, but maybe sometime in the future.”
Did the story ring true? Just about – but the plot is very convoluted and has many coincidences and huge complexity. So if it does ring true, it manages it by a thread.
Overall satisfaction rating: In many ways it’s a cracking yarn; very pacey, full of surprises and a tough one for the little grey cells. However, for some reason, it’s not particularly memorable. So I’m going for an 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of One, Two, Buckle my Shoe 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 Evil Under the Sun, yet another escapade with Hercule Poirot, as he grapples with death in an island off the coast of Devon. Aspects of And Then There Were None, perhaps? 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!
In which Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard, and honestly – I haven’t given the game away, you discover that fact in the first sentence of the book! All the evidence is stacked up against her, but is Hercule Poirot convinced? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated to Peter and Peggy McLeod, doctors who ran the hospital in Mosul, in present day Iraq, when Agatha and her husband were there on archaeological digs. They became friends and kept in touch when the McLeods returned to England and settled on the east coast. Christie was godmother to their daughter Crystal. At the time the book was published, the McLeods were under a lot of stress as their children were being evacuated due to the war, and I think the dedication was Christie’s gift of friendship during this difficult time. Sad Cypress was first serialised in the UK in the Daily Express in March and April 1940; and in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from November 1939 to January 1940. The full book was first published in the UK in March 1940 by Collins Crime Club (interestingly, before the Express serialisation had finished) and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later that year.
First things first: the title comes from a passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But how do you pronounce it?! Sigh-press? Sea-press? Sigh-prus? Sea-prus? I’ve done some research online and everyone seems to think that it should be pronounced the same way as the country. So Sighprus it is. Then why do I always instinctively call it Seapress? I’m annoyed at myself for doing it! My Arden Shakespeare tells me that the phrase means a coffin of cypress wood, by the way.
This book is structured very differently from most of Christie’s works. There’s a prologue, where we see Elinor in court, being asked whether she pleads guilty or not guilty to the murder of Mary Gerrard. Then we go back in time, and see the lead up to Mary’s death; the introduction of Poirot into the story and his additional investigations; and then finally back to the court to see the witnesses being cross-examined and to see Elinor in the witness box. It has a much more theatrical feel than most of her other books; we know right from the very start that Mary is going to die so there’s considerable use of dramatic irony as we see her make her fateful plans and live her daily life. And there’s always a buzz from a courtroom sequence, which certainly sets this book apart from most.
As the opening conversations between Elinor and Roddy develop, you feel this is more like a romantic novel than a thriller – and I must say after about thirty or so pages I was getting thoroughly fed up with this book. But it’s definitely worth sticking with it! You sometimes sense that Christie is trying her hand at different styles of writing, to see if they work. Part One, Chapter Six is purely epistolary in style, which cleverly moves the narrative forward without having to give a lot of background information to slow it down.
As the book progresses, and it reverts to its detective genre, it sneakily introduces ideas to put us off the scent. The thought that Elinor could take the opportunity to murder is carefully dripfed to us in a very theatrical way; and the awkward, stilted conversation between Elinor and Mary shortly before her death is almost painfully believable.
It’s a welcome back to Hercule Poirot after a brief absence of a couple of years, but to be fair we don’t see Poirot at his absolute best. He’s there purely to act as a detective, but we get to see very little of his character. He’s not particularly meddlesome, or vain, or dandyish; we don’t get any extra insights into what makes those little grey cells tick. I think this is largely because he is deprived of a confidant; Hastings has been off the scene for ages, and there is neither Japp, nor Race, nor even Battle with whom he can chew the sleuthing cud. He has a slightly different relationship with Dr Lord than with everyone else in the book because it is Dr Lord who has engaged him to look at the case; but Poirot can hardly take that as an invitation to share all his suspicions with him. No, Poirot is definitely flying solo in this book and it shows it.
He does have one brilliant moment of invention though; when he suspects that everyone he talks to is holding something back, he pretends that he knows what it is, and that draws out the truth. In conversation with Nurse O’Brien: “”You and Nurse Hopkins, you have agreed together, have you not, that there are some things which are best not brought out into the light of day.” Nurse O’Brien said: “What would you be meaning by that?” Poirot said quickly: “Nothing to do with the crime – or crimes. I mean – the other matter.” Nurse O’Brien said, nodding her head: “What would be the use of raking up mud and an old story, and she a decent elderly woman, with never a breath of scandal about her, and dying respected and looked up to by everybody.”” Before that, Poirot had no clue what “the other matter” might be.
Regular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see if they’re genuine, made up, or a blur between the two. They’re a curious mix in this book: Dr Lord refers to a diphtheria epidemic in Stamford, which of course is a fine old Lincolnshire town with a population of approximately 20,000. Poirot ingratiates himself with the xenophobic Mrs Bishop with talk of a recent visit to Sandringham, which along with some fawning comments about the Royal Family, does the trick. Edward John Marshall, who is called to give evidence in court, gives his address as 14 Wren Street, Deptford; and even if the street doesn’t exist, the London suburb certainly does.
However, the majority of the story is centred on Hunterbury House at Maidensford, neither of which exist; Ted Bigland saw Clark Gable (who definitely did exist, and would have been 39 at the time of publication) at the pictures in Alledore, which doesn’t exist. Dr Lord was in Withenbury on the day of the murder (which doesn’t exist); nor does Boonamba, the fictional part of Auckland where Amelia Sedley lives. The expert gardener, Alfred Wargrave, lives at Emsworth, which is a real town near Portsmouth; in the book, however, it’s in Berkshire, near Maidensford. Maybe this suggests that Maidensford is based on Maidenhead?
Some other references that I thought I’d look into… Nurse Hopkins suggests Mary Gerrard should try to qualify in massage or in Norland. I’d not heard of that before, but apparently it is a college in Bath that specialises in training for childcare roles. Dr Lord mentions the Little Ease in conversation with Mrs Welman about having the will to live. That, if you didn’t know, was the torture cell in the dungeon of the White Tower at the Tower of London. When Roddy watches Mary run, with a sigh he murmurs “Atalanta…” and that’s the second time Christie has invoked this Greek myth to describe an energetically beautiful woman – the first time was in The Murder on the Links, so I’ve explained the Atalanta myth in that blog post.
I’d never heard the word stertorously before – yet in this book it appears twice. Just in case it’s new to you too, it’s a mid-19th century word meaning “like a snore”. Nurse Hopkins refers to seeing the film The Good Earth – commenting that women in China have a lot to put up with. Like the place names, it’s not often that Christie uses genuine film or book titles, but “The Good Earth” was a 1937 film based on Pearl S Buck’s 1931 book of the same name. It was nominated for five Oscars. She also refers to Mary as not “one of these girls who are all S. A. and IT.” That’s sex appeal (gasp!) and being an It girl – which is a reference that stretches back to a Clara Bow film of 1927, would you believe.
Poirot quotes melodramatically from Wordsworth when he is in conversation with Roddy: “But she is in her grave, and oh, the difference to me!” This comes from his poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author. In another historical allusion, Elinor compares herself to her namesake, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, who offered a choice of a dagger or a bowl of poison to her rival in his love, Fair Rosamund. It’s not an unreasonable comparison.
In another, cheekier, literary reference, Dr Lord is recommended to Poirot by Dr John Stillingfleet, who said Poirot had done great work in the case of Benedict Farley. The majority of Christie’s readers at the time would not have had a clue what he was referring to, unless they had read the short story The Dream which had appeared in The Strand magazine in February 1938, and in the book The Regatta Mystery which had been published in 1939 but only in the USA. Most of her British readers would have had to wait until the story’s appearance in the 1960 collection, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.
A couple of other things to mention: Dr Lord drives a Ford Ten; they were built between 1934 and 1937, and were a fairly standard sort of car to have – nothing too flashy. And the rose growing up the trellis at the Lodge was a Zephyrine Drouhin; first cultivated in 1868 and still readily available today. And yes, the type of rose is indeed relevant to the story.
You’ll know, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are a few such sums mentioned in this book. Elinor proposes to make a gift of £2,000 to Mary from the estate of her mother. That’s approximately £78,000 in today’s money. No wonder she was staggered with the generosity. The other amounts to be paid were £500 to Mrs Bishop, £100 to the cook, £50 to the maids, and £5 to anyone else. That’s £19,500, £4,000, £2,000 and £200 at today’s rate. Major Somervell offers £12,500 to buy Hunterbury – and Elinor is strongly recommended to accept the offer. That’s just short of £500,000 at today’s money. Seems a bargain. And how much did Elinor stand to gain from Mrs Welman’s death, according to Nurse O’Brien? £200,000. Today that would be £7.8 million. Probably worth murdering for.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sad Cypress: Publication Details: 1940. Fontana paperback, 25th impression, published in November 1989, priced £3.25. The cover illustration shows some half-eaten sandwiches, some roses, a framed sepia photograph and a few iffy looking tablets. All the clues are there!
How many pages until the first death: Depends on your definition! We know that Mary Gerrard has died on Page 1. However, as the story unfolds in retrospect, the first death comes on page 46. These more modern print Fontana paperbacks had a larger font and generally used more pages than the 60s/70s editions; so comparisons (should you wish to do such a thing!) are unreliable.
Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly none that I could identify.
None in particular. The important characters are somewhat one-dimensional and it’s hard to get much of an impression of most of them. However, we do see inside Elinor’s mind quite a bit, especially when she’s in court, so we may have a greater understanding of her than most of the others. Roddy is a weed, taking every opportunity to step away from trouble or emotion whilst profusely thanking Elinor for her thoughtfulness. Dr Lord’s description of him is helpfully apt: “a long-nosed supercilious ass with a face like a melancholy horse”. No love lost there, then.
Christie the Poison expert:
This is a book fairly dripping with poison, as that is not only its chosen murder method but also poison frequently pops up in other ways. When Elinor buys the fish paste she remarks to the grocer that there have been many cases of ptomaine poisoning from the product – and the grocer is horrified to think that he would be selling such a thing. In this context, Christie is describing what today we would simply describe as food poisoning; but it can still be lethal.
The charge against Elinor is that of poisoning Mary with morphine hydrochloride – again, today, more commonly known simply as morphine. The deceased had taken four grains of morphine, according to the distinguished analyst Dr Alan Garcia. Apparently, that’s the equivalent to more than a grain of heroin. There’s also a substance I’d never heard of called apomorphine, used here to mitigate against the effects of morphine, but a little research shows it has a very wide range of clinical uses, including treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and fighting addiction to smoking and alcohol. The police surgeon in court suggests that the morphine used might have been “foudroyante” – violent, in French – but my researches also suggest that, as a technical term at least, this might be a bit of Christie-style fantasy. Poirot, in conversation with Lord, wonders why atropine was not used, instead of morphine. Class/social issues of the time:
There’s plenty of evidence of Christie’s usual themes although perhaps they’re not dwelt on in quite so strong a fashion as she’s sometimes tempted. Just like in her previous book, And Then There Were None, there is some unnecessary emphasis on Jewish traits and appearances; Sir Samuel Attenbury, Counsel for the Prosecution is described as “the horrible man with the Jewish nose”, and his affect on the court is that everyone was “listening with a kind of slow, cruel relish to what that tall man with the Jewish nose was saying” about Elinor. The word usage very much associates the adjectives “horrible” and “cruel” with being Jewish. Given the fact that the Second World War was in its early stages, I can’t help but think that’s particularly insensitive. Fascinatingly, much is made of the fact that Mary had gone to finishing school in Germany; by all accounts, this was quite the fashionable thing to do, as many young British ladies had a whale of a time living the High Life in Nazi Germany – like the Mitford girls, for example – providing they weren’t Jewish.
It’s no surprise to find at least one instance of xenophobia in this book – perhaps the surprise is that there’s only one. Mrs Bishop, the redoubtable ex-housekeeper at Hunterbury eyes Poirot with enormous suspicion until he starts chatting about the Royal Family (as I mentioned earlier). There’s a little nod to Christie’s political slant, with Mrs Bishop’s proud claim that Major Somervell, the new MP, was “returned unopposed […] We’ve never had anyone but a Conservative for Maidensford”.
And of course, there are always class issues. There’s a lot of latent criticism in the book about how Mary has been removed from her class – such as attending the finishing school in Germany – and how that now makes her a fish out of water. Roddy observes: “People never dream what harm they may do by “educating” someone! Often it’s cruelty, not kindness!” Her boyfriend Ted – a garage mechanic – observes how Mary has changed and she herself realises that he no longer suits her idea of what a boyfriend should be like. When Mrs Bishop regrets Roddy’s falling for Mary, “Men, they are all alike: easily caught by flattery and a pretty face”, even Poirot asks her, “she had, I suppose, admirers of her own class?” As ever with Christie, it’s not so much being in the wrong class that’s the problem, it’s meddling one’s emotional affairs in another class that gains her disapproval!
One other interesting subject that gets mentioned – although not in so many words – is euthanasia. Mrs Welman would welcome it: “if they went the proper way about things, my life could be ended here and now – none of this long-drawn-out tomfoolery with nurses and doctors.” Roddy and Elinor tend to agree. ““One does feel, Roddy, that people ought to be set free – if they themselves really want it.” Roddy said: “I agree. It’s the only civilised thing to do. You put animals out of their pain.”” The Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society had only been formed in Britain a few years before the book was written. Added to the stories that must have been coming out of Germany about the Nazi use of euthanasia, it was a hot topic in many respects.
Classic denouement: No, not at all – a very different kind of denouement. As all the final scenes (apart from a short conversation featuring Poirot) take place in court, the great detective is not in a position to point a finger at a guilty party, he can merely explain things in private afterwards. Fascinatingly – and with some frustration too – the fate of the guilty party is never followed up, because, obviously, this is Elinor’s trial, not theirs. It’s quite excitingly written, but it doesn’t have the same impact as one of the classic denouements, and in the end you sense that part of the story hasn’t been told.
Happy ending? Probably, but it’s not a dead cert. And definitely not within the confines of the book, but maybe sometime in the future. Poirot thinks so, at any rate, and he’s usually right.
Did the story ring true? Personally, I have a problem with the credibility of Roddy’s infatuation with Mary. Admittedly, men are capable of doing silly things from time to time, when they become aware of a new person who pulls their strings. But he really does throw everything away on a complete whim. There’s no evidence that he had any real encouragement from Mary. I’m not sure I can believe all that story.
Overall satisfaction rating: Very much a curate’s egg. Slow to start, few if any Poirotisms, and a drippy and irritating character in the form of Roddy. That said, it’s a strong surprise revelation, and the courtroom scenes have their own buzzy life about them. So I’m going for a 7/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Sad Cypress 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 One Two Buckle My Shoe, the second of three Hercule Poirot novels in a row. Again I can’t remember much about this one, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. 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!
In which Hercule Poirot’s plans for a cosy Christmas Eve as guest of Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, go awry when local bigwig Simeon Lee is found murdered in his locked bedroom that evening (that’s Lee’s bedroom, not Johnson’s – that would have been a very different tale). Poirot joins Johnson and local Superintendent Sugden to work out which of the Lee family Christmas visitors did the heinous deed. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is prefaced by a letter in the form of a dedication: “My dear James, you have always been one of the most faithful and kindly of my readers, and I was therefore seriously perturbed when I received from you a word of criticism. You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. You yearned for a “good violent murder with lots of blood.” A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder! So this is your special story – written for you. I hope it may please. Your affectionate sister-in-law, Agatha”. The James in question was James Watts, who had married Agatha’s sister Madge in 1902. He owned Abney Hall, in Cheshire, where Christie would later write The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and After the Funeral, and which she had already used as the inspiration for Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. The book also starts with a quotation from Macbeth, that reappears later in the story too: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” Of course, Shakespeare was referring to the murder of King Duncan, but it applies just as well to Simeon Lee.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas had quite a torturous route to the bookshelves. It was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly from November 1938 to January 1939, under the title Murder for Christmas. In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in twenty parts in November and December 1938, under the slightly different title Murder at Christmas. The full book was first published in the UK on 19th December 1938 by Collins Crime Club as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1939, again as Murder for Christmas. A 1947 US paperback edition by Avon Books changed the title again to A Holiday for Murder, and it seems to me that both these latter titles are now equally used in America.
This is an exciting, well-structured book, taking place over the seven days of a Christmas week, split into seven parts (one per day) and with several smaller sections in each part. The structure gives it extra pace and also an inevitability – you know in advance, just by looking at the chapter breakdown, that everything will be solved by December 28th. What is lacking, however, for the most part, is any sense of Christmas. It’s as though Christie has taken the festive season simply as an excuse to get a warring family together, but nothing happens that would be thought of as “Christmassy”. There isn’t a big meal. There is no talk of presents. The valet goes out on Christmas Eve to the pictures like he does every Friday night, he doesn’t do anything special. Similarly, and oddly, there’s no mention of any Christmas plans by any of the police or the other staff – it’s all just like any other day, or week. Odd.
Christie employs simple, third party narration throughout the whole book apart from a few paragraphs shortly before the body of Simeon Lee is discovered, where Tressilian, the butler, takes over and gives us his thoughts. It’s a very interesting device, to change the perspective and see it all through his eyes, and it breaks up the standard narration technique. But the early part of the book is very heavy with exposition, listening in to conversations between the various Lee sons and their wives, where they appear to be talking about the family structure and relationship difficulties for the first time ever – which is highly unlikely – all for the benefit of filling in some useful facts for the reader before the action really gets underway. I thought that was rather heavy-handed of Christie; she can do better!
Another slightly disappointing element to the story is that we see very little of Poirot’s fun and games that he normally can’t resist in his previous cases. There are no conversations where you get a closer understanding of his personality; there’s little humour in his language; there’s none of his usual vanity. The only thing he does that is true to form is to create a truly exciting denouement, where your suspicions hop from suspect to suspect before he finally reveals the truth. You feel that Poirot misses Hastings in this book; he doesn’t really have another person to spark off. Colonel Johnson is a nice enough chap, but the two men don’t have that special understanding that encourages Poirot to be outspoken and candid. Superintendent Sugden is a rather bombastic bruiser of a man with none of the lightness of touch that Poirot would normally admire. So Poirot ends up being quite isolated in this story; and for the most part he could be just any old detective who was good at solving crime. Interestingly, Christie took a break from Poirot for a few years after this book; his next appearance would be in Sad Cypress in 1941. Let’s hope he comes back to form next time out.
By late 1938, Franco’s hold on Spain, through the Spanish Civil War, was getting progressively tighter. It would only be a few months later that Barcelona, and then Madrid, would fall and he would assume complete control of the country. There had been massive amounts of bloodshed for over two years; and, of course, the Second World War would start the following year too. It was a fascinating choice on the part of Christie to have her Spanish character, Pilar, so prominent in this book. She is the second character that we meet, and a lot of time is given over to her experiences, her motivations and her personality. She talks about how back in Spain the mayor is pro-government and the priest is pro-Franco. She has seen bombs destroy houses and kill car drivers. Colonel Johnson’s comment: “can’t be very pleasant being in Spain just at present” is the epitome of English understatement. When the family are deciding whether to make a financial allowance for Pilar, Alfred isn’t keen; “he is so British”, says his wife Lydia, “he doesn’t really like Lee money going to a Spanish subject.” Whether that’s typical Christie distrust of foreigners, or a specific reaction to the war, isn’t clear. But Spain was clearly at the forefront of people’s minds at the time. Even the film that Horbury, the valet, goes to see on Christmas Eve is entitled Love in Old Seville. It’s a Christie invention, by the way, no such film exists.
There aren’t many references to follow up in this book. All the place names (apart from Madrid, obviously) are made up by Christie: the Lee family home is Gorston Hall, Longdale, Addlesfield, which bears no similarity to any real place I can find – there is a Long Dale in the Derbyshire Dales (and also a place in Oklahoma with the same name) but that’s about it. Mr Lee was said to have been in contact with the vice consul in Aliquara, trying to locate Pilar; there’s no such place in Spain. Colonel Johnson is the Chief Constable of Middleshire; I suppose at a push one might think that represents Middlesex. Superintendent Sugden says he comes from the nearby county of Reeveshire, which I think is no more than a play on words; reverse the two parts of the name and you get Shire Reeve, which is the derivation of Sheriff, which basically describes Sugden’s role.
Much notice is taken of David Lee’s quote when his father dies: “the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.” I’d never heard this phrase before; apparently it suggests the certainty of eventual divine retribution. It’s a direct quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his translation of a 17th-century poem, Retribution, by Friedrich von Logau. But it seems to be from an original concept by Plutarch. Unusual to find such a cultured family and police force! Colonel Johnson knows of Poirot because of his superb sleuthing in the case of Sir Bartholomew Strange, better known as Three Act Tragedy; but if you can’t remember him from that tale, that’s because actually he doesn’t appear in it.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. In her last book, Appointment with Death, there were no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so that eliminated the need for that paragraph! However, this time round there are a couple of interesting sums. Just how rich is Simeon Lee? He is described as a millionaire twice over. So if we convert £2 million in 1938, in today’s value that works out as £94 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. So even if his sons all had to share in that inheritance, it’s still an extraordinary amount of money. His diamonds, said to be valued at between £9 – £10,000, today would be worth between £420,000 and £470,000. Definitely worth stealing.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas:
Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in March 1977, price 65p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a miserable old man surrounded by grotesquely ornate candlesticks and what appears to be the front two legs of a prancing horse – don’t quite understand that. Embellishing the picture are some red-berried sprigs of holly dripping with blood. The blood works well in the picture – not sure about the rest, not certain this one of Tom Adams’ best illustrations!
How many pages until the first death: 48. By that stage in the book – Christmas Eve – all the family members have arrived at the house and no further characters are introduced apart from Horbury’s cinema date, although we never actually meet her. As far as the reader is concerned, the death comes along just at the right time.
Funny lines out of context: None that I could discern. It isn’t a particularly funny book, to be fair.
In the same way that Mrs Boynton stands out in Appointment with Death, as being the tyrannical ruler of a subjugated family, Simeon Lee takes precisely the same role in this book. To my mind he’s not quite so striking a character because his cruelty is less psychological and more real, as a grumpy shouter of instructions and insulter of sons. But there’s no doubt that, like Mrs Boynton, he deserves everything coming his way.
Pilar is also a strong character; Christie imbues her with the exotic mystery of passionate Spain, and she has none of the English reserve that characterises so many members of the Lee family. She openly talks about how handsome Sugden is, much to his embarrassment. She makes no concession to the delicate subject of money and speaks openly about her desire for an inheritance from Simeon, which is an area where the other characters would fear to tread.
Christie the Poison expert:
Poison doesn’t play a part in this book, apart from Johnson’s recollection of the Three Act Tragedy case. This gives rise to a brief conversation about the pros and cons of solving a case where poisoning is the method. But it has no bearing on this crime.
Class/social issues of the time:
Usually one can find something in a Christie book where she propounds what she feels is the natural British (or English) distrust of foreigners. But there are very few instances of it in this book. In the conversation about poison referred to above, Poirot notes that murder by poison might be thought of as “unEnglish” – “a device of foreigners! Unsportsmanlike!” Elsewhere there’s the strangely ironic conversation between Stephen and Pilar where he says “it’s just a little bit more than tiresome, my dear. Then there’s that lunatic foreigner prowling about. I don’t suppose he’s any good but he makes me feel jumpy”. So let’s just get this straight: here we have a South African man whingeing about a “lunatic foreigner” to a Spanish woman. Funny how when you have a prejudice against someone you never question its reasonableness.
One other thread that is developed here, that you find in some other Christie books of this time, is the role of women in society. In the past Christie has shown herself to be no feminist. But in this book she changes tack halfway through. Consider the motivations of Simeon Lee’s late wife, the mother whose death the character of David can’t quite get over, often comes into question in conversations between the family members.
David remembers her in conversation with his wife Hilda. “”She was so sweet, Hilda, and so patient. Lying there, often in pain, but bearing it – enduring everything. And when I think of my father” – his face darkened – “bringing all that misery into her life – humiliating her – boasting of his love affairs – constantly unfaithful to her and never troubling to conceal it.” Hilda Lee said: “She should not have put up with it. She should have left him.” He said with a touch of reproof: “She was too good for that. She thought is was her duty to remain. Besides, it was her home – where else should she go?” “She could have made a life of her own.” David said fretfully: “Not in those days! You don’t understand. Women didn’t behave like that. They put up with things. They endured patiently. She had us to consider. Even if she divorced my father, what would have happened? He would probably have married again. There might have been a second family. Our interests might have gone to the wall. She had to think of all those considerations. […] No, she did right. She was a saint! She endured to the end – uncomplainingly.””
Sorry about the long quotation. But the detail into which David goes to express his appreciation of his mother’s selflessness suggests (to me) that this is a continuation of Christie’s usual anti-feminist stance. However, there’s an interesting comparison with (who else?) Pilar, who justifies what Stephen calls her “gold-digging”, when he confronts her over her attitude to Simeon’s will. (Slight spoiler alert, although it still doesn’t tell you whodunit) She tells Stephen: ““If that old man had lived, he would have made another will. He would have left money to me – a lot of money! Perhaps in time he would have left me all the money!” Stephen said smiling: “That wouldn’t have been very fair either, would it?” “Why not? He would have liked me best, that is all. […] The world is very cruel to women. They must do what they can for themselves – while they are young. When they are old and ugly no one will help them.”” This approach to a design for life doesn’t really sit comfortably with Christie’s usual moral tone but it does suggest a change in her philosophy about the role of women. For (I believe) the first time in a Christie novel, you might say sisters are doing it for themselves.
One small observation: it’s certainly a different era from today when a Superintendent of Police could be believed to be usefully spending his time visiting houses collecting for the Police Orphanage.
Classic denouement: Yes! All the suspects are present, Poirot goes through a long rigmarole explaining why everyone could have done it, only then to explain how one-by-one they didn’t do it, whilst the reader turns the pages with bated breath not knowing what to believe. It’s an extremely exciting ending, with a classic “J’accuse” moment, and an unrepentant murderer.
Happy ending? Yes. One whirlwind romance culminates in the promise of a marriage, and there’s a general sense that the majority of the family members will be able to put their problems behind them and move on.
Did the story ring true? Chance meetings and coincidences obscure the truth of the case but yes, on the whole, this is one of Christie’s more believable stories.
Overall satisfaction rating: On the plus side, it’s an exciting read, with an excellent denouement and a suitably surprising solution to the crime. On the negative side, Poirot isn’t himself; there are no references to little grey cells, no moments of breathtaking vanity. And the whole idea of the amount of blood involved playing a significant part in the story doesn’t really hold water. So for me this averages out as an 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas 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 Murder is Easy; my memories of this book are of reading it on holiday in Spain as a teenager and really enjoying it. I think we may be in for lots of murders! And I don’t think I can remember whodunit, which is always a bonus. 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!
In which an American family suffer under the malign and cruel tyranny of their matriarch and it comes as no surprise that one afternoon the wretched woman is found dead as a dodo. Hercule Poirot, still continuing his travels in the Middle East (as we saw in Christie’s previous book, Death on the Nile), promises the local military chief in charge of police, Colonel Carbury, that he will solve the crime in a mere twenty-four hours, simply by interviewing the suspects and employing the little grey cells. It’s a big ask, but if anyone can do it, Poirot can. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated “To Richard and Myra Mallock to remind them of their journey to Petra”. Christie makes no mention of the Mallocks in her autobiography, but a little sleuthing has uncovered that a Richard Mallock married a Myra Tiarks at the Brompton Oratory in 1936. So maybe they went to Petra for their honeymoon? Someone by the name of Richard Mallock (maybe his father, or grandfather) was also the MP for Torquay from 1886 to 1895, so this could be how Christie knew the family, with all her Devon connections. Appointment with Death was first serialised in the US in Colllier’s Weekly from August to October 1937, and in the UK in twenty-eight parts in a very slightly abridged version in the Daily Mail in January and February 1938, under the title A Date with Death. The full book was first published in the UK on 2nd May 1938 by Collins Crime Club; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later the same year.
Out of curiosity, I note that it’s one of Christie’s shortest books – coming in at just 155 pages of paperback-sized text, about the same length as The Big Four. As another aside, it’s a bit of a lame title, I feel. It doesn’t really mean anything; to an extent, any death could be referred to as an appointment with death. It’s not as though the story is littered with medics, or recruitment consultants, with whom you might make a risky appointment which results in your death! I thought I’d check out its title in some other languages; most of them translate literally as “Appointment with Death” but three are a little more expressive: “Der Tod Wartet” (Death Waits) in German; “La Domatrice” (The Tamer) in Italian, and my favourite, “Hänet täytyy tappaa” (She Must be Killed) in Finnish.
I’ve always enjoyed this book, for perhaps a rather alarming reason – there were some similarities between the grotesque Mrs Boynton and my own dear late mother! I certainly didn’t identify them when I first read this as a teenager, but as I grew up, got married and went my own way, I did see some Boyntonesque tendencies in her attempts to control what I did. So did my wife! Don’t get me wrong – my mother was not a cruel harridan. But I bet I’m not the only person who has read this book and has felt some personal twang of sympathy with the plight of the wider Boynton family. However, whilst the situation and atmosphere are memorable, I’ve always found it difficult to recall the details of the story. It wasn’t until I read a vital clue a good two-thirds into the book that I suddenly remembered whodunit. Of course, I wished that I hadn’t remembered, but that’s the problem of re-reading detective fiction!
There’s not a lot of action in this book – in fact, all the Boynton family seem to do is to sit around and obey the mother – and I think that gives the book a sense of claustrophobia. There’s a whole world of Middle Eastern excitement out there, and all Mrs Boynton does is sit in a cave, whilst her family stay inside tents reading. All the activity in the book takes place in the mind; truly Christie is delivering us a psychological thriller just as much as a whodunit. Poirot takes us through the characteristics and thought processes of all the suspects just as much as their actual movements, and, come the denouement, it’s by eliminating people because of their psychological profiles that he narrows the field to determine the guilty party. There’s also a sense of isolation in the book, caused by having characters from America, England, France and Belgium all in Jordan, but with little back-knowledge of their origins. It’s like they’ve been transplanted there, everyone far from home, with no particular reason. The only character (apart from Poirot) who has any kind of backstory is Lady Westholme, because we know she has recently been an MP. But we have no home-towns, previous colleagues, college backgrounds, etc, to look into and consider. It’s all very much in the here and now.
As psychology is to the fore, Poirot is absolutely in his element. His promise to Carbury that he will solve the crime before “tomorrow night” speaks to his supreme self-confidence and Christie’s continued exposure of his vanity. Jinny asks him if he is a well-known detective, and he simply replies “the best detective in the world” without a hint of embarrassment. “I know that M. Poirot has great powers” says Dr Gerard at one point. Poirot’s immodest reply? “I am gifted – yes.” When Sarah King queries Poirot’s priorities for solving the case, he has no time for her suggestion. “”Poirot waved a grandiloquent hand. “This is the method of Hercule Poirot”, he announced.” Grandiloquent is a perfect adjective for Poirot. Even Carbury remarks, as Poirot is preparing for his denouement, “funny feller aren’t you Poirot? […] like to dramatise things.”
There are no other great insights into Poirot’s character in this book, but Christie concentrates on making certain conversations, confrontations and descriptions come alive to make up for the lack of physical action. There’s a really strong scene between Poirot and Nadine Boynton where it’s so clear that she’s hiding something but she refuses to tell him, pleading with him instead to let well alone. But Poirot is never prepared to turn a blind eye to a murder; no matter how beneficial it is to society as a whole, he will never participate in suppressing the truth. Once the truth is out there, it is up to the authorities to act on it in the best way they see fit; that is not Poirot’s concern. Mrs Boynton is a universally disliked character, her family are mere cruelty fodder with the heart beaten out of them; and the world is a better place for her departure. But Poirot will not look the other way.
Just as in Death on the Nile, Christie litters the book with real-life Middle Eastern locations to increase a sense of the exotic. The opening scene takes place in the Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem, still a landmark hotel of the city. The characters’ Jerusalem travels take them to Solomon’s Stables, an underground vaulted space, converted in 1996 to a Muslim prayer hall; the Mosque of Omar, situated opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Haram esh-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount in the Old City; and the Wailing Wall, still today probably the most visited sight in Jerusalem. The story moves on to the rose city of Petra, via Ma’an and Ain Musa, traditionally the site of Moses’ water spring, from where the Nabateans built channels to irrigate Petra. In 1929, a four-person team, consisting of British archaeologists Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, Palestinian physician and folklore expert Dr Tawfiq Canaan and Dr Ditlef Nielsen, a Danish scholar, excavated and surveyed Petra, which would surely have been of immense fascination to Christie, and may well have determined her to set a book here.
Some other references of interest: the book starts with Poirot reflecting over a story concerning the novelist Anthony Trollope, where he takes the advice of overheard criticism. Is this a true story? Apparently so! It relates to the character of Mrs Proudie in The Last Chronicles of Barset, a character of with whom Trollope was actually very pleased; but he overheard a conversation by people criticising her, and wishing she would be killed off. In Trollope’s own words: “It was impossible for me not to hear their words, and almost impossible to hear them and be quiet. I got up, and standing between them, I acknowledged myself to be the culprit. “As to Mrs. Proudie,’ I said, `I will go home and kill her before the week is over.” And so I did. The two gentlemen were utterly confounded, and one of them begged me not to forget his frivolous observations.” By all accounts, Trollope regretted the action immediately.
In another literary allusion, when Jefferson Cope is talking to Dr Gerard about his affection for Nadine, and says that if she wants to leave her husband for a better life, he would be there waiting for her, Dr Gerard calls him “the parfait gentil knight”. This refers to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the description of the Knight as “a verray parfit, gentil knyght” – the epitome of courtly love.
In the world of politics, Christie writes of Lady Westholme’s current standing, “it was highly possible that she would be given an under-secretaryship when her party returned to power. At the moment a Liberal Government (owing to a split in the National Government between Labour and Conservatives) was somewhat unexpectedly in power.” In real life, there was a National Government between 1937 – 1939, formed by Neville Chamberlain, with MPs from the Conservative, National Labour and National Liberal parties. And we think our politics are complex today! Looking at how the votes had fallen in the most recent election, a Liberal Government would have been a huge surprise. Lady Westholme also entraps Sarah in a conversation about the Litvania boundary dispute, which doubtless would have referred to the constantly changing boundaries of what is today Lithuania, with the USSR and Poland involved in eating into the territory. Today there is no dispute over Lithuania’s boundaries.
Sarah King asks Poirot if his investigation into the death is “a case of Roman Holiday”. The famous Audrey Hepburn film hadn’t been made yet, but the phrase comes from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and relates to the fate of a gladiator in ancient Rome, who expected to be “butchered to make a Roman holiday” while the audience would take pleasure from watching his suffering. So it’s the equivalent to modern day Schadenfreude.
As is often the case, there are a few references to Christie’s other books – or rather, Poirot’s previous cases. Colonel Carbury presents himself to Poirot with a letter of introduction from Colonel Race, whom we first met in The Man in the Brown Suit, then in Cards on the Table and most recently in Death on the Nile. We will also meet him one more time in Sparkling Cyanide. Race describes Poirot’s solution to the Shaitana case as “as neat a bit of psychological deduction as you’ll ever find” – referring to the murder in Cards on the Table. Elsewhere, Nadine refers Poirot to the Murder on the Orient Express when asking him to drop the case, and Miss Pierce remembers all about the ABC Murders as she was living near Doncaster at the time – that’s where Murder D was to be committed.
This may be a peculiarly anti-fiscal book, but there are no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so I can’t do my usual trick of converting them into present-day values. Maybe that’s a sign of the psychological element of this book – it’s not a question of who inherits what or who stole which necklace for a change!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Appointment with Death:
Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in July 1975, price 50p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the grim figure of Mrs Boynton sitting in the front of a cave with the red rocks of Petra all around her; and in the foreground, a lethal looking syringe. Absolutely in keeping with the story.
How many pages until the first death: 63. Christie allows an appropriate length to depicting the Boynton family at large before removing the main character from the scene. Given that it’s a short book, it’s 40% of the way in before the crime, and 60% for the solution.
Funny lines out of context: These seem to be getting fewer and fewer as we slowly progress through the 20th century. The only mildly amusing line (out of context) that I could find was Carol asking Raymond “shan’t we always be queer and different?”
Mrs Boynton stands out, as the arch-bully. In the first scenes we see her controlling her daughter Jinny, telling her that she will be ill, and telling her what she wants to do (even though she wants to do the opposite). Jinny buckles to her mother’s satisfaction. Mrs Boynton manipulates her son Raymond so that he refuses to speak to Sarah, even though he desperately wants to. She does the same to her daughter Carol. A side aspect of Mrs Boynton’s monstrous personality is that Christie slightly under-portrays the rest of the family; it’s almost as though they don’t matter by comparison.
There are also the strong and determined Lady Westholme, who Christie says “entered the room with the assurance of a transatlantic liner coming into dock” and her timid and suggestible friend Miss Pierce. One feels the characters of Sarah King and Dr Gerard ought to stand out, but I’m not certain they do. Sarah King, indeed, ought to follow the fine tradition of jolly, upstanding, go-getting Christie girls like Bundle, Tuppence or Katherine Grey; maybe it’s because she comes into some conflict with Poirot that she doesn’t quite sit at the heart of this book as you might expect her to. And Dr Gerard is, frankly, a boring pontificator. I found it very hard not to skip some of his speeches.
Christie the Poison expert:
Digitoxin is missing from the doctor’s medicine case; and Christie goes into some detail to describe the difference between it and the three other active principles of the foxglove: digitalin, digitonin and digitalein. There’s no question she knows her foxglove poisons! Mention is also made of phenacetin, a very common painkiller up until 1983 when it was largely discontinued worldwide due to its carcinogenic and kidney-damaging effects. It’s now mainly used in research and as a cutting agent in the preparation of cocaine.
Class/social issues of the time:
Distrust of foreigners as usual tops the charts as far as themes of the day are concerned, but there are also exchanges on the role of women in society to consider – if you remember, Mrs Christie is no feminist. After her first meeting with Raymond, Sarah King assumes that he is like all Americans: “merely a rude, stuck up, boorish young American!” Sarah also has little time for the French – thinking of Dr Gerard and his psychological theories, she reflects “Frenchmen were all alike […] obsessed by sex”. Lady Westholme, too, has little time for foreigners; of Mrs Boynton she says “her manner had been fairly normal – for an American of that type”.
Miss Pierce says of the “native servants”, “all these Arabs look alike to me”. But Miss Pierce isn’t the most balanced of characters, believing that political agitators are everywhere: “I suppose Mr Mah Mood – I cannot remember his name – but the dragoman, I mean – I suppose he could not be a Bolshevik agent? Or even, perhaps, Miss King? I believe many quite well-brought-up girls of good family belong to these dreadful Communists!” Miss Pierce is a Reds under the Bed kinda woman.
Perhaps a more meaningful exchange is that between Dr Gerard and Jefferson Cope when discussing how Elmer Boynton arranged it so that his wife had absolute control over the family finances. ““In my country” says Gerard, “it is impossible by law to do such a thing”. Mr Cope rose. “In America”, he said, “we’re great believers in absolute freedoms.” Dr Gerard rose also. He was unimpressed by the remark. He had heard it made before by people of many different nationalities. The illusion that freedom is the prerogative of one’s own particular race is fairly widespread. Dr Gerard was wiser. He knew that no race, no country and no individual could be described as free. But he also knew that there were different degrees of bondage.””
These fascinating few lines not only show Dr Gerard’s possibly anti-American bias, but also look further ahead, maybe to the political tensions that would bring about Second World War the year after publication. As Dr Gerard is critical of Mrs Boynton holding all the purse strings, this also reflects Christie’s own personal form of misogyny that she has shown in previous books. Another telling phrase from Gerard, that supports Christie’s view of women, comes in his first conversation with Sarah: “”To have too much power is bad for women,” Gerard agreed with sudden gravity. He shook his head. “It is difficult for a woman not to abuse power.””
Classic denouement: The denouement (and accompanying epilogue) go on for a good 27 pages, and contain surprise after surprise after surprise. You keep thinking that Poirot has identified the killer and then he goes on to explain why they didn’t do it! So it’s a very exciting read. It’s not quite a classic because you don’t have that amazing moment when Poirot points accusingly at a suspect and they wither in front of him. There’s also a twist, not dissimilar from that in Death on the Nile, which means you may not get the sense of justice being seen to be done. However, psychologically speaking, I’m sure Poirot and Gerard would agree that it’s an entirely appropriate ending.
Happy ending? Without question. In fact, the happy ending starts the moment that Mrs Boynton dies! One marriage that was on the rocks is now back on course, and there are three new marriages to appreciate as well as the birth of a glitteringly unexpected career. It’s almost like a Shakespearean comedy.
Did the story ring true? For the most part, yes, absolutely. As I said at the beginning, I found that I could really relate to the family setup, and that sense of control from the matriarchal character that meant the rest of the family had to struggle to survive. However, I’ve never believed that Lennox would have the strength and ability to break free of Mrs Boynton’s reins sufficiently to marry Nadine, given the pressure that his mother must have put on him. Apart from that, the manner of the crime and the detection all seem perfectly feasible to me. Overall satisfaction rating: Despite its being an old favourite, I think the lack of activity might make this not quite Classic Christie, so I’m awarding it an 8/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of Appointment with Death 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 Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; a story of which I remember very little, except that it features an exotic character called Pilar and spans one week over a very fateful Christmas. As always, 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!