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!