Notes On Cat Among The Pigeons

Rating: four out five

Year of Publication: 1959

Motive for Murder: Wealth and Jealousy

Plot: ‘Hope nobody here had nothing to hide,’ said Miss Springer, the new Game Mistress at Meadowbank to her colleagues at the beginning of the summer term. Days later the school matron and the Deputy Head found her dead from a single bullet at the girls’ school Sports Pavilion.

Unpopular she might have seemed among the staff and the pupils, her murder was a shock. Then the second murder occurred at the same premises. Clearly, there was something in the new building the murderer had been looking for.

Julia Upjohn, one of the pupils , worked out what it was. Nonetheless, instead of going to the police she went to Hercule Poirot for help; his being a friend of her mother’s friend. Unbeknown to Julia, Mrs. Upjohn happened to recognise a killer when she took her daughter at the start of the term.

In the meantime, a pupil vanished hours before the second killing. The niece of Emir Ibrahim – a ruler in a small rich country in the Middle East- was picked up by a chauffeur-driven limousine at school for a weekend with her uncle but never returned.

Two murders and a kidnap in a term were more than enough for parents. With its future hanging on a thread Poirot raced with time to realise who was the cat among the pigeons.  Yet, was he quick enough to prevent another murder?

 

Highlights:

A girls’ boarding school for a murder scene, anyone? A killer posing as a school mistress?

Meadowbank was a lifetime’s work of the duo Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick. The school was arguably the finest in England and had attracted pupils from Europe and further afield.  On the one hand, Miss Bulstrode, the long-standing Headmistress, was the brain behind the lateral thinking to girls’ education. On the other, Miss Chadwick, the Deputy Head, had the job to ascertain that everything ran smoothly and the parents’ high expectations were met.

Meadowbank: inspired by Malory Towers?

Meadowbank: inspired by Malory Towers?

Their efforts and dedication paid off  – at least in the mind of Miss Bulstrode’s. She felt it was time to  retire and choose her successor. To whom?

Furthermore, Christie’s timing of the two unrelated events –the start of school term and the missing heir and his private pilot- compared a “political upheaval” at two different levels.  There was no doubt about her awareness of a wave of change in the world in the late fifties when Africa and the Middle East opted for freedom and democracy.

It was the authoress’ take on the school dynamic that showed politics at work. Visual and charming, there was a touch of nostalgic about the old system as far as the jargons were concerned. For instance, it was a “school mistress”,  “P.T” (Physical Training) and the newish term “Sports Pavillion” which replaced the Latin gymnasium. The Headmistress had a nickname “the Bull” and an unpopular teacher was established along with a good old matron who did make a fuss about a pupil’s undergarments.

It was in a chapter which contained letters written to homes that some clues were given. It was a Christie’s touch for sure; her skills of letter writing with trivial subjects mentioned casually. Yet in between there was a purpose, such was the mentioning of Othello. This was a craft which I believe that set a balance; the ripple of waves in the sea under the moonlit prior to a big storm.

Nevertheless, the first killing was a bit unimpressive in my view. For it was more like something in passing – a “bang” of a gunshot and a life taken. The subsequent two witnesses’ accounts were simply a police procedure and more importantly a judgment of the deceased’s character. As usual, the motive was unclear. One thing that mattered was Eileen Rich’s point of views of “a cat among pigeons” to Inspector Keasley.  In other words, Christie tend to say the fact that Meadowbank was unlucky to be a murder scene.  Yet I wondered: must a cat be associated with a woman?

The following disappearance of the Emir’s niece might remind readers to the kidnapping of Winnie King (The Labours of Hercules) due to its nature. Furthermore, Julia Upjohn resembled her much older version Tuppence Beresford as both had the same adventurous spirit, brave and were ready to take matters into their own hands. The former’s mother also worked for intelligence during the war just as Mrs. Beresford did.

As I stated, jealousy and wealth were the two motives of murders. Christie’s brilliance in combining the two was remarkable, particularly when the hints were obscured in a pupil’s tennis racquet and Shakespeare’s Iago. Yes, she created a female Iago that involved items worth £3 million pounds (I have no idea what would be the equal amount of the latter in 2013). The she-Iago had the same attributes with the unfounded jealousy and hatred towards the she-Othello.  The former’s rage, however, was subtle. Besides, she neither did try to frame her “general” nor have a partner in crime. In fact, she acted alone and was engulfed by the suppressing anger.

Was Christie successful in making her she-Iago as a distinctive character? Was her anger justified? Yes, up to a point. No, because it was also up to the readers to decide. For Christie’s Iago was split to two different women: one with jealousy and the other with greediness.  Like the jealous Iago, she spared the she-Othello from troubles at times and wanted to win Desdemona for Roderigo. But she was not as spiteful as the original one.

Concerning the greedy she-Iago, Christie showed the more dangerous side of the character: a double spy and a killer hidden very well behind her impeccable credentials. Nobody but Mrs. Upjohn who knew the person.

What intrigued me was: what stopped Julia’s mother from telling the Headmistress about a suspicious person spotted in the school ground? Given that she was a former spy herself, wouldn’t have been out of instinct to say so?

In the end, Poirot concluded and explained the case in his usual triumphant fashion, followed by an unfinished business. As I put down the book, it was surprising that what lingered in my head were the personae of Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick than the murders itself. Did they realise their mistakes? How about you, readers?

So there were murders in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers.A coincidence, do you think?

The Twists:

–          A wig, a thick make-up and false American accent

–          The Spanish Cabaret dancer whose room was next to Mrs. Sutcliffe

–          Angele Blanche’s last telephone call (to the murderer)

–          Sandbags in a cove outside the Sports Pavilion

–          Jennifer Sutcliffe saw a “fat” Eileen Rich

Cast of Characters:

The Meadowbank staff and pupils:

Adam Goodman (the young gardener)

Angele Blanche (The French Mistress)

Ann Shapland (The School Secretary)

Miss Blake (the psychologist)

Miss Chadwick (the Deputy Head and Maths teacher)

Eileen Rich (the English and Geography teacher)

Elaanor Vansittart (History and German teacher)

Elspeth Johnson (the Matron)

Grace Springer (the Games Mistress)

Honoria Bulstrode (the Headmistress)

Jennifer Sutcliffe (a pupil, the niece of Bob Rawlinson)

Julia Upjohn (a pupil, Mrs. Upjohn’s daughter)

Miss Rowan

Princess Shaista (a pupil, the first cousin of Prince Ali Yusuf)

Others:

Prince Ali Yusuf (Hereditary Sheikh of a small rich Middle East country)

Alice Candler (Prince Ali’s wife)

Bob Rawlinson (the private pilot of Prince Ali and a school friend of the prince)

Colonel Ephraim Pikeaway (Head of Special Branch)

Derek O’Connor (Colonel Ephraim’s assistant)

Hercule Poirot

Mrs. Joan Sutcliffe (Jennifer’s mother)

John Edmunson (the third secretary at the British Embassy in the country)

Inspector Keasley

Mr. Robinson (the jewel dealer)

Mrs. Upjohn (Julia’s mother)

The Most Fascinating Characters: Grace Springer

She was the first being murdered. Apparently she had spotted the murderer, having prowled about in the Sports Pavilion after midnight. She was then shot from four feet away right through the heart.

Among her colleagues her insensitivity and forthright manner brought about arguments and discomfort. It did not bother Miss Springer anyhow and in fact she was oblivious to it. She said to other teachers: ‘The trouble is, people are so cowardly – won’t face facts. They often prefer not to see what’s under their noses all the time. I’m not like that. I go straight to the point. More than once I’ve unearthed a nasty scandal – brought it into open. I’ve got a good nose –once I’m on the trail, I don’t leave it….’

The above statement seemed to speak volumes about her confidence.  For all it was worth, she actually had given people a warning. Besides Eileen Rich,  she also had smelt a rat in Meadowbank. Unfortunately, her being disliked made others disregard her saying.  Christie’s understanding of human nature brought the home truth; that oftentimes feelings were vindicated.

Unfortunately the Game Mistress’s overconfidence cost her life. For it was her weakness to have believed that she could have tackled the problem  – only that she was face-to-face with a cold-blooded killer this time.

Nobody seemed to miss her  – except a pupil, Jennifer Sutcliffe. Her great improvement in tennis was due to the former’s coaching. Despite complaints about her strenuous P.T., she might have done a good job in the school after all.

Clues:

Ann Hapland:

‘That’s odd, Dennis. Very odd indeed. It was the Games Mistress. You know the type. I-am-a-plain-Games-Mistress. I think there’s a lot more behind it than has come out yet.’

Derek O’Connor:

‘It seems possible that Prince Ali Yusuf gave your brother something to keep for him and that your brother thought it would be safer among your possessions than if he kept it himself.’

Eileen Rich:

‘I mean she (Grace Springer) wasn’t  a person one could ever have wanted to destroy. Everything she did and was, was on the surface. She annoyed people. They often had sharp words with her, but it didn’t mean anything. Not anything deep. I’m sure she wasn’t killed for herself, if you know what  I mean’.

Grace Springer:

‘In my opinion, no one should teach in a school whose life isn’t an open book. If anyone’s got anything to hide, one can soon tell. Oh! You’d be surprised if I told you some of the things I’ve found out about people. Things that nobody else had dreamt of.’

John Edmundson:

‘I was to meet him (Bob Rawlinson) at our usual rendezvous – outside one of the banks. But rioting broke out in that particular quarter and the police closed the road. I couldn’t make contact with Bob or he with me. He flew Ali out tha same afternoon.’

Julia Upjohn:

‘Of course the trouble now-a-days is that one what calls a gardener isn’t a gardener, just a milkman who wants to do something in his spare time, or an old man of eighty. I sometimes think – Why! How extraordinary!’

Excerpts from her letter to her mother:

‘…..We’re taught English literature by Miss Rich, who’s terrific. When she gets in a real state her hair comes down. She’s got a queer bur rather exciting face and when she reads bits of Shakespeare it seems all different and real. She went on at us the other day about Iago, and what he felt – a lot about jealousy and how it ate you and you suffered until you went quite mad wanting to hurt the person you loved…’

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