Notes On Hickory Dickory Dock

Year of Publication: 1955

Motive for Murder: Wealth

Rating: four out of five

Plot: ‘I congratulate you,’ Hercule Poirot said warmly to Mrs. Hubbard. She looked startled. ‘But why, M. Poirot?’ ‘I congratulate you on having such a unique and beautiful problem.’

Mrs. Hubbard ran a student hostel at 24-26 Hickory Road. Twelve items had been missing in the last two to three months at the house; each of them belonged to a student. Some then turned up themselves somehow.  A harmless prank or a targeted act? At any rate, she was not amused. Then She told about the incidents  to her sister Miss Lemon, who then passed on the former’s accounts to her sleuth employer.

Poirot agreed to come to the hostel and gave a talk to the students after the dinner. He suggested involve police in the matter. As a result, one of the inhabitants then admitted to have stolen half of the items. Shockingly, two days later she was found dead in her room with a suicide note. What struck Mrs. Hubbard as strange was the colour of ink that had been used in the note. As for Poirot, the death came as a surprise, for he had not warned the deceased but another student whose diamond ring turned up in a bowl of soup.

Was it guilt that triggered the suicide? Was it really a suicide? Or did it relate to the suspicion of drugs and jewellery smuggling? What did Mrs. Nicoletis, the hostel’s proprietress, had anything to do with it?

As the clues lay in the order of the missing items, Mrs. Hubbard’s memory to provide the answer was crucial. Could Poirot prevent another murder?

Highlights:

The aging detective returned the favour to his super efficient secretary; her being the Athena in The Labours of Hercules. Hence readers were reminded of the Nemean Lion case; the part when Poirot warned the City gentleman not to poison his wife  and his admiration to Countess Vera Rosakoff in the twelfth task.

Furthermore, readers learnt more about Miss Lemon; her Christian name, ie. her first name and her widow sister. It was not so much about Miss Lemon’s making mistakes –unusual it might have seemed- which had drawn Poirot’s attention but her being affected by Mrs. Hubbard’s problem.

There was a part before the thief owned up in which the detective’s “old-fashioned” approach was contradicted by Colin McNabb, one of the inhabitants. Having dismissed his method as no longer relevant, the latter deliberated his Cinderella Complex theory.  The exchange of words between the young McNabb and Papa Poirot were worth observing if not amusing as a clash of generations.  Poirot listened to him and simply toed his lines until the young ran out explanations about some items which did not fit with his theory. (see the excerpt of conversations on the right). In the end,   Papa Poirot knew better.

McNabb: ‘I’m not meaning to give offence, but I’ve got to make things clear. Crime and Punishment, M. Poirot – that’s as far as your horizon stretches.’ Poirot: ‘They seem to me a natural sequence.’ McNabb: ‘You take the narrow view of the Law – and what’s more, of the Law at its most old-fashioned. Nowadays , even the Law has to keep itself cognisant of the newest and most-up-to-date theories of what causes crime. It is the causes that are important, M. Poirot.’ Poirot: ‘But there to speak in your new-fashioned phrase, I could not agree with you more!’

Regarding the nature of the crimes, Christie presented readers with a detailed study of the murderer’s character – more than in her other novels. I wondered if some parts in the plot had been based on a true story as it sounded quite real to my mind. First, there was a parent who tried to shield the crime of his offspring. Next, the presence of a proficient liar and a manipulative personae, who perfectly understood from whom sympathies could be attained.

Of equal merit was the thought-provoking conversation among students from diverse cultures. Strong remarks on politics, customs and way of thinking collided and set about silly arguments. Christie was fairly successful to create the dynamics and pinpointed the “softer side” of political students by way of unlikely items and facts found during the police search.

Finally, Christie’s ritual to place certain professions for the minor characters: a hair stylist, a dispenser/nurse, a doctor and a lawyer. Just as in this novel, those also often appeared in others to a greater or lesser degree. Would one of them a murderer here?

 

The Twists:

-The four rucksack George, Poirot’s manservant, bought for the detective to be examined

-Sir Arthur Stanley’s will

-Nigel Chapman’s surname

– Valerie Hobhouse’s different names in forged passports

Cast of Characters:

The Inhabitants at 24-26 Hickory Road:

Achmed Effendi (Egyptian, a “frightfully political” student)

Mr. Akibombo (West African)

Celia Austin (English, a dispenser at St. Catherine’s hospital)

Chandra Lal (Indian)

Colin McNabb (English, a postgraduate student studying psychiatry)

Elizabeth Johnston (Jamaican, studying Law)

Geronimo (an Italian manservant)

Genevieve Maricaud (French, studying English)

Gopal Ram (Indian)

Mrs. Hubbard (English, the warden/matron of 24-26 Hickory Road)

Jean Tomlinson (English, a physiotherapist at St. Catherine’s)

Len Bateson (English, a medical student)

Nigel Chapman (English, studying Bronze Age and Medieval History)

Patricia Lane ( English, taking a diploma in Archaeology)

Sally Finch (an American, a Fulbrite Scholar)

Valerie Hobhouse (English, worked in “Sabrina Fair” beauty parlour)

Two Turkish students

Others:

Sergeant Cobb

Mr. Endicott (Sir Arthur Stanley’s lawyer)

Hercule Poirot

Miss Lemon (Poirot’s secretary)

Mrs. Nicoletis (the proprietess of 26 Hickory Road)

Inspector Sharpe

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Mrs. Hubbard

Quote: ‘Well, my dear, one’s only young once’

A client, she was acquainted with Hercule Poirot through her sister, Miss Lemon. According to Miss Lemon, Mrs. Hubbard spent most of her life in Singapore and never lived in the UK before (was she born in the country as well?). Hence her loneliness after returning as a widow without children. Yet she was passionate about people. Coupled with her motherly attitude, she accepted the job of running a hostel for international students.

Tactful and assertive, she was more or less like Miss Lemon minus the latter’s straight face at all times. She was friendly to the students who in return liked her a lot -even the sarcastic Nigel Chapman. They called her “Ma” as a token of affection to her. Besides, she stood up to the proprietress’s erratic behaviour and responded appropriately to the latter’s torrent of offending words.

Concerning the fact that she previously lived in Singapore for many years, it was a wonder that there was no trace of Singlish in her remarks. On the contrary, her English was standard and formal. Consequently,  her words triggered creases in my forehead at  times in my attempts to find a kind of English dialect which was heavily influenced by Hokkien and Malay. More importantly, the lack of Singlish aside, it was unfortunate that Christie did not give any background about her Singaporean life: what did she do there? What was her life as an expat wife? What food did she cook there?

Never mind. For if I could have asked Christie, I would have been interested in her answer for choosing Singapore to Mrs.Hubbard. Of course I understood it was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles who found the island and made it part of English colony in South East Asia. Yet in the fifties, the country was still part of Malaysia and therefore I wondered whether the authoress’s intention was purely to give an international flavour to her character or there were other reasons behind, ie. the foreign politics between Britain and Singapore. Did she realise that Singaporeans had already been thinking of separating from Malaysia at the time of writing?

Clues:

Celia Austin:

‘Oh, we’re all too busy really to have fights, although- well-Nigel-next to Mrs. Hubbard. He likes stirring people up and make them angry. And Len Bateson gets angry. He gets wild with rage sometimes. But he’s really sweet really.’

‘That was different [that she had cut and slashed Valerie Hobhouse’s scarf]. I mean – Valerie didn’t mind.’

‘Oh, I didn’t cut that [the rucksack] up. That was just temper.’

‘I don’t know anything about the rucksack, or the electric light bulbs, or boracic or bath salts, and the ring was just a mistake. When I realised it was valuable I returned it.’

( to Elizabeth Johnston): ‘There are other things I don’t understand, like the electric light bulbs the day the police came.’

Elizabeth Johnston:

(Answering Inspector Sharpe’s question: ‘What’s this about the police and electric bulbs?’)

‘I don’t know. All Celia said was: “I didn’t take them [electric light bulbs] out.” And then she said: “I wondered if it had anything to do with the passport?” I said, “What passport are you talking about?” And she said: “I think someone might have a forged passport.” ‘

Patricia Lane:

To Hercule Poirot: ‘About Nigel. His being difficult. He’s always had the tendency to go against authority of any kind. He’s very clever – brilliant really, but I must admit that he sometimes has a very unfortunate manner. Sneering – you know. And he’s much too scornful ever to explain or defend himself. Even if everybody in this place thinks he did that trick with the ink, he won’t go out of his way to say he didn’t. He’ll just say “Let them think it if they want to”. And that attitude is really so utterly foolish.’

To Inspector Sharpe: ‘…You see, Nigel is really very much his own worst enemy. I’m the first to admit that he’s got a very difficult manner. It prejudices people against him. He’s rude and sarcastic and makes fun of people, and so he puts people’s backs up and they think the worst of him. But really he’s quite different from what he seems…’

Mrs. Hubbard:

‘It wouldn’t be the first time [[the presence of police in the hostel]. There was that West Indiann student who was wanted for living on immoral earnings and the notorious young Communist agitator who came here under a false name-and-..’

Jean Tomlinson:

‘Well, it started I think, with a discussion on murdering by poisoning, saying that the difficulty was to get hold of the poison, that the murderer was usually traced by either the sale of the poison or having an opportunity to get it, and Nigel said that wasn’t at all necessary. He said that he could think of three distinct ways by which anyone could get hold of poison, and nobody would ever know they had it…’

Len Bateson:

‘I liked her [Celia Austin] very much. She was a nice kid. A bit dumb, but nice.’

Nigel Chapman:

‘Come now, Bess. You know quite well who spilt the ink. I, said bad Nigel, with my little green phial, I spilt the ink.’

‘You should have seen their faces when I threw down those three lethal preparations on the table and told them I had managed to pinch them without anybody being wise as to who took them.’

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