Rating: 3.5 out of five
Year of Publication: 1963
Motive for Murder: Wealth
Plot: Sheila Webb left 19 Wilbraham Crescent screaming murder in the quiet street. The young woman had found a dead man’s body in the house. She also nearly knocked down Colin Lamb, who happened to stand outside of the house. A few weeks later another life was claimed. This time was a woman who was strangled in the telephone box.
Inspector Hardcastle interviewed the neighbours during which interesting facts about them were gathered. There was a professor who resigned from his Chair at Cambridge and then a lot of time in the garden, a woman who owned many cats in number 18 and at number 61 a builder’s wife inherited a wealthy sum of money from a dead Canadian uncle.
In the meantime, the police identified four clocks in the room where the dead man was. When the evidences were collected later on, a clock was missing.
As every lead came to a dead end, the young Lamb decided it was time to see Hercule Poirot. He listened to the former giving details of the case. Then, he responded:
“to talk to many things.
Of shoes and ships and sealing wax,
and cabbages and kings.
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings” ‘
It was the Cold War era and the memory of Cuban Missile Crisis had still been fresh in the public’s mind. The young Colin Lamb was in the neighbourhood following a hunch. He was a marine biologist who was looking into crescents of all sorts. For at the time he had a paper in his hand containing a scribble of a crescent , number “61” and “W”. Hence a murder was the last in his mind and therefore when he saw Sheila Webb he thought nothing but how beautiful she was. He fell for her straightaway before he even realised that she was a suspect. Further on, the man in love was torn between saving her neck and accomplishing his mission.
This novel reminded readers with some unforgettable minor characters in Christie’s previous novels. To begin with, Celia Austin (Hickory Dickory Dock) resembled Edna Brent. Next, readers might recall the French mistress in Cat Among The Pigeons as Mrs. Merina Rival; her seeing an opportunity to be wealthy. Her appearance, however, was more like the sister who identified his brother’s body in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Thirdly, Colin Lamb bore the traits of Dr. Peter Lord (Sad Cypress). Then, a Lady Macbeth reappeared, just as the one in By The Pricking of My Thumb. Lastly, Millicent Pebmarsh was the embodiment of Miss Bulstrode (Cat Among The Pigeons) and her wide blue eyes was as beautiful as Elinor Carlisle’s (Sad Cypress).
I wondered whether Christie asked this following question to herself while planning the plot: are neighbours as they seem to be? It was worth noticing the police’s interviews with the neighbours, narrated by Colin Lamb, in which peculiar facts were revealed, which then triggered background checking as to confirm their accounts. More importantly was the children’s voices, of whom certain facts were found. Their wits and insights were delightful, for one had watched with her opera glass every movement at Wilbraham Crescent and wrote it down in the notebook.
What I liked most about the story was Christie’s touch on Communism itself and its implication. Personally it was daring on her part to suggest that a spy was not a super human. They could fall in love and it was as frustrating as others would experience. As a result she contradicted her protagonist by letting him get distracted and moreover doing things against what he had been required to do.
Interestingly, the authoress was once under surveillance following the fear that she might have known about Bletchley Park. It was the result of her having a Major Bletchley as a character in N or M (1941).
What I least liked from the story was her lacking of clues about the murderer. By elimination process I could guess whodunit correctly but I could not explain about the presence of the clocks. Were they some kind of jokes? It was explained in the end; no doubt by none other than Hercule Poirot. Still, I was not a happy customer. Hence my rating 3.5 out of five.
Nonetheless, Christie’s mentioning of a dinghy book shop at Charing Cross Road and Portobello Market were much appreciated. For she took part in preserving the image of a famous street in London where independent shops and second-hand and rare bookshops used to be – once upon a time.
Finally, I concurred with Professor Purley that parking wardens could be a nuisance. I just did not know that such an issue had exist fifty years ago!
-there were two Mrs. Bland
-Miss K. Martindale insisted a call was made by Millicent Pebmarsh at 1.49 pm on 9th September.
– a scrap of paper Colin Lamb found in Hanbury’s wallet in which a crescent, letter “W” and number “61” were scribbled on it.
-Gary Greggson’s manuscript, which Poirot obtained in a sale of authors’ manuscripts.
-Mrs. Merina Rival identified the dead man as her ex-husband, Harry Castleton
-The identity of Mrs. Ramsay’s husband and Miss Millicent Pebmarsh
Cast of Characters:
People who lived at Wilbraham Crescent:
Mr. and Mrs. Bland (at number 61, the husband was a builder)
Geraldine Brown (a ten-year-old girl who lived in a flat on the other side of the road)
Mrs. Hemming (at number 20 “Diana Lodge”, owned a lot of cats)
Millicent Pebmarsh (the woman who lived alone at the murder scene)
Mr. and Mrs. McNaughton (the husband was a keen gardener)
Mrs. Ramsay (a mother of two boys)
Miss Waterhouse (at number 18, who lived with her brother)
Colin Lamb (as a marine biologist)
Mrs. Curtin (Millicent’s cleaner)
Edna Brent (the receptionist at the Cavendish Bureau)
Miss Katherine Martindale ( Edna and Sheila’s boss, the Principal of the Cavendish Bureau)
Mrs. Lawton (Sheila’s aunt, with whom she lived)
Mrs. Merina Rival (who identified the body of the man)
Professor Purley (Sheila’s client)
Inspector Richard Hardcastle (Crowdean Police)
Sheila Webb (a stenographer, who found the dead body, Edna’s colleague)
The Most Fascinating Character: Millicent Pebmarsh
‘The whole thing’s daft’
The dead man was found in her house. As she stepped into the house, Sheila Webb warned her promptly about the body.
Miss Pebmarsh was an ex-school teacher, sharp and poised. Inspector Hardcastle noted those in his interview with her. Her above quoted remark referred to the a stranger killed in her house and the presence of the four clocks, of which none of them were hers. Yet, rather than regarding her remark as a fact, the Inspector thought they were words of an upset middle-aged woman.
She told him that she moved into the neighbourhood as she got a job teaching Braille to disabled children. Prior to that her eyesight was failing and after she became blind then she learnt Braille and was retrained. Other than asking Mr. McNaughton’s advice about gardening, she did not mingle with other neighbours.
Was she as everyone thought she was- a spinster? As Christie was keenly quoted, “old sins have long shadows” (see also Elephants Can Remember). Unbeknown to anyone, the former had a daughter out of wedlock. She asked her much younger sister to raise the baby and then vanished. Much as she got updates about her daughter, never did she want to meet her. Nor did she inform her sister that they lived in the same city.
The mother and daughter were reunited once in an awkward circumstance. They were in the same room but only one who later on understood who the other was.
‘Must have been foreign. Me and my old man went on a coach trip to Switzerland and Italy once and it was a whole hour further on there. Must be something to do with this Common Market. I don’t hold with the Common Market and nor does Mr. Curtin. England’s good enough for me.’
(to Constable Pierce after the inquest)
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter really. It’s-well-just that I don’t see how what she said could have been true because I mean…’
(to Colin Lamb)
‘Nobody called at all [on the day of the first murder at 19 Wilbraham Crescent] except the laundry. It was a new laundry.’
‘Nothing happened. The driver got down, opened the van, took out his basket and staggered alng round the side of the house to the back door. I expect he couldn’t get in. Miss Pebmarsh probably locks it, so he probably left it there and came back.’
Miss Katherine Martindale:
(answering to Inspector Hardcastle’s queries)
‘It [the telephone call from Millicent Pebmarsh] came through to me direct. That would mean that it was in the lunch hour. AS near as possible I would say that it was about ten minutes to two. Before two o’clock at all events. Ah yes, I see I made a note on my pad. It was 1.49 precisely.’
‘I had been secretary to the well-known thriller writer, Garry Gregson, for many years. In fact, it was with a legacy from him that I started this [Cavendish] Bureau. I knew a good many of his fellow authors and they recommended me. My specialised knowledge of authors’ requirements came in very useful. I offer a very helpful service in the way of necessary research….’
Mrs. Merina Rival
(to her friend Fred)
‘It’s not right. It’s not fair. No, it’s not right. I know what I’m talking about, Fred, and I say it’s not right.’
Miss Millicent Pebmarsh:
(to Inspector Hardcastle)
‘..But I can only assure you, Inspector Hardcastle, that I had no need for a stenographer and did not-repeat not-ring up this Cavendish place with any such request.’
‘Either you or I must be mad, Inspector. I assure you I have no Dresden china clock, no – what did you say- clock with “Rosemaery” across it- no French ormolu clock and- what was the other one?’
‘The whole thing’s daft.’
(to Colin Lamb)
‘I’m not taking advantage of your offer. What would be the use? I shall stay here until-they come. There are always opportunities – even in prison.’
Mrs. Valerie Bland:
‘We’ve got all our friends here – and my sister lives here, and everybody knows us. If we went abroad we’d be strangers…’