Notes On Crooked House

Rating: four out of five

Year of Publication: 1949

Motive for Murder: Immaturity

 

There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse.
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

from “There Was A Crooked Man” poem

 

Plot: Charles Hayward’s plan to marry Sophia Leonides is in jeopardy after she becomes a murder suspect. Apparently she and a number of other people will benefit from the demise of Aristide Leonides, owing to his vast fortune.

The deceased, Sophia’s grandfather, is a very intriguing character. Coming to England as a penniless immigrant in his youth, Aristide’s business acumen and shrewdness made him a magnate in his adopted country. To his family he was generous, having built a big compound of houses for them to live in. Moreover, he distributed his wealth to his children and relatives proportionately.

Be that as it may, he irked them very much when he decided to marry a woman fifty three years his junior and brought her to live in the same house thereafter.

It was the wife, Brenda Leonides, who injected the wrong substance in her husband’s insulin phial. Following Aristide’s demise she is the main suspect. Worse, the police managed to find a pile of letters between her and Laurence Brown, the teacher her late husband had employed to educate his two young grandchildren Eustace and Josephine.

Not long after their arrest the Nannie dies from a poisoned chocolate drink. With the murderer is still at large the police has to work harder before more murders occur in the family.

In the meantime, there is something Sophia does not tell Charles at the beginning: that she is Aristide’s heir. Did she kill him then for the money? Or, was it her uncle, whose company was on the brink of bankruptcy?

 

Highlights:

If there is the Boyntons (Appointment With Death, 1938) with Mrs. Boynton senior as a tyrant, the major figure in the Leonides, Aristide, is her opposite.  The eighty-seven-year-old Greek man is a family man; far from the ex-prison wardress with a penchant of manipulation to her grown-up stepchildren and daughter. On the contrary, Aristide distributes his wealth many years ago to his children and gives them the freedom to do whatever they want with the money. So generous is he that he trusted the eldest son Roger with his largest company; the decision that triggers jealousy to his other son, Philip.

As a man, Aristide does not bother with the views of others about him. He seems unperturbed with their giving cold shoulders to Brenda. To his long-standing lawyer Mr. Gaitskell he does not tell him about another will he signed a year before his death, which was then kept by his fellow Greek friend and asked to be handed in to the lawyer in the event of his demise.

Aristide Leonides comes from Smyrna in Greece. What made Christie think that the part of Izmir in West Turkey was the neighbouring country?

As a major character Aristide is a powerful one. A thorough picture about him is accumulated from variable point of views based on people’s accounts; people who like and dislike him for different reasons. Take the example of Edith de Haviland (see The Most Fascinating Character). She dislikes her brother-in-law having perceived him coming from a lower class than hers and further on dismissed her sister’s marriage to Aristide as an impossible one. Then there is his granddaughter Josephine, who is fond of him but upset with his decision to refuse her learning bally dancing.

In Christie’s books it often occurs that a spouse as the main suspect of their husband/wife’s murder.  In this context she was asking readers again: is it merely a procedure or simply natural to put a spouse in the hot seat?

The notion that Brenda Leonides is a gold digger is worth looking at. Edith de Haviland does not think her a poisoner type. Likewise, the narrator of the story, Charles Hayward, feels sympathy to Aristide’s second wife. As an outsider he is in two minds about her. On the one hand other suspects are ready to accept that she might have planned the plot with Laurence Brown. On the other, the fact stands that she has been married to the octogenarian man for ten years. Why wait for that long if she wanted to have done him in?

Hayward’s view is then changed when he realises the truth in the words uttered by Josephine, Sophia’s youngest sister, about Brenda’s feelings to Laurence Brown. In fact, it is the girl who points him to the direction of the damning evidence in the chistern room, which results in Brenda and Laurence’s arrest.

When confusions emerge following the second murder, the focus of investigation shifts to scrutinise the members of the Leonides. Now it is clear that one of them clearly is the murderer. But which one? Would it be the two daughter-in-laws Magda and Clemency? His three grandchildren? Or his sister-in-law? As suspicion to Roger has been cleared, others’ motives for murder are perceived as not strong enough to have killed Aristide.

At this point the narrator’s point of views play part in making the solution harder to be realised. Personally, the last five chapters towards the end are the trickiest bits of all, as the information Hayward supplies can either be misleading or unclear.  More importantly, the authoress’s justification to his being unreliable is due to his battle of feelings; torn by his love to Aristide’s heir and to stay objective. These are shown wonderfully; his words are well crafted in which she depicts the mistakes in his judgment in a situation. Moreover, his making things somehow a little complicated than they should have been.

The sub-plots work well with various tales interwoven into the main plot. What is more, they appear to be created not just for the conflict’s sake but to feed readers with more information about the circumstances of the murders. Neither a crime of passion nor driven by jealousy, Aristide’s killing is a result of ‘immaturity’. Although what the murderer has done to the Nannie is a cold-blooded murder; of which it might remind readers to the killing of Dora Bunner (A Murder Is Announced).

At the end of the day, as the old saying goes, the more complicated it looks like the simpler the solution is.

 

The Twists:

–         Josephine is knocked out by blocks of marbles and found  unconscious in the wash house

–         Aristide Leonides makes Sophia his heir

–         Roger Leonides’s company is going into administration and it is only his father who can rectify the situation.

–         Roger and Clemency Leonides plan to leave the family for the West Indies following the bankruptcy

–         Josephine has a little black book – a diary

–         Two letters addressed to Charles Hayward from Edith de Haviland

 

Cast of Characters:

The Leonides:

Aristide (the grandfather)

Brenda (the young wife)

Clemency (Roger’s wife, a scientist)

Eustace (the grandson)

Josephine (Sophia’s younger sister, twelve year olds)

Magda (Sophia’s mother, an actress)

Philip (the younger son, Sophia’s father)

Roger (the eldest son, Clemency’s husband)

Sophia (the heir)

 

Others:

Charles Hayward (Sophia’s man)

Edith de Haviland (Aristide’s sister-in-law, the sister of the first wife of his)

Mr. Gaitskell (Aristide Leonides’s lawyer)

Johnson (Aristide’s valet)

Sergeant Lamb

Mr. Hayward senior (Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard)

The Nannie (looks after the grandchildren and cooks)

Chief-Inspector Taverner

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Edith de Haviland

For forty years she lives in Three Gables, the compound of houses Aristide Leonides built for his family. She is a great aunt of Sophia’s and the sister of Aristide’s first wife Marcia. Following her death Miss de Haviland was asked to look after her late sister’s seven children; the youngest was a year old at that time.

Charles Hayward is introduced to her by Sophia on his visit to the ‘Crooked House’. His first impression to the devoted woman to the Leonides is as follows: ‘Edith de Haviland was a woman of about seventy. She had a mass of untidy grey hair, a weather-beaten face and a shrewd and piercing glance.’

Initially he suspects her with her curt way of speech about the deceased, her remarks about binweeds and her forthrightness for having disliked her brother-in-law in earnest (see Clues). Nonetheless, she fairly appreciates Aristide’s full trust in the ways of raising the motherless children. As a token of gratitude to her devotion, Aristide gives her a handsome amount of legacy.

She does not like Brenda but remains objective in her views about her. Hayward concludes that Miss de Haviland does not believe that the wife is capable of a murder, having dismissed her as a ‘commonplace young woman – rather conventional.’ Unbeknown to her Aristide refuses Brenda’s suggestion that Miss de Haviland should have left the house, having implied Miss de Haviland as part of the family.

At any rate, she is the one who knows each member of the Leonides like the back of her hands. The depth of her knowledge is such that she seems to have realised who the murderer is right after the Nannie’s passing. It is a shame that she has chosen to keep the information to herself. Did she do it out of her maternal instinct? Protecting the wrong ‘un? Or was it out of love?

Her last words to Sophia are: ‘Good-bye dear. Don’t worry too much. Certain things have to be faced and endured.’

 

Clues:

Edith de Haviland:

‘This is a bad business, Charles Hayward. What do the police think about it? Suppose I mustn’t ask you that. Seems odd to think of Aristide being poisoned. For that matter it seems odd to think of him being dead. I never liked him-never! But I can’t get used to the idea of his being dead…Makes the house seem so-empty.’

[about Brenda Leonides]:

‘She’s always seemed to me a singularly stupid and commonplace young woman- rather conventional. Not my idea of a poisoner. Still, after all, if a young woman of twenty-four marries a man close on eighty, it’s fairly obvious that she’s marrying him for his money. In the normal course of events she could have expected to become a rich widow fairly soon. But Aristide was a singularly tough old man. His diabetes wasn’t getting any worse. He really looked like living to be a hundred. I suppose she got tired waiting…’

 

Josephine Leonides [to Charles Hayward on different occasions]:

‘Eustace and  are very interested [with the murder of their grandfather]. We like detective stories. I’ve always wanted to be a detective. I’m being one now. I‘m collecting clues.’

‘Nannie’s been poisoned. Just like grandfather. It’s awfully excting, isn’t it?’

‘I won’t tell the police anything. They’re stupid. They thought Brenda had done it- or Laurence. I wasn’t stupid like that. I knew jolly well they hadn’t done it. I’ve had an idea who it was all along, and then I made a kind of test- and now I know I’m right.’

Magda West: [to Chief-Inspector Taverner in response to his question: ‘I’m sorry to ask you this, but in your opinion was there anything in the nature of a love affair between Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brenda Leonides?’]

‘I have never seen any evidence of anything of that kind. I don’t think really, Inspector, that that is a question you ought to ask me. She was my father-in-law’s wife.’

 

Sophia Leonides [to Charles Hayward]:

‘We were all up with grandfather one day for coffee after lunch. He liked all the family around him, you know. And his eyes had been giving him a lot of trouble. And Brenda got the serine to put a drop in each eye, and Josephine, who always asks questions about everything, said: “Why does it say ‘Eyedrops not to be taken’ on the bottle? What would happen if you drank all the bottle?” And grandfather smiled and said: “If Brenda were to make a mistake and inject eyedrops into me one day instead of insulin – I suspect I should give a big gasp, and go rather blue in the face and then die, because, you see, my heart isn’t very strong.” And Josephine said: “Oo” and grandfather went on: “So we must be careful that Brenda does not give me an injection of serine instead of insulin, mustn’t we?”’

‘We’ve always, all of us, lived too much in each other’s pockets. We’re – we’re all too fond of each other. We’re not like some families where they all hate each other like poison. That must be pretty bad, but it’s almost worse to live all tangled up in conflicting affections. I think that’s what I meant when I said we all lived together in a little crooked house. I didn’t mean that it was crooked in the dishonest sense. I think what I meant was that we hadn’t been able to grow up independent, standing by ourselves, upright. We’re all a bit twisted and twining.’

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