Notes On Death In The Clouds

Rating: 3.5 out of five

Year of Publication: 1935

Motive for Murder: Wealth

Plot: Five minutes before Prometheus touches down in Croydon, the steward on board the small aeroplane tries to wake up a passenger sitting at the back. No sooner has he shaken Madame Giselle than her body slumps in the seat. His face turns pale.

Croydon Airport housed the world’s first international terminal, from the earliest days of air transport until it closed in 1959. Over 60 years ago Amy Johnson made her famous solo flight to Darwin, Australia from the airport. The Visitor Centre is housed in the control tower and boasts a ‘Museum of Aviation’ with interactive features and a gift shop.

Did she have a heart attack? Or, in the words of other passenger, has died from a wasp sting? Heads begin to stretch to see what has happened. ‘Pardon,’ said another, a little man with a big moustache, having approached the deceased. Going down on his knees, he takes a long thorn concealed by the edge of the deceased’s black skirt with a tweezer. ‘This object, gentlemen, is the native thorn shot from a blowpipe by certain tribes – er-I cannot be exactly certain now….’ declares Mr. Clancy, a crime writer, a fellow passenger. ‘Is the famous arrow poison of South American Indians,’ finishes the little man – Hercule Poirot.

During the police search, a blowpipe is found pushed on the side of his seat. In the inquest, a jury suggests that the Belgian is to become a suspect for the murder of the French woman. Bemused, Poirot is set to work to clear his name. With Inspector Japp and Monsieur Fournier from the French police they embark on a puzzling case of a moneylender to the upper-class. Who murdered her among the thirteen people therein?

Highlights:  

Did Christie happen to have Sigmund Freud at the back of her mind while writing the book? (see Clues). First and foremost, it does seem to me that Freud’s ‘id, ego and superego’ is at work. A number of conversations between the characters appear to focus on the unconscious mind and  the battles between someone’s ego and superego. Also, the discrepancy between thoughts and the actual behaviour is evident.

Concerning the plot, the circumstances of the crime is most intriguing: a murder committed under the eye of other eleven passengers and two stewards. Such is either meticulously planned or done on the spur of the moment. The subject presents contrasting views between Poirot and Fournier. Who is one to believe; a senior French police or an elderly ex-detective Belgian, whose motivation in the case is personal?

Madame Giselle – or Marie Morisot, her passport name- was poisoned with a deadly snake venom put on a tip of a long thorn, which was then indicated as being used by South American indigenous people. Like Heather Badcock (The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side), Morisot died instantly. Yet, did she meet her fate due to ‘pyschological moment,’ ie. that the murderer’s decision was swift, as Fournier then suggested?

His argument brings the second point: the opportunity for murder. Chances are the killer had to be seen having passed Morisot’s seat or to have raised a blowpipe and aimed it at the victim. The scenario is plausible scenario yet quite impossible for two reasons: firstly, because everybody on the plane would have seen the action. Poirot’s experiment during the flight to Paris with Fournier (to see Morisot’s faithful maid) in the same plane later proves this. Secondly, because the people who passed the deceased during the unfortunate flight were the two stewards. Yes, that makes them suspects. No, the police do not see their motives or connection to the victim.

Moreover, there is a notion that for the murderer to have killed Morisot that he or she had to leave their seat. Passengers who did such were heading for the toilets, which was in the opposite direction.

To give an illustration of the above points, the following is the sitting plan on the aeroplane:

sittingplan_deathintheclouds (in .pdf file – sorry for the inconvenience)

Readers learn that the deceased sits on no.2 at the very back near the entrance. Poirot is at the other aisle at no.9, next to Dr. Bryant. Nonetheless, no. 9 is actually Lady Horbury’s seat. Poirot offered his seat to her so that she could sit and chat with her friend Venetia Kerr who sat opposite at no. 17.

In the police interviews, in which Poirot attends, nobody seemed to have noticed the presence of a blowpipe until the killing occurred. It was Mr. Clancy, who mentioned the probability of a blowpipe used in the first place. Besides, he admitted having possessed one but had not brought his on the flight. And how about the flute Dr. Bryant had with him on the flight? Some saw him take it out from his bag. An alternative for a weapon?

Jean Dupont, who sat nearest to the deceased at no. 6, pointed out the presence of a wasp. Further on he said that Morisot might have died from a wasp sting. What made he say it? Did he do it to detach himself from suspicion? Or because he killed the wasp later? (found on his saucer).

Looking at other suspect is James Ryder, a businessman, who sat in front of Morisot.  He seemed to be in a difficult financial position at that time. Thus it was probable that he might have borrowed money from the French woman and had arrears. Regarding Morisot’s reputation, she was known as ruthless to people who did not pay and would use ‘her method’ to make them pay by way of revelations to their personal affairs.

These questions of motives weave well in the book – the usual Christie’s twist of mind kind of stuff. What is more, she gave a touch of the media intrusion in a chapter; their ‘nosing’ about a murder case with a Countess as a suspect. A reporter –one was in a brown suit- has approached two other suspects, Jane Grey and Norman Gale and thereby offer them a sum of money for their individual ‘views’ on the matter.

Considering that the authoress was already a household name in the thirties, her way of reprimanding the media was very smart.  Bear in mind their reports on her eleven days’ disappearance in 1926 that was ‘a nine-days wonder.’  To this day her whereabouts and movements at that time are still mysterious. I wonder whether she was also been offered a handsome amount of money had she been willing to laundry her dirty linen in public Personally, I do not think it is anyone’s business in the least, let alone making money out of it. At least readers will be amused with her lighthearted approach.

What I am not sure about is the ending. On the one hand, Christie has done a good job holding the identity of the perpetrator until the very end. On the other, her ‘feminine way’ in giving the clues might have been rather difficult, even to her hard-up fans. Personally I managed to shortlist three possible murderer halfway through the reading. Yet, when the information was minimum and the very clue lay in the passengers’ list of items, I heaved a sigh in the end. Much as I enjoy the twists, I do not think many of their readers could have guessed it either. Or were you among a few successful ones?

Lastly, the number of people on the plane. Just as in Three-Act Tragedy and And Then There Were None, fifteen people are on the Prometheus; thirteen passengers and two stewards. One of them is not supposed to be there and therefore thirteen makes it a bad luck. A bit of superstition on Christie’s part that often comes up in her books.

On the whole, Death In The Clouds is not what it seems; not certainly a choice for a long-haul flight but still a delight for character study and a page turner.

The Twists:

-Poirot changed his seat from no.13 to no. 9, so that Lady Cicely Horbury could sit opposite to her friend Venetia Kerr.

-Lady Horbury’s maid is Madame Giselle’s daughter

-In the list of passenger’s belongings, Norman Gale has an empty matchbox and the dentist’s white linen coat in his possession.

-Lady Horbury’s boracic powder bottle contains coccaine

-Lady Horbury owes Madame Giselle money and she sees the other the night before they go on board the Prometheus

-Madame Giselle’s black notebook kept by her maid

-The Countess of Horbury’s photograph with an actor Raymond  Barraclough appears on the Sketch

-Elise Grandner does not burn Madame Giselle’s papers in the safe

-Norman Gale used to work in a farm in South Africa

-Anne Morisot works for Lady Horbury under an assumed name ‘Madeleine’

-There are two stirring spoons on the deceased’s saucer

Cast of Characters:

Albert Davies (the junior steward on the Prometheus)

Anne Morisot (a.k.a. Madeleine, Countess of Horbury’s maid)

Armand Dupont ( a French archaeologist, who travels with his son Jean)

Dr. Bryant (a doctor, who brings his flute on the flight)  

Lady Cicely Horbury (a countess, who has lost in gambling at Le Pinet and come to see Madame Giselle for borrowing money)

Daniel Clancy (a crime writer, who owns a blowpipe)

Elise Grandier (Madame Giselle’s faithful servant)

Monsieur Fornier (of Surete, France’s equal to Scotland Yard)

Henry Mitchell (the senior steward, who found the dead body)

James Ryder (a businessman)

Jane Grey (an assistant hairdresser, Poirot’s ad-hoc secretary)

Jean Dupont (a French archaeologist, travelling with his father Armand)

Inspector Japp (of Scotland Yard)

Marie Morisot (a.k.a. Madame Giselle, the French moneylender)

Norman Gale (a dentist)

Venetia Kerr (a friend of Lady Cicely)

The Most Fascinating Character: Elise Grandier

Hercule Poirot and M. Fournier meet Madame Giselle’s loyal maid in her employer’s abode for an interview a day after the inquest.  She is described as ‘a short stout woman of middle age with a florid face and small shrewd eyes.’ They dart quickly from Fournier to Poirot and then back again, which shows her recognition to Fournier, who previously came for a search. She told the police that she had been instructed to burn all documents in the safe in the event of her late mistress’s illness or death.

She claims that she knew nothing – nothing at all about the other’s business. In the interview Fournier uses a counter technique towards her biased judgement to the deceased. At any rate such only makes Grandier defend the other more.

In actual fact she did what she was told to do. What she did not say to Fournier was of her knowledge about the important documents kept safe in the bedroom. Instead she told Poirot, who had managed to extract the information, to Fournier’s dismay.

What is worth looking at in the chapter is the difference style of Fournier’s and Poirot’s as they were asking her. Whilst Fournier tends to follow up things at face value, Poirot is more interested in Grandier’s feelings and memories of Madame Giselle – as she was known to the maid. In doing so he added, ‘It is one thing to give information to the police and another thing to give it to private individual.’

The rest is the history of the strong bound between the two women. Grandier feels that she has owed Madame Giselle a great deal and the other trusted her maid wholeheartedly in looking after things, not as a confidante nevertheless.  Most significantly, they were mothers – or so they thought. For they had to give up their children to be raised by others due to the difficult circumstances they had been in. Whilst Grandier’s son has died, Giselle’s daughter is alive and she has made her daughter the heir. I suppose Grandier has no idea about the other daughter’s whereabouts nor meets her. I wonder if she knows Madame Giselle’s real name: Marie Morisot.

From years of service Grandier knows much more than what she is willing to admit.  For she is able to deduce that Giselle’s ex-husband was English and their relationship ended not in a good term, for she felt a bitterness when the deceased had mentioned about him. She also understands that the deceased complained about some of her clients.

Towards the end of the interview, Grandier gives Poirot a black notebook of Madame Giselle’s, which contains some codes about her sleuthing some clients’ movements. Something that comes useful for the Belgian.

Elise Grandiner sheds some light about the interesting life of Marie Morisot and herself. Perhaps it was her discreetness, which attracted her employer. For Grandiner is a very good listener and does not talk much. Many things she told Poirot had come from deduction and conclusions, which I have found fascinating – how much a maid knows.

I wonder what might become this minor character afterwards. Will she retire and live in the country until the old age? Or will she go on a cruise and enjoy their life?

Clues:

Conversations between Hercule Poirot and Fournier: (The Freud’s influence)

‘You are amused, my friend? But you agree one must try the experiments (of raising a small piece of bamboo to his lips and pointing it at a certain direction three times during a flight)?’

Evidemment! In truth I admire your thoroughness. There is nothing like ocular demonstration. Yo play the part of the murderer with blowpipe. The result is perfectly clear. Everybody sees you!’

‘Not everybody.’

‘In a sense, no. On each occasion there is somebody who does not see you; but for a successful murder that is not enough. You must be reasonably sure that nobody will see you. And that is impossible given ordinary conditions,’ said Fournier. ‘I hold then to my theory that there must have been extraordinary conditions – the psychological moment! There must have been a psychological moment when everyone’s attention was mathematically centred elsewhere.’

‘Our friend Inspector Japp is going to make minute inquiries on that point.’

‘Do you not agree with me, M. Poirot?’

‘I agree that there was – that there must have been a psychological reason why nobody saw the murderer…But my ideas are running in a slightly different channel from yours. I feel that in this case mere ocular facts may be deceptive. Close your eyes, my friend, instead of opening them wide. Use the eyes of the brain, not the body. Let the little grey cells of the mind function…Let it be their task to show you what actually happened.’

‘I do not follow you, M. Poirot.’

‘Because you are deducing from things that you have seen. Nothing can be so misleading as observation.’

‘Give it up. I cannot catch your meaning.’

‘Our friend Giraud would urge you to pay no attention to my vagaries. “Be up and doing,” he would say. “To sit in an arm-chair and think, that is the method of an old man past his prime.” But I say that a young hound is often so eager upon the scent that he overruns it…For him is the trail of the red herring. There, it is a very good hint I have given you there…’

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