Rating: three out of five
Year of Publication: 1953
Motive for Murder: Wealth
Plot: Richard Abernethie’s death benefits members of the family; two live siblings, an ex-sister-in-law, a nephew and two nieces owing to the family’s vast fortune. His death sounds natural until Cora Lansquenet, the youngest sister, says after the funeral, ‘But he was murdered, wasn’t he.’ Nobody takes her words seriously.
The next day Cora is brutally murdered in her cottage. That triggers a wave of shock that makes Mr. Entwhistle, the family lawyer and the deceased’s old friend, reconsiders her remark previously. He then decides to involve Hercule Poirot in the matter.
Meanwhile, Cora’s niece, Susan Banks, to whom she has left most of her things, including a number of her paintings, comes to her late aunt’ cottage. There she meets Cora’s companion, Miss Gilchrist. Also, Mr. Guthrie, an art critic, of whom Cora invited to come over to give his appraisal concerning a coastal painting she had bought a few weeks prior to her death.
Posing as a prospective buyer on behalf of foreign refugees, Poirot sees the family’s home which has been put up for sale. He meets the beneficiaries of Richard’s will and Miss Gilchrist, who has been then employed to help look after Richard’s invalid brother, Timothy. Yet somebody knows Poirot’s pretext. ‘Because you’re a detective, aren’t you? That’s why you’re here. NARCO, or whatever you call it, is just nonsense, isn’t it?
When Helen Abernethie, the widow of Richard’s other brother, is found unconscious the day after, it’s time for another family gathering. Only this time, it is to unmask the face of a murderer.
Who is Richard Abernethie? The similar question goes to Aristide Leonides (Crooked House, 1949) and Luther Crackenthorpe(4.50 From Paddington, 1957). These three men are already dead in the book; their being mentioned respectively by other characters owing to their magnanimity towards others. More importantly, as the head of the family, recollections emanating from a handful of people who have known the men well are inevitable. Personally, it is most fascinating how these men are similar in many ways; holding the family together in their ‘dictatorial’ attitude. What is more, I wonder as to why Christie’s particular interest in the recurring family theme in her fifties’ books?
As a rule, family’s affairs are complicated; oftentimes it deals with delicate matters and is quite unusual if everybody is happy with a decision. As for Christie’s, there seems to be not much sensation about hers. Her marriage to Max Mallowan was a happy one and at the time of the publication she was a grandmother of a ten-year-old boy. Was she curious about how the others lived?
In the book, fom the first chapter a dash of tensions and old feuds emerge in the Abernethies; a family bound only by blood but hardly interpersonal relations among them. The younger generation do not know the older ones and vice versa. Old Lanscombe, the lifelong butler and Mr. Entwhistle are outsiders who actually know much more. In the case of Cora Lansquenet, her eldest brother did not approve her having married to a French artist, of whom had been perceived unsuitable. As a result, Cora’s relationship with Richard and the rest of the family are severed, for she believed in her family being unfair to her. To her surprise Richard went to see her three weeks prior to his death and they buried the hatchet between them. Unbeknown to her he was dying and subsequently left her an income in his will.
When she dies, it is evident from Richard’s will that her money will automatically be shared by the remaining members of the family; two nieces and their husbands, a bachelor nephew, a brother and two sister-in-laws. Consequently they are all suspects – but what are the motives?
Just little diversion from the discussion. I recall a friend of mine some time ago talking about the surprise caused by a sudden departure of a friend of ours with her only daughter. She had left her husband behind to attend her elderly parents thousand miles away from England. What was curious was the fact that she did not say goodbye to us but only to a few moments before boarding the aeroplane. Gossips circled and theories arose, not to mention different scenarios as to her ‘motive.’ Nonetheless, my friend said, ’Is it possible that actually nothing happens between them [husband and wife]?’I raised my eyebrows. ‘So you think she just went and thought that it was none of our business?’ ‘Indeed.’
I mention that because the plot seems to follow up Cora’s remark, as the family gather to hear Entwhistle reading the Will. For there are two options: the truth in her words or just the careless saying given to her somewhat childish personae. Then Ernstwhistle involving Poirot while conversations to weigh the options between minor characters appear to lead things to the ‘truth’ spoken as regard to Richard’s death. Was she killed because of her remark? Or something else?
Here readers must choose: to follow the plot or to think otherwise; that Cora is a incorrigible liar. Which one to believe? What is more is the question of what someone wants to believe having considered the turns of the events.
Checking a suspect’s alibi is the next step and I must say Christie does it cleverly. For it is apparent that some tell lies, one tries to cover their track with no avail while the murderer himself –the pronoun is not suggestive- remains in the background. Just as finding the killer of Aristide Leonides, the focus is in the Abernethies themselves (and those who are related by marriage).
Meanwhile, Entwhistle’s and old Lanscombe’s reminiscenses provide a lot of important clues that can be easily dismissed as red herrings. To my mind the lawyer is the equivalent of Captain Hastings in later days to Poirot and Mr. Sattherthwaite (appears in The Mysterious Mr. Quin and Three-Act Tragedy) to Harley Quin.
Richard’s death has become personal to Entwhistle and his concern to the possibility of a foul play is genuine. His weakness might be his absolute trust to police’s judgement. Like Hastings, the seventy-two-year-old lawyer seems to speak out loud ‘something obvious’ that he wouldn’t realise it himself. As for his state of mind, there seems to be some hesitation in him about his viewpoint as an elderly man.Was he right to question Richard’s doctor’s judgment, Dr. Larraby, about the cause of death of his old friend?
In the end, it is Susan Banks’s remark about Poirot’s identity that sets the wheel in motion. Unbeknown to her, her words triggers the next action of the murderer in the same way as Cora’s . An attempt to take the life of Helen Abernethie’s is unsuccessful. Yet, Poirot’s capturing the murderer depends on a piece of evidence that has to be found by Entwhistle without further ado. In this regard the sleuth plays his ‘cat and mouse’ game (which recurs in The Under Dog story in The Adventure of The Christmas Pudding, 1960) as he needs to buy time. The delaying technique is then deployed; he invites the suspects to come forward, either with a confession or information.
Finally, as I finished the book, it left me with a lingering feeling on Christie’s quest about the nature of a family. The Abernethies are unique, just as the Leonides’ and the Crackenthorpes’. Perhaps it is not so much about them as such, but the dynamics and the distinctive personalities that exist. Perhaps it is not about people with the same surnames or related by marriage, but also the outsiders whose lives are entwined with a family. Perhaps – to ponder over the murderer’s point of views?
-Helen Abernethie feels a strange thing concerning the atmosphere on the day of the funeral, when the family gather in the library to hear about the Will. Later, only when she sees her reflection in the mirror does she remember something: Cora’s bird-like tilting of the head saying, ‘ But, he was murdered, wasn’t he?’ in the library.
-Mr Entwhistle and old Lanscombe cannot recall Cora Lansquenet’s appearance when they meet her again over twenty years later at the funeral.
-Mr. Entwhistle smells paint when visiting Cora’s cottage after her murder
-Helen is coshed in the head while telephoning Mr. Entwhistle to tell him what she ‘saw’ in the mirror
-Hercule Poirot asks Mr. Entwhistle to get an item from Timothy Abernethie’s home
-Poirot receives a confirmation from Mr. Guthrie in a telegraph about a painting the detective has asked to be examined
Cast of Characters:
The Abernethies: (alive)
Cora Lansquenet– the youngest sister of Richard
George Crossfield – Richard’s nephew, a bachelor
Gregory Banks – Susan’s husband, a pharmacist
Helen – Richard’s late brother’s Leo’s wife
Maude – Timothy’s wife
Michael – Rosamund’s husband, an actor
Rosamund -Richard’s niece
Susan Banks – Richard’s niece
Timothy – Richard’s only surviving brother
Mr. Entwhistle – Richard’s lawyer
Miss Gilchrist – Cora’s companion
Mr. Guthrie – an art critic, Cora’s late husband’s acquaintance
Lanscombe – the lifelong butler
Dr. Larraby – Richard Abernethie’s doctor
Inspector Morton (of Lychett St. Mary police)
The Most Fascinating Character: George Crossfield
The only nephew of Richard Abernethie’s, Crossfield’s mother, Laura, has died a long time ago. Her marriage to a stock brocker was not a joyful cause for her eldest brother and she distanced herself from him as a result.
Six months before Richard died he invited Crossfield to stay at Enderby Hall in order to get to know him better as a possible heir, given that his own son Mortimer died from infantile paralysis and his younger brother Timothy was a hypochondriac about his health. Unfortunately, Crossfield’s personality did not satisfy his sick uncle and therefore there was no heir appointed in the end.
What seems to be a great concern to Richard is Crossfield’s unfortunate knack of investing money in the wrong place. He admits it to his cousins and how the inheritance money relieves him from the debt he could not have possibly repaid. Furthermore, there is a hint of Crossfield’s choice of sexuality that is not agreeable as an heir. Subtly expressed as it should have been, it is fascinating to realise that such a thing was a reality – until it did not become no longer illegal in 1967. There is neither a remark from Crossfield to notice nor phrases from other minor characters as far as the matter is concerned nevertheless. Yet throughout the book all add up.
Crossfield reminds me of Roger Leonides, Aristide’s eldest son. He brings his father’s company into administration by way of wrong investment and tells him everything. On the brink of the bankruptcy, the only way is for Aristide to step in – something that Aristide then refused. Likewise, Crossfield will be saved by his uncle’s money and he might have understood about the nature of Richard’s illness. What makes another month different?
Be that as it may, does he have a killer temperament in him?
Mr. Enwhistle to Hercule Poirot:
‘I might have passed her (Cora Lansquenet) without recognising her. he was a thin slip of girl when I saw her last and she had turned into a stout, shabby, middle-aged woman. But I think that the moment I spoke to her face to face (after the funeral) I should have recognised her. She wore her hair in the same way, a bang cut straight across the forehead and she had a trick of peering up at you through her fringe like a rather shy animal, and she had a very characteristic, abrupt way of talking, and a way of putting her head on one side and then coming out with something quite outrageous. She had character, you see, and character is always highly individual.’
George Crossfield (to Rosamund Shane with the presence of other members of family, Miss Gilchrist and Hercule Poirot at Enderby Hall for furniture distribution):
‘Because, don’t you see, nobody ever sees themselves –as they appear to other people. They always see themselves in a glass – that is – as a reversed image.’
Miss Gilchrist (to Mr. Ernstwhistle):
‘Mrs Lansquenet used to buy them [paintings] at sales. It was a great interest to her, poor dear. She went to all the sales round about. Pictures go so cheap, nowadays, a mere song. She never paid more than a pound for any of them, sometimes only a few shillings, and there was a wonderful chance, she always said, of picking up something worth while. She used to say that this was an Italian Primitive that might be worth a lot of money.’
‘Of course, I don’t know much myself, though my father was a painter – not a very successful one, I’m afraid. But I used to do water- colours myself as a girl and I heard a lot of talk about painting and that made it nice for Mrs Lansquenet to have someone she could talk to about painting and who’d understand. Poor dear soul, she cared so much about artistic things.’
Inspector Morton (to Mr. Ernswhistle):
“Yes, several possibilities… Of course this Gilchrist woman may have done it. Two women living alone together – you never know what quarrels or resentments or passions may have been aroused. Oh yes, we’re taking that possibility into consideration as well. But it doesn’t seem very likely. From all accounts they were on quite amicable terms.”