Rating: 4.5 out of five
Year of Publication: 1936
Motive for Murder: Jealousy and Wealth
Plot: A serial killer puts Poirot’s mind to a test when his first letter to the sleuth came, warning him about a killing happening. On the date and place stated, Mrs. Ascher, who runs a newspaper stall in Andover, is found dead in the early hours. After the second letter, Betty Barnard, who works in a seaside cafe in Bexhill, is strangled. Sir Carmichael Clarke meets his fate as he takes his evening walk in Churston. Yet, the fourth victim’s last name begins with ‘E’ in Doncaster. Does the murderer jump a letter? Or did he make a mistake?
What are the motives of ending the lives of an elderly woman, a young ordinary woman, a collector of Chinese porcelain and ceramics and a man in the cinema? For neither the victims are related nor knew one another. One thing for sure, an ABC railway guide is always placed near the body of each victim.
Meanwhile, Alexander Bonaparte Cust finds a knife with blood in his pocket. He cannot remember why it is there nor a man who stumbled on him in the cinema earlier. During the police search in his London bedsit, eight copies of ABC are found. As the Belgian meets him face-to-face he says, ‘But you do know, don’t you that you committed murders?’ Mr. Cust responds, ‘I know.’ ‘But- I am right, am I not? – you don’t know why you did them? ‘No,’ Mr. Cust says. ‘I don’t.’ What does Poirot have in mind?
As I finished the book, I had believed that the book title could have been “Mr. Cust’s List.’ – yes, a bit like ‘Schindlers’ List.’ Yet, Christie had her own idea having decided to call the title differently. As a matter of fact, being a Poirot’s case, it suits the sleuth’s keenness at symmetry and structured mind.
At the time of the publication of the book, another Poirot’s was also launched on the market (Death In The Clouds). Both came out in the same year, 1936, and they are distinctive in terms of the nature of the murders and the circumstances entailed. On the one hand, Madame is killed because On the other, Mrs. Ascher is murdered without any apparent reasons.
Furthermore, what interests me most is the profile of the murderer. Personally, the book plot seems to resonate with The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (1926) in terms of identifying the murderer. As a minor character says, the murderer is a sort of person that nobody notices. Or perhaps would not have been perceived possible to commit a crime?
This reminds me to one of the short stories in The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930):The Bird With The Broken Wing. For the killer is a quiet man; that “it was a standing joke that …..was a real ‘invisible man’. Yet his motive is clear and the opportunity is provided by the unprecedented murder weapon that belongs to the victim. Nonetheless, how about the crime temperament; the third factor that would make someone kill according to Poirot?
Just as in After The Funeral, the murderer in the book is a minor character, who remains in the background. They are there among other suspects, observing things unobtrusively as they progress.
It is most intriguing how selective attention is deployed in the plot. For the characters see facts from a certain angle and come to a different conclusion as a result. Suspicion runs high to ‘a man dressed shabbily, wearing glasses and rather stooped,’ which emanates from the witnesses’ statements.
In this regard I applaud Christie’s craft in twisting her readers’ minds with lies, mixed truth and nothing but the truth (yet the latter aspect comes from the most suspicious character). Perceptions towards people play an important part; it is much easier to give negative thoughts to a lone man which behaves strangely than to a man who dresses smartly and looks confidence in his conduct.
The ultimate question is: how will the above issues help in the investigation? For both Poirot and the police (Inspector Crome and Inspector Japp) are still in the dark as regard to the pattern; a theory which the sleuth has strongly believed exist.
The chapter ‘A Conference’ in which the discussions about the pattern with reference to various cases are worth looking at.
My utmost appreciation to Christie, of whom the issue of epilepsy is raised in the book. For all it is worth it makes the difference, for in the thirties there were misunderstanding as to the treatment of the condition.
Many people who suffered would have been singled out and chances were they might have been treated unfairly as a human being (see The Most Fascinating Character). Her concerns are evident and moreover she seems to have wanted to point out that an epileptic person is as sane and as intelligent as a healthy person. Likewise, the look of a psychopath is as good as a ’normal person.’
It is a psycopath’s response to a verdict that sets them apart nevertheless. ‘Your theory is absurd!’ the murderer says to Poirot after his triumphant explanation in front of an audience. In the short story referred previously, the killer that come up as to why are: ‘..Nobody ever noticed what I was doing. I thought – I thought I’d have the laugh of them….’
Most importantly, the book shows the humble part of Poirot; his admitting limited knowledge on the case and making jokes to Hastings about his ‘failure’ to identify the killer sooner.
If there is any criticism, it is my being put off by the recurring setting of murders in the English seaside towns. I may be rather sensitive, for a killer can be anywhere. Yet regrettably, it did give me ‘a little idea’ when I was in the English Riviera recently (May 2013 half-term with my children). I could not have done what Christie could have: to have plotted an intimate crime in a serene surrounding of Greenway.
Be that as it may, I put down the book with thoughts aplenty about conformity in society and people’s judgment to one another. I ask myself: do I have a fair judgment to some? Have I been biased or wrongly judged someone in the past?
-The said company which has employed Mr. Cust as a silk stocking seller is a fake one
– The company’s instruction to Mr. Cust, typewritten, is traced back to a typewriter which belonged to Mr. Cust himself
-The third letter to Poirot comes on the day the murder occurs as a result of a mistake in the recipient address
-Lady Clarke saw Thora Grey talk to a man on the front doorstep on the day her husband, Sir Carmichael killed
-Betty’s mother buys some pairs of silk stocking from a door-to-door seller on the day Betty was murdered
-Mrs. Fowler, who lives next to Mrs. Ascher, mentions a seller of silk stockings the day the other died.
-Mrs. Ascher, Betty Barnard and George Earlsfield are simply the casualties
Cast of Characters:
Alexander Bonaparte Cust
Captain Arthur Hastings (Poirot’s sidekick)
Lady Clarke (the wife of Sir Carmichael, who is jealous of her husband’s treatment towards his secretary Thora Grey)
Donald Fraser (Betty Branard’s fiancé)
Franklin Clarke (the brother of Sir Carmichael Clarke)
Mrs. Fowler (the greengrocer’s wife, who lives next to Mrs. Ascher)
Chief Inspector Detective Crome (of Scotland Yard)
Inspector Japp (of Scotland Yard, Poirot’s old friend)
Lily Madbury (Tom Hartigan’s fiancée, whose mother takes Alexander Cust as a lodger)
Sir Lionel (the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard)
Mary Drower (Mrs. Ascher’s niece)
Megan Barnard (Betty Barnard’s sister)
Milly Higley (Betty’s colleague at the cafe)
Thora Grey (Norwegian, the ex-secretary of Sir Carmichael Clarke)
Dr. Thompson (the doctor whom Poirot consults on the case)
Tom Hartigan (Lily Madbury’s fiancé)
The Most Fascinating Character: Alexander Bonaparte Cust
Is he a dangerous murderer with an ordinary superficial look, who possesses a lethally genius mind?
Or, is he man with ‘great names’ who is a failure and does not live up to his namesake? (see Clues)
During his interview with Hercule Poirot,Mr. Cust talks about his background. He describes his childhood and how he finds his ways about the world – albeit the edited version. He does not mention to the other having been dismissed from the Army due to his epilepsy. Rather, he said about the headaches that had rendered him forgetting anything .
After the war he managed to get a job as a clerk, but became jobless after the recession (in the early thirties). He tried to find jobs to no avail until an opportunity for selling silk shocks with a salary and commission came up. He is then given a list by the company for potential customers and places to sell.
It is most fascinating that he laments to Poirot about his names (see Clues). More importantly about his late mother, who gave him the ‘great’ names.
‘She was quite wrong, of course [to have high expectations about her son]. I realized that myself quite soon. I wasn’t the sort of person to get on in life. I was always doing foolish things – making myself look ridiculous. And I was timid – afraid of people. I had a bad time at school – the boys found out my Christian names- they used to tease me about them….I did very badly at school – in games and work and everything. ‘
Here is a tale of a domineering mother who thought of the world about her son but was very disappointed with the reality. She seems to have been hardly satisfied with her son until her death. On the other side of the coin is an epileptic son, might have been felt as a ‘burden.’ The little boy then became a man with a sense of foreboding and the society did not accept him as he was. A sense of failure on his part develops afterwards, for he was not able to fulfil his mother’s high expectations.
I cannot imagine how miserable Mr. Cust is, as many people might have turned a cold shoulder at him. Thora Grey does not remember talking to him because she thinks that he is a sort of man that nobody notices. Betty Barnard’s mother remembers buying silk stockings for her daughter but does not recall that it was from a man who had come to Mrs. Barnard’s doorstep. Mrs. Fowler remembers seeing the same man outside Mrs. Ascher’s dwelling offering stockings but his look.
With epilepsy, it goes without saying that he was bullied in his youth. At school other kids smirked at him, which then lowered his self-esteem. I wonder if he is an only child and had a male role model when he was young. Lily Marbury describes him as a kind of ‘soft, vague person, who would not hurt a fly.’
With what he has been through, do they make him a murderer?
Alexander Cust (to Hercule Poirot):
‘..My mother was very fond of me. But she was ambitious – terribly ambitious. That’s why she gave me those ridiculous names. She had some absurd idea that I’d cut a figure in the world. She was always urging me to assert myself – talking about will-power…saying anyone could be master of his fate…she said I could do anything!’
‘I remember one man- I’ve never forgottenhim because of something he told me – we just got talking over a cup of coffee, and we started dominoes. Well, I felt after twenty minutes that I’d known that man all my life.’
‘It gave me a turn – a nasty turn.Talking of your fate being written in your hand, he was. And he showed me his hand and the lines that showed he’d have two near escapes of being drowned – and he had had two near escapes. And then he looked at mine and he told me some amazing things. Said I was going to be one of the most celebrated men in England before I died. Said the whole country would be talking about me. But he said – he said…’
Tom Hartigan (to Inspector Crome):
‘..Lily-my young lady- said as how she hoped he wouldn’t cop it from this ABC fellow going to Doncaster – and then she says it’s rather a coincidence because he was down Churston way at the time of the last crime. Laughing like, I asks her whether he was at Bexhill the time before, and she says she don’t know where he was, but he was away at the seaside – that she does know. And then I said to her it would be odd if he was the ABC himself and she said poor Mr. Cust wouldn’t hurt a fly- and that was all the time. We didn’t think no more about it. At least, in a sort of way I did, sir, underneath like. I began wondering about this Cust fellow and thinking that, after all, harmless as he seemed, he might be a bit batty.’
Hercule Poirot (in responding to Donald Fraser’s remark about the murderer):
‘…he had a tabular mind. His crimes were listed by alphabetical progression – that was obviously important to him. On the other hand, he had no particular taste in victims – Mrs. Ascher, Betty Barnard, Sir Carmichael Clarke, they all differed widely from one another. There was no sex complex – no particular age complex, and that seemed to me to be a very curious fact. If a man kills indiscriminately it is usually because he removes anyone who stands in his way or annoys him. But the alphabetical progression showed that such was not the case here. The other type of killer usually selects a particular type of victim – nearly always the opposite sex. There was something haphazard about the procedure of ABC that seemed to me to be at war with the alphabetical selection.’
‘One slight inference I permitted myself to make. The choice of the ABC suggested to me what I may call a railway-minded man. This is more common in men than women…’