Notes On The Unexpected Guest

Rating: 3.5 out of five

Year of Publication: 1999 (as a novel)

Motive for Murder: Revenge

Plot:

Richard Warwick is a horrible man. He has been acquitted twice; one for mocking a woman with his gun and the other for running over a boy. He pays people to give their accounts of events in his favour. Furthermore, he drinks a lot and keeps a gun by his side. Every night he shoots animals from an open window while sitting in his wheelchair – out of fun.

Little did he realise that when he had been acquitted for the death of the boy,  the father was brewing a plan to kill him, .

One night in November, Michael Starkwedder stumbles into the Warwicks’s home due to his car going into the ditch outside the house. As he enters the study through the unlocked French windows, the lifeless body of Richard’s is in sight. What surprises him most nonetheless is the presence of a woman in the room. She tells the stranger that she has shot her husband dead. In Laura Warwick’s hand is her late husband’s gun. When she asks Starkwedder  to phone the police, his remarks: ‘Not yet. In a moment,  perhaps. Can you tell me why you shot him?’ Be that as it may, Mrs. Warwick cannot give him the satisfying answer.

Later he manages to get the truth out of her: that she heard a shot and steps out of the house. Clearly, she did not kill the deceased and moreover appear to protect the person who has done it. Why?

‘Excuse me putting this bluntly, Mrs. Warwick, but are you confessing to murder?’ Michael Starkwadder, the unexpected guest, asks Mrs. Warwick – the deceased’s mother.

Highlights:

Richard Warwick is a murder victim no one in the household would have missed – a good riddance in the words of his own mother who lives in the house along with her other son from the second marriage. Laura has suffered for years because of his temperament and disability and his half brother Jan hates him because Richard used to threaten sending the other to an asylum. There is one person who does not benefit from Richard’s death: Henry Angell, his valet/manservant who suddenly has lost his job.

The circumstances raises the motive of his killing and its method, ie. was it a pre-meditated act or done on the spur of the moment?

Michael Starkwedder comes into the scene as stranger who happens to be in the thick of it; it has been less than an hour since the murder occurred when he finds the body. More importantly, to notice a company. Quickly, he plots to free Laura from suspicion.

Starkwedder reminds me of Arthur Calgary (Ordeal By Innocence – see the Notes); a mere stranger who invites themselves into a family matter in the least expected circumstances. Their character, an enigmatic one it might seem, recurs in Christie’s books. Similarly, Dr. Peter Lord (Sad Cypress – see the Notes) persuades Hercule Poirot to take a case at the start of a trial, having been adamant that the beautiful Elinor Carlisle did not murder Marry Gerrard.

It is most interesting how Starkwedder calmly asks Laura Warwick to describe the people who live in the house. He appears to be in control of the situation and resourceful; just as Mr. Quinn when he turns up at in the New Year’s Eve and helps Mr. Satterthwaite solve the mysterious death of Derek Cappel ( The Mysterious Mr. Quin – see the Notes).

The name MacGregor is mentioned as the father of the boy whom the late Richard ran over. It is the housekeeper, Miss Bennet, who for the first time establishes the association between the murder of her master and Macgregor’s revenge. I like the fact that it is not Laura who remembers the name, for she already describes the plausible motive of retaliation to Starkwedder. Nonetheless, it makes me wonder who this spinster actually. For much later in the book it turns out that she can handle guns well.

From a curious stranger Christie shifts the focus to Jan, the half brother the deceased used to bully. Feeling indignant, Jan hates the other for the bad treatment he has received. Due to his learning difficulties, he feels ‘excited’ that Richard has died from a gunshot through his skull – considering the deceased was a remarkable shooter. As a minor character, Jan is the shadow of the authoress’s having an epilepsy. In ABC Murder, the suspect Alexander Bonaparte Crust is also epileptic. The question is the extent of Jan’s hatred to Richard. Will it make Jan a murderer?

Concerning Osborne’s touch to the play, personally I believe it is the best compared to Spider’s Web and Black Coffee (see their respective Notes).  The description is succinct and the language is very similar to Christie’s; in plain English that most people understand. Needless to say, it might have been the authoress herself who had written the book version of the play.

My criticism is the less subtle approach Osborne has pursued in some parts, which is least likely to occur in Christie’s books. Take the example of the conversation between Starkwedder and the deceased’s mother. On the one hand, Osborne captures the old Mrs. Warwick’s feelings very well and I could recall Mrs. Rogers (Endless Night –see the Notes) telling about her wayward son. It arouses the sympathy to a mother who feels hopeless and knows that something is bound to happen. On the other hand, as Starkwedder queries the reason Mrs. Warwick having opened up about Richard to him, her reply is: ‘Because you are a stranger. These loves and hates and tribulations mean nothing to you, so you can hear about them unmoved.’ I am not quite sure if Christie would have given a frank response like that and I do wonder whether the lines are written in the play script.

My argument is based on a similar scene between Hercule Poirot and Amy Folliat in Dead Man’s Folly (see the Notes). She elaborates her past and the history of the much beloved place she calls home, Nasse House. Poirot seems to accept that this old woman has felt comfortable to tell her stories  owing to his being an outsider. There is no a statement, however, about her pointing out his being a stranger nor a word about  his reputation. Instead, Folliat intriguingly quotes from Spenser: sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas, ease after war, death after life, doth greatly please…     

Speaking of poetry, some quotes from different poems are highlighted. I do not know whether they are originally in the play; yet at least they enlighten the somewhat bleak atmosphere in the house. The young Sergeant Cadwallader jovially utters lines from Keats and T.S. Elliot. He remind me ofArthur Hastings in Black Coffee (see the Notes), who enters the crime scene and remarks on it (without knowing that a murder has just been discovered): ‘          ‘

Towards the end it was rather disappointing when Miss Bennet leads Jan to confess of having taken the life of his half brother. She is very persuasive and it is obvious that Jan is under her control. It amazes me in particular that she has been in the Resistance and does have sound knowledge about the guns. (further about her is in The Most Fascinating Character).

More importantly, it almost falls flat after Laura Warwick and Julian Farrar’s attempt to protect one another in the name of love.  Thus, I was glad when it was not over yet. Although I feel that Jan’s accidental death is unnecessary. It indeed makes the murderer feel unease afterward. He did not see it coming and I suppose he is troubled by it. As a result, he confesses everything. To whom? Readers, have a guess.

 

The Twists:

A dead threat letter is found on Richard Warwick’s chest

-Julian Farrar’s lighter is found in the crime scene and Laura Warwick tells the police it belongs to Michael Starkwedder

– Farrar admits that the fingerprints on the table at the crime scene are his

-Farrar tells the police that when he sees Richard Warwick the deceased was still alive

-Henry Angell tries to blackmail Farrar as Angell has seen the other leaving the house from the pantry window hurriedly

-John MacGregor dies not long after he comes back to Canada, the country of his origin, after the inquest into his son’s death two years prior to the murder .

-Michael Starkwedder does not know about the shooting incident at Norfolk (see Clues)

Cast of Characters:

Miss Bennett (the Warwicks’s housekeeper)

Hubert Bregg directed the first showing of the play in 1958 at a West End theatre in London, UK.

Sergeant Cadwallader

Henry Angell (Richard’s manservant/valet)

Jan Warwick (Richard’s half brother)

Laura Warwick (Richard’s wife)

Michael Starkwedder (who finds the body)

Richard Warwick

Inspector Thomas

Mrs. Warwick (Richard’s mother)

The Most Fascinating Character: Miss Bennet

She is the capable housekeeper and secretary to Richard Warwick who runs the house smoothly like Lady Camilla‘s companion Mary Aldin (Towards Zero – see the Notes). Being a long standing employer, her loyalty lies entirely with her boss. She knows everything and every person in the house well but is secretive about most things. Her appearance might not be a match to the attractive Lucy Wheelbarrow (4.50 From Paddington) but Bennet’s brain just works the same.

As a choice for the Most Fascinating Character, there is a number of details about her that have been left unexplained. To begin with, she is an ex-hospital nurse. Yet there is no a statement whether she is in charge with Jan’s medication or her explaining what ‘learning difficulties’ Jan has. Was it Asperger’s Syndrome –given the high level of intelligence of Jan’s?

No sooner has Bennet seen the writing on the paper found on Richard’s chest than she exclaims: ‘Good Lord! MacGregor!’ Beforehand, she rejects the idea that Richard’s death was a murder but has changed her mind because of the words on the paper: May-fifteen-paid in full.

I am fascinated that she, like everyone else, is inclined to regard John MacGregor as the murderer. I suppose she might have known if Warwick had received a death threat. Moreover, the deceased is someone who likes telling boastful things and therefore it is surprising that he did not say anything about such a letter. To my mind, it is strange that she duly accepts the scenario.

Furthermore, it is likely that the police and her coaxing Jan into confessing the murder and establishing the motive as manslaughter with diminished responsibility. Personally, it contradicts Bennet as I feel that her fondness to Jan is sincere and she used to protect him from further bullying by the deceased.

What makes her arrange the confession? Has she agreed with the police that it was the best way to ferret out the killer? Hence, has she made Jan as a bait? Besides, does she think that Jan is better to be kept in an asylum? Most significantly, who has she been suspected after all?

The cleverness of hers does not stop in the above matter She realises later Starkwedder having helped Laura. Interestingly, his noticing Bennet having fallen in love with the late Richard Warwick. Perhaps she has found out that it was Starkwedder who had created the false clue; the death threat letter. Probably, she also has been  worried that the person she has suspected is really the killer.

At the end of the day, what a lonely world she must have been. She has been in the Resistance during the War and might have just spoken her experience to Jan for the first time. To my mind hers mirrors to Kirsty Lindstorm’s dedication to the Argyles (Ordeal By Innocence).

Above all, I am fascinated that it is Starkwedder who sums up Bennet’s character to Laura :’Your Miss Bennet, she seems very positive she knows all the answers.’

I wonder if she has an iota of guilt about Jan’s passing.

 

Clues:

Laura Warwick to Michael Starkwedder:

‘The main trouble in Norfolk was really because a woman came to call at the house one day, collecting subscriptions for the village fete. Richard sent shots to the right and left of her as she was going away, walking down the drive. She bolted like a hare, he said. He roared with laughter when he told us about it. I remember him saying her fat backside was quivering like a jelly. But she went to the police about it, and there was a terrible row.’

‘I can imagine that.’

‘But Richard got away with it all right. He had a permit for all his firearms, of course, and he assured the police that he only used to shoot rabbits. He explained away poor Miss Butterfield by claiming that she was just a nervous old maid who imagined he was shooting at her, which he swore he would neve have done. Richard was always plausible. He had no trouble making the police believe him.’

A while afterwards… (about the accident)

‘ Well, there was the child’s father. He saw it happen. But there was also a hospital nurse – Nurse Warburton- who was in the car with Richard. She gave evidence, of course. And according to her, the car was going under thirty miles an hour and Richard had had only one glass of sherry. She said that the accident was quite unavoidable. – the little boy just suddenly rushed out, straight in front of the car. They believed her, and not the child’s father who said that the car was being driven eratically and at a very high speed. I understand the poor man was – rather over-violent in expressing his feelings. You see, anyone would believe Nurse Warburton. She seemed the very essence of honesty and reliability and accuracy and careful understatement and all that.’

Mrs. Warwick to Inspector Thomas and Sergeant Cadwallader:

‘That poor little boy. The one Richard ran over, I mean. I suppose it must have unhinged the father’s brain. I know they told me he was very violent and abusive at the time. Perhaps that was only natural. But after two years! It seems incredible.’

‘Yes, it seems a long time to wait.’

‘But he was a Scot, of course. A MacGregor. A patient, dodged people, the Scots.’

‘Indeed they are,’ exclaimed Sergeant Cadwallader, forgetting himself and thinking out loud. ‘There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.’

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