Notes On Hercule Poirot’s Christmas

Known also as: Murder for Christmas (US edition, 1939) and A Holiday For Murder

Rating: 4.5 out of five

Year of Publication: 1938

Motive for Murder:  Hatred

Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.

Poetic Aphorisms by H.W. Longfellow

Plot:

On the Christmas Eve Simeon Lee’s throat is slashed. In the aftermath, his four sons and their wives who have come to spend the festive time at Gorston Hall start to look quizzically at one another and think: is it one of us?

Pilar Estravados arrived from Spain a few days before Christmas. She is the deceased’s only grandchild, the daughter of Lee’s only daughter who married Spaniard. The old Lee meant for her to live with him for good following her mother’s death in the previous year.

Stephen Farr, the son of his old partner Ebenezer in South Africa, pays a visit. The old Lee insists on the other man to spend Christmas with his family.

In the evening of 24th, Lee calls everyone and announces that they need not see him that night after dinner. In fact, he will rather have a quiet night in his room. In the meeting, tensions build, unkind remarks exchanged and old wounds revisited. He says, ‘…I’ll swear to heaven I’ve got a better son somewhere in the world than any of you, even if you are born the right side of the blanket!’

A few hours later, the crashing of the China, the loud cracks and bumps of the heavy furniture and a wailing scream resembles of a dying pig shock everyone. They run towards Simeon’s room, which is locked from the outside. When Farr and one of the sons, Harry, manage to break into, they are met with the sight they would never forget.

‘”The mills of God grind slowly….”’ murmurs another son.

‘”Who could have thought the old man to have had such a blood in him?”’ says a female’s voice.

 

Highlights:

What a ‘Christie for Christmas’ gift it must have been when Collins published it in November 1938. The despicable man dies with a bang and Poirot’s quiet Christmas is over; I guess he does not mind in the least. Across the Atlantic the US fans heaved a sigh, having had to wait for another Christmas before they could find out who killed the old Lee. I bet some spoilers would have ‘screamed’ the whodunit and annoyed many in consequence.

As the Belgian sleuth visits the crime scene, the victim’s personality attracts him most. As a man, Simeon’s business acumen made him very rich. As a husband, unfortunately he was not a faithful one – a series of affairs with other women. As a father, he was disappointed at his four sons, of whom he had perceived would only have wanted his money.

Nonetheless, he was an old man. Regardless whether he had felt that his death had been approaching,  he wanted to see his family together. Hence his having written to the two sons he had never seen for twenty years, David and Harry, to come home. Also, he invited his half-Spanish granddaughter Pilar whom he had never seen before to live with him. All of these he had done without telling his eldest son, Alfred and his daughter-in-law Lydia.

Simeon Lee might be a least desirable personality, but personally he was a remarkable man. In spite of his irritating behaviour, he is smart and his generosity is on a par with Aristide Leonides (see Notes On Crooked House) and the eccentric Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore in Dead’s Man Mirror (see Notes On Murder In The Mews). If anything, these men are the powerful protagonists and their immense wealth mean that they hold the purse strings as well as the key to the unmasking of the murderer.

Be that as it may, it is hatred which drives forward the murderer, biding his time before he strikes. As a result, it differs from the crime passionel in the shooting of Sir Gervase and the poisoning of Aristide Leonides. In Clues, Farr sums up Simon’s personality. For those who are aware of the Leonides and the aforementioned short story plot, they will realise the variety in motives for each suspect. More or less is the case of the Lees, minus a much younger wife and a spoilt twelve-year-old granddaughter.

Act V, Scene I, The Tragedy of Macbeth

 

Yet, nothing beats Poirot’s compliment of Superintendent Sugden’s moustache. Rest assured, readers, that  there is no hint of jealousy on the sleuth’s part nor any intention of his altering his look. As a matter of fact, it is a tease on the part of the authoress, for the detective’s remark actually bears an important clue to the case (perhaps without his realising at that time). Furthermore, his leaving the house and coming back with a fake moustache is met with a frown. To Lydia he asks to stay over and have the portrait of the young Simeon Lee hung in the room.  Does he have something up the sleeve?

As for the superintendent, he is involved in the investigation as he initially went to Gorston Hall to collect a donation from the deceased. In actual fact, he came because old Lee had wanted to report him about his missing diamonds from the safe. Then he was asked to return an hour later. As the butler answered the bell, the loud noises was being heard and therefore his presence in the crime scene almost at once. Nonetheless, Poirot asks himself: is it a mere coincidence?

It is intriguing that the above lines of Lady Macbeth seem to shed a different light about ‘blood’. For Christie’s quest of ‘crime genes’ continues, which in the previous novel Death On The Nile (1937) such possibility is deliberated. Is she right that a ‘bad’ gene runs in the family? Nonetheless, concerning the death of Simeon Lee, his family thinks that it is absurd to suggest that one of them should have wanted the old man died. Yes, they hate him but killing? Unimaginable, although not impossible.

John Horsley as Tressilian in the novel adaptation into Poirot’s series in 1995

Tressilian the butler is the star character. His observation about each family member is second to none, albeit his eyesight problem and age.

He reminds me of the old Lanscombe (After The Funeral, 1953). He does not recognise Cora Lansquenet (nee Abernethie) in appearance when the youngest sister of Richard Abernethie turns up at the door for his eldest brother’s funeral.

As for the plot, it appears to me that there are quite a few similarities to The Mouse Trap; the setting at winter time, some of the characters and the killer, albeit revenge is the motive in the play. Although no blood spared.

What I like most is the dramatisation of Simeon Lee’s death. After the heated arguments before dinner, the children are dismissed. David Lee plays Handel’s the Dead March, which in all likeliness might  occur while his father’s throat is severed. Then his uttering a part of Longfellow’s poem followed the Lady Macbeth’s lines are indeed a fine touch.

It is pitiful that some details do not make sense in my view. First of all, Lydia’s words during the police interview. ‘…David was next door in the music-room, playing Menddelssohn….’ Should it have been Handel or a deliberate mistake? Lydia, unlike the other daughter-in-law Magda, is a woman with brains and therefore would not be likely to make the mistake

Second of all, Poirot’s saying tor Farr about his having seen Miss Estravados in a place where she was not supposed to be.  ‘…Remember your impression that there were three statues in that recess, no two? Only one person wore a white dress that night, Mademoiselle Estravados. She was the third white figure you saw…’  Much as I try to find the supporting statement of Farr’s in his interview with the police, there is no evidence of it.

Third of all, Farr’s statement about the deceased’s character (see Clues).  How did he come to understand very much about old Lee? He might have done a painstaking research, yet how much sleuthing work on his part that his sound knowledge about the other man seems too good to be true. Towards the end readers will find that his surname is not Farr and neither is he Ebenezer Farr’s son. Just like Pilar Estravados (see The Most Fascinating Character) and Superintendent Sugden, he is a stranger who has ‘gatecrashed’ into a bitter reunion of the Lees.

Lastly, it is a shame that the book has not been adapted for the stage. Nor is it chosen as one of the top ten of Christie’s novels. Compared to Crooked House, I believe the hereditary catch in the book is more interesting than the childish act of Aristide Leonides’s killer.

Above all, what is better than a family who are brought together by a bloody revenge, from which the old wounds are eventually healed?

On the whole, despite written over seventy five years ago, it is still highly recommended as ‘Christie for Christmas’ present.

Love and hope are to discover even in the bleakest circumstances.

 

The Twists:

-Simeon Lee does not send for Superintendent Sugden

– The missing uncut diamonds are found at the ‘Dead sea’ garden of Lydia Lee

– Pilar Estravados has brown eyes

-She escapes the murder attempt by a canon ball falling over her head

– Ebenezer Farr’s son dies two years prior to the presence of Stephen Farr at Gorston Hall

– Farr sees three white statues in the recess near Simeon Lee’s room as he passes them – not two

-Alfred, George and David Lee take their looks from the maternal side, whereas Harry is very much like Simeon Lee in appearance and character

 

Cast of Characters:

The Lees:

-Alfred (the eldest son, Lydia’s husband)

-David (the third son, Hilda’s husband)

-George (the second son, Magdalene’s husband)

-Harry (the third son)

-Hilda (David’s wife)

-Lydia (Alfred’s wife)

-Magdalene (the young wife of George)

-Simeon (the father)

Others:

-Hercule Poirot

-Colonel Johnson (the Chief Police)

-Stephen Farr (the son of Simeon’s old friend)

-Superintendent Sugden (of local police)

-Sydney Horbury (Simeon’s valet/male nurse)

-Pilar Estravados (the half-Spanish granddaughter)

-Tressilian (the old butler who has been with the family for forty years)

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Pilar Estravados

A Spanish beauty, her real name is Conchita Lopez. She becomes ‘Pilar’ after she was acquainted with the old Lee’s granddaughter in a car journey. It was bombed and Pilar was dead whilst the other had escaped unscathed. Having had no money and nowhere to go, she saw Pilar’s passport and remembered her stories of her English family and the rich grandfather. Also, their faces and built are similar.

Sasha Behar stars as Pilar/Conchita in 1995’s Poirot series, which features Inspector Japp in it.

On the train heading for Addesfield she meets Stephen Farr whom then approached her and introduced himself. As they converse, he asks: ‘What made you come to England?’ She replies with a ‘certain demureness’: ‘I am going to stay with my relations – with my English relations.’ A logical answer that seemingly normal, although if it had been Pilar’s then the response would have been more specific, such as: ‘My grandfather invites me to come for Christmas.’ Nonetheless, far from suspecting, at that time Farr thinks nothing but the label on her suitcase – Gorston Hall, Long Dale, Addesfield. For he is heading for the address, too.

In the book, Pilar’s mother, Jennifer, has died in the previous year. Her Spanish husband, of whom had been a friend of her brother David, died in jail when Pilar was small. After his death Jennifer Lee went to live in the south of Spain –Andalusia, Barcelona?- and raised her daughter alone. There is no details as to why she did not go back to England afterward. As she seemed to have had little means to support her daughter, I suppose she lived from the money his father had sent for both of them until Jennifer died.

Pilar’s presence brings into light the soft side of old Lee; that he feels he is responsible for his only granddaughter and therefore his invitation for her to make home with him. Nevertheless his intention to change the will is interrupted by his death. What will become of Pilar?

It is fascinating to understand that Lopez/Estravados might have been the only Spanish character Christie had ; ever created. Nonetheless, I do not comprehend the authoress’s reason: why Spaniard? Was it to raise awareness of the Civil War in the country (1936-1939)? Was it because of her interest towards Spanish art in general?

s  forthrightness and gaiety are a breath of fresh air for some. Her beauty attracts Farr and his uncle Harry, her remarks make  Superintendent Sugden blush and she has a narrow escape having missed a canon ball dropped on her head.

Yet  Poirot finds her insights very useful.  For his comes because of her; her having a balloon fight with Farr  solves the curious clue of a pink rubber and a wooden peg found in the crime scene.

As for me, I like her being an apt woman, having seized the opportunity to have escaped the war with a fake passport (I wonder if she could have been charged with fraudulent documents in the thirties).

In the end, it pleases that she has found love in England.

 

Clues:

David Lee:

‘”The mills of God grind slowly…”’

(from Poetic Aphorisms by Henry Wandsworth Longfellow. The complete version goes as follow: though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.)

Hercule Poirot (to Colonel Johnson before being notified of a murder at Gorston Hall):

‘And families now, families who have been separated throughout the year, assemble once more together. Now under these conditions, my friend, you must admit that there will occur a great amount of strain. People who do not feel amiable are putting great pressure on themselves to appear amiable! There is at Christmas time a great deal of hypocrisy, honourable hypocrisy, hypocrisy undertaken pour le bon motif, c’est entendu, but nevertheless hypocrisy!’

Lydia Lee:

‘”Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”’ (a quote from Macbeth – Act Five Scene 1 in The Tragedy of Macbeth )

Pilar Estravados (to Simeon Lee):

‘Take what you like and pays for it’  (a Spanish proverb)

Stephen Farr (during the interview with the police)

‘…I don’t think that Simeon Lee was a highly moral member of society. I don’t mean that he was exactly a crook, but he sailed pretty near the wind. His morals were nothing to boast about anyway. He had charm, though, a good deal of it. And he was fantastically generous. No one with a hard-luck story ever appealed to him in vain. He drank a bit, but not over-much, was attractive to women, and had a sense of humour. All the same, he had a queer revengeful streak in him. Talk of the elephant never forgets and you talk of Simeon Lee. My father told me of several cases where Lee waited years to get even with someone who’d done him a nasty turn.’

Tressilian (during the interview with the police):

‘It seems sometimes, sir, as though the past isn’t the past! I believe there’s been a play on in London about something like that. There’s something in it, sir- there really is. There’s a feeling comes over you – as though you’d done everything before. It just seems to me as though the bell rings and I go to answer it and there’s Mr. Harry – even if it should be Mr. Farr or some other person – I

Advertisements

Have your say

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s