Rating: 4.3 out of five
Year of Publication: 1945
Motive for Murder: Wealth
Iris Marle reflects a tragic event nearly a year ago; the death of her elder sister, the attractive and extrovert Rosemary Barton. She invited five people to come for her birthday dinner, during which all of a sudden her face became blue and convulsed after drinking the wine. Presently cyanide was found in her handbag and her death was deduced as a suicide case.
George Barton has received two strange letters stating that his late wife was murdered. Casting his mind back to a night at The Luxembourg, he recalls seeing her body sprawl forward on the table – lifeless. Only an hour before she looked so lovely despite a little thin in the face after a bout of influenza. The suicide verdict was suggested owing to depression that might have occurred in the recovery.
If the letters were right, who would have murdered her?
He decides to recreate the scene by inviting the same people in the same restaurant. Little does he realise what awaits him after the light comes on.
What begins a story? An event or a viewpoint? A motive or a sentiment? A character or a group of people?
In the book, does it begin with a seventeen-year-old Irish’s remembrances? Or by the two letters, thought at first as a cruel joke, which trigger Barton’s idea of reconstruction of the incident?
I am inclined to choose the latter option. The arrival of the first anonymous letter makes the widower enquire himself something whose answer he has actually known: why should Rosemary have killed herself? That concludes the long first chapter in which the phantom of Rosemary Barton starts to shape.
The plot, centred round the circumstances of Rosemary’s suicide, elaborates the extent of conformity among people. Oftentimes someone ought to agree what others in the group have accepted as the truth. In the event of Mrs. Barton’s demise, the evidences and the motive lean towards suicide. Although Irish and Barton smell a rat, they rather keep it to themselves. Not until the letters appear is the verdict contested.
On the one hand, Irish knew because six months afterwards she discovered a love letter her elder sister had written in the pocket of her gown. Clearly, not to her husband but a lover of whom Rosemary called him ‘Leopard.’ On the other, Barton understood her will to live and more importantly the realisation of a third person in the marriage. Now, supposing he chose to ignore the letters and move on.
Here is a quiet pleasant man with means whose curiosity is driven by love and jealousy. When he explains about his plan to his old acquaintance, who is none other than Colonel Race, the colonel refuses to participate. For something is bound to happen, much he has learnt at Mr. Shaitana’s dinner party (Cards On The Table). Will Barton accomplish what he wants to reveal?
While the victim is an unfaithful wife and ‘ornamental woman’, it is Lucilla Drake who steals the show (see The Most Fascinating Character). A stepsister to the Marle sisters’s father, she is a priest’s widow who has been invited by Barton to make home with him while looks after Irish. What is more, she is Irish’s only next of kin, which means that Drake will inherit the other’s immense wealth on her death. Such does not come into light until much later – at least to Colonel Race- as the turns of the events render Irish’s position to be the next murder target.
What is fascinating about the pot is its clarity in the second reading. Put aside the usual red herrings Christie has planted throughout, a number of beguiling remarks will emerge along with some scenes that are open to interpretations. At best, it makes the book is much more interesting than what the reviews have suggested without the presence of neither Monsieur Poirot nor Miss Marple to save the day.
For in Yellow Iris (see Notes On Problem At Pollensa Bay), a short story published in 1937, a distress phone call makes Poirot go immediately to a French restaurant where the American Barton Russel has booked a table to commemorate the fourth anniversary of his wife’s death. Just as Rosemary, Irish Russel dies from cyanide. Her husband believes a foul play nevertheless and declares his intention to unmask the killer by recreating the scene. Is he right that Irish was poisoned? Meanwhile, the unexpected guest the Belgian comes to realise the real goal of the dinner.
Furthermore, it is a personal belief that the book was plotted and written around the same time as Five Little Pigs (1943). Rosemary’s personality seems to resemble Elsa Greer and Caroline Crale Irish Marle. Just like Elsa, Rosemary falls for a married man, Stephen Farraday. Moreover, both women are willing to ‘claim their prize’; Rosemary tells Stephen days before the party that she would have come clean about them to her husband. Likewise, Elsa does not take ‘no’ for an answer from Amyas Crale, but overhears his saying to his wife that Elsa is just a muse – nothing more, nothing less.
Most importantly is the likeness of the murderers’ profiles in both novels. Ruthless and domineering, they are incorrigible manipulators, masters in the art of deception and capable of persuading others to help them achieve.
Among a good many things in the book, I have not been able to understand Colonel Race’s role in the case. I am in the dark as to his contribution. Looking back, in the three other books in which he is featured –The Man In The Brown Suit, Cards On The Table, Death On The Nile– I have realised that I faced the similar issue. In spite of his being personally involved owing to George Barton and interviewing a reliable witness, his role can be substituted by any minor characters. Besides, I tend to think that his collaborator, the enigmatic Anthony Browne plays second fiddle brilliantly. He assists the somewhat ‘dazed’ Holmes by preventing another murder. It does help that Race understands Browne’s background, although this needs clarification in the end due to the witness’s account which is in favour to Browne.
Lastly, this war-time era book fails to mention the dreadful and frightening occurrences at that time. Call it my lack of empathy as I come from a post-war generation, but the damning reality of the War does intrigue me. Or was it the publisher’s wish to have omitted terrible things for fear of bringing discomfort to readers? While I appreciate the obliteration of the War, it lingers at the back of my mind a nagging fact about air raids: what if the birthday party had to be cancelled in the last minute?
‘Moral: Every murderess was a nice girl once!’
– Anthony Browne has met Victor Drake in prison under the name Tony Morelli
– Ruth Lessing is in love with George Barton
– Stephen Farraday is the ‘Leopard’
– Betty Archdale hears Browne threatens Mrs. Barton for not mentioning his other name
– Cyanide is slipped into Irish’s handbag in the powder room
– The waiter at the Luxembourg picks up Irish’s handbag on the floor during the cabaret show and mistakenly puts it onto George Barton’s seat
– George Barton is not meant to be killed
– Victor Drake never leaves England for Brazil
Cast of Characters:
Lady Alexandra Kidderminster (a.k.a. Sandra Farraday, married to Stephen)
Anthony Browne (Rosemary’s friend, who falls for Irish)
Betty Archdale (the ex-maid at the Bartons, who gives notice after Rosemary’s death)
Christine Shannon (a woman who sits next to the table of George’s party)
George Barton (Rosemary’s husband)
Giuseppe Bolsano (the head of waiters at the Luxembourg)
Colonel John Race (George’s long-standing acquaintance)
Lord and Lady Kidderminster (Sandra’s parents)
Irish Marle (Rosemary’s younger sister, George’s sister-in-law)
Chief Inspector Kemp (Colonel Race’s friend, who investigates the death)
Lucilla Drake (Irish’s distant aunt, Victor’s mother)
Mary Rees-Talbot (Colonel Race’s acquaintance, the current employer of Betty Archdale)
Rosemary Barton (nee Marle, Irish’s elder sister)
Ruth Lessing (George’s secretary)
Stephen Farraday (Sandra’s husband, Rosemary’s lover)
The Most Fascinating Character: Lucilla Drake
Motherhood comes late to her; she meets Reverend Caleb Drake when she is nearly forty. Their marriage lasts only for two years and she is left a widow with an infant son, Victor.
Since then he has become the apple of her eye. She is anxious about him at all times, of whom a source of grief and a constant financial drain. A touch of Michael Rogers (Endless Night), Victor in fact gives troubles to his mother despite being clever and charming. Nonetheless, whilst Michael Rogers‘s mother is fully aware of her son’s wickedness, the other woman believes that most people misunderstand Victor.
Interestingly, her much biased attitude to her only son does not make her like everyone. For she dislikes Ruth Lessing, the indispensable secretary who wishes to be the future Mrs. Barton. Drake watches the other’s movements and ensures Lessing would not take a step too far.
Personally Drake is a triumph of a character of Christie’s, given to a number of facets about her. Her seemingly clumsiness and her feeble mind mirror Gerda Christow (The Hollow). The tendency to deviate from the main subject during conversations bears similarities to Caroline Armory, Sir Claude’s elder sister in Black Coffee.
It is up to readers to decide whether Drake is either empty-headed or a very perceptive woman. Generally she is a good judgment of people; her observation to Lessing is a fine example. Furthermore, no sooner has she met Anthony Browne than she dislikes him. She seems to have gathered the fact that the man is in love with her charge and vice versa. If they are married then she will have lost the fortune. After all, in Christie’s books I never meet a fool for a reverend’s wife.
It surprises me a little, however, that she might not be a kind person. According to Betty Archdale, Drake gives her hard time of obtaining a reference after giving her notice. Drake points out to the maid the unkind remark made and that she often broke things in the house. I wonder if Drake realised the other’s cleverness, of whom also suspected something in the death of her mistress Rosemary?
In the end, Mrs. Drake draws attention to some weak points in the book. Supposing she has deceived everyone, convincing them that she is just a simple person. I wonder if she knows somehow that her son never boards on a ship heading for Sao Paulo. Perhaps she might not have recognised him in London streets, but did she ever see a stranger with a particular gesture only a mother understands? If ‘no’ for the these, did she recognise him in the restaurant where she dined with George Barton and four others?
The two letters George Barton has received:
‘YOU THINK YOUR WIFE COMMITTED SUICIDE. SHE DIDN’T. SHE WAS KILLED.’
‘YOUR WIFE ROSEMARY DIDN’T KILL HERSELF. SHE WAS MURDERED.’
Conversations between Victor Drake (VD) and Ruth Lessing(RL):
VD: ‘You’ve been with Barton some time, haven’t you, Miss Lessing?’
RL: ‘Six years.’
VD: ‘And he wouldn’t know what to do without you. Oh yes, I know all about it. And I know all about you, Miss Lessing.’
RL: ‘How do you know?’
VD: ‘Rosemary told me.’
RL: ‘Rosemary? But – ‘
VD: ‘That’s all right. I don’t propose to worry Rosemary any further. She’s already been very nice to me – quite sympathetic. I got a hundred out of her, as a matter of fact.’
RL: ‘You – That‘s too bad of you, Mr. Drake.’
VD: ‘I’m a very accomplished sponger. Highly finished technique. The matter, for instance, will always come across if I send a wire hinting at imminent suicide.’
RL: ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’
VD: ‘I disapprove of myself very deeply. I’m a bad lot, Miss Lessing. I’d like you to know just how bad.’
VD: ‘I don’t know. You’re different. I couldn’t play up the usual technique to you. Those clear eyes of yours – you wouldn’t fall for it. No, “More sinned against that shining, poor fellow,” wouldn’t cut any ice with you. You’ve no pity in you.’
RL: ‘I despise pity.’
VD: ‘In spite of your name? Ruth is your name, isn’t it? Piquant that. Ruth the ruthless.’
RL: ‘I’ve no sympathy with weakness!’
VD: ‘Who said I was weak? No, no, you’re wrong there, my dear. Wicked perhaps. But there’s one thing to be said for me.’
VD: ‘I enjoy myself. Yes, I enjoy myself immensely. I’ve seen a good deal of life, Ruth. I’ve done almost everything. I’ve been an actor and a storekeeper and a waiter and an odd job man, and a luggage porter, and a property man in a circus! I’ve sailed before the mast in a tramp steamer. I’ve been in the running for President in a South American Republic. I’ve been in prison! There are only two things I’ve
never done, an honest day’s work, or paid my own way.’