Rating: 4.7 out of five
Year of Publication: 1936
Motive for Murder: Fear (of identification)
Plot: Eight people are invited to a small party. Four, according to the host, have got away with their crimes whilst the other four attendees are experts in crime. Nobody but the murderer knows what comes at the end of it: a crime passionel killing using a weapon belonged to the host. And all the time, the seven of them thought the deceased had been observing the games of bridge while sitting in his armchair by the fire.
Being an eccentric person, the host makes an intriguing remark earlier during the dinner: ‘If I were to commit crime, I should make it very simple, I think. There’s always accident- a shooting accident, for instance – or the domestic kind of accident…’
There are not any traces of evidences left, nor the apparent motive. Nonetheless, the deceased was aware of how each crime had been carried out by the suspects. Since he has no longer been able to tell the secrets, it is up to Superintendent Battle, Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver to dig up the past.
How much do they need before the murderer strikes again?
A perfect crime is committed, which involves a quick thinking on the part of the killer and his carrying out in the presence of a Scotland Yard man and the famous private detective. A psychopath in the midst of seemingly civilised group of people, a brainy woman, a dangerous thief masked in meek personality and an ex-army man who likes hunting and travels a lot. Each of them is connected to a curious accident. Which one of them did actually murder Mr. Shaitana?
Written at the height of her career, Christie marvels at her choice of setting; a fatal game of bridge. The clues lie in Poirot’s interviewing each suspect about what they have recalled from the opponents’ movements. A different approach to Battle’s who is inclined to scrutinise a suspect’s background as he widens the net to interview employees and friends. In a nutshell, the book is a crime within crimes; a mammoth task for the four law-abiding people having to consider opportunity, circumstances and the chance of the slipping of the tongue by the murderer. Moreover, to comb truths from lies, wrong from right conclusions from a number of witnesses. Be that as it may, it is clear that the killing was done by one person (hurrah!)
Personally, Christie’s succinct writing appeals to me most. Freud’s theories as for the will to kill is discussed with a touch of feminine approach in Ariadne Oliver, a ‘hot-headed feminist.’ A bolshie middle-aged childless woman, she seems to share some personality traits with her creator. Although I doubt whether Christie was either a feminist or an extrovert. Doubtless of their similar spirits and imagination.
It is intriguing that Mrs. Oliver should express her wish that a woman were to be the Head of Scotland Yard, which is quite an idea at that time given the right to vote for women in Britain was regulated eight years beforehand. Yet, Christie’s balancing it with a shudder from Superintendent Battle whom believes earnestly that such idea might ruin a crime investigation.
The opening, Poirot’s meeting with Mr. Shaitana, is also interesting. The would-be victim with a suggestive name laughs devilishly to Poirot about his collection of murderers and furthermore his appreciation towards ‘the artistic point of view ’ of a murder (see Clues). I wonder if the name ‘Shaitana’ derives from Arabic syaithan which means evil. It is personally plausible; the fact that Christie undertook journeys to Syria between 1935 and 1937 to accompany her husband. Hence her exposure to the language and its dialect.
What is more, I am not sure what is exactly Mrs. Oliver’s role in the book. Apart from her also being a writer, she does not contribute as much as the others. In all fairness, she helps Battle to identify the crime Anne Meredith has done and makes a good guess about the murderer. What else? Not that I was not entertained by her wittiness, but to my mind her role is superfluous. On the other hand, her being a partner in crime to Poirot works very well in the later novels of Christie’s.
Concerning the plot, the present ends with the killing as the digging of the past begins. Words of mouth that might tie each suspect to the death emerge, from the former maid of a suspect’s ex-patient to a housemate who reveals the accidental death of a woman when a suspect was a companion. In addition to the clean background of a sixty-three-year-old suspect, two opposing versions of a shooting accident in a South American jungle are described. Who is one to believe, the widow’s who tells Poirot a suspect’s infatuation to her that led to the death of her husband or the suspect’s who declares that the shot was meant to have rescued the deceased’s life?
If the plot wished to have reiterated the success of revealing the ingenious mind of a psychopath, just like in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, it had not been achieved. For there are similarities in the murderer’s profile and motive. Yet, in terms of the ending, I prefer the convict to face his trial in court.
Poirot shines once more but it is Mrs. Oliver who steals the show. Her outbursts – ‘None of those people can be criminals!’ – seem comical and particularly her firm suspicion to a suspect, which was then expressed moments after the discovery of the murder. ‘If I were you, Superintendent Battle, I should arrest [the murderer] at once,’ she says. To which Battle replies matter-of-factly,’ I dare say we would if there was a Woman at the Head of Scotland Yard. But you see, mere men being in charge, we’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to get there slowly.’ ‘Oh men, men,’ she sighes.
What I am curious is what Christie had in mind for Mrs. Oliver as the murderer has been revealed. Did she mean to continue or was it an experiment on her part? For she reappeared twenty years later in the murder hunt mystery for a fete at Nasse House (see Notes On Dead Man Folly).
Above all, I have little criticism about the book. Except for the same killing methods which repeat in the other novels. For instance, how Mrs. Lorrimer die is very similar to Rita Vandemeyer in The Secret Adversary (see the Notes) while Mr. Craddock’s will remind readers to Dr. Geoffrey Thomas‘s in Murder Is Easy (see the Notes). Mrs. Craddock’s subsequent death in Egypt, however, turned out to be a hint as to the next setting of Christie’s novel (Death On The Nile was published a year afterward in which it features the collaboration between Colonel Race and Poirot).
The triumphant Mrs. Oliver –‘I always said he did it!’ sums up the story well. Seventy seven years later, a woman is not yet to be the Head of Scotland Yard. The dream continues.
-The murder weapon is of Mr. Shaitana’s collection; a small dagger which lies on a table among others in the house
– Poirot invents a witness to catch the murderer by the help of an actor who poses as a window cleaner
-Mrs. Lorrimer confesses to the murder of Mr. Shaitana to Poirot and is murdered the next day
– Anne Meredith knows that Rhoda Dawes has told Mrs. Oliver about the event at Combeacre
– Rhoda Dawes is meant to die but it was her would-be murderer whom has not survived
Cast of Characters:
Anne Meredith (suspect 1)
Mrs. Astwell (daily woman at Wendon Cottage where Anne and Rhoda live)
Superintendent Battle (of Scotland Yard, who also appears in The Seven Dials Mystery, The Secret at Chimney and Towards Zero)
Miss Burges (Dr. Roberts’s secretary)
Dr. Davidson (who examines the dead body of Mrs. Lorrimer)
Elsie Batt (the former maid of the Craddocks, of whom the wife was Dr. Roberts’s patient)
Major John Despard (suspect 2)
Mrs. Lorrimer (suspect 3)
Mrs. Luxmore (the widow of Professor Luxmore, the late botanist whom died from a gunshot)
Sergeant O’Connor (of Scotland Yard, who cajoles Elsie to tell about the Craddocks)
Rhoda Dawes (Anne’s housemate)
Dr. Roberts (suspect 4)
Mr. Shaitana (the host)
The Most Fascinating Character: Mrs. Lorrimer
She is a brilliant bridge player who wins all the rubbers that night. She has a marvellous memory of what her three opponents have done during the game. Her focus means that she would not have had noticed anything else – the murderer’s movement in this instance. She nevertheless provides Poirot with a very valuable clue from the bridge game she has played that night. In a game she teamed up with the murderer against the other two suspects. Her partner, being equally a great player, then overcalled and therefore their combined score went down, albeit not very much. The overcalling was deemed unnecessary, as reflected later by Poirot. Why did the murderer do it?
She is invited to the party as she has known Mr. Shaitana for some time; their acquaintance begins at a hotel in Luxor, Egypt. Nonetheless she has not seen him much. As for the other attendees, it is only Dr. Roberts whom she has met before.
Her poised manner bear resemblances to Jane Plenderdeith (Murder In The Mews) and Jane Mason (The Plymouth Express – see Notes on Poirot’s Early Cases). Her answers to Superintendent Battle is concise and ready. When enquired as to whom in her view has been the killer, she declines to answer. ‘I should not care to do anything of the kind. I consider that a most improper question.’
It fascinates me that such a woman – seemingly a well-respected and harmless one- is herself a murderer. Nearly the end she confesses to Poirot to have killed her husband. As for the motive, she says stifly, ‘Really, M. Poirot. My reasons were entirely my own business.’ She does not give away anything, just like the way Countess Vera Rossakoff does (The Big Four, The Labours of Hercules, Poirot’s Early Cases). Yet, there remains questions about her meticulous murder plot and how did Mr. Shaitana guess about it.
Above all, her confession of murder to Poirot is meant to protect another suspect, Anne Meredith. Much as her trying to persuade him into believing such tale, he does not waver. For there is an element of spontaneity in the stabbing of Mr. Shaitana which does not match. Why would she have done it anyhow? I leave you to comment about it. To my mind, partially she might have seen her younger self in Meredith and therefore it arouses her maternal instinct to shield her. ‘I’ve never been a very soft-hearted or compassionate woman, but I suppose these qualities grow upon one in one’s old age. I assure you [M. Poirot], I’m not often actuated by pity.’
Hercule Poirot and Mr. Shaitana (a conversation prior to the deceased’s speaking of his idea of the party) :
‘And what do you consider the best objects, artistically speaking, in crime?’ inquired Poirot.
Mr. Shaitana leaned forward and laid two fingers on Poirot’s shoulder. He hissed his words dramatically. ‘The human beings who commit them, Mr. Poirot.’
‘Aha, I have startled you. My dear, dear man, you and I look on these things as from poles apart! For you crime is a matter of routine: a murder, an investigation, a clue and ultimately (for you are undoubtedly an able fellow) a conviction. Such banalities would not interest me! I am not interested in poor specimens of any kind. And the caught murderer is necessarily one of the failures. He is second rate. No, I look on the matter from the artistic point of view. I collect only the best!’
‘The best being – ?’ asked Poirot.
‘My dear fellow – the ones who have got away with it! The successes! The criminals who lead an agreeable life which no breath of suspicion has ever touched. Admit that it is an amusing hobby.’
The profiles of the suspects:
Suspect A: ‘He was a cheerful, highly coloured individual of middle age. Small twinkling eyes, a touch of baldness, a tendency of embonpoint and a general air of well-scrubbed and disinfected medical practitioner. You felt that his diagnosis would be correct and his treatment agreeable and practical – “a little champagne in convalescence perhaps.”’
A very good bridge player who tends to overcall, but otherwise plays his hand brilliantly.
He is alleged to have put Anthrax into Mr. Craddock’s shaving tool while on visit to his home. The infection kills him a few weeks later. Beforehand, they were in a row over the doctor’s treatment to Mrs. Craddock, during which her husband also threatens to report the other man to the General Medical Council. Furthermore, after Mr. Craddock’s death, his wife dies from blood poisoning during her winter holiday in Egypt. Prior to her departure she goes to the doctor for two required injections for foreign travelling.
‘A tall, lean, handsome man, his face slightly marred by a scar on the temple. Introductions completed, he gravitated naturally to the side of Colonel Race – and the two men were soon talking sport and comparing their experiences on safari.’
He wrote a travel book. As a bridge player he is generally a good sound one.
He accompanied a botanist and his wife, the Luxmores, to the depth of the Amazon. The botanist wrote about rare plants and the suspect knew the condition of South American jungle well.
Regarding the incident, the widow tells Poirot that the major occurred to have had a bitter argument with her late husband over her. He threatened the other and a shot was fired accidentally. Consequently, Timothy Luxmore died.
Contrary to her version, the suspect denies that he fell for her. Mr. Luxmore had a bad fever. One night, in a state of delirious and unconscious of what he was doing, the suspect saw him head for the river from a distance. In an attempt to stop him from drowning, the suspect decided to shoot his leg. When he was about to fire, Mrs. Luxmore suddenly flung herself on him and caught his arm. As a result the bullet went into the back of Mr. Luxmore and killed him.
‘A girl in the early twenties entered. She was of medium height and pretty. Brown curls clustered in her neck, her grey eyes were large and wide apart. Her face was powdered but not made-up. Her voice was slow and rather sly.’
A daughter of an ex-Army person, she is penniless and had to make ends meet being a companion to elderly women. One of them was Mrs. Derring, Rhoda Dawes’s aunt. After the aunt is required a care in a nursing home due to her cancer, she went on to work for another old woman in Combeacre, Devonshire, for two months. It was during her stay that the woman then died, having mistakened a hat paint for her health tonic. Afterward she accepted Miss Dawes’s offer to live with her in a cottage at the imaginary city of Wallingford (Watford?) outside London. They have lived together there for over three years.
She meets Mr. Shaitana in Switzerland when she went there with Dawes. They stayed in the same hotel and she recalled he won the competition in the Fancy Dress Ball. To Dawes he seemed to have been attracted to the suspect. Nonetheless, his presence was disconcerting.
As a bridge player, she is a cautious one and gets up to peek at the hands’ of her opponents. When invited by Poirot to his house with Dawes, they are shown nineteen pairs of good quality nylon stockings. When they leave, there are only seventeen of them. For the ‘nice girl’ has stolen them.
Suspect D: ‘A well-dressed woman of sixty. She had finely-cut features, beautifully arranged grey hair and a clear, incisive voice.’
There is nothing suspicious about her in Superintendent Battle’s interviews with her friends and ex-servants. More about her is in The Most Fascinating Character.