Notes On Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

Rating: 5 out of 5

Year of Publication: 1975

Motive for Murder: Revenge

Plot:

Reunion at the Styles – now it’s a guest house run by the Rutrells. After another war, Arthur Hastings and Hercule Poirot come back to the former home of the Cavendishes for a summer. To Hasting’s surprise his youngest daughter Judith is present; the fresh graduate works for Dr John Franklin whom conducts medical experiments  on the poisonous Calabar beans. He stays with his wife Barbara on Sir William Boyd Carrington’s recommendation. The baronet knows Colonel Rutrell and has occupied a room while his nearby country home Knatton is being refurbished.

When Hastings settles down, Poirot reveals his mission: not for old time’s sake – that’s for sure. He tells the other five murder cases: none of them is related to one another. Nonetheless, the murderer is in the Styles – one of the guests.

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David Suchet and Hug Fraser on the adaptation of Curtain – the final in 13th series.

Poirot has been watching him; no sooner did he learn that the cunning criminal would also spend the Summer there than he checked himself in and invited his sidekick. For old time’s sake- of course.

‘This, Hastings, will be my last case. It will be,too, my most interesting case – and my most interesting criminal. For in X we have a technique superb, magnificent, that arouses admiration in spite of oneself.’

The stake is high because the killer’s alibi is watertight. There’s no shred of evidence to tie him with a murder, but the mind’s game the killer has played to each person who is then sentenced for their crimes. More importantly, not only does Poirot have to think one step ahead, but he also has to keep an eye on his sidekick. And maybe, to take a life.

Highlights:

In my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning. The engraved words on T.S. Eliot’s tomb at St. Mary’s Church in East Choker, Somerset sums up about the book: in Styles  Poirot and Hastings’s friendship commences and in Styles their adventure end. They come a full circle.

Styles is  crumbling. As Hastings recalls Summer 1916, Mary Cavendish is a distant memory but the murder of Emily Inglethorp.

Apparently Christie wrote the book during the War. The uncertain time and the death of his son-in-law might have had a significant influence to her that she might have died before concluding about her famous foreign detective. Hence her omission about the War in the book, her subtle but bitter expressions about old age and her inventing a monster in a serial killer that would never stand in the court to face justice.

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Shirburn Castle in Watlington, Oxfordshire, UK. Built in 1377, it’s now a country house for fictitious Styles Court.

In Curtain, both Poirot and Hastings are vulnerable. The sleuth is now an infirm and a wheelchair-bound man whilst his companion a widower. Judith’s presence amplifies his thoughts of his late wife and increases his sense of protection towards his daughter at the same time.

Christie makes clear that Curtain is distinguished to her first book, although they are related in some ways. Daisy Luttrell – an efficient B&B manager but has a sharp tongue-  might jog readers’ mind to Evelyn Howard’s commanding manner. Sir William Carrington has a number of traits of John Cavendish and the bird enthusiast Stephen Norton in John’s brother Lawrence. John Franklin, serious and being preoccupied with his work, can be an equal to Alfred Inglethorp whilst Franklin’s countenance resembles Dr Bauerstein. As for Judith Hastings, she may be likened to Cynthia Murdock – Mrs. Inglethorp’s ward. Both women are committed and passionate about their professions.

Hence it was inevitable to read Curtain without revisiting the former home of the Cavendishes. The contrast between a thirty-year-old Hastings, a wounded officer on a month’s leave and a grey-haired, much older man is stark. But still the same narrator who guides readers to see a chain of reactions unfolding.

If in the first crime book Hastings is merely an observer hovering round Poirot and Inspector Japp, in Curtain Christie puts him in a tight place. So tight that Poirot must insist on the other’s drinking his unsavoury cocoa drink.

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Also known as Calabar beans, it is native of Nigeria. Its use as an ‘ordeal poison’ among African tribes means to determine a person’s innocence

Furthermore, if Strychnine was catapulted to fame in 1920, in Curtain Physostigma Venenosum is chosen. Christie’s fascinating knowledge to poisons is well known, although it’s the nature of Barbara Franklin’s demise that is far more interesting in the plot. Even for an avid reader it will catch them off guard.

As Poirot has remarked, the killer is a most interesting criminal. Just as Jacko Argyll, the perpetrator doesn’t do it themselves.

For Christie has challenged readers from the onset to detect anything untoward in the words, intonation and timing in some suspects, including Hastings’s. A sentence whispered here or a response there built up over a period of time deliver a corresponding impact to a stab to the lungs. Here is a malicious slayer who understands that neither a slander nor a hearsay make an evidence in court. At the very least such will only be considered to help judge the character of a witness.

The accidental shooting of Mrs. Luttrell by her husband sees the killer’s testing the water. What did the killer do to raise George Luttrell’s anger? Dissatisfied, the slayer continues with Plan B.  It fails, but only to Poirot he can see that next time it will succeed.

‘Come, Hastings, you are not as stupid as you like to pretend. You have studied those cases I gave you to read. You may not know who X is, but you know X’s technique for committing a crime.’

Christie’s habit of throwing off scents with red-herring subplots seems scarce in Curtain.  She invents Elizabeth Cole (see more on The Most Fascinating Character) as a reassurance to Poirot’s deductions. For she’s the only one who has a connection to one of the cases and more importantly has known X.

Halfway, the elimination process might be achieved as to whodunit. None perhaps hardly prepares about the stupefying ending. For Christie puts forward the quest between morality and conscience in the course of justice; a notion about a thing should be done, not the right thing to be.

Last but not least, it’s worth looking at Christie’s contemplations on the issue of euthanasia (see Clues). The discussion which contrasts moral and courage, legality against necessity is one of her greatest’s dialogue I have ever seen. I wish she knew that forty-two years later the matter is still relevant.

Curtain is simply Christie’s finest masterpiece, of which was published in the last summer before she died.

At last, it’s the end of my reviewing all Agatha Christie’s crime novels. It’s long overdue, but a much satisfying process. Had I rushed to share my thoughts right after I had finished my reading, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it.

Finally, I would advise readers to postpone perusing Curtain until they are acquainted well with a number of her renowned crime novels.

The Twists:

-Elizabeth Cole lies about her surname

-Judith Hastings is in love with John Franklin

-Arthur Hastings inadvertently kills Barbara Franklin

-Hercule Poirot can actually walk round and is not as ill as he looks

The Most Fascinating Character: Elizabeth Cole

‘My name is Lichfield,’ says Elizabeth Cole to Arthur Hastings. He describes her as ‘ a woman of between thirty and forty, slightly haggard, with a clear-cut profile and really beautiful eyes. There was about her an air of reserve, more –of suspicion.’

Cole is her mother’s surname. She has adopted it in the aftermath of his father’s demise. Matthew Lichfield is the male equal to the larger-than-life character Mrs. Boynton (see Appointment With Death).

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Helen Baxendale as E.Cole in the adaptation of Curtain in 2013

A bully, Mr. Litchfield is nevertheless rich.  Like Mrs. Boynton he imprisons his grown-up daughters to serve him.

He dies from a blunt force trauma in his skull, delivered by Elizabeth’s elder sister Margaret. She has finished him with a single blow at the back of his head.  Then she confesses that she did it so that her sisters could be freed from the golden cage.

Elizabeth has been acquainted with the Luttrells; George and Daisy are her longstanding friends. So they welcome her at the Styles and tell not anyone a single word about her true identity. To Hastings Elizabeth remarks about the colonel and his vinegar-tongued wife: ‘he’s rather a dear and she’s nicer than you’d think.’

It’s not clear whether Poirot has been informed about Elizabeth prior to his stay. Yet he reckons that X would stay. Moreover, X also knows the Franklins and the Luttrells.

Elizabeth is seen to spend time with Stephen Norton often. They get closer, as both are single. He’s her family’s friend, too. What she says about Norton: ‘he’s very nice –rather shy- just a little stupid, perhaps. He’s always been rather delicate. He’s lived with his mother – rather a peevish, stupid woman. She bossed him a good deal, I think. She died a few years ago. He’s keen on birds and flowers and things like that. He’s a very kind person – and he’s the sort of person who sees a lot.’ Does she like him?

In spite of her looking reserved, she’s studied people a great deal. Hastings listens to her and her observation about the suspects’ characters are precise.

Cast of Characters:

Guests at the Styles:

-Major Allerton

-Curtiss (Poirot’s manservant)

-Nurse Craven (Mrs. Franklin’s nurse)

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Philip Glenister as Boyd Carrington in 2013’s adaptation on ITV

-Miss Elizabeth Cole (an old friend of the Luttrells)

-The Franklins ( John and Barbara)

-Judith Hastings

-Stephen Norton

-Sir William Boyd Carrington

Other:

-The Luttrells (Colonel George and his spouse Daisy)

-George (Poirot’s longstanding valet)

Clues:

A.Conversation between Sir William Boyd Carrington (BC) and Barbara Franklin (BF):

BC: ‘You’ve not changed much since you were seventeen, Babs. Do you remember that garden house of yours and the bird bath and the coconuts?’

BC to Arthur Hastings: ‘Barbara and I are old playmates.’

BF: ‘Old playmates!’

BC: ‘Oh, I’m not denying that you’re over fifteen years younger than I am. But I played with you as a tiny tot when I was a young man. Gave you pick-a-backs, my dear. And then later I came home to find you a beautiful young lady – juts on the point of making your debut in the world – and I did my share by taking you out on the golf links and teaching you to play golf. Do you remember?’

BF: ‘Oh, Bill, do you think I’d forget?’

BF to AH: ‘My people used to live in this part of this world. And Bill used to come and stay with his old uncle, Sir Everard, at Knatton.’

BC: ‘And what a mausoleum it was – and is. Sometimes I despair of getting the place liveable. ‘

BF: ‘Oh, Bill, it could be made marvellous – quite marvellous!’

BC: ‘Yes, Babs, but the trouble is I’ve got no ideas. Baths and some really comfortable chairs – that’s all I can think of. It needs a woman.’

BF: ‘I’ve told you I’ll come and help. I mean it. Really.’

B.On the subject of euthanasia among Arthur Hastings (AH), Boyd Carrington, Judith Hastings (JH) and Stephen Norton (SN)

JH: ‘I mean that anyone who’s weak – in pain and ill- hasn’t got the strength to make a decision – they can’t. It must be done for them. It’s the duty of someone who loves them to take the decision.’

AH: ‘Duty?’

JH: ‘Yes, duty. Someone whose mind is clear and who will take the responsibility.’

BC: ‘And end up in the dock charged with murder?’

JH: ‘Not necessarily. Anyway, if you love someone, you would take the risk.’

SN: ‘But look here, Judith, what you’re suggesting is simply a terrific responsibility to take.’

JH: ‘I don’t think it is. People are too afraid of responsibility. They’ll take responsibility where a dog is concerned – why not with a human being?’

SN: ‘Well – it’s rather different, isn’t it?’

JH: ‘Yes, it’s more important.’

SN (murmuring): ‘You take my breath away.’

BC: ‘So you’d take the risk, would you?’

JH: ‘I think so. I’m not afraid of taking risks.’

BC: ‘It wouldn’t do, you know.You can’t have people here, there, everywhere, taking the law into their own hands, deciding matters of life and death.’

SN: ‘Actually, you know Boyd Carrington, most people wouldn’t have the nerve to take the responsibility.’

SN (smiling faintly) to JH: ‘Don’t believe you would if it came to the point.’

JH: ‘One can’t be sure, of course. I think I should.’

SN: ‘Not unless you had an axe of your own to grind.’

JH: ‘That just shows you don’t understand at all. If I had a- a personal motive, I couldn’t do anything. Don’t you see? It’s got to be absolutely impersonal. You could only take the responsibility of – of ending a life if you were quite sure of your motive. It must be absolutely selfless.’

SN: ‘All the same you wouldn’t do it.’

JH: ‘I would. To begin with I don’t hold life as sacred as people do. Unfit lives, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.’

JH to BC: ‘You agree with me, don’t you?’

BC: ‘In principle, yes. Only the worthwhile should survive.’

JH: ‘Wouldn’t you take the law into your own hands if it was necessary?’

BC: ‘Perhaps. I don’t know…’

SN: ‘A lot of people would agree with you in theory. But practice is a different matter.’

JH: ‘That’s not logical.’

SN: ‘Of course it’s not. It’s really a question of courage. One just hasn’t got the guts, to put it vulgary. Frankly, you know Judith, you’d be just the same yourself. You wouldn’t have the courage when it came to it.’

JH: ‘Don’t you think so?’

SN: ‘I’m sure of it.’

BC: ‘I think you’re wrong, Norton. I think Judith has any amount of courage. Fortunately the issue doesn’t present itself.’