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.’

Notes On Murder On The Orient Express

 

Albert Finney as H. Poirot, Sean Connery Colonel Arbuthnot and Vanessa Regdrave Mary Debenham in 1974’s novel adaptation into a film. The sleuth has an uphill challenge to reveal tissues of lies interwoven in the witnessess’ statements.

 

Rating: 4 out of five

 

Year of Publication: 1934

 

Motive for Murder: Revenge/Hatred

 

Plot:

 

On board of The Simplon Orient Express a mature plot begins to take place. The Istanbul-Calais coach is unusually full in winter. Thirteen people from different nationalities enter and one passenger gets on at the last minute.

A postcard of Simplon Orient Express and Taurus Express. Poirot boards Taurus Express from Aleppo, Syria and meets Mary Debenham and Colonel Artbuthnot.

The journey goes well amidst the snowfall until it leaves Belgrade on the second night. Leaving Vincovi before midnight, at quarter past the train comes to a halt. The snowdrift ahead makes the track impassable.

At twenty-three minutes past one, Hercule Poirot is awakened by the lack of motion of the train. To the Wagon Lit conductor he enquires a bottle of water and is about to get back to sleep when he hears something heavy has fallen with a thud against the door. Having opened his compartment’s door and looked out, he sees to his right down the corridor a woman wearing a scarlet kimono retreating away.

 

The next day after breakfast, M. Bouc, a director at Campaigne Internationale de Wagon Lits who happens to be in another coach, asks his Belgian friend to see him. ‘What has occurred?’ he asks. ‘…a passenger lies dead in his berth – stabbed.’

 

The night before Samuel Ratchett offered Poirot a handsome amount of money for his service. ‘My life has been threatened,’ Ratchett says. The other responds,’If you will forgive me for being personal – I do not like your face, M. Ratchett.’

 

Twelve stabbing wounds in Ratchett’s body. The missing button of the Wagon Lit conductor. A bloody dagger found in a passenger’s sponge bag.

 

Of the thirteen passengers in the coach, who has murdered the American man?

 

 

Highlights:

 

The most famous book of Christie’s, the 10th Poirot’s novel is admired by many fans owing to the setting and the nature of the crime. In the former Yugoslavia the heavy snowfall has altered everything.  What is more, the unprecedented appearance of a little man with an egg-shaped head whom replaces a passenger who does not turn up. Having got off the Taurus Express at Istanbul, Hercule Poirot would have expected to spend three days at the heart of the former Ottoman Empire when an important telegram was received in the hotel, requiring his presence in London in his earliest convenience.

In the First Class compartment he is next to Rachett. Convenient or coincidence? What is more interesting is his declining £20,000 in fee from the American man. And apparently it is not because of the man’s face, but something more profound. On setting his eyes on Ratchett, to his friend  M. Bouc  he says, ‘I had a curious impression. It was as though a wild animal – an animal savage, but savage! You understand –had passed me by.’

 

A tiny scrap of paper discovered in Ratchett’s compartment leads to Poirot’s knowledge about other death threat letters the deceased has received. At any rate  it clarifies Ratchett’s identity. For he was Casetti, who kidnapped a three-year-old Daisy Armstrong in the USA and killed her afterwards whilst asking the ransom money to her family (see Clues).

 

Somehow he escaped justice in the country What circumstances that rendered the twelve jurors the non-guilty verdict? I was hoping there would have been an explanation about it. Did the defendant have a deal with the authority? For I recall Louise Leidner, who reports her first husband to the Intelligence in the later novel Murder In Mesopotamia. As she receives the death threats, the shadow of her past doing resurges. She may not say anything about the old sin to Poirot , but it is then elaborated in the end as to the motive of the murderer.

 

Be that as it may, there are similarities between Ratchett and Mrs. Leidner’s killing. The revenge/hatred motive is ingrained in the mind of the perpetrators. It is also an ultimate revenge; life for life for little Daisy. I wonder, however, how much it would have meant for the murderers after Ratchett eventually dies. For neither the little girl nor her parents could have been alive again.

 

What does the killing suggests is the meticulous plan on the part of the mastermind. On the one hand, there is not an iota of sympathy for the victim, for he is a wicked man deemed such punishment. On the other, the ‘execution-style’ killing is required  to ascertain that ‘justice’ is witnessed by everybody concerned.

What is most fascinating to my mind is the different kinds of stabbing wounds; two or three forceful and fatal ones whilst the rest seem to have been done reluctantly after the body has had no longer life in him. What can Poirot deduce from them? One person who caused the death and others who then came in to witness and each gave a ‘symbolic’ stab. Frankly speaking, I shuddered to think about it.

 

Ratchett gets his due whilst his murderers get away. In the end Poirot offers two ways of looking at the case and the decision as to which version that would be presented to the Yugoslavian police is in the hands of M. Bouc. With the company’s reputation is at stake, he must choose what benefits everyone. Has he decided right, do you think, considering the deceased is an evil?

 

I am intrigued that the popularity of the book may sum up the public’s feelings about the agreed version of the murder. Nonetheless I disagree. Although the solution answers my present astonishment towards the ending of Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. I tell you later why.

 

It helps to have read Cards On The Table beforehand. For I understand what has become of the dagger. Poirot shows it to Anne Meredith, one of the suspects in the stabbing of Mr. Shaitana, when she visits his house with her friend Rhoda Dawes. Apparently M. Bouc has given it as a ‘gift’ besides  ‘a token of gratitude,’ ie. a handsome fee on behalf of the company.

 

Lastly, it fascinates me that Christie has somehow confused The Orient Express with The Simplon Orient Express. As I looked up the history of the former, Compaigne Internationale de Wagon Lits concurs with the Orient Express’s owner. Nevertheless the story is set in the Simplon Orient Express, which is an entirely different train. The following paragraph, quoted from the website, may clarify the matter:

 

Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ isn’t set on the Orient Express, it’s set on the Simplon Orient Express.  By the 1920s and 30s there were a whole inter-connecting network of Wagons-Lits company trains with ‘Orient Express’ as part of their name in addition to the Orient Express itself.  The Orient Express has always run from Paris Gare de l’Est via Munich, Vienna & Budapest, whereas the Simplon Orient Express started running in April 1919, taking a Southerly route from Calais and Paris Gare de Lyon to Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul, with a portion for Athens.  In the 1920s and 30s the Simplon Orient Express linked Calais, Paris and Istanbul every day, whereas the (plain) Orient Express only carried Paris-Istanbul cars three times a week, although both Orient and Simplon Orient would have been one combined train east of Belgrade.

 

On 12 December 2009, EuroNight train number 469 ‘Orient Express’ left Strasbourg on its final overnight run to Vienna.  On 13th December it disappeared from Europe’s timetable after 126 years.

 

As far as I am concerned, this is the only case in which Poirot relies heavily on his imagination under an extraordinary circumstances solved within twenty-four hours. Who can match Poirot but Holmes?

 

In the meantime, I am very much looking forward to the remake of 1974’s film of the book. Would it be the one who stars as Colonel Arbuthnot better than Sean Connery? I very much doubt it. 🙂

 

 

The Twists:

 

-M. Bouc and Dr. Constantine decide to take on the first solution: the killer gets on the train on  the second night after leaving Istanbul. Approximately when it stops at Belgrade or Vincovci (Vicevi, a town in modern Serbia) as the door is left open. He wears a suit of Wagon Lit uniform on top of his clothes and has a pass key which allows him access to Casetti’s compartment. The victim has been drugged so he would not have heard a stranger came in. After the stabbing the killer leaves through the communicating door leading to Mrs. Hubbard’s and puts the murder weapon into her sponge bag. He takes off the uniform and gets off the train the same way.

A Wagon Lit conductor wearing his uniform in 1950s.

 

– Mr. Harris, the passenger who does not turn up, is a decoy

 

– A missing button of a Wagon Lit conductor is found in Mrs. Hubbard’s room

 

– The uniform is placed on the luggage of Schmidt

 

– An expensive handkerchief with initial ‘H’ is at Casetti’s room

 

– The scarlet kimono is folded neatly and put in Poirot’s room

 

– Ratchett does not speak French

 

– The grease on the passport of Countess Andrenyi’s; on her first name ‘Elena’

 

– Countess Andrenyi is innocent

 

– ‘A man with womanish voice’ is said to have dressed as a Wagon Lit conductor

 

 

Cast of Characters:

 

Passengers in Istanbul – Calais coach:

 

Count and Countess Andrenyi (Hungarians)

 

Antonio Foscarelli (Italian, a car salesman)

 

Colonel Arbuthnot (coming from India)

 

Caroline Hubbard (American)

 

Cyrus Hardman (a type-writing ribbon salesman)

 

Princess Dragomiroff (Russian, an aristocrat)

 

Edward Masterman (English, Ratchett’s valet)

 

Greta Ohlsson (Swedish)

 

Hector MacQueen (American, Ratchett’s secretary)

 

Hercule Poirot

 

Hildegarde Schmidt (German, Princess Dragomiroff’s maid)

 

Mary Debenham (a governess travelling from Baghdad)

 

Samuel Ratchett (the victim)

 

 

 

From the Athens coach:

 

– M. Bouc (a director at the Compagnie Internationale de Wagon Lits)

 

– Dr. Constantine

 

Others:

 

-Pierre Michel, the Wagon Lit conductor

 

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Countess Andrenyi (Helena Maria)

 

‘Is it possible, Mademoiselle, that you did not recognize in the Countess Andrenyi Mrs. Armstrong’s young sister whom you taught in New York?’ asks Poirot to Mary Debenham.

 

A clothing shop at Wigmore Street, Central London, of which the Countess thinks of having to give an answer to the name of her governess.

She replies that she has not realised who the Countess was. ‘I noticed her clothes more than her face,’ she reasons. Indeed? Bearing in mind that she only has not seen her for three years, it amazes me that she should not have noticed something about her ex-charge. Particularly that Debenham was in employ by Sonia Armstrong as a secretary and apparently lived under the same roof.

 

By the same token, the Countess ought to have understood who Miss Debenham was. Apparently she knows and does her best to conceal the other woman’s real identity, having invented the name ‘Miss Freebody’ when enquired by Poirot (Debenham and Freebody is a  long-standing clothing shop in Central London).

 

The grease on her passport is the doing of her husband when the news reached him that a luxurious handkerchief with initial ‘H’ had been found at the crime scene. With an intention to shelter his wife he lies during the interview that her first name is ‘Elena’ instead of Helena. Nonetheless, he solemnly swears to Poirot that his wife never left her compartment on the night of the murder.

 

Linda Arden’s younger daughter is a poor rich girl like Iris Marle (Sparkling Cyanide). At the time of the kidnapping, she might have been too small to understand hatred and sorrow, but profound sadness at the deaths of an idolised niece Daisy and an elder sister Sonia. Her mother’s deep sentiment towards bringing Ratchett to justice does not seem to affect Helena.

 

I bow to Christie for her; that her innocence preserved and she sounds to bear no grudge to Ratchett. Perhaps, there is an iota of sympathy for him after all.

 

 

Clues:

 

About the Armstrongs’s case (summarised by Poirot):

 

‘Colonel Armstrong was an Englishman – a V.C. [Victoria Cross]. He was half American, as his mother was a daughter of W.K. Van der Halt, the Wall Street millionaire. He married the daughter of Linda Arden, the most famous tragic American actress of her day. They lived in America and had one child – a girl – whom they idolized. When she was three years old she was kidnapped, an an impossibly high sum demanded as the price of her return. I will not weary you with all the intricacies that followed. I will come to the moment, when, after having paid over the enormous sum of two-hundred-thousand dollars, the child’s dead body was discovered, it having been dead at least a fortnight. Public indignation rose to fever point. And there was worse to follow. Following the shock of the discovery, she gave birth to a dead child born prematurely, and herself died. Her broken-hearted husband shot himself.’

 

 

 

-Count Andrenyi: ‘Consider my position. Do you think I could stand the thought of my wife dragged through a sordid police case. She was innocent, I knew it, but what she said was true – because of her connection with the Armstrong family she would have been immediately suspected. She would have been questioned – arrested, perhaps. Since some evil chance had taken us on the same train as this man Ratchett, there was, I felt sure, but one thing for it. I admit, Monsieur, that I lied to you – all, that is, save in one thing. My wife never left her compartment last night.’

 

 

 

– H. MacQueen’s (HM) query to Poirot:

 

HM: ‘If I’m not being unduly curious, just how did you figure this out? Casetti’s identity, I mean.’

 

P: ‘By a fragment of a letter found in his compartment.’

 

HM: ‘But surely – I mean- that was rather careless of the old man?’

 

P: ‘That depends on the point of view.’

 

Notes On Dumb Witness

Rating: 4 out of five

Year of Publication: 1937

Motive for Murder: Wealth

Plot:

Bob the dog takes the blame after the elderly Emily Arundell fell off the stairs in the small hours, allegedly having tripped over its ball. She does not die from the accident – yet, but over two weeks later on 1st May.

A West-Highland-white-haired terrier. Bob?

On 28th June Hercule Poirot receives a letter in the deceased’s handwriting dated two months before, enquiring his advice on a ‘very delicate matter.’ Although there are not any details given, he decides to go at once to Market Basing, the town where she lives. Little does he realise about her demise nor the fact that the well-to-do spinster has left everything for her companion, Wilhelmina Lawson. He is intrigued that Arundell has apparently made a new will a few days after her fall, which no longer in favour of her two nieces and a nephew.

Then he realises that it was not Bog’s ball that brings about the incident. As a result, suspicions are drawn to people who were in the house at that time. Furthermore, is Lawson one to believe that she had no idea about the will in her favour?

 

Highlights:

‘Hanky-panky, that’s what I say. Something fishy somewhere.’

Catherine Peabody to Hercule Poirot

 

Here are the clues:

–          A nail on the skirting board

–          Smell of varnish

–          Easter Bank holiday

–          Bob locked out

–          Thin smoke from Arundell’s lips

–          ‘AT’ initial on a female brooch

(feel free to add in your comments).

Here are the choices for the scenario:

– A failed murder attempt?

– Unscrupulous companion?

– On-the-spur-of-the-moment murder?

– Cunning relatives?

 

The incident has shaken Arundell to the core. For she has realised that someone in the house was trying to kill her and failed. Yet, her surviving means there will be another attempt. Despite having taken some precautions, the murderer succeeds.

Six suspects: the Tanios (Bella the niece and her Greek husband Dr. Jacob), brother and sister Charles and Theresa (the nephew and the other niece), Dr. Rex Donaldson (Theresa’s fiancé) and Wilhemina Lawson, the companion. The long-standing servants, Ellen the housemaid and the cook, are out because they were the ones who found Arundell’s letter to Poirot and posted it later. Besides, her late mistress leaves generous legacies for them.

In How Does Your Garden Grow? (see the details on Notes On Poirot’s Eearly Cases), Amelia Barrowby also consults the sleuth about the similar matter. Nonetheless, she remembers to post the letter and the sleuth duly responds to it. In Arundell’s case, Poirot does not wait, aroused by curiosity as to the ‘progress’ that awaits him and Hastings. The house is already on sale when they arrive and therefore Poirot’s inventing a story of writing a book about General Arundell, the deceased’s father.

Nevertheless Miss Peabody, Emily’s close friend, manages to see through ‘the joke.’ A perceptive female character which resembles the likes of Catherine Sheppard (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and Jane Marple. In her interview with Poirot (see Clues), in spite of the interviewee being amused by the questions given, she is willing to give him the insights about each suspects. More importantly is her feeling something amiss although it is highly unlikely that Dr. Grainger, whom attended her late friend for many years, has killed his patient.

As for the murderer, a number of qualities in him might recall readers’ memories to a character in The Hollow.  Seemingly harmless and clumsy, she is clever enough to make them as an advantage and create the opportunities. Also, as a wolf dressed in a lamb costume, the meek look deceives almost everyone but Poirot. Even Miss Peabody is very careful when presenting the facts, having been aware of not to suggest anything about the three relatives of the deceased.

Needless to say, the murderer attempts to frame other suspects for the crime. The plot has been carefully thought to the minute detail; perhaps not being put down in writing just as in Towards Zero but anticipation to the unexpected turns of the events, ie. the changing of the will is already in place. What he does not predict, however, is the deceased’s writing a letter to a private investigator.

‘Incident of The Dog’s Ball’, the short story version of the book first appeared in Strand magazine. The manuscript then was found in Greenway many years afterwards along with ‘The Capture of Cerberus.’ They are then republished in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks (2009).

What is unusual in the book is Poirot’s astute approach when dealing with the suspects. He clearly states a portion from Emily Arrundell’s money for his fee on the success of contesting the will. It does seem at first as a direct challenge to the companion. As the bait does not make an effect, it only confirms him about the deliberate lie Lawson has made about not knowing about the new will. Yet, will the bulk of wealth of Arundell make the poor woman a murderer?

The fascinating aspect of the plot is Poirot’s being adamant not to involve the police. Has he calculated already the chance of success in luring the killer into the trap? I suppose it is not a lack of evidence although the threat of the exhumation of the body is a good one. For it is Miss Lawson’s saying that Emily might have been a medium herself that makes him think about the possibility of  phosphorus poisoning.

To my mind the most brilliant aspect of the book is the title itself. What we mere humans regard ourselves with the intelligence besotted by God? Is a white-haired terrier indeed dumb or is it simply a misconception that a mammal is dumb because it does not speak the same language? Christie makes an exemplary example when Bob direct Hastings’s attention to the staircase. For it tries to show him how the incident was done in the same manner of Tiglath-Pileser (A Murder Is Announced) and Hannibal (Postern of Fate). I did hope he would have been the one who makes of a protruding nail on the third step from the top, not Poirot. Also, the fact that the nail is varnished with the same colour as the skirting board and therefore becomes inconspicuous (although I do wonder how the killer gets hold of the varnish in the first place).

Readers, I leave you to decide whether Miss Lawson is similar either to Miss Gilchirst (After The Funeral) or Miss Dora Bunner (A Murder Is Announced).

 

The Twists:

– Emily Arundell remembers to have kept the dog’s ball in the drawer in the evening before the incident

– On the night of Easter Bank Holiday Lawson sees the reflection of a woman in the mirror; her kneeling on the third step of stairs from the top and wearing a brooch with ‘T.A.’ initials

-Mr. Angus, the gardener, finds that a tin of weedkiller is nearly empty (after his conversation with Charles Arrundell about killing someone with it)

– Arabella Tanios is reported to have bought sleeping pills at the chemist’s in Market Basing during her visit to her aunt a week after the incident

 

Cast of Characters:

Arthur Hastings (Hugh Fraser) and Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) takes ‘Snubby’ for a walk in 1996’s adaptation into Poirot series.

The Arrundells:

Arabella Tanios (nee Winter, daughter of Emily’s sister, the wife of Dr. Tanios)

Charless (the nephew)

Emily

Theresa (the other niece of Emily)

 

Others:

Mr. Angus (the gardener at Littlegreen)

Arthur Hastings

Bob – a white-haired terrier

Miss Caroline Peabody (Emily’s close friend)

Nurse Carruthers (who looks after Emily Arrundell in the last two weeks of her life)

Ellen (Emily’s maid)

Mr. Gabbler (of Messrs Gabler and Stretcher, the local state agent)

Dr. Grainger (the senior doctor who attends Emily Arrundell)

Hercule poirot

Dr. Jacob Tanios (Arabella’s husband, Greek)

Rex Donaldson (the junior doctor, Theresa’s fiancé)

Mr. Purvis (Emily’s lawyer)

The Tripps (Julia and Isabel, the mediums, Minnie’s friends)

Wilhelmina Lawson (a.k.a. Minnie, Emily’s companion)

The chemist’s at Market Basing

The waiter at the George, the local pub

 

The Most Fascinating Character: Dr. Jacob Tanios

Is he a crook or an upright doctor? As cunning as a fox or astute? A charming personality or an accomplished actor? A loving husband or manipulator?

Smyrna – the ancient town where Dr. Tanios comes from. Its rich and colourful history is almost forgotten among the silent walls and whispers of tales of the dark days in 1922.

Emily Arundell disapproves of her niece marrying Greek, of whom (in her prejudiced mind) is almost as bad as Argentine or Turk. Be that as it may, nobody would disagree his being genuinely pleasant to his host during their two-week stay for the Easter at Littlegreen.

As for Hastings, here is his impression about Dr. Tanios: ‘a rotund, jolly, brown-haired, brown-eyed man. And though it is true he had a beard, it was a modest brown affair that made him look more like an artist. He spoke English perfectly. His voice had a pleasant timbre and matched the cheerful good-humour of his face.’

The Tanios live in Smyrna (Izmir as it is known nowadays, still part of Greece in the thirties) and they come to England for the spring.  Despite a good reputation in his work, the doctor has little means to pay for his two children’s British education. Thus, his ordering Bella to ask her aunt for help, of which she then refuses on the grounds of such talk is inappropriate.

A week after the incident he visits Arundell alone. Apparently she was given a mixture of tonic, which, according to Ellen, she then drained the contents into the sink. The nature of his call is arguable; either he has been concerned about the impact of her fall or he takes the opportunity to slip into a cupboard where Arundell’s tablets are kept. After all, he has knowledge about poisons and medicine and how to make them look like a natural death.

During the interview with Poirot he expresses his worry about his wife’s state of health. ‘It occurred to me that my wife might have – or may yet- come to you with some extraordinary tale. She may conceivably say that she is in danger from me – something of that kind.’ On the other hand, his wife implies to the sleuth in a separate occasion her belief that her husband might have drugged her late aunt to the grave.

This requires Poirot’s little grey cells. On the one hand, Mrs. Tanios does not take into account the loyal maid’s above statement. On the other, Bella does not seem to be keen at Charles and Theresa’s conferring to the sleuth.

Above all, is it enough motive for Dr. Tanios to end Arundell’s life as his pleas for her help for his two was rejected?

Clues:

Ellen and Poirot: [about Wilhelmina Lawson]

P: ‘She [Emily] must have been unusually attached to Miss Lawson, though.

E: ‘Oh, I don’t think so, sir’

P: ‘Miss Lawson was not in any way remarkable?’

E: ‘I shouldn’t have said so, sir. Quite an ordinary person.’

P: ‘You liked her, yes?’

E: ‘There wasn’t anything to like or dislike. Fussy she was – a regular old maid, and full of this nonsense about spirits.’

P: ‘Spirits?’

E: ‘Yes, sir, spirits. Sitting in the dark round a table and dead people came back and spoke to you. Downright irreligious I call it – as if we didn’t know departed souls had their rightful place and aren’t likely to leave it.’

P: ‘So Miss Lawson was a spiritualist! Was Miss Arundell a believer, too?’

E: ‘Miss Lawson would have liked her to be!’

P: ‘But she wasn’t?’

E: ‘The mistress had too much sense. Mind you, I don’t say it didn’t amuse her. “I’m willing to be convinced,” she’d say. But she’d often look at Miss Lawson as much as to say, “My poor dear, what a fool you are to be taken in!”’

 

Conversations between Miss Peabody (P) and Poirot(HP):

HP: ‘I understand Miss Arundell died a rich woman?’

P: ‘Yes, that’s what made all the pother. Nobody dreamed she was quite as well off as she was. How it came about was this way. Old General Arundell left quite a nice little income – divided equally among his sons and daughters. Some of it was reinvested, and I think every investment has done well. There were some original shares of Mortauld. Now, of course, Thomas [Charles and Theresa’s father] and Arabella [Bella’s mother] took their shares with them when they were married. The other three sisters lived here, and they didn’t spend a tenth part of their joint income; it all went back and was reinvested. When Matilda died she left her money to be divided between Emily and Agnes, and when Agnes died she left it to Emily. And Emily still went on spending very little. Result, she died a rich woman – and the Lawson woman gets it all!’

HP: ‘Did that come as a surprise to you, Miss Peabody?’

P: ‘To tell you the truth, it did! Emily had always given out quite openly thta at her death her money was to be divided between her nieces and her nephew. And as a matter of fact, that was the way it was in the original will. Legacies to the servants and so on and then to be divided between Theresa, Charles and Bella. My goodness, there was a to-do when, after her death, it was found she’d made a new will leaving it all to poor Miss Lawson!’

HP: ‘Was the will made just before her death?’

P: ‘Thinking of undue influence? No, I’m afraid that’s no use. And I shouldn’t think poor Lawson had the brains or the nerve to attempt anything of the sort. To tell you the truth, she seemed as much surprised as anybody – or said she was!’

‘The will was made about ten days before her death. Lawyer says it’s all right. Well – it may be.’

HP: ‘You mean..’

P: ‘Hanky-panky, that’s what I say. Something fishy somewhere.’

Notes On Mrs. McGinty’s Dead

I wish Mrs. McGinty as attractive as this woman!

Rating: 4 out of five

Year of Publication: 1952

Motive for Murder: Identity

Plot:

‘Mrs. McGinty’s dead. How did she die?

Down on her knees just like I.

Poirot’s splendid evening is interrupted by the presence of Superintendent Spence. He begs the detective to save the neck of a man whom the policeman has believed did not give his landlady a fatal blow on the back of her head. Nonetheless, James Bentley is remarkable. He is indifferent to the guilty verdict and unenthusiastic of being freed. Poirot wonders whether he cares to thank the upright superintendent whose conscience has told him that an innocent man may be hanged in three weeks’ time.

Over five months ago Mrs. McGinty was found by her next door neighbour in the parlour of her cottage. Lying on the floor, she had been dead for twenty-four hours. Her bedroom was in a mess; the floorboards were prised up and the little saving she had had underneath was gone. She had no family but a niece.

What other facts can the sleuth possibly unravel from the death of a cleaner? His curiosity prevails nevertheless. As he gets to know the five families where she used to go in in Broadhinny, he does not spot something amiss from them. Not until he finds out that the deceased bought a bottle of ink in the post office two days before her death does he began to think to whom the letter was written. By nature, she did not write much.

When he looks at her belongings, he unwraps a pair of her shoes and notices that the newspaper used dated three days before her death. The middle page of one of them was cut off. What news was she being interested at?

Meanwhile, the murder weapon has not been identified yet – other than something like a meat copper with a very sharp edge.

It is to the forgotten crimes Poirot seeks the answer.

Highlights:

Mrs. McGinty’s dead. How did she die?

Holding her hand out just like I.

Christie’s opposition towards capital punishment seems to be the focal point of the plot. On the one hand is a scrupulous police officer who has grown uneasy that a wrong man is likely to be sent to the gallows. On the other is a convict whose nonchalant behaviour irritates Poirot. The victim herself is  very intriguing, for what a simple woman like Mrs. McGinty might have done to be killed?

As for Poirot, there is no ‘glamour’ in the case; the deceased is a farmer’s daughter who earns her wage from being a charwoman in some homes. She does not leave much for the only relative, nor would the sleuth think of the niece the murderess.

Yet Mrs. McGinty likes to know people’s affairs. She is similar to Wilhemina Lawson (Dumb Witness, 1940) and Miss Gilchirst (see Notes On After The Funeral), of whom listen at the doors and checks the drawers for secret letters. What kills Mrs. McGinty is a faded photograph nevertheless.

Given her personality, the sleuth believes that the investigation must focus on the villain.‘….It is in the murderer and not the murdered that the interest of this case lies. Someone who wanted – what? To strike down Mrs. McGinty? Or to strike down James Bentley?’ The authoress puts forward three options to consider: is she the target? Is he the target? Did she die to incriminate him?

In the meantime, let’s postpone further thinking of the above choices. For Poirot faces a predicament staying at the Summerhayes’s home, the only guest house available in the village. Forget small inconveniences but the hostess’s disastrous cooking. And it is not better in the local pub, either. Moreover is being hit by an apple core on the cheek while walking on the country lane one afternoon. ‘Why, it’s M. Poirot,’ exclaims Ariadne Oliver. After sixteen years they are reunited (see Notes On Cards On The Table).

Still believes that a woman should be the Head of Scotland Yard, she drives in the village in order to save her Finnish detective character from being further ruined by Robin Upward, a promising playwright. For his idea for the adaptation of her novel into the stage is rather absurd to her mind. I wonder if Mrs. Oliver’s agitation might have been the reflection of the authoress’s about Alibi?

Be that as it may, I feel her appearance adds little to the plot. As hilarious as usual, she claims the village doctor as the most likely person to have done in Mrs. McGinty in a cold blooded manner. Furthermore, it gives chills to the bones when she realises that a murder to her hostess, Mrs. Upward, could have been carried out while she was sitting in the car outside the home.

A Victorian sugar cutter, the murder weapon found at the Summerhayes’s home.

Two bodies are not good news. To have found the missing murder weapon is a triffle thrilling nevertheless (see the illustration on the right box).  It is preceded by an attempt at Poirot’s life (‘Splendid news. Someone tried to kill me..’ he says to Superintendent Spence on the phone right after the incident).

The fascinating aspect Christie has brought up in the story is reactions of people towards a seemingly harmless article on the newspaper. Despite its accuracies and facts are exaggerated,  the piece has awakened a killer. At least a desire to kill in one of the pleasant inhabitants of Broadhinny.  As for a curious Mrs. McGinty, one of the photographs stirred her memory of having seen the same one in one of the homes to which she goes. And yet, there are the forgotten children of the victims of the bygone crimes.

As far as I am concerned the book sounds to start the reference to some famous Victorian murder cases. In the book the imaginary Eva Kane seems to resemble Kate Webster. In her later novel By The Pricking of My Thumb (1968), the children killer might have had a touch of the notorious Mary Ann Cotton, whose crimes spanned for twenty years. Likewise, Dead Man’s Folly (1956), Elephants Can Remember (1972) and Hallowe’en Party (1969) also explores the personal background of the criminals, whom get off scot-free due to lack of evidences.

Here is the killer that is far from being hidden nor kept in the dark by the authoress; a cat among the pigeons whose masks himself well. But for fragments of conversations heard by chance, Poirot would not have been able to know his identity. Then an old story book with the killer’s real name on it is discovered.

The use of force in the killing method suggests the sex of the killer. Although the diversions have been put in place by different assumptions, the strength deployed is a necessity. For the killer wants to ensure that the ‘danger’ has been eliminated. And there is an element of timing, too. In Christie’s books, such a methodical approach shows a brain behind it.

I least like the fact that Mrs. Oliver is there because of her profession, not her personality. For I am impartial about her; my favourite partner in crime of Poirot’s. I am not disappointed that her instinct is misleading, but for her wasting the time feeling frustrated to an overconfident male playwright. Yet, for whom the criticism Christie aimed at?

The hanging of Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans – the last dead penalty in Britain before the abolishment in the Parliament in 1969.

Lastly, has she been successful to make her points heard about the flaws in capital punishment? Halfway is on the verge of dropping the case. What keeps his going is Maude Williams (see The Most Fascinating Character), Bentley’s ex-colleague who takes too great an interest to the case. Does she say correctly that she has been driven by her feelings to the nonchalant convict?

On the other hand, supposing the implementation of capital punishment might help prevent the overcrowded of prisons in the UK nowadays, what would Christie have had to say?

On the whole, read the book with clear conscience, for justice is to whomever deserves, n’est-ce pa?

 

The Twists:

Mrs. McGinty’s dead. How did she die?

‘Like this…’

 

1964’s film adaptation of the book featuring Miss Marple. In all fairness, Poirot did not die yet at that time.

-Mrs. Upward lies to Poirot about her having seen the photograph of Lily Gamboll

-A smell of Mrs. Carpenter’s perfume in the living room of Mrs. Upward’s after the body is found

-Maureen Summerhayes is adopted, just like Robin Upward

-Maude Williams sees a man trying to get into Mrs. Wetherby’s barred windows using a ladder

-James Bentley forms the impression that Mrs. McGinty was talking about Mrs. Upward in relation to the newspaper article

-Maude Williams is Robin Upward’s half sister

Cast of Characters:

Mrs. McGinty’s dead. How did she die?

Sticking her neck out just like I

Mrs. Upward to Poirot

-Ariadne Oliver (the crime novelist who comes to stay with the Upwards)

-Mrs. Bessie Burch (Mrs. McGinty’s niece)

-Mrs. Elliot (the next-door neighbour who finds Mrs. McGinty’s body)

-James Bentley (the convict)

-Maude Williams (James’s friend who works at an estate agent office)

-Pamela Horsefall (the journalist who writes the article on the Sunday Comet)

-Mr. Scuttle (the partner at Messrs Breather & Scuttle, where James used to work)

-Superintendent Spence

-Mrs. Sweetiman (the woman at the post office)

Mrs. McGinty’s clients:

– The Carpenters (the husband, Guy, is an MP candidate and the wife, Eva)

-The Hendersons( a stepfather, a hypochondriac mother and the daughter Deidre)

-The Rendells (the husband a doctor and the wife Shelagh)

-The Summerhayes (the husband Johnnie and the wife Maureen)

-The Upwards (the mother an elderly, the son Lawrence is a playwright)

-Mrs. Wetherby

The Most Fascinating Character: Maude Williams

She approaches Poirot in a cafe and introduces herself after hearing his interview with Mr. Scuttle. Her look is described as ‘a very healthy young woman, with a full buxom figure that Poirot approved. About thirty-three or four and by nature dark-haired, but not one to be dictated by nature.’

Sarah Smart stars as Maude Williams in 2008’s Poirot series on ITV

She believes James Bentley is innocent. Initially Poirot thought her a woman whom has been in love to a very unimaginative man. If anything, she firmly stands for what she has chosen to believe.

A chance remark that brings a sudden note of bitterness in her voice makes him see her in a different light. More importantly is her slipping of the tongue about a fact that neither him nor Superintendent Spence has ever told anyone: what became Eva Kane after the trial of Dr Craig.

‘Evelyn Hope..?’

‘What’s that?’ she asks .

‘So you know that name?’

‘Why-yes…It’s the name Eva Whatshername took when she went to Australia. It-it was in the paper – the Sunday Comet.’

‘The Sunday Comet said many things, but it did not say that. The police found the name written in a book in Mrs. Upward’s house.’

‘Then it was her,’ she exclaims,’and she didn’t die out there…Michael was right.’

Convinced that her solid interest is to the above name, not Bentley’s freedom, he nonetheless must find out what she has meant that ‘Michael was right.’

Personally she is much useful a sidekick than Mrs. Oliver. For she has provided the sleuth with information about the murderer’s movement; without her understanding its importance in the first place.

In the end Poirot must ask her the truth. ‘Your real name is Craig?’ She nods.

‘I was brought up by some cousins – very decent they were. But I was old enough when it all happened not to forget. I used tothink about it a good deal. About her. She was a nasty bit of goods all right – children know! My father was just – weak. And besotted by her. But he took the trap. For something, I’ve always believed, that she did. Oh yes, I know he’s an accessory after the fact – but it’s not quite the same thing, is it? I always meant to find out what had become of her. When I was grown up, I got detectives on to it. They traced her to Australia and finally reported that she was dead. She’d left a son – Evelyn Hope he called himself.’

Thus her having applied a typist job at Broadhinny. This was done after having heard from a friend, a young actor, Michael that ‘Evelyn Hope’ had come from Australia.

Readers, I must stop here.

Clues:

I cannot think of any intriguing nor fascinating remarks. Nonetheless you should try this: http://www.funtrivia.com/playquiz/quiz2288361a337e8.html

Notes On One, Two Buckle My Shoe

Rating: 4.3 out of five

Year of Publication: 1940

Motive for Murder: Identity

Plot:

First scenario:

Miss Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, who lived abroad for many years, has come back to London and spots her old friend’s husband. He does not recognise her, thinking that she has mistakened him another man.

A woman’s body is found inside a fur chest in her flat – her face dismembered. She wears a green dress, a pair of cheap stockings and the buckle on one of her black patent leather shoes. She is Sylvia Chapman according to her dental record and the flat belongs to her. Nonetheless, the porter identifies her as Miss Sainsbury Seale, whom visited the other woman a month ago.

1930’s buckle black leather shoes for women. Are they worn by Miss Sainsbury Seale?

One morning, outside Mr. Morley’s practice Poirot stands and a black cab pulls over. A woman wearing a brand new black patent leather shoes gets off. One of the buckles is caught on the door and fell onto the pavement. He picks it up, having noticed a pair of good quality stockings which does not seem to match with the provincial-looking green dress and the yellow hair.

A few hours later Inspector Japp phoned to ask about Poirot’s dentist. For Henry Morley has committed suicide after the sleuth left.  In the afternoon they interview Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, of whom Poirot has met outside the deceased’s home. Two days afterwards, she is reported missing.

A bullet is believed to be intended for Alistair Blunt.  On the grounds of his country home a newly-employed gardener is allegedly to have fired at Blunt but missed.  Frank Carter denies the allegation. Ballistic result shows that the bullet in Mr. Morley’s head is the same as the one fired at Blunt.

Moreover, Blunt was seen by Mr. Motley as well. A distinguished City banker, he is a low-profile figure despite his great influence in Britain’s economy.  As one of the richest men in England, he is used to when some people are keen to talk to him on the pretext of having acquainted with his late wife, a Jewess heiress.

The last patient seen on that day dies from overdose of anaesthetic, which might explain the motive of suicide.

Second Scenario:

Poirot is very happy; he does not have to see his dentist for another six months. Standing outside Henry Morley’s practice, he sees a black cab stops nearby. A woman’s ankle protrudes, wearing a pair of good quality stockings and new black patent leather shoes. As she gets off, the buckle of her shoe caught on the door and falls onto the pavement. Poirot picks it up and gives it to her with a bow.

A few hours later he is notified about Mr. Morley’s shooting himself in his room. After visiting the crime scene, the sleuth and Inspector Japp interviews Mabelle Sainsbury Seale in her hotel. Just like Poirot, she thinks that the suicide is unfortunate. Yet, with a sigh he also notices that the buckle has not been sewn.

Two days later she has been reported to have disappeared in the evening after the interview. Another patient, Mr. Amberiotis, has died from the overdose of local anaesthetic. Hence the explanation of the dentist’s death.

A decomposed woman’s body found inside a fur chest in a flat draws Poirot’s attention. For she wears the same dress as Miss Sainsbury Seale’s the day he met her and the same type of shoes. But they are well worn and the buckle is not missing.   Nonetheless, the dental record says the body was Slyvia Chapman, one of Mr. Morley’s patients. How has she been dressed as the other woman? Poirot thought.

Alistair Blunt has a near miss when a bullet was aimed at him. At that time, he was walking with Poirot in the garden of his country home. The detective recognises the shooter as the fiance of Mr. Morley’s secretary. Frank Carter has a grudge against the dentist. Interestingly, a witness saw him enter the dentist’s room on the day of the murder around the estimated time of death. More importantly, the bullet fired at Blunt and the one lodged inside Mr. Morley’s head come from the same pistol. Nevertheless Carter denies having intended to kill Blunt nor murdered Morley.

When the late dentist attended Poirot he mentioned about a big banker whom he would see next. Quiet and unassuming, Blunt’s name in the City bears huge reputation. He plays a great role in keeping Britain solvent. He attracts the public when he married a heiress twenty years his senior. It was a happy marriage and she died naturally a few years ago.

What connects Mr. Morley’s patients with the dentist’s suicide? Is it true that Blunt has been actually the target?

Highlights:

Head or tail? I present two ways of looking at the case, depending on the angle a reader might choose. How does it begin? The moment Mr. Morley is found dead or the day Poirot picks up a buckle of a woman’s shoe outside the dentist’s home?

This is the book in which the plot is carefully arranged to conceal the murderer as much as possible. The unrelated occurrences, the victims’ characters, the witnesses’ statements and the small important clues are interwoven to create a certain impression about the mere suicide of a senior dentist.

In Harry Brown (2009), the death of an old friend in the hands of rough kids in a London Estate triggers an ex-marine man to take matters into his own hands. Mr. Morley’s death, however, is neither the beginning nor the climax; his murder is a must as part of another killing plot.

Nevertheless, I could not help to wonder as to why the murderer having mentioned to Poirot about meeting Miss Sainsbury Seale one day outside his home. Had he not stated the fact, her disappearance and Mr. Amberiotis’s killing would not have been linked to the dentist’s.

His character bears a touch of Dr. James Sheppard; a middle-aged bachelor who lives with a sharp-witted spinster sister. He was criticised to have employed an Irish man as a partner (more is in The Most Fascinating Character). Besides, he made an enemy in Frank Carter, having interfered with the secretary’s personal life after she lent some money to the fiancé who had been on the dole.  Is he a nice man whose bite is nothing compared to his bark or a ruthless, selfish person?

Yet, Poirot knows better about Mr. Morley. Most significantly, the sleuth is always right. As Japp is in doubt whether it would have been wise to have suggested murder when it is not conclusive, the Belgian responds with a shrug. ‘I think so – yes. Anything suggestive that he [Alfred, the page boy who found the body] may have seen or heard will come back to him under the stimulus, and he will be keenly alert to everything that goes on here.’

Unfortunately, the lad is not the same vigilant and sharp Alfred Tuppence Beresford has engaged in The Secret Adversary. Then Poirot has been led to believe that the target was the banker, not the dentist. The mysterious Mr. Barnes, an ex-handler, suggests him that the murder attempt at the dentist’s is perfect because anyone will be powerless in the hands of a dentist.

Fashionable forties – women shoes with no buckles! Clearly, a large gleaming buckle on Miss Sainsbury Seale’s shoe is not Poirot’s cup of tea.

The confusion about the identity of the body in a fur chest is a clever subplot. Poirot’s method of identification might differ from the police, but nonetheless at that stage he still sees that Miss Sainsbury Seale is just a ‘collateral damage;’ someone at the place and at the wrong time.

Here we have the killer who is cruel, selfish and heartless. His crime has been unknown for many years, which can be jeopardised by a chance meeting with someone from the past. Personally, as a cold-blooded killer he is on the league with his equals in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Three-Act Tragedy, And Then There Were None, Murder Is Easy and Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case. For they might be the least likely person despite their money and power. And yet in Poirot’s books all killers do the same mistake: to challenge the detective to catch themselves.

Be that as it may, it amazes me that the solution comes from a passing remark by a minor character, Jane Olivera (see Clues). Of which the element of coincidence is pinpointed and amplified while the sleuth attending a Sunday mass.

What is apparent to me from Olivera’s words are the likeliness to a villain’s in Sherlock Holmes’s A Case of Identity (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). For both Christie’s and Conan Doyle’s have a great greediness in them. Also, an able accomplice who makes the plot successful.

It intrigues me most that this is the first book in which Poirot starts to question his little grey cells. ‘Is it possible that I’m growing old?’ he asks himself. His hesitation towards the path he has taken makes him once, humane and softer. In the end, he says to the killer, ‘…because not once, but many times, that idea had been suggested to me, had been forced upon me like a forced car.’ Has the War changed him?

Lastly, although the book was published in the bleakest year Britain had in the War, there are not any hints about it at all, ie. the bombing and the suffering of the ordinary people . Instead, Christie still discusses about the threat of fascism (the ‘Reds’) and I.R.A. I wonder if the authoress might have missed a number of irretraceable crimes occurred, which neither have been detected nor investigated properly. Or, might it have been the case that she had known some but had not decided to put them as one of her crimes?

 

The Twists:

-Hercule Poirot never actually meets Miss Sainsbury Seale

Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) in the dentist chair in 1992’s adaptation into television series.

-Mr. Amberiotis is a new patient of Henry Morley

-Slyvia Chapman’s shoes are well-worn whereas a search in Miss Sainsbury Seale’s room in the hotel does not show her having a pair of black patent leather shoes with buckles on them

– The murder weapon is foreign made from a certain part of Europe. The murderer is then known to have travelled once there.

-Albert Chapman is a pseudo name of Q.X. 612 and he has no wife

-Mabelle Sainsbury Seale has not met any of her old friends in the last seven days of her life

‘I’m afraid one does usually mentions the important people. We’re all such snobs at heart.’

Mrs. Adams to M.Poirot

Cast of Characters:

Mrs. Adams (Mabelle’s friend)

Agnes Fletcher (the housemaid at the Morleys)

Alfred (the page boy)

Alistair Blunt (the financier)

Mr. Amberiotis (who meets Mabelle on the ship leaving from India)

Mr. Barnes (also known as Albert Chapman, QX 912)

Frank Carter (Gladys’s fiancé)

Georgina Morley (Mr. Morley’s sister)

Gladys Nevill (Mr. Morley’s secretary)

Helen Montressor (Alistair’s second cousin)

Henry Morley (the dentist)

Howard Raikes (Jane’s boyfriend)

Jane Olivera (Alistair’s niece by marriage)

Mrs. Julia Olivera (Jane’s mother, Alistair’s niece by marriage)

Hercule Poirot

Mabelle Sainsbury Seale (who meets Mr. Amberiotis on the ship)

Mrs. Merton (Sylvia Chapman’s friend)

Mr. O’Reilly (Henry’s partner)

Mr. Selby (Alistair’s secretary)

The Most Fascinating Character: Mr. O’Reilly

An Irish man, he is first mentioned by Gladys Nevill and described as ‘a talk, dark young man, with a plume of hair that fell untidily over his forehead. He had an attractive voice and a very shrewd eye.’

O’Reilly respects his senior partner Henry Morley but is not fond of Georgina. In fact, they mutually dislikes one another; O’Reilly for Miss Morley’s patronising attitude whilst her suspecting the other of drinking due to his shaking hands while attending the patients. Nonetheless, her brother thought of the other man as an esteemed partner; a capable man in his line of work.

It is natural that he is first suspected of having killed Morley. For his death means the deceased’s patients become his and it is already a well-established practice which O’Reilly only maintains in future. As for Poirot, he suspects him due to a mark on the carpet in the deceased’s room. It is as if the body would have been dragged along it. Yet, had O’Reilly done it, he would have shot his partner in the room and there would not have been the need to remove the body.

Furthermore, it is suggested that he could have been an I.R.A member; an undercover agent who is sent to murder Alistair Blunt. Fortunately such is unfounded although his somewhat restless behaviour arouses suspicion. Towards the end of the book he meets Poirot in a liner company, during which he explains his mounting debts that are impossible to be settled. The choice is to leave the country and turns a new leaf in the USA.

Clues:

Sainsbury’s, a supermarket chain in the UK which was found in 1869. An inspiration for a character’s surname?

Conversation between Mrs. Adams(A) and Poirot(HP):

HP: Did Mrs. Adams know if Miss Sainsbury Seale had met Mr or Mrs Alistair Blunt at any time out there?

A: ‘Oh, I don’t think so, M. Poirot. You mean the big banker? They were out some years ago staying with the Viceroy, but I’m sure if Mabelle had met them all, she would have talked about it or mentioned them. I’m afraid one does usually mentions the important people. We’re all such snobs at heart.’

HP: ‘She never did mention the Blunts- Mrs. Blunt in particular?’

A: ‘Never.’

HP: ‘If she had been a close friend of Mrs.Blunt’s probably you would have known?’

A: ‘Oh, yes. I don’t believe she knew anyone like that. Mabelle’s friends were all very ordinary people – like us.’

Agnes Fletcher to Poirot:

‘And it was then I saw him – that Frank Carter, I mean. Halfway up the stairs he was – our stairs, I mean, above the master’s floor. And he was standing there waiting and looking down – and I’ve come to feel more and more as though there was something queer about it. He seemed to be listening very intent, if you know what I mean?’

‘What time was this?’

‘it must have been getting on for half-past twelve, sir. And just as I was thinking: There now, it’s Fran Carter, and Miss Nevill’s away for the day won’t he be disappointed…’

Conversation between Jane Olivera(JO) and Poirot(HP):

JO: ‘Howard wants me to marry him. At once. Without letting anyone know. He says – he says it’s the only way I’ll ever do it – that I’m weak – What shall I do about it, M. Poirot?’

HP: ‘Why ask me to advise you? There are those who are nearer!’

JO: ‘Mother? She’d scream the house down at the bare idea! Uncle Alistair? He’d be cautious and prosy. Plenty of time, my dear. Got to make sure, you know. Bit of an old fish – this young man of yours. No sense in rushing things

HP: ‘Your friends?’

JO: ‘I haven’t got any friends. Only a silly crowd I drink and dance and talk inane catchwords with! Howard’s the only real person I’ve ever come up against.’

Notes On Death On The Nile

Rating: four out of five

Year of Publication: 1937

Motive for Murder: Wealth and Identity

Plot:

On a Nile steamer a honeymoon couple are among other passengers; she is The Girl Who Has Everything and he simply the luckiest man. As a matter of fact, their marriage has become a sensation in the media. For everybody thought she would have married a suitor.  Not even her best friend, Jacqueline Bellefort, who introduced Linnet to her ex-fiancee, Simon Doyle. As far as Bellefort is concerned, Linnet has taken away Doyle from her.

Furthermore, Bellefort appears to have followed them since they started from England, turning up at every place. Needless to say, Mrs. Doyle is infuriated, particularly when the other is spotted on the boat despite her husband’s attempt to have registered them for the cruise under an assumed name.

One night, a row breaks between Bellefort and Doyle. Minutes to midnight, a shot is fired. Simon’s leg is injured. The next day Linnet’s maid finds the lifeless body of her mistress in the cabin. She has died from a bullet in the head. The doctor estimates that the time of death is between midnight and two am.

No doubt either Bellefort nor Linnet’s husband could have murdered her. Nonetheless, Bellefort shot him before midnight and afterwards was sedated and attended by a nurse. As for Doyle, he would not have been able to walk with a wounded leg to the deceased’s cabin and killed her. Thus, is there anyone else who has the motive to kill the deceased?

On the night before the cruise, she tells Poirot about Bellefort’s threat to finish her and Simon off. On the other hand, the sleuth asks Bellefort to stop her act. ‘Go home, Mademoiselle. You are young; you have brains, the world is before you.’

A few days afterwards the second body is found: the maid has been strangled and there are bundles of Franc notes on her body.

Would there be the third one before the boat berth at Wadi Halfa?

Highlights:

Aswan, South Egypt

The characters: An alcoholic, a communist and sinister young man, a woman who plots a murder to the minute details, a doctor, a haughty but kleptomaniac aristocrat, an heiress, a greedy maid, an archaeologist, an Austrian doctor, a haughty American woman, a young lord in disguise, another young man who steals for fun, a witty elderly woman and an accomplice to the murderer. Do I list them all?

The subplots: a jewellery forgery, the mystery of the missing velvet scarf of Van Schuyler’s and the deceased’s diamond, the unmasking of a provocateur, the blackmailing, the embezzlement of trust funds and the other triangle of romance to match the claim of ‘a very elaborately worked out plot.’ I see.

Perhaps it is only me who feel inundated by the sheer number of them – not to mention the other details of the ancient Egypt sites along the way.

To begin with, the characters remind me of their resemblances in the other Christie’s novels.  The mother and son Allertons remind me of the Chesters (Problem At Pollensa Bay). Mrs. Allerton is Mr. Satterthwaite in dress, Poirot’s female sidekick whom is as composed as Jane Plenderdeith (Murder In The Mews) but with an agreeable sense of fashion. The protagonist Linnet Doyle (nee Ridgeway) has a touch of Arlene Marshall about her attitude while her husband Simon and Jacqueline Bellefort can be likened to the Redferns (Evil Under The Sun). Miss Van Schuyler is Mrs. Upward (Mrs. McGinty’s Dead) and her cousin Cornelia Robson is as kind and as vague as Mrs. Summerhayes. Mr. Ferguson is the spiteful young scientist Alec Legge (Dead Man’s Folly) and Oliver Manders (Three-Act Tragedy). Signor Guido Richetti is Father Lavigny (Murder In Mesopotamia). Please tell me if this is not confusing enough.

Furthermore, the subplots are tangled affairs, which two or three of them could have been omitted without making the whole plot less satisfactory. The reunion between Colonel Race and Poirot trigger my asking if there was a need for these men to have been in another collaboration again (as they have been in the previous Cards On The Table). For Mrs. Allerton is sufficient as another brain to the case. In addition of her worrying about her son being attracted to a wrong girl, she is inevitably involved in the matter of the alcoholic Mrs. Otterbourne. And, if there was not a

Abu Simbel Temples was built by Pharaoh Ramses II in 1257 BCE; two temples carved out of solid rocks. It is on the west bank of the Nile in Aswan.

In the later book of Christie’s published a few years afterwards, much similarities are noticed in spite of different setting, names and the making of a convincing alibi. The victim is carefully chosen, the killers have a sound alibi and Poirot is also featured. The only difference is that the killer and her accomplice have run the plot before and succeeded. On the other hand, Linnet Doyle’s killer is a first-time plotter and bound for mistakes.

What makes the plot exciting is the witness accounts of having heard two different shots. Besides, the assumption that the murder weapon was thrown into the sea afterwards.  Yet, during the search Poirot finds a small revolver in Rosalie Otterbourne’s handbag, which is the same type of the murder weapon but later on it disappears.

Be that as it may, Christie marvels at her depiction of Linnet Doyle (see Clues for her profile). There is so much about her, just like Simeon Lee (see Notes On Hercule Poirot’s Christmas) expressed by a number of minor characters of admiration, jealousy and concerns about her confidence and ruthlessness. On the one hand, she is used to the idea of getting everything she wants, which includes a man in particular. On the other, despite the envy, there is little about an orphan lonely girl who has ruined the live of the only friend she had. Thus, what punishment can it be than an ‘execution’ to redeem her sin of ‘taking a poor man’s one ewe lamb’ as Poirot put it?

Moreover is the authoress’s deliberation on the part of the other two protagonists Jacqueline Bellefort and Simon Doyle. The dynamics among the three of them are well executed and the triangle of love is stronger than Triangle at Rhodesia (see Notes On Murder In The Mews) and Sad Cypress.

The most fascinating thing discussed here is the authoress’s notion that genes may play part in making someone a murderer. For studies show that emotions such as fear can be passed down to children and grandchildren in the genes rather than simply by witnessing and copying behaviour. Nonetheless, can the thesis also be applied for a ‘crime gene’?

Anyhow, it seems to me that she has delivered her promise for readers to ‘escape to sunny skies and blue water as well as to crimes in the confines of an armchair.’ In this not so-winter-wonderland weather in the UK I dream of the smell of warm air, the sun glinting on the Nile, the bobbing of the boat on the calm river and an excursion to Abu Simbel Temples and Temple of Kom Ombo. I would not have minded the heat in the least!

Hercule Poirot visit Elephantine island before going on the cruise heading for Wadi Halfa.

The Twists:

–         The small revolver Jacqueline Bellefort used for shooting Simon Doyle has gone missing

–         Linnet Doyle mistakenly reads a telegram for Signor Richetti with some vegetable words in it.

–         Mrs. Otterbourne recognises the person who came into Louise Borgeout’s cabin

–         Borgeout happens to have woken up on the night of the murder and looked out of the cabin, during which she saw the person who entered her mistress’s cabin and left shortly afterwards

–         Rosalie Otterbourne denies having had a .22 mm revolver.

Cast of Characters:

Mrs. Allerton (Timothy’s mother)

Andrew Pennington (Linnet’s US lawyer)

Dr. Bessner (an Austrian doctor, a bachelor who attends Simon after being shot)

Miss Bowers (Miss Van Schuyler’s nurse)

Mr. Burnaby (the landlord of Three Crowns, a local who observes about an heiress’s appearance Linnet Ridgeway in Malton-under-Wode).

Charles Windesham (a suitor for Linnet)

Cornelia Robson (Miss Van Schuyler’s poor cousin)

Monsieur Gaston Blondin (the proprietor of Chez Ma Tante, where Poirot sees Jacqueline and Simon together as they sit at the next table)

Mr. Ferguson (a.k.a. Lord Dawlish)

Fleetwood (the ex-boyfriend of Linnet’s former maid, who is prevented from having married the maid. He happens to be one of the crews in the boat)

Hercule Poirot

The 1978’s film starring Peter Ustinov as the Belgian sleuth, sitting between Colonel Race (David Niven) and Maria Van Schuyler (Bette Davis).

Jacqueline de Bellefort (Linnet’s old friend and the ex-fiancee of Simon)

James Fanthorp (the lawyer who is assigned to shadow Linnet on board of the steamer)

The Honorary Joanna Southwood (Linnet’s friend)

Signor Guido Richetti (an Italian archaeologist)

Linnet Doyle (nee Ridgeway, half American who has inherited huge wealth from her mother)

Louise Borgeout (Linnet’s French maid)

Marie Van Schuyler (Cornelia’s rich and snob cousin who takes her to a trip to Europe and Egypt)

Mrs. Salome Otterbourne (Rosalie’s mother, a ‘chick-lit’ novel author)

Simon Doyle (Linnet’s husband, Jacqueline’s ex-fiance)

Sterndale Rockford (Pennington’s partner at the solicitor office)

Timothy Allerton (Joanna’s cousin)

Colonel Race (Poirot’s sidekick, who appears in Cards On The table and The Man In The Brown Suit)

Rosalie Otterbourne (the daughter of Mrs. Otterbourne)

William Carmichael (James’s uncle who orders him to take a trip to Egypt to keep an eye on Linnet Doyle)

The Most Fascinating Character: Mr. Ferguson/Lord Dawlish

Alastair Mackenzie stars as Ferguson in 2004’s adaptation of the novel. Ferguson character does not appear in 1978’s film nonetheless.

First noticed by Poirot, he is described as ‘ a tall, dark-haired young man, with a thin face and a pugnacious chin. He was wearing an extremely dirty pair of grey flannel trousers and a high-necked polo jumper singularly unsuited to the climate.’ To Mrs. Allerton he is ‘our anti-capitalist friend.’

When he talks, his remarks are quite cynical to some people. Linnet Doyle is a person ought to be shot and Dr. Bessner is an old pompous bore. Yet, he is genuinely frustrated towards Cornelia Robson’s submission to her domineering cousin growing fondness to the doctor.

Not until a search by Poirot and Colonel Race into each passenger cabin does his true identity come into light. The young Lord Dawlish sounds to be on a mission to be a commoner. Although he fails in his attempt to be one with Poirot’s wincing at his sartorial choice and a signet ring found in his drawer. An Oxford graduate, he is drawn to communism. It is suggestive that he might have been one of the idealistic young people who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in the thirties. Needless to say, he is a symbol of rebellion.

As any other young man, he finds love unexpectedly in a seemingly meek woman, Robson. She is riled by his criticism to the doctor, which actually means well. Soon he understands that the other is a competitor to win her heart and it confuses him a lot. Just like Mrs. Doyle, he believes that his way of thinking is better than others. This kind of arrogance does not recognise failure.

Towards the end of the book, he knows he is losing the battle and therefore is resigned to ask her hand in marriage to Maria Van Schuyler. Yet he has neither strategy nor tactic to make the haughty woman accept him. Her response to his proposal is a foregone conclusion. ‘There is such a thing as social position, Mr. Ferguson.’

Robson’s sudden presence in the scene puts things into perspective. ‘If-if I liked you, I’d marry you no matter who you were,’ she says to Ferguson. ‘But you don’t like me?’ he replies. ‘I-I think you’re just outrageous. The way you say things…The things you say…I-I’ve never met anyone the least like you. I –‘

(Readers, this is one of my favourite scenes in the book. Robson stands up to him and her cousin, showing the courage that she never thought she had).

Poor Ferguson. I hope he has learnt that the old doctor has a sporting spirit in him; a man of experience who understands the game he is in.

Nevertheless, I wonder if Van Schuyler would have changed her mind about Ferguson after Poirot had told tells her about his vast fortune and upbringing.

 

Clues:

On Jacqueline Bellefort:

Linnet Ridgeway (to Joanna Southwood):

‘…We were together at a convent in Paris. She’s had the most terrible bad luck Her father was a French Count, her mother was American – a Southerner. The father went off with some woman, and her mother lost all her money in the Wall Street crash. Jackie was left absolutely broke. I don’t know how she’s managed to get along the last two years.’

Hercule Poirot:

‘…You have chosen, Mademoiselle, the dangerous course… As we here in this boat have embarked on a journey, so you too have embarked on your own private journey – a journey on a swift moving river, between dangerous rocks, and heading for who knows what currents of disaster…’

On Linnet Doyle:

Simon MacCorkindale as Simon Doyle and Lois Chiles as Linnet Doyle in the 1978’s film.

A local man (to Mr. Burnaby):

‘It seems all wrong to me – her looking like that. Money and looks –it’s too much!If a girl’s as rich as that she’s no right to be a good-looker as well. And she is a good-looker….Got everything, that girl has. Doesn’t seem fair…’

Mrs. Allerton (in response to Poirot’s remark: ‘That would be like the Queen in your Alice in Wonderland, “Off with her head.”’)

‘Of course. The divine right of monarchy! Just a little bit of the Naboth’s vineyard touch…’

Jacqueline Bellefort:

‘But you are a queen, Linnet! You always were. Sa Majeste, la reine Linnette. Linette la blonde! And I-I’m the Queen’s confidante! The trusted Maid of Honour.’

to Poirot: ‘…I loved Linnet…I trusted her. She was my best friend. All her life Linnet has been able to buy everything she wanted. She’s never denied herself anything. When she saw Simon she wanted him- and she just took him.’

Joanna Southwood:

‘You know, Linnet, I really do envy you. You’ve simply got everything. Here you are at twenty, your own mistress, with any amount of money, looks, superb health. You’ve even got brains!…’

Rosalie Otterbourne (to Poirot):

‘I’m odious. I’m quite odious. I’m just a beast through and through. I’d like to tear the clothes off her back and stamp on her lovely, arrogant, self-confident face. I’m just a jealous cat- but that’s what I feel like. She’s so horribly successful and poised and assured.’

Simon Doyle (to Poirot):

‘My dear Monsieur Poirot, how can I put it? It’s like the moon when the sun comes out. You don’t know it’s there any more. When once I’d met Linnet – Jackie didn’t exist.’

On Simon Doyle:

Jacqueline Bellefort:

To Miss Ridgeway: ‘…He’s big and square an incredibly simple and boyish ad utterly adorable! He’s poor – got no money. He’s what you call “county” all right –but very impoverished county- a younger son and all that. His people come from Devonshire. He loves the country and country things. And for the last five years he’s been in the City in a stuffy office. And now they’re cutting down and he’s out of a job. Linnet, I shall die if I can’t marry him! I shall die! I shall die! I shall die…’

To Poirot: ‘Simon didn’t care a damn about her (Linnet)! I talked a lot to you about glamour, but of course that wasn’t true. He didn’t want Linnet. He thought of her good-looking but terribly bossy, and he hated bossy women! The whole thing embarrassed him frightfully. But he did like the thought of her money.’

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