Rating: 4.3 out of five
Year of Publication: 1940
Motive for Murder: Identity
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
-Hercule Poirot never actually meets Miss Sainsbury Seale
-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)
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.
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?’
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.’