In the post war era the literary construct called Hercule Poirot becomes odder and odder. In the glamorous and cynical 1920s and ’30s with its craze for puzzle plots, the eccentric mustachioed Belgian fit in perfectly. In the wake of a traumatized Europe that embraced gritty realism and an England in which the landed gentry were selling estates like Styles Court because they could no longer afford the taxes or the armies of servants needed to run them, the expertly tailored oddity with gigantic mustaches and a Bauhaus office suite was an old fashioned throwback to a lost world.
In reading Poirot’s slow slide into weirdness, I think the only reason it works at all is that Agatha Christie never pretends this isn’t happening. One of the things I like so much about her books is how aggressively contemporary her settings are. I think this is also the downfall of the Poirot TV show starring David Suchet – the producers made the decision that every episode would be set between the wars which, though understandable, erases both the context and the texture of the settings for her plots. In this era, Christie also begins to embrace more psychologically realistic characters and stories in these later books, which sometimes put a crimp in her puzzles. This was a balancing act both Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were well aware of, one that was discussed by both.
In these later books Poirot becomes a curiosity and his celebrity fades. Young people don’t recognize his name and it’s a little humiliating. To be honest, I think Christie enjoyed taking the wind out of his sails. Young men dressed like Ray Davies make fun of him. Agatha Christie regretted creating an elderly detective and it’s estimated that he was approximately 120 years old in his last appearance, but as with Batman who must be well over a hundred by now, we should just be grateful for his longevity.
NOTE: I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, I haven’t been completely successful. I provide warnings within individual entries.
The Regatta Mystery (1939)
This collection contains a handful of solid Poirot stories. Of particular interest is “Yellow Iris” which is an early swipe at the idea for the non-Poirot novel Sparkling Cyanide. “Problem At Sea” is another of her stories in which she makes a Christie magic trick literal, with a music hall performer as murderer.
Sad Cypress (1940)
In Sad Cypress, Christie nods to her brilliant friend and fellow Detection Club member, Dorothy L. Sayers. Christie takes the same general premise as Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Strong Poison and sets it in her own milieu. Both feature young women who are in the dock, accused of murder by poisoning. Both these women are unsympathetic to observers because of an emotional reserve which reads as cold. But instead of Wimsey desperately trying to save his beloved Harriet, we have Hercule Poirot who has been dragged into the case to save a young doctor named Peter Lord’s beloved Elinor.
But, Christie being Christie, her story isn’t set among the avant garde artists and writers of London, but in a country house. The suspects are the relatives and other dependents of a rich old lady in a setting which is very reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers’s Unnatural Death and with a solution that is almost a parody of that novel. When Christie mysteriously disappeared in late 1926, Sayers was one of the people who went to her home and looked at what was viewed as a possible crime scene, subsequently using this setting in a scene in Death. One might also argue that the idea for Miss Marple was sparked by Sayers’s Kitty Climpson, introduced in that same novel. I don’t think it would be out of character for the intensely private Christie to think “fair is fair” and purposely mine her friend’s novel for ideas after the setting of her nervous breakdown had been used for the same purpose.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)
This novel marks the first really serious falling off of quality in Christie’s oeuvre after her extraordinary run in the ’30s. There are so many things wrong with it and I don’t necessarily recommend it, but there are some interesting aspects to it that are impossible to talk about without discussing the solution, so be warned.
This was clearly written just prior to the start of World War II and the tension of this moment is weirdly discernible (as it is in Sayers’s Gaudy Night). There is vague discussion of current politics and economics which are things Christie doesn’t understand and should stay far, far away from and mars what is a very clever and twisty puzzle mystery. That said, something about the denouement of this one made me literally sob because of the way it spoke to our current moment. The entire next paragraph is one big spoiler.
Christie was an essentially conservative person who was incredibly naive when it came to politics. She intimates in this book that lefties, even though they might be kind and well meaning, would disrupt English democracy enough that Fascism could find a foothold and take over. In other words, the kind of opinions upper middle class centrists have held forever. What’s so interesting in this book is that for once, solid old fashioned conservatism kind of goes down in flames. The murderer is a powerful banker who is the mainstay of the British economy and without his sensible, steady hand, the country is in danger of – something? It doesn’t make any sense, but in the world of the novel this man is keeping England sane and free. Also in the novel are a bunch of politically minded young people, the niece of the banker and her boyfriend who are both radical socialists (Agatha Christie has no idea what this is) and another suspect who is one of Moseley’s blackshirts (he is presented as being a complete monster). During the denouement, the Fascist is sitting in jail accused of the murder with enough evidence to convict. But, Poirot discovers the banker, who is both kindly in his personal life and Saving England (how?) is a triple murderer. The banker (who in the world of this novel has inherited the Rothschild fortune through bigamy) tries to spin that him saving himself from personal humiliation and career suicide by killing three people was really a patriotic act and that everyone should let it slide because he’s SO IMPORTANT. Poirot is having none of it and has him carted off to jail because he committed horrible crimes and has therefore made himself somebody we do not need. The book ends with Poirot telling the young socialists that the country is theirs now and they should have freedom and pity and they better not fuck it up.
It’s a very confused book and the politics are almost aggressively stupid but you see why I sobbed.
Evil Under The Sun (1941)
This is one of the greats, up there with Death on the Nile in terms of her managing both a very complicated murder plot and a huge cast of distinctive characters involved in a bunch of sub plots and back stories. The hotel set on an island off the coast of Devon in which the action is set was recently restored to its full 1930s Art Deco glory and is still open for business.
The 1982 movie starring Peter Ustinov is a lot of fun, with the likes of Maggie Smith, Roddy McDowall, James Mason, Diana Rigg, Jane Birkin (of bag fame) and Sylvia Miles hamming it up. The setting here is changed to a hotel on an island in the Adriatic.
Five Little Pigs (1943)
This novel, easily in her top ten, plays to all of Christie’s strengths. She loved having her detectives solve crimes long past and exploring the long shadows cast by past injustices. In this, a young Canadian woman hires Poirot to investigate her father’s long past murder and her mother’s possible guilt or innocence, having died in prison shortly after her conviction. I have no idea what Christie’s views on capital punishment were, but she writes about so many miscarriages of justice, I can’t imagine she was completely comfortable with it.
It’s a classic country house murder, with a closed group of suspects, each of them telling Poirot their memories of the days leading up to the killing, Rashomon style. It’s the kind of intellectual exercise Christie liked best and the victim, painter Amyas Crale is the kind of narcissistic son of a bitch Christie loved killing. You also get the feeling the bookish teenager who grows up to be an archaeologist might be just a tiny bit autobiographical. No one goes to jail in this one as after twenty years nothing is provable, but it’s bleak and satisfying and sad in a way most Christie novels aren’t.
The Suchet Poirot episode based on this one is one of the better adaptations though lots of changes were made. The murdered painter whose selfishness ruins so many lives is played by Aiden Gillen (future Mayor of Baltimore in The Wire and Littlefinger in Game of Thrones), who wouldn’t be my choice. One of my arguments for women being in charge of more productions is men so often entirely miss when a male character is supposed to be sexy or attractive to women. They cast for “jerk” not “hot”. The whole point of the character is that he’s an aging sexy asshole. I would love to see a proper adaptation of this one, perhaps with Poirot omitted, as he was in the stage version.
The Hollow (1946)
My first experience of The Hollow was a high school version of the play I saw when I was a child. Thanks Junior Players of Great Neck!
I almost left this one out of this post as I keep forgetting this is a Poirot novel. It’s one of a few post-war books where Christie’s publishers demanded a Poirot novel, so she just shoe-horned him into something she was working on. She later said his entry into the story was jarring and ruined the atmosphere of the novel, and she has a point. It would have been a better book without him. Yet another sexy adulterous jerk is murdered in this one. The family dynamic among the suspects is really enjoyable, as nearly everyone is delightful instead of awful, with the family protecting the murderer because they feel so sorry for her (which winds up being a mistake).
The Labours of Hercules (1947)
When I was a child, my favorite reading spot was a decrepit arm-chair in a corner of the dining room, conveniently situated next to a large floor to ceiling bookcase. Coincidentally or not, the books within reaching distance of my chair were art books and mysteries. The first Agatha Christie book I remember reaching for, grabbing and devouring was the short story anthology The Labours of Hercules. In it, Hercule Poirot decides to accept only cases that conform to the famous labors of his mythical namesake.
Agatha Christie loved literary allusions and played with them often. In this collection, her versions of Hercules’ labors are so much fun. Cerberus lives in a fashionable London nightclub called Hell (what else would they name their dog?), the Nemean Lion concerns a pekingese, The Stymphalean Birds are pure red herring (FYI – I love this story), the Arcadian Deer is about a Russian ballet dancer, The Lernean Hydra is about a vicious rumor. They are all completely enjoyable.
Taken At The Flood (1948)
A tense mystery set among the grim realities of post-war Britain. None of the characters are very likable here. In this one the the typical Christie patriarch was killed in the blitz, and the greedy relatives who expected to inherit didn’t, as their benefactor had neglected to make a will after his quickie marriage to a beauty less than half his age. There’s a sense of unreality and stasis in the dying village (what used to be a bustling market town) where the story is set. The murder victim is a would be blackmailer. It’s another one where poor old Poirot feels a little out of place.
The Poirot TV adaptation had to make massive changes to this one because the entire plot was predicated on the specific hardships and diminished incomes of the previously complacent upper middle class after the war. They also have to work really hard to give Poirot more screen time.
Three Blind Mice (1950)
Containing three perfectly fine but not earth shattering Poirot stories.
The Under Dog (1951)
This collection really should have been included in my previous Poirot post as all first appeared in various periodicals in the 1920s, though they weren’t collected in book form until the ‘50s. They were all written during years when Hastings was a fixture. There are some really solid mysteries including “The Plymouth Express” which Christie expanded as The Mystery of the Blue Train and “The Adventure of the Clapham Cook” which was the first story adapted for the long running David Suchet Poirot series. It was the perfect choice as it contains a really solid twisty mystery that fills the hour format perfectly. It also might be the first appearance of the trope wherein Poirot snobbishly sticks his nose up at a case involving ordinary, middle class people and is proven wrong.
Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952)
After Christie’s intense hostility towards Poirot in the ‘40s, with Mrs. McGinty she begins to figure out how to use him effectively in the post war years. This, finally, is a Poirot novel, not a novel which has been unnaturally injected with Poirot. The premise of this one is Christie gold. A cleaning lady has been bludgeoned to death in her parlour and her lodger, a very shy and awkward young man has been sentenced to death for the crime. The investigating officer in the case comes to Poirot as he thinks the convicted man is innocent and doesn’t want his execution on his conscience.
The story initially, and refreshingly, begins among ordinary working people. However, The focus soon shifts to the usual array of upper middle class village dwellers and, as is so common in Christie land, one was involved in a past crime and is trying to keep it quiet. Mrs. McGinty read a sensational account in the newspaper of past murders and recognized a photograph. One of the women in the article is clearly modeled on Ethel La Neve, Crippen’s unfortunate (and uncharged) mistress.
Also of note is the reappearance of Christie stand in, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, last seen sixteen years earlier in Cards On The Table.
After The Funeral (1953)
Another dead patriarch and another passel of greedy offspring. There is classic Christie misdirection in this one, another where it’s so well set up it feels like a magic trick. The poor, silly elderly woman who is conked on the head at the end of the first act is, in some ways, based on Christie herself – at least in the descriptions of what the woman was like as a child. There is an English country house which is being sold off, likely to a school or a real estate developer, but the primary murder occurs elsewhere. The young relations who hope to inherit, unlike the murder suspects of the ’20s and ’30s, all have jobs and live lives that are much more recognizable to us than those of their more glamorous forbears.
The BBC Poirot adaptation is very entertaining. Much is changed, but because of how Christie constructed this story it works fine. It also features a pre-movie star Michael Fassbender brooding glamorously. One negative is the character of Susan, who in the book is presented as intelligent and driven and does some detecting of her own, is made much softer as Poirot’s role is increased.
It was also loosely adapted in 1963 as Murder At the Gallop with Poirot being replaced by Margaret Rutherford’s version of Miss Marple.
Hickory, Dickory, Dock (1955)
This is the only novel in which Poirot’s sometime secretary Miss Lemon (formerly in the employ of Mr. Parker Pyne) exhibits anything resembling human traits – her colorless efficiency is what Poirot values in her. Here we discover that Miss Lemon has a sister who runs a student hostel which is being plagued by a series of practical jokes and petty thefts. Poirot steps in to see if he can assist. Needless to say, these minor annoyances soon escalate to murder.
We spend a lot of time with the multicultural group of students who make up the story’s prime suspects. Unfortunately, Christie’s characterizations leave a lot to be desired. The worst example is easily a young man from Nigeria who is an offensively broad caricature. More successful is the depiction of a young, brilliant medical student from Jamaica who is the victim of what is assumed to be a cruel, racially motivated prank. The mystery itself isn’t very convincing. The whole thing feels a little perfunctory.
The television Poirot adaptation is completely whitewashed. Obviously, one wouldn’t want Christie’s more unfortunate characterizations to be replicated, but there is obviously a middle ground and the loss of the young woman who is studying medicine is particularly felt (at one point, Poirot is horrified to realize she might be as smart as he is and that’s a fun moment). The BBC decided to excite all the black and Middle Eastern characters to avoid any problems, rather than rewriting some and omitting the ones that had been portrayed too broadly to salvage. It’s a missed opportunity. Of possible interest to some is it featuring a pre-Homeland Damian Lewis.
Dead Man’s Folly (1956)
Christie was back in a more comfortable setting as she has Ariadne Oliver devise a murder hunt for a local fête, which is based on a murder hunt Agatha Christie devised for an actual local fête. She sets the action in and around her own beloved home, Greenway. The Girl Guide who plays the corpse is found murdered and Poirot investigates. Christie was the master of both providing and obscuring an effective “Why now?” which is a great clue in this one to the eventual solution. Also apparent in this story is Christie’s lack of any kind of particular sympathy for children. This is a middling late period Christie in which the characterizations don’t quite land and as with the earlier Murder In Mesopotamia, even when I was a child I didn’t really buy the solution. Ariadne Oliver is the real attraction here.
Folly was adapted for television in probably the least star filled entry in the Peter Ustinov series. Maureen Stapleton plays Ariadne Oliver and Constance Cummings appears in one of her last roles – also of interest to mystery fans, Cummings played Harriet Vane in Haunted Honeymoon a rare Sayers adaptation.
Cat Among The Pigeons (1959)
Set primarily at a girls’ school, Poirot shows up late in the story to mop up after most of the heavy detection lifting has been done by a student, Julia Upjohn. This melding of a middle Eastern spy drama with its boarding school setting is much less disastrous than one would fear. There’s a decent amount of discussion of the purpose of girls’ education and Christie, happily, is on the side of the progressives in this case. I loved this one when I first read it, probably because so many characters were young girls, but it does stand up.
The Poirot adaptation, irritatingly minimizes the role Julia plays in solving the crime as Poirot’s role is greatly expanded. The changing of the setting from the late 50s to the 30s really harms this one.
Double Sin (1961)
One of the three Poirot stories in this collection features Poirot’s lady love, the aristocratic Russian jewel thief, Countess Vera Rossakoff. She shows up every now and again in the short stories and Poirot talks about how wonderful the glamorous, larger than life, amoral countess is. Occasionally in Poirot adaptations, they try to turn it into an actual romance, but I’ve always assumed Poirot adored her much in the same way some of the residents of Chelsea admire Bette Midler or Cher.
The Clocks (1963)
Featured here is a small suburban neighborhood full of secret Soviet spies and the more typical Christie domestic murderers. Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings of The Americans would have felt right at home! Poirot never moves from his fireside, solving the murder remotely with information gathered by a young British intelligence officer. It’s all pretty iffy.
Third Girl (1966)
I’m a tiny bit obsessed with this novel as it’s the one (of a few written around the same time) in which the Swinging Sixties invades Christie-land and it’s a thing to behold. I am so enamored with Christie for engaging with the changing world around her – something very few writers entering their later 70s are interested in doing. She makes gentle fun of the young people in her story, but mostly through Poirot which serves to make him seem old and out of touch. Conversely, her stand in Ariadne Oliver is much more open – she says the young men with long hair and brightly colored outfits look like they stepped out of 17th century paintings and are beautiful. She also talks through Oliver of being nervous about writing about the current young people because she’s still figuring out what a Beatle is. The best part is, Christie looked at the world around her and where her contemporaries saw moral disaster, she saw novel ways with which to cover up a murder. Which brings me to the best part: THERE IS AN ACID FREAK OUT SCENE. Bless her.
The mystery itself is one of the more preposterous ones, but kind of amazingly, she finds a way to justify it through the sixties drug culture which makes it almost work. I mean, she gets terms for ’60s things adorably wrong sometimes, but she’s trying so enthusiastically it’s pretty charming.
Needless to say, transposing this story from the ‘60s back to the ‘30s in the BBC’s Poirot adaptation is disastrous. It’s truly dreadful.
Hallowe’en Party (1969)
This is the book where Christie’s age really begins to tell. It’s not incoherent, exactly, but the plot is really half baked and unpleasant. It’s the first of her books where plot points are dropped, unexplained. It just feels as if she had stopped caring or trying.
Elephants Can Remember (1972)
This is another memory piece, something that Christie loved writing, but this book is a slog, something no Christie novel has any business being. The text has been analyzed and the drop in variety of the vocabulary used points to the early stages of dementia. It’s meandering and her writing has lost its sharpness – the book starts with Ariadne Oliver spending FOUR PAGES picking out a hat to wear. Who has she become, Stieg Larsson?
Curtain is Christie’s last great Poirot novel and serves as the perfect ending to the series. Be warned, however, below there will be spoilers a-plenty!
Originally written during WWII at the height of her powers, she tinkered with it occasionally throughout the years, but for the most part, it sat in a bank vault waiting to be published after her death. Hastings is once again the narrator, a function he hadn’t held since Dumb Witness in 1937. Recently widowed, he returns to Styles Court which is now a struggling guest house, having been beckoned by a wheelchair bound and sadly bewigged Poirot. Also present is Hastings’s terrifying daughter who is working as a lab assistant to an immunologist.
Hastings is as stupid and Tory as ever, Poirot both making fun of him and making somewhat cynical use of his unshakable naivety. Hastings’s intelligent and not very nice daughter makes fun of him too, and honestly, for the fist time I felt a little sorry for him. The story feels a little out of time, Christie left out any specific markers as she didn’t know exactly when it was going to be published. She was well aware that if it took place in 1975, Poirot would have been, at the youngest, a hundred and twenty years old as he is described as “elderly” in his first appearance which was set in 1916. Hastings would have been 90, though he’s described as being much younger.
It’s a really strange book. There’s definitely a valid reading of it in which Poirot is mad, and the murder plot he is trying to thwart is completely imaginary (I have a really specific theory about this and I’d be happy to tell you about it if you’re interested in being bored to death). Christie complained for decades about Poirot, about his annoying habits that her readers were so enamored with, so I think she enjoyed pushing these qualities to the breaking point in this last book. One can argue that so many of the great pulp heroes of fiction are actually insane: Holmes, Batman, Bond and Poirot. Conan Doyle’s mistake was killing his creation too early in his career so that he could make a comeback which has yet to end, and of course Batman and Bond are still with us seemingly in perpetuity, regenerating like Doctor Who every few years, but Christie decisively killed her creation after making him a murderer. Again, this is something that’s done all the time now, but doing this in the context of this particular detective, it feels a little – unhinged.
After this final appearance The New York Times published its only obituary for a fictional character:
Next, we return with a look at all the Miss Marple novels and short stories!