This short story was first published in The Sketch on 11 April 1923 (Issue 1576) and is part of Christie’s lengthy run of weekly Poirot stories for that periodical. It was later collected in book form as the first story in Poirot Investigates (1924).
The story concerns an apparent plot by some nefarious Chinamen to steal both the ‘Western Star’, belonging to film actress Mary Marvell, and the ‘Eastern Star’ belonging to Lady Yardley. As is usual in these stories, however, nothing is quite as it seems.
The thing that immediately struck me about this story is the way in which it is suffused with an air of glamour and celebrity. Poirot himself is now ‘a fashionable detective’, who has ‘become the mode, the dernier cri!’ Poirot himself recalls the case of the dancer Valerie Saintclair (‘The King of Clubs’), while his two lady clients in the story come to him on the strength of recommendations received from the protagonists of his first two recorded English cases: ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. His fame is spreading fast. Indeed, by the 1930s he will be a celebrity in his own right. More than ever, however, the story also creates a sense of Poirot as a classy figure, who will take on any problem interesting enough, but is particularly at the service of the ‘cream’ of society. He denies this of course, but there is a hint that he secretly relishes this taste of the high life – after all not only Hastings, but also Poirot himself, guiltily owns up to reading the Society Gossip.
Yet Poirot’s approach to celebrity is, at bottom, the same as his approach to the matter of sensation fiction elsewhere in the story. As Mary Marvell is ushered into Poirot’s flat by the landlady Mrs Murchison, Hastings (who, rather unbelievably, does not immediately recognise her) takes a paragraph to explain to his readers the gossip surrounding Mary Marvell, her recently-acquired diamond and her marriage to fellow screen idol Gregory Rolf. This is partly a reappearance of the Christie infodump – but it also illustrates how Hastings thinks of celebrities, not as people, but as the composite result of gossip and reportage about them. For Poirot, it is different. Not succumbing to the glamour of these personages, he sees only facts and refuses to be dazzled by the circumstantial details, however exciting a story they may make.
Mary Marvell has been receiving warning letters, apparently left by a Chinaman, urging her to return her diamond, the ‘Western Star’, which is the ‘left eye of the God’. Ignoring these warnings, she receives a final note, informing her that the diamond will be stolen at the ‘full of the moon’. This is surely a deliberate attempt to evoke Wilkie Collins’s detective thriller The Moonstone (1868). Indeed, Poirot actually performs a postcolonial reading of Collins’s novel:
‘Épatant!’ murmured Poirot. ‘Without doubt a romance of the first water.’ He turned to Mary Marvell. ‘And you are not afraid, madame? You have no superstitious terrors? You do not fear to introduce these two Siamese twins to each other les a Chinaman should appear and, hey presto! whisk them both back to China?’
Poirot is speaking sarcastically here, of course – for him, the story is obviously false, not least because it is patently the product of improbable orientalist fantasies. A further self-referential sign of the story’s debunking of colonial ‘othering’ is the fact that stories mystifying the diamond’s origin are revealed as utterly irrelevant; a fact reflected in the plot’s maintaining the ambiguity of the diamond’s national origin. A Chinese origin (and thus a ‘yellow peril’) having been dismissed as fantasy, the notion that it may have come from India is also only vaguely offered – one gets the sense that the plot (and Poirot) is at pains to avoid the kind of sensational colonialist mystification which its characters cling to. Indeed, the kind of story peddled by Collins, in which the diamond is stolen by colonial ‘others’ and is indeed the ‘eye of a God’ simply turns out to be obfuscation here.
To be fair to Collins, his stereotypical presentation of a colonised culture is somewhat alleviated by the character of Godfrey Ablewhite, the alleged ideal of Western Christianity and masculinity who turns out to be anything but – in short, while Collins restores the order of the colonial nation by problematically othering the native cultures of those countries it has invaded, he also reveals some of the colonising nation’s own ideals to be nothing more than empty shams. I think ‘The Western Star’ takes a leaf from Collins’s book by exposing Gregory Rolf as a scoundrel – even though he has been described by Hastings as ‘a hero fit for romance’ (several of the The Moonstone’s narrators describe Godfrey Ablewhite in similar terms).
As ever, Hastings is again swayed by the rules of the sensation thriller, which leads him inevitably to all the wrong conclusions:
‘if she, as the holder of one of the twin diamonds, has received a mysterious series of warnings, you, as the holder of the other stone, must necessarily have done the same. You see how simple it is?’
Just as typically, Poirot sees through the glitz of the sensational plot cooked up by Gregory Rolf, seeing only a series of unadorned material facts. In this story, however, Poirot’s methods are lent an admirable postcolonial edge – they not only allow him to see through the workings of the overblown sensationalism of the apparent plot, but also expose the way in which these very plots depend on some really ‘simple’ stereotypes. We do, indeed, ‘see how simple it is’ – but not necessarily in the way Hastings intends.
In this story, more than ever, Hastings is an unreliable narrator, retrospectively (and selflessly, given the unflattering picture of his mental abilities that emerges) recounting the development of the investigation as it appeared to him at the time, rather than with the benefit of hindsight:
It had become rather a pose with [Poirot] to consistently belittle my abilities, and I think he was chagrined at finding no loophole for criticism. I was secretly rather pleased with myself, though I tried to conceal the fact for fear of irritating him. In spite of his idiosyncrasies, I was deeply attached to my quaint little friends.
Obviously, the Hastings who writes this memoir after the event must surely have known that this would turn out to be a hubristic underestimation of Poirot’s abilities. And, incidentally, here is another instance of an Englishman adopting a patronising attitude to a foreign national – for ‘quaint little friend’ read ‘brave little Belgium’. But this is complicated by the fact that Hastings is constructing a linear account retrospectively. This isn’t The Good Soldier (1915), in which the protagonist’s imperfect account is recorded in real time as his thoughts occur to him – rather, Hastings’s is a narrative artfully constructed in retrospect. It is purposely unreliable so as to surprise the reader. In short, there is a benefit to his hindsight, albeit one that resides in his ability better to select his material. As a result, what we have is an account of how Hastings discovered his preconceptions to be entirely mistaken. This development, from sensational orientalist fantasy to (ostensibly) prosaic debunking, leads to a situation in which, as readers, we can enjoy the nefarious pleasures of sensationalist crime fiction only then to savour the logical, well-fashioned puzzle that underlies that plot’s superficiality. Significantly, it remains a superficiality that is debunked only after its pleasures have been presented (and potentially enjoyed) on their own terms. Poirot arranges the facts, Hastings arranges the sensational story of their discovery and Christie (and her readers) get to have it both ways.
In many ways this story a turning point for Hastings’s relationship with Poirot. The latter is now a famous detective with a growing reputation, while Hastings is coming to realise, more and more, almost against his will, that he is simply the chronicler, rather than the active participant, in these tales. As he says at the end of the story:
‘There really is a limit! […] I’m fed up!’ I went out, banging the door. Poirot had made an absolute laughing-stock of me. I decided that he needed a sharp lesson. I would let some time elapse before I forgave him. He had encouraged me to make a perfect fool of myself.
This is an odd note on which to leave the story – unless we consider that Christie intended to emphasise the ‘limit’ to which Hastings has been pushed; his inescapable recognition, finally, that he is merely Poirot’s assistant. Even so, it makes it an odd choice for story with which to begin the ‘best of’ collection of tales from this magazine series (i.e. Poirot Investigates). In terms of quality, though, the selection should come as no surprise as this is certainly among the cleverest and most entertaining of the Poirot short stories.