This story was first published in The Sketch Issue1581 (16 May 1923). It was later collected in Poirot Investigates (1924) – although Poirot spends this story in bed with a cold, making it more a case of Hastings Investigates.
By now, Poirot’s character has become well-defined. His obsessive neatness is on display in the ‘neatly graduated row of medicine bottles’ which adorn the sickroom; his effeminate taste for the finer (and, to Hastings, disturbingly foreign) things can be read in his consumption of ‘a particularly noxious tisane’; while his celebrity status is delightfully evident in the ‘little paragraph to myself in Society Gossip’. The same paragraph sums up the blend of heroism and absurdity that characterises our Belgian protagonist, by emphasising fondly the mock-heroic quality of Poirot’s nomenclature: ‘believe me, girls, he’s some Hercules’. In short, Poirot is becoming ‘quite a public character’ – another example of Christie’s stories suiting themselves to the society paper The Sketch, which proves to be the ideal vehicle for Poirot as he is characterised here. Possibly, of course, there is also a ‘chicken and egg’ situation in this suiting of story to publication method. That is, although one might assume, after nearly a century of familiarity with the character, that Christie always conceived Poirot in this way, could it be that the conditions of publication actually influenced how she presented him? That is did Christie always conceive of Poirot as a popular celebrity – a notable figure on the fashionable social scene? Or did she emphasise his status as a ‘public character’ because his adventures appeared in a gossip magazine? I suspect it may be a bit of both, but either way, Poirot has come a long way – from jobbing policeman, to alien refugee, to popular and at increasingly wealthy celebrity.
Anyway, back to this particular story, which is as ingenious as ever – so ingenious that I initially mistook the supporting characters’ melodramatic speech and actions for a lazy deployment of stock types and phrases on Christie’s part. Indeed, prior to the revelation that the characters are deliberately overdoing the ridiculous melodrama of the conventional cause célèbre, one could be forgiven for laughing derisively at the sheer effrontery of the melodramatic touches. ‘My uncle, the best friend I have in the world, was foully murdered last night’ says Havering to Hastings (as opposed to ‘delightfully murdered’, one supposes). Similarly, the telegram he receives, allegedly after the murder, is far too flippant to be believably connected with a real tragedy: ‘Come at once uncle Harrington murdered last night bring good detective if you can but do come – Zoe.’ If my beloved uncle had been murdered and my wife sent me this telegram I’d have a few words to say to her on the subject of tact! What we presume to be Christie phoning it in continues with the fact that the bogus housekeeper, whom is initially believed to have done the deed, doesn’t appear on the agency’s books – a fact which went undetected because Mrs Havering failed to inform the agency of the name of the housekeeper she’d selected. This seems like a preposterously convenient plot device until we find out the quite brilliant real solution. Once again, we find Christie deftly playing with readers’ expectations of what they imagine a popular crime narrative will look like.
Poirot’s incapacity means that Hastings is dispatched to investigate the murder instead, rather like Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (‘You know my methods by now. All I ask is that you should report to my fully every day’). Indeed, Hunter’s Lodge, though in the north of England rather than Dartmoor, is nevertheless situated in ‘the midst of the rugged moors’. Unfortunately, Hastings’s obsession with forensic detail (footprints, bloodstains etc) does rather imply that he hasn’t quite grasped Poirot’s methods yet, and he singularly fails to do what Poirot would do, namely, to ‘examine the facts methodically and in order’. It is this approach, which enables Poirot to intervene and discover the clever solution to the crime without even leaving his sickbed. Indeed, what’s particularly interesting about this story is the way that the conclusion to the mystery rests on Poirot’s deductions rather than on any empirical proof. It demonstrates neatly the way in which Poirot’s method treats the solving of the crime as an abstract intellectual exercise separate from the bringing to justice of the criminal – a project which is only undertaken after Poirot has determined who the guilty party/parties are. Because of the way Poirot treats the crime (as a kind of logic puzzle) this determination of the guilty party is often complete before any physical evidence of guilt has been produced. In the absence of such evidence, the reader really has to trust Poirot’s assurance that this is the way that the murder was done – it makes logical sense, but there’s no actual proof. This explains why so many of Poirot’s adventures involve the tricking or entrapment of a person whose guilt Poirot has established previously to his own satisfaction by purely logical means – a contrast to the policeman’s project of building up a ‘case’ based on empirical evidence. That is, it’s never a matter of ‘this evidence points to this person, so that’s that’. It’s more, ‘thinking about it logically, this person is the only one who could possibly have committed the crime, so we must trick them into providing us with evidence’. I’m generalising, obviously, but the point is that Poirot’s frequent emphasis on the cerebral nature of detection is an idea that’s also borne out in practice – so that the ‘little grey cells’ motif is more than simply an ill-conceived catchphrase.
The only weakness, to my mind, is the ending of the story, where Christie’s (or Hastings’ if we’re being fair) determination to not let the culprits escape justice comes across as a bit contrived – not unlike the ending to the stage and film versions of ‘Witness for the Prosecution’: ‘Nemesis did overtake them, and when I read in the paper that the Hon. Roger and Mrs Havering were amongst those killed in the crashing of the Air Mail to Paris I knew that Justice was satisfied.’ Maybe so, but this is a tad harsh – what about everyone else involved in the crash? It’s an odd note on which to end an otherwise effective story.