This story was first published in The Sketch on 23 May 1923 (Issue 1582) as ‘The Clue of the Chocolate Box’. Its first book publication was in the U.S.A., where it was included in the American version of Poirot Investigates (1925) – in Britain, it was not republished until its appearance in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974). In fact, it’s not just an early, but a very early case for our moustachioed hero, set as it is during his stint with the Belgian police force. Poirot tells us that the story takes place during ‘the time of the terrible struggle in France between church and state’. Note the potential slip-up here – either Christie has said ‘France’, when she meant ‘Belgium’ (!) or this is a reference to the fact that the murder victim, though living in Brussels, is actually a French politician.
This is hardly a well-known period of history to twenty-first century readers (certainly outside of France) and I wonder whether readers in the 1920s would have got the reference? Was this just something readers of The Sketch would have known about? Or is the fact that Poirot refers in this offhand way to the country’s recent political history a way of signifying his European otherness? I suspect the latter. A bit of internet searching seems to imply that this ‘time’ refers to a struggle (political as well as religious) between Catholic and Liberal factions in the Belgian government, with the liberals advocating increasing secularism and the Catholics opposing them. But this appears to have been a general trend in Belgian history from the late nineteenth century up until the end of the First World War – or, if Christie did indeed mean to refer to French (rather than Belgian) history, this struggle was a continual one throughout the Third Republic. So I’m guessing that this is an attempt on Christie’s part to keep murky the exact question of Poirot’s age by obscuring the exact year (or even the exact decade) in which the story is set. However, my knowledge of French history is lax and my knowledge of Belgian history non-existent, so if anyone cares to enlighten me on this point I’d be more than happy to be corrected. Either way, it does seem that Christie takes her customary light touch here – at the end of the day, all that’s important for readers to understand is that this is a period when the relationship between the church and state, between Catholicism and secular liberalism, was more than a little fraught.
Poirot himself seems to have been firmly of the conservative Catholic faction. He remarks at one point: ‘The death of Monsieur Paul Déroulard was not particularly interesting to me. I am, as you know, bon catholique, and his demise seemed to me fortunate.’ Clearly Poirot wasn’t the moralistic opposer of murder in any form which he would later become – the older Poirot with whom we are familiar would not have let the character of the victim play any part in his opinion as to whether or not the killer should or should not be sought out and brought to justice (that one instance you’re all thinking about is the exception that proves the rule!). In other ways, however, this younger Poirot is not so different. The TV version of this story introduces a love interest for the young Hercule, but here Poirot is the confirmed bachelor – his attitude towards young, attractive women in distress is that of his avuncular older self.
Of course, one of the most interesting things about the story is that it is the only one in the entire canon to be narrated by Poirot himself. Being an avid fan of the BBC Radio adaptations of the Poirot novels (most of which are narrated in the first person by John Moffatt, in character as Poirot – an approach which is more successful than it sounds like it would be) I confess that this aspect didn’t strike me personally as particularly novel. Indeed, I suppose it wouldn’t have been that new a device for the tale’s original readers, since this was only the fourteenth Poirot story to have been published. One imagines Christie, faced with the prospect of coming up with a new weekly story, desperately trying to find some way of keeping things fresh and gaining inspiration from Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Gloria Scott’ and ‘The Musgrave Ritual’, in which Sherlock Holmes narrates his early adventures to Watson – as Poirot narrates this early case to Hastings. Christie being Christie, however, this is no pale imitation nor an indication of a writer desperately in need of inspiration. Not only are we given the (relatively) unusual prospect of a tale narrated by Poirot himself – but also a story of one of Poirot’s failures. And to cap it all off we still have a fully-rounded murder mystery with a very unexpected twist in the tale.
Another intriguing feature, and one for which Christie is noted of course, is the details of the poisons involved. Or at least, not the poison itself (atropine, in case you were wondering) but the way in which it is administered. I never knew that one could be prescribed medicine in the form of chocolate pills. Add to this the fact that these pills are piled inside a larger, hollowed-out chocolate and (to borrow a phrase from a later Christie novel) you have a very ‘delicious death’ indeed!
The point of having Poirot narrate the story is that he can explain how he failed, how he felt about it and how it affected his future practices (a kind of reflective exercise in detective story form, if you will). Worryingly, Poirot doesn’t seem to have learnt very much from his failure: ‘Never mind. I knew – that was the great thing. You remember our difficulty in the Styles case, Hastings? There again, I knew – but it took me a long time to find the last link which made my chain of evidence against the murderer complete.’ Unlike in the Styles case, though, Poirot turns out to have been entirely wrong in his instinctive knowledge here – so whatever it is he’s learned it clearly isn’t to be wary of hubris. Perhaps, rather, it is to be more careful in establishing a chain of evidence? Who knows. I suppose we should be thankful that his instincts seem to have been honed with age! Similarly, Poirot only claims to have learned humility from his failure – despite telling Hastings to whisper the words ‘chocolate box’ to him whenever he becomes too full of himself, the Belgian is soon back to his old vain self and the tale ends (as with so many others in the Sketch series) with Hastings contemplating Poirot’s (false) modesty. I suppose the fact that it doesn’t also end in a blazing row between the two of them indicates that Hastings, at least, has developed as a character from irritation at Poirot’s manner to wry acceptance.