First published in Issue 1575 of The Sketch (4 April 1923), this short story was later expanded into The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), which retained the same central conundrum – an heiress is murdered during a train journey and her jewels are stolen; is the culprit her estranged husband, or the villainous French Count with whom she is apparently in love?
The first UK book publication of the story was in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974). As with many of the stories from the Sketch series, my familiarity with the book edition makes it difficult to imagine the tale as part of the run that originally included the stories from Poirot Investigates (1924). Indeed, the opening is immediately very different to the Poirot stories we’ve seen so far, beginning with a third person account of the discovery of the body before shifting to Hastings’s first-person narration and the homely setting of Poirot’s flat – the scene with which Christie usually opens proceedings. Interestingly, the newspaper report of the discovery of the body, which Hastings reads to Poirot, is a lot less excitable than the dramatic account that opens Hastings’s own narrative. Assuming that the opening scene in the train is also meant to be read as Hastings’s work (rather than that of an unnamed omniscient narrator), it provides further proof of Hastings’s love of sensationalism and supports the conclusion to which I’m rapidly arriving – that Hastings really missed a calling as a journalist. Still, since these stories presumably take place in an alternative England where Hastings has made a successful career for himself in his retirement as a writer of thrilling detective stories based on his friendship with the renowned friend, Hercule Poirot, it would appear everyone’s a winner!
After this unusual opening, though, it’s business as usual, as Poirot is called in to investigate the heiress’s death by Rupert Carrington, the dead girl’s father. Carrington has come to Poirot as a result of the Belgian’s having successfully sorted out an affair involving stolen bonds for the millionaire on a previous occasion. Amusingly, my edition contains a typo that results in Carrington telling Poirot that he appreciated the ‘good work you did over those bombs’, inadvertently conjuring (for me at least) an absurd picture of Poirot, dapperly attired in full dinner suit, heroically disposing of an unexploded device.
I must confess, I remember finding this story (and the TV adaptation of it) very forgettable – and I’ve always thought Christie justified in disliking her work on The Mystery of the Blue Train. I haven’t really revised my opinion, but I will say that the solution to the crime (and the clue of the blue dress) does strike me as a clever idea. One other thing that strikes me is how callous Poirot, Hastings and the murdered girl’s father all seem in their matter-of-fact attitude to Flossy’s death. Hastings is particularly thoughtless. Upon hearing of Poirot’s commission to investigate the case, he actually comments ‘And he sent for you? Splendid!’ Carrington himself is a caricature of a rich American – described, bafflingly, as having ‘piercing eyes and an aggressive chin’ – with whom I suspect we aren’t really meant to empathise. Moreover, the tale actually ends with a joke about the rivalry between Japp and Poirot – the whole tone is almost camp in its insistence on the enjoyment of the murder as a logic puzzle rather than as a thing that actually affects anyone’s life. This sort of sums up the story for me as a very by-numbers outing – not nearly as uninspiring as ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’ and certainly a diverting read, but with a more than usually formulaic sense about it; it is devoid of the warmth and charm of some of the other tales. In further support of this view, I offer the strange characterisation of Japp here. He’s suddenly turned into Inspector Lestrade, treating Poirot with a grudging respect, but seeming to think there might be some sort of genuine ill-feeling between them. It’s very unlike his behaviour in previous stories. In addition, he seems to have gone hard-boiled: ‘He was the one who planned the job, right enough. But Narky won’t squeal on a pal.’
The double-edged sword of Poirot’s ‘psychology’ also rears its head here. I do stick by the argument I made in my Crimeculture article on the subject – there’s plenty of evidence elsewhere to show that Christie’s understanding of psychology actually comes from a firm grasp of at least the basic principles of Freud’s theory of the unconscious. Indeed, I’ve no doubt you’ll hear me rave about it when I reach ‘The Tragedy at Marsden Manor’. Having said that, her belief in absolute evil, together with a simplistic affirmation of the fixed characteristics of the male and female mindset, often get in the way of the more nuanced approach she displays elsewhere. For example:
‘[T]he question to my mind is: why kill her? Why not simply steal the jewels? She would not prosecute.’
‘Because she is a woman, mon ami. She once loved this man. Therefore she would suffer her loss in silence. And the Count, who is an extremely good psychologist where women are concerned – hence his success – would know that perfectly well!’
‘Because she is a woman’? I’m really not so sure – and that’s putting it mildly!
Poirot often gives an eloquent defence of ‘psychology’ against ‘action’ in the process of detection and this tale is no exception:
‘The good inspector believes in matter in motion […] He travels; he measures footprints; he collects mud and cigarette-ash! He is extremely busy! He is zealous beyond words! And if I mention psychology to him, do you know what he would do, my friend? […] He would say to himself: “Poor old Poirot! He ages! He grows senile!” Japp is the “younger generation knocking on the door.” And ma foi! They are so busy knocking that they do not notice that the door is open!’
While there is evidence to show that the Freudian unconscious is acknowledged in Poirot’s definition of what he means by ‘psychology’ (Hickory Dickory Dock, The ABC Murders and ‘The Tragedy at Marsden Manor’ all provide indications of this) what Poirot usually means by the term might be summed up, somewhat differently, as: a pre-emption of people’s motives and actions based on a detailed consideration of what someone would be likely to do in a given set of circumstances, according to other evidence pointing towards a particular kind of personality. Now this can be very convincing indeed – as it is in this tale’s clue of the blue dress, whereby the murderer is able to set up a fake picture of the dead woman (and thus an alibi for herself) by subtly drawing attention to particular elements in her own appearance. The whole crime nearly succeeds because of the murderer’s understanding of the way people recognise and remember other people – and the murderer only fails because of Poirot’s attention to the same kinds of general detail about people, which allows him to detect, as Japp does not, the false pattern the murderer is trying to establish. This is clever stuff – indeed, I’d go so far as to say it’s the essence of the kind of cleverness that Christie brings to the detective plot and which makes her such a master of misdirection, playing with the reader’s expectations, just as the murderer toys with the police’s. It’s also a convincing affirmation of the underlying ‘human nature’ to which Christie subscribes – here, the murderer is simply a clever woman. True, only a woman could have done it, but that’s not a comment on female psychology, more a comment on the fact that people in the twenties would have noticed a man in a dress for all the wrong reasons. It’s just a shame that the previous instance of Poirot’s ‘psychology’ (‘Because she is a woman’) betrays the sad fact that, for Christie, this otherwise astute delineation of pervasive trends in human cognition and behaviour sometimes tips over into a presumed ability to pronounce on the behaviour of all women ever!