Tag Archives: detective fiction

‘The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge’ (1923)

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.

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story

‘The Adventure of the Cheap Flat’ (1923)

This story was first published in Issue 1580 of The Sketch (9 May 1923) and was reprinted the following year in the collection Poirot Investigates. In it, Poirot and Hastings try to uncover the answer to the apparently trivial question of how exactly the Robinsons managed to bag a furnished flat in London’s Knightsbridge for such a low rent. The answer is far-fetched, but makes for a Poirot story that’s different from anything published in the Sketch series to this point.

 One of the main differences is in the tale’s structure. As Hastings explains:

 So far, in the cases which I have recorded, Poirot’s investigations have started from the central fact, whether murder or robbery, and have proceeded from thence by a process of logical deduction to the final triumphant unveiling. In the events I am now about to chronicle a remarkable chain of circumstances led from the apparently trivial incidents which first attracted Poirot’s attention to the sinister happenings which completed a most unusual case.

Actually, this isn’t as unusual as Hastings seems to think – the ‘apparently trivial’ is always at the heart of Poirot’s cases. But we get the point. Coincidentally, The Murder on the Links, which was published in the same month as this story, also begins not with a crime but with Poirot’s being furnished with a reason to suspect that a crime is imminent (albeit a much more tangible reason than he is given here). I also love Hastings’s choice of words here. ‘The final triumphant unveiling’ makes it sound amusingly like Poirot is performing a sort of striptease – an alarming image perhaps, but an apt one for a detective whose methods often work by stripping away the sensational aspects of a case to reveal the essentials of what ‘really’ happened.

 Another major difference from Poirot’s cases hitherto (and a very welcome one at that) is the way in which the story opens with a proper conversation that real people might conceivably have. The opening dialogue, in which Hastings attends a friend’s party, is much more realistic than the usual ‘I say, what a lot of bond robberies there have been lately!’ style of opening, much more realist than the crudely functional dialogue that usually constitutes the infodump which usually characterises the opening of a Christie short story. While such openings stretch to the limit our credulity as to how people might actually speak, simply in order to get across the facts of the puzzle as quickly as possible, we are here provided with a timely reminder that Poirot and his ‘associates’ are real people actually engaged in conversation with some other people (as opposed to cyphers for relaying information that will be important later). This courtesy is extended to secondary characters as well. After one particularly lengthy sentence, Mrs Robinson ‘paused for some much needed breath’ before continuing – a neat disguise for what is, formally speaking, merely a device for relaying the central puzzle. Moreover, Mrs Robinson’s story is itself triggered by the presence of another of Hastings’s friends, the habitual house-hunter, Parker – a character who doesn’t appear again, and who is introduced solely to add richness to the idea that this is a real group of friends with real lives beyond the purely functional purpose of their role in the mystery plot. It also provides a welcome opportunity to see what sort of a life Hastings leads when he isn’t hanging out with his Belgian friend. Apparently, he’s affable, popular and has a reputation in his circle as a ‘criminal expert’ and ‘a great unraveller of mysteries’. Again, it helps us to imagine Hastings as a rounded character – a real person rather than a disembodied voice chronicling Poirot’s activities. It also means that when Hastings rejoins Poirot after the party scene the contrast allows us to see that his role as a cypher is thrust upon him by his friend’s brilliance. It’s as if his own personality only comes to the fore away from Poirot – only then does he have a personality (defined by the social relations of the realist text), rather than simply a role (defined by the constraints of genre fiction).

This characterises the almost metafictional relationship in which this story appears to stand to the rest of the Poirot stories so far. It’s as if Christie is commenting, not only on Hastings as a character and a narrator, but also, by extension, on her own habitual techniques as a storyteller. For example, Hastings’s predilection for women with auburn hair is mentioned and will become important in Murder on the Links, which Christie was probably writing or had completed around the same time as this story. Yet, Poirot’s comment on his friend’s powers of description is surely a sly self-deprecating comment on Christie’s own tendency to provide the briefest of character sketches: ‘Yes, there are hundreds of these average men – and anyway, you bring more sympathy to your description of women.’ Hastings has also developed a Tommy-and-Tuppence-esque tendency to comment on his own dialogue:

‘That’s them,’ I declared in an ungrammatical whisper.

Later, when the narrative takes a turn for the sensational, Poirot seems to signal his awareness of the fact that he is engaged in events ripe for the detective genre (‘Hastings, shall I recount to you a little history? A story after my own heart and which will remind you of your favourite cinema?’) which seems like Christie wraning her readers of what to expect as the apparently mundane mystery of the Robinsons suddenly takes a turn for the wildly improbable: ‘There are reasons for believing that she was in reality an accomplished international spy who has done much nefarious work under various aliases.’ To cap it all off, when a comedy Italian gangster appears on the scene, Hastings unintentionally voices what must surely be in all of our heads when he exclaims: ‘My God, Poirot, this is awful.’

Yet Christie’s talent as a crime writer (what raises her above the broad strokes of an Edgar Wallace) is that the sensational story she’s just unfolded is not the point of the tale. The most important detail, it turns out, isn’t the spies or the aliases or whatever, but the fact that ‘The official description of Elsa Hardt is: Height 5 ft 7, eyes blue, hair auburn, fair complexion, nose straight, no special distinguishing marks.’ The fact that this is also the description of Hastings’s friend is, of course, a crucial red herring – but the wider red herring here is the whole cannon of crime fiction, of the kind Poirot likens to Hastings’s ‘favourite cinema’. It encourages us to dwell on the ‘awful’ accoutrements of the spy genre in order to draw our attention away from what’s really going on.

There’s also a really nice moment where Christie uses a French idiom to comment on Poirot as a foreigner – someone whose ‘otherness’ to the quotidian routine echoes the otherness of that routine from the detective genre itself. When he decides to break into the Robinson’s flat in order to ascertain what might be amiss, Poirot points out:

‘No one will observe us. The Sunday concert, the Sunday “afternoon out”, and finally the Sunday nap after the Sunday dinner of England – le rosbif – all these will distract from the doings of Hercule Poirot.’

Le rosbif is (obviously) not the French translation of ‘roast beef’. It is, in fact, a mocking piece of French (sorry, Belgian) slang which refers to the English character in general. But I like to see this story as expanding the reach of the idiom. Le rosbif might also be understood here as referring to the quotidian round, the realist mode; and Poirot, being placed outside of both, is able to take advantage of the complacency of those within it. No-one expects the Belgian inquisition!

Despite these metafictional shenanigans, the solution itself strikes me as clever but very, very far-fetched. Ultimately, this mix of the quotidian and the improbable doesn’t quite gel and the transition from one to the other isn’t a smooth one. Yes, Robinson is a common surname, yes a fair-haired Mrs Robinson was bound to appear sooner or later – but it does seem like an unbelievably risky plan. Also, the weird ending is disconcertingly abrupt. Presumably the intention was a sort of ‘all’s well that ends well’ – we’ve caught the culprits, the Robinsons are safe and now we can all breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy a good laugh. Instead, it reads like Christie suddenly reached the end of her word count and quickly inserted some seriously bizarre comedy business with a cat. But then, perhaps this is fitting, given how singular this story seems compared to those that precede it.

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Poirot Investigates (1924), Short Stories, Short Story, Thrillers

‘The Plymouth Express’ (1923)

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.’

‘Why not?’

‘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!

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Inspector Japp, Poirot's Early Cases (1975), Short Stories, Short Story, The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)