Tag Archives: metafiction

‘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 King of Clubs’ (1923)

This was Christie’s third published short story and first appeared in The Sketch Issue 1573 (March 1923). In the UK, its first book appearance was in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974). The story concerns the apparent murder of theatre impresario Henry Reedburn, who has been found bashed brutally across the head with an instrument that has, rather disgustingly, ‘penetrated some distance into the skull’. Shortly afterwards, a mysterious woman wanders into the nearby home of the Oglander family, disturbing their game of Bridge, telling them deliriously of the murderous attack before falling to the floor in a dead faint. The lady is Valerie Saintclair, a famous dancer apparently connected to the Russian aristocracy. When she is suspected of the crime, her fiancé, the Prince of Maurania, hires Poirot to clear her name.

Like a lot of Christie’s work, the story contains metafictional elements, which draw attention to the story as a story. Such elements invite the reader to pay attention to the relationship between this fictional narrative and other kinds of writing, as well as to the relationship (or disjunction) between the text and the ‘reality’ it apparently represents. An obvious example of this is the fact that, when first published in The Sketch, the story appeared under the title ‘The Adventure of the King of Clubs’ – the very title that Poirot himself chooses for the case at the end of the tale. Beyond this, however, it is also one of many Christie stories in which a metafictional emphasis on the tale as crime fiction (as a story which exists in relation to an established genre with its own ‘rules’) is used as a means by which to emphasise, in turn, the extent to which the perception of murder in a given society often depends on the dominant genres available in that society for writing about murder.

At the beginning of the story, Hastings introduces us to two such genres, the newspaper report and the fictional narrative. For him, these represent two distinct modes of writing that exist in diametric opposition to each other:

‘Truth,’ I observed, laying aside the Daily Newsmonger, ‘is stranger than fiction!’

The remark was not, perhaps, an original one. It appeared to incense my friend.

As Hastings says, this diametric opposition between the factual report of the newspaper account and the avowedly fictional tale is not ‘an original one’. This is Hastings all over, his function in the tale being largely to provide the obvious or commonplace view, which the text (and Poirot) can proceed to interrogate or overturn.

When he launches into a colourful description of the circumstances surrounding the murder of Henry Reedburn, Poirot is moved to comment: ‘Is that your eloquence, or that of the Daily Newsmonger?’ Hastings’s response again reinforces his earlier stance that the factual newspaper account is the antithesis of the thrilling crime story: ‘The Daily Newsmonger was in a hurry to go to press, and contented itself with bare facts. But the dramatic possibilities of the story struck me at once.’ As the tale goes on, however, it would appear that the dramatic possibilities and the factual account are similarly incapable of presenting us with the true facts of the matter. Hastings’s ‘dramatic possibilities’ dress up the ‘facts’ in a romantic sensationalism, without ever really questioning their validity as facts, or recognising the fact that ‘dramatic possibilities’ will always distort the real facts to a greater or lesser extent. The facts themselves, with which the newspaper purports to provide its readers, are not the pertinent; ones and the clues to the actual solution lie elsewhere. Its account may be true, but like the ‘dramatic’ narrative that Hastings mistakenly sets up as its antithesis, its account is selective. Governed by a too eager readiness to leap to conclusions to mutually supportive ideas about what murder looks like, so that both the fictional crime story and the apparently factual account of an actual crime turn out to be mutually supportive in their creation of a ‘narrative’ of murder that is blindingly deceptive in its conventionality. It is this unquestioning adherence to conventional thinking from which Poirot rescues us. By the end of the story, the damsel in distress, the evil businessman and even the game of Bridge are all revealed to be tropes in the social narrative of everyday interwar life whose unthinking acceptance go so entirely and unconsciously unquestioned as to form the perfect smokescreen for the actual circumstances of the murder. Ironically, these facts end up being far more shocking than anything Hastings could possibly imagine, which only goes to show how conventional his ‘dramatic possibilities’ really are.

On the formal level of the detective plot, this is an outlook that Christie manipulates brilliantly to create some of the most effective misdirections in the genre. Like the murderer, Christie herself relies on the reader taking some things for granted as conventional – whether it be the circumstances of a game of Bridge, or the expected mechanics of the mystery genre. Indeed, in this story, the fact that the whole solution here revolves cleverly around the mistaken assumption that a game of Bridge must necessarily involve four players is neatly paralleled by a more spectacular red herring – namely that the murder plot must necessarily involve a pre-determined murder at all.

In fact, the real mystery here is not the identity of Henry Reedburn’s murderer but the true identity of the mysterious Valerie Saintclair – especially her true placement in terms of social class. Poirot comments: ‘There are many romantic stories concerning her origin – not an uncommon thing with famous dancers. I have heard that she is the daughter of an Irish charwoman, also the story which makes her mother a Russian grand duchess.’ The Prince dismisses the first theory out of hand and Poirot, while neither confirming nor denying the Prince’s suggestions, agrees cryptically that he also believe in the influence of heredity. It turns out that Valerie herself is equally preoccupied with the relationship between class and heredity. When we meet her, convalescing in the home of the people into whose house she stumbled on the night of the murder, she says ungratefully of her rescuers: ‘These people, they are very kind – but they are not of my world. I shock them! And to me – well, I am not fond of the bourgeoisie!’

It is within this ‘sub-mystery’ of Valerie’s class origins that Christie’s metafictional ideas begin to become problematic for me as a modern reader who finds a belief in heredity as a catch-all explanation for human behaviour to be somewhat suspect. It turns out that the Oglanders are Valerie’s real family – and the cover-up of the fatal accident that leads to Henry Reedburn’s death is also designed to cover up the fact that Valerie had gone to them for help in extricating her from the nefarious impresario. Now, while it may be very clever to contrive a plot in which the conventional mechanics of the mystery genre are used by the author to wrong-foot the reader (just as they are used by her fictional murderers as a means to similarly wrong-foot the detective) it’s quite another thing to equate the ‘true facts’ of the crime’s circumstances with the hereditary ‘true’ nature of a young woman – and to parade both of these as, alike, things which lie ‘beneath’ the conventions of social and literary narratives as ‘truths’ awaiting discovery. Yet this is exactly what the narrative does, with Poirot’s final summary neatly combining the tale’s predominant themes of class, heredity and the distorting effects of ‘dramatic possibility’. As he points out, Valerie’s hereditary middle-class roots (which are as inescapable here as her genetic makeup) escape Hastings, precisely because he fails to notice the hereditary resemblance between Valerie and her sister – just as the ‘true facts’ of the murder case escape him because he is looking to prove a pre-formed idea of the crime.

‘That is because your mind is so open to external romantic impressions, my dear Hastings. The features are almost identical. So is the colouring. The interesting thing is that Valerie is ashamed of her family, and her family is ashamed of her. Nevertheless, in a moment of peril, she turned to her brother for help, and when things went wrong, they all hung together in a remarkable way. Family strength is a marvellous thing. They can all act, that family. That is where Valerie gets her histrionic talent from!’

By connecting the revelation of Valerie’s true identity with the negation of external romantic imagery, Poirot is actually making heredity the basis of revealed truth about character. Hence, in the same way that ‘romantic impressions’ blind Hastings to the true facts of the murder, they also blind him to the ‘truth’ about Valerie Singleton – that she is inescapably bourgeois.

This would be fine were it not for the fact that the passage presents class not as an ineffable collation of social and economic descriptors but rather as, quite literally, a matter of breeding. This is worrying, since it makes individual identity apparently as pathologically determinate as the true facts of a set of physical actions that can be recreated through diligent investigation and deduction: just as the work of the ‘little grey cells’ can reveal that a person did certain things in certain ways and for certain reasons, so too can they tell, apparently, everything about that person – right down to the orientation of their own ‘little grey cells’. Conversely, just as we can tell everything about that person (where she came from, who are her antecedents) so, the tale suggests, can we tell exactly what that person is likely to do in any given situation. With this in mind, it’s a little bit rich of Poirot to dismiss the idea of the fortune teller’s accurate divination of events in the story from the random as nothing more than a curious coincidence.

More damagingly, though, it has worrying implications in a criminal context, especially when identity politics (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class etc) play a part in pathologising criminals in advance. An example. Gay men were pathologised in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries as, essentially, inversions of ‘normal’ masculinity. That is, they had essential female attributes in their genetic make-up which led them to desire other men. As such, when Oscar Wilde became the first highly visible example of a man definitely categorisable as ‘homosexual’, he became the model for effeminate men. The convergence of Wilde as a visible icon of gayness with the belief that sodomites all shared fundamental pathological attributes led to the rather quaint idea that all gay men would turn out like Oscar Wilde (i.e. witty, elegantly dressed and extremely camp) – not because he offered an easily available example among a limited spectrum of visible role models, but rather because they all shared the same genes.

Another way of putting it is the well-known logical fallacy ‘Nelly is an elephant, Nelly is pink, therefore all elephants are pink’. By employing this logic, Poirot falls prey to a different and more pernicious example of the kind of slavish adherence to ‘dramatic possibilities’ which he had earlier accused Hastings. This is because the author, in her theory about ‘dramatic possibilities’, omits the important fact that the kinds of possibilities open to a creative writer at any particular time are inevitably governed by contemporary ideas (about class, gender and heredity) from which it is difficult to escape and which are often only really discernable with hindsight.

There is a saving grace here, of course. Valerie’s class, her ability to act and (more worryingly) her histrionic nature are seen as things engrained and inescapable. This indelible bourgeois affiliation is meant to suggest that this apparently glamorous celebrity has a redemptive impulse towards middle-class domesticity running through the core of her very being. Yet, because this hereditary connection is inescapably a two-way street, it is also the means by which a domesticated middle-class environment is shown not to constitute an infallible shield against the emergence of sensation and murder from within it. In fact, it’s the very thing that makes the kind of domestic detective story at which Christie excels at once a mainstay for upholding middle class values at the same time as it inescapably undercuts them. It is for this reason that I distrust readings of Christie that tend to come down to strongly on one side of this argument or the other, arguing that they are either subversive or supportive of the bourgeois status quo. I find that they ultimately contain too much of both to finally determine an allegiance either to one or the other impulse.

But we’re getting a long way from reviewing a mystery story – and to get back to that task I would say that none of this changes the fact that this is a really ingenious tale, which could (like many of Christie’s short puzzles) have formed the basis for a full-length novel. The central clue of the Bridge game that is one player short is a master-stroke and there are also developments in Christie’s narrative construction. The cryptic denouement is no doubt a product of a necessary economy brought about by the limited column inches offered by the magazine context, but it also means that the reader has to do more work than usual: rather than have Poirot tell us point by point exactly how the whole thing was done, Christie has the detective explain the solutions to the various questions that have arisen along the way, whilst leaving the reader to piece together these revelations into one master-narrative of the true facts of Reedburn’s death. It adds a bit of variety to the usual whodunit structure by literally mixing up the narrative a little.

Hastings’s character is also coming to the fore. He will never escape from being something of a cipher, but I like that Christie plays on the idea of Hastings as a frustrated sensation journalist. We tend to forget that Hastings, as narrator, is actually making fun of himself in these stories and that his tendency to leap to all the wrong conclusions within the plot is rather nicely mirrored by his role as the skilful retrospective assembler of these details into a readable story. All in all, Hastings’s grasp of dramatic possibility may hinder his ability to become a good private investigator, but it also accurately reflects his purported role as the chronicler of Poirot’s investigations. As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s all intriguingly ‘meta’.

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Filed under 1920s, Agatha Christie, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot, Poirot's Early Cases (1975), Short Stories, Short Story