THE BOOK Fontana 1976 pp 188
Tom Adams’ cover is absolutely perfect, although it might be thought to give the game away somewhat. The blurb on the back is also excellent and enticing.
The original title of the book was Death of a Games Mistress: strictly speaking it should be Death of a Games Mistress, a French Mistress, a German Mistress and a Deputy Head. Whoever came up with the new title came up with a good one.
Julia Upjohn is a new girl at Meadowbank, a girls’ boarding school. It is the start of a new term, and as she is presenting her daughter to the headmistress, Julia’s mother is astonished to catch sight of someone she has met before in the Middle East. Fatally, Miss Bulstrode pays her no attention, having been distracted by the sight of one of the parents, Lady Veronica Carlton-Sandways, tottering around on the lawn outside in a drunken stupor. Mrs Upjohn departs for a tour of Turkey.
But soon the gym mistress is found battered to death after interrupting an attempted burglary in the new gymnasium, and, when Julia’s recently-acquired tennis racquet is found to contain jewels in its hollowed-out handle, she decides to break out of the school bounds, taking the jewels with her, and make her way to London to call on a friend of a friend of her mother … to call on Hercule Poirot.
Most of the characters in the story are either teachers or pupils, unsurprisingly since Meadowbank is the setting. What is more surprising is that, by the end of the story, no fewer than four of them have been killed on the site.
Most of the characterisation is somewhat wan, and centres to a large extent around the suitability of staff members Miss Chadwick, Miss Vansittart and Miss Rich to take over from Miss Bulstrode when she retires.
The French teacher Miss Blanche is a worthless character and useless teacher – Agatha Christie seems to have had little respect for French mistresses and governesses.1
The gym mistress who bites the dust has the splendid name of Miss Springer.
Not one of the teaching staff is married, and the only male presence at the school is provided by the two gardeners; one of them, Adam, is a secret service plant (a sinistra hopaless, maybe?) but by the end of the book we know nothing more about him than that.
Mrs Upjohn is, however, definitely a woman of character, one prepared to take off for anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice and without a by-your-leave. Poirot is unsurprised to hear from Julia that she is a close intimate of Maureen Summerhayes.2
Poirot is hardly in this story, and to be honest it does not suffer as a result. After he has pulled his rabbit out of the hat at the end, and things have returned to normal (!), Miss Bulstrode finds that her problem has been solved: after all the mayhem, there is only one headmistress candidate left standing …
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
The characters’ casual racism sounds painful to 21st Century ears, but that was the way that many people spoke at the time, especially ex-colonial types returning from a retreating Empire.
Here is laid bare the Meadowbank selection criteria:
But Miss Bulstrode had her rules, she did not accept morons, or juvenile delinquents, and she preferred to accept girls whose parents she liked.
Miss B also preferred to accept girls whose parents could afford the fees. Colonel Pikeaway instructs Adam on horticulture, using outrageously bad puns:
Lovely Amabellis Gossiporia, and some of the wonderful new Chinese hybrids of Sinensis Maka foolia. Try the rich blushing beauty of a clump of Sinistra Hopaless …
The British Empire was crumbling away in the wake of Indian independence the Suez Crisis of 1956, but colonial attitudes would persist for a time yet:
“You think everyone you meet is dishonest.”
“Most of them are,” said Mrs Sutcliffe grimly.
“Not English people,” said the loyal Jennifer.
“That’s worse.” said her mother. “One doesn’t expect anything else from Arabs and foreigners, but in England one’s off guard and that makes it easier for dishonest people.”
This is not the author speaking, but the author mocking a particular English type that she had no time for. AC had a huge respect for the people of the Middle East, and her star character in this story, Mrs Upjohn, is observed at least trying to communicate with the locals on a trip to Turkey rather than barking at them.
As Empire metamorphosed into Commonwealth, the reigning monarch had a crucial role to play:
“Oh well,” said Jennifer. “I expect the Queen often has to have people to lunch who don’t know how to behave – African chiefs and jockeys and sheikhs.”
“African chiefs have the most polished manners,” said her father.3
I don’t think Elizabeth II would have had a problem with the jockeys. Adam keeps his boss informed of developments:
Her Highness arrived in style. Cadillac of squashed strawberry and pastel blue, with Wog Notable in native dress, fashion-plate-from-Paris wife, and junior edition of same (HRH).
Old Briggs warns Adam off chatting up schoolgirls, especially the Italian ones:
“Now you be careful, my boy. Don’t you get mixed up with no Eye-ties. I know what I’m talking about. I knew Eye-ties, I did, in the first war …”
Now it’s the turn of the French, as the police consider one of their main suspects:
Angele Blanche was dismissed after a few more unimportant questions.
“Touchy,” said Bond. “All the French are touchy.”
Miss Bulstrode considers that Voltaire’s classic does not qualify as hard core porn:
“She won’t come to harm with Candide,” said Miss Bulstrode. “It’s a classic. Some forms of pornography I do confiscate.”
In the wake of the introduction of the Welfare State and Education Act during the 1940s there were other options available for young girls than becoming a servant. Mrs Sutcliffe laments the ‘servant problem’:
Old Mrs Ellis who is quite deaf and can hardly stand up and that half-witted daughter of the Bardwells who comes in to help on Saturday mornings.”
Now she considers removing her daughter from Meadowbank:
“Two murders! And a girl kidnapped. You can’t send your daughter to a school where the mistresses are being murdered all the time.”
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
Agatha Christie enjoyed herself writing this one, but the murderous side-plot introduced is, frankly, ludicrous. Otherwise it is a good fun read, and indeed funny in places.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Poirot hardly features in this story and was retired for another four years. The ash-bespattered Colonel Pikeaway was to become a regular in her later books, appearing with Tommy and Tuppence in Postern of Fate and also in Passenger to Frankfurt.
ITV’s Poirot made a decent production with a screenplay by Mark Gatiss. Among the (inevitable) changes made was the inclusion of a javelin as a murder weapon … Poirot was, of course, much more to the fore than in the book.
1 Mrs Summerhayes was Poirot’s somewhat disorganised but likeable landlady in Mrs McGinty’s Dead.
2 See also the un-prepossessing Mademoiselle Brun (The Secret of Chimneys). There is also an un-named governess in The Hollow who is described thus:
French governesses never seem to have any authority.
3 Re-reading this, sixty years after it was first published, it is incredible to think that the same Queen is still being dragooned into lunch with sheikhs …