THE BOOK Fontana 1976 pp160
One of the shorter Swigathas, but even so my copy struggled to contain the pages within it. Mid-1970s Fontana editions are shoddy compared with their earlier ones (one of the reasons why I am collecting those from the 1960s). The Tom Adams cover gives prominence to the murder method and the motive; the older cover gives an even more blatant hint. If you don’t want to know whodunit, look away now. It is almost impossible to do this book justice without revealing the culprit.
There is a foreword by the author that describes this story as one of her favourites and the easiest to write.
Aristide Leonides, an immensely rich, but ‘fantastically ugly’ Greek restaurateur, is poisoned by a member of his family. Charles Hayward, back from war-time Special Branch duties and in love with Leonides’ grand-daughter Sophia, joins the police investigation into which of the family is responsible. This unlikely opportunity is explained by the fact that Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.
Three Gables, the Crooked House of the title, is home to various generations of Aristide Leonides family: his three grandchildren, Sophie, Eustace and Josephine; their step-grandmother Brenda; their great-aunt Edith; their parents Philip and Magda, and Uncle Roger and Aunt Clemency. Most of them are quite lack-lustre characters, with the exception of Edith de Haviland and her adored Josephine.
The eleven-year-old Josephine is not, however, adorable: she is a clever but vain show-off, she spies on people and gathers secrets about them, she has no empathy with anyone else in the house and despises the lot of them, apart from a grudging respect for her Great-Aunt Edith.
But that is not a surprise when you consider the way that this youngest member of the household is routinely treated. Her dysfunctional parents take no interest in her and refer to her as a ‘changeling’. Her step-grandmother Brenda says that Josephine ‘gives me the shivers’. She is described by her sister’s boyfriend as being ‘a fantastically ugly child’. Her only dream, of learning to be a ballet dancer, is dismissed by her grandfather, who says, bluntly, that she’d be ‘no good’ and refuses to even let her have a trial lesson. She has been farmed out to a nanny and a tutor and has no friends. No-one pays her any attention until after her grandfather dies, and even then it is only because she claims to know what happened.
Josephine is (literally!) a car-crash waiting to happen. When it does, there is a trace of somewhat belated sympathy for her, ‘the pathetic little monster, born with a kink’, but little evidence of regret from anyone at the way that they treated her.
In a ‘nature v nurture’ debate, Agatha Christie would came down on the side of the former – heredity plays a part in many of her plots – but, unwittingly or not, she gives the latter an airing here, as the Leonides give a master-class in how not to raise an eleven-year old girl.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
Miss de Haviland tells Charles about the background of their host:
“Came here when my sister died. He asked me to. Seven children – and the youngest only a year old… Couldn’t leave ’em to be brought up by a dago, could I? An impossible marriage, of course. I always felt Marcia must have been – well – bewitched. Ugly common little foreigner!”
Whatever her opinion, the speaker stayed with the common little foreigner for 40 years. Now the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard explains children to his son:
“A child, you know, translates desire into action without compunction. A child is angry with a kitten, says “I’ll kill you” and hits it on the head with a hammer – and then breaks its heart because the kitten doesn’t come alive again! Lots of kids try to take a baby out of a pram and ‘drown it’ because it usurps attention – or interferes with their pleasures.”
Agatha Christie doesn’t include many children in her books, but when she does they are certainly not portrayed as ‘born innocent’.1
And now the Assistant Commander explains heredity:
“Interesting thing, heredity. Take the de Haviland ruthlessness, and what we might call the Leonides unscrupulousness – the de Havilands are all right because they’re not unscrupulous, and the Leonides are all right because, though unscrupulous, they are kindly – but get a descendant who inherited both these traits – see what I mean?”
AC as A.C.?
Agatha Christie also allows Sophie to voice a nightmare that the author recognised only too well: 2
“I don’t know, Charles,” she whispered. “I only know that I’m back – back in the nightmare -“
“I know. Those were the very words I used to myself as I drove down with Taverner.”
“Because this is just what a nightmare is. Walking about among people you know, looking in their faces – and suddenly the faces change – and it’s not someone you know any longer – it’s a stranger – a cruel stranger…”²
Here is the infamous entry in Josephine’s diary:
Today I killed Grandfather. Grandfather wouldn’t let me do bally dancing so I made up my mind I would kill him.
And here her great-aunt explains why she has driven both of them to their deaths:
“I do not want the child to suffer as I believe she would suffer if called to earthly account for what she has done. There is often one of the litter who is not quite right.”
There were quite a few of that particular litter who are not quite right. Anyway, the upshot is that, once again, a murderer is not brought to trial to be sentenced to a lifetime of confinement. Time and again, Agatha Christie allows characters to take their own way out rather than face that prospect (which Josephine surely would have done).
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
This may have been Agatha Christie’s favourite book to write, but (for me) it is not quite up there with her very best: it feels like a story built around a single (brilliant) idea, with everything else forced to fit in around it.
There are hints throughout the book that Josephine is the culprit. For example, Charles’ father advises him that the murderer is vain and will want to talk about their cleverness; that he should talk to Josephine, who won’t be able to resist showing off what she knows; that children are natural killers who have to have it punished out of them; that some children, however, are born with the Mark of Cain and will not feel that murder is wrong, and that the wrong combination of de Haviland and Leonides genes could produce a monster …
There are also the physical clues for the supposed attempt on Josephine’s life that are fairly on display; for example, the mud on a chair that point to the culprit being someone not tall enough to reach the top of a low door, and so on.
Even so, the ending is shocking. Agatha Christie was not the first person to have a child as the killer,3 but surely only in a swigatha could you have a grandfather and a nanny murdered by an eleven-year old girl, or indeed an eleven-year old girl murdered by her great aunt, and then have everyone else seemingly set to live happily ever after.
WHERE IT LED
This was the last Agatha Christie novel to be published in the 1940s, and she still proved more than capable of coming up with the goods as she entered her 60s: her next book featured the return of Miss Marple, after a gap of eight years, in the excellent A Murder is Announced.
The first adaptation I have come across was hidden away on Channel 5 during Christmas 2017. There had been a radio version for BBC, and previous attempts to adapt the book for the screen had been mooted. It is possible that these were scuppered by the sensitivities engendered in the aftermath of real-life cases in the UK involving 10-11 year old killers occurring around the same time that they were being discussed (Mary Bell in the 1960s, Jon Thompson and Robert Venables in the 1990s). 4
Channel 5’s film was screen-played by Julian Fellowes, and he makes an excellent job of it without taking too many liberties with the plot. The cast is well-chosen. Glenn Close is excellent as Edith de Haviland and Honor Kneafsey is perfect for Josephine – but then, they did have the two best parts! The ending is genuinely horrifying and moving.
1 A kitten-killing child also appears in Curtain. For an even more shocking example of the killer-child, read the opening chapters of Towards Zero.
2 When she was a very little girl, Agatha Christie had a recurring nightmare about “The Gunman”. She and her family would be sitting down to tea, everyone chatting normally, when all at once one of them would morph into the Gunman – and only Agatha could see them. Agatha Christie, An Autobiography p 36
3 Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks John Curran notes two earlier examples by Ellery Queen and Margery Allingham
4 Agatha Christie on Screen Mark Aldridge