THE BOOK Collins 1975 pp 221
The photographic cover of the Fontana paperback first edition is quite different to those that it had previously published by the same author. There must have been a decision made not to commission a cover from Tom Adams, although he did return for Sleeping Murder. It works, though … unlike the hardback cover, which is very 1970s and totally inappropriate for Poirot’s swan song, with its irrelevant handcuff and almost luminescent lettering.
SPOILER ALERT Read the book before you read this page
Captain Hastings, recently widowed, has returned to England. He receives a letter from Hercule Poirot inviting him to come and stay with him at Styles, the scene of their first adventure together. An ailing Poirot tells him that they are going to hunt down a murderer once more – one staying at Styles.
As the title implies, it is to be the last time that they would hunt together …
Strangely, for the 1940s saw Agatha Christie at the peak of her powers when it came to characterisation, the cast at Styles (apart, of course, from Poirot and Hastings) are a pretty unattractive bunch, with some taken out of central casting and some hardly described at all. The killer, and victim, becomes interesting only in retrospect.
So we have Boyd Carrington, retired from Empire and very old school, the type of colonial buffer that Agatha Christie often satirises, a pompous old bore who repeats other people’s stories back to them; Colonel Luttrell, an incompetent failure and his shrewish wife; Major Allerton, a philanderer (ex-Army officers are rarely upstanding in Agatha Christie); Dr Franklin, a genocidally-inclined scientist obsessed with his experiments to the exclusion of all else, and his wife, permanently tired and taking the vapours. Nurse Craven hardly emerges from the page.
At least Hastings’ daughter Judith rings true: fearless, she is her mother’s daughter all right, and her exasperated affection for her muddled father matches that of her ‘Uncle’ Hercule.
But that does not bring light relief: this is a dark book, with its reference to ‘an epidemic’ of pain and torture ‘in the world of late years’ and plenty of talk of the desirability of ridding the world of degenerates.
Even Judith’s father, the genial, genuine and likeable Arthur Hastings, is revealed as the thwarted would-be murderer of an innocent man, and as for his long-time associate Poirot …! This bon catholique, who ‘does not approve of murder’, commits a mortal sin by carrying out the cold-blooded murder of another person.
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
Seasoned swigatha readers would sit up and take notice immediately when Hastings warms to someone from ‘the old school’: so many prove to be blackmailers, drug dealers or killers:
He was very good-looking, though a man well over fifty, with a deeply tanned face. He looked as though he had led an outdoors life, and he looked, too, the type of man that is becoming more and more rare, an Englishman of the old school, fond of out-of-doors life, and the kind of man who can command … Governor of a province in India … first-class shot and big-game hunter … the sort of man, I reflected sadly, that we no longer seem to breed in these degenerate days.
Interesting that Christie gives Hastings the line about ‘these degenerate days’: she was writing just after the Battle of Britain, Britain and its Empire’s ‘finest hour’. They were at the time fighting the overwhelmingly superior Axis Powers on their own; the Nazis, of course, had their own views about ‘degenerates’ (and what to do about them).
Hastings daughter Judith weighs in with her solution to the degeneracy problem:
‘Unfit, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be painlessly put away.’
She is obviously under the malign influence of Dr Franklin:
‘If an imbecile – a cretin – dies, it’s a good thing.’
‘It’s an idea of mine, you know, that about eighty percent of the human race ought to be eliminated. We’d get on much better without them.’
What a nice idea to have, especially at a time when death camps were being built as the final solution to rid the world of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and, yes, ‘cretins’.
There are few innocent young children in Agatha Christie’s stories; rather too many are reported as being murderous or sadistic:
‘I have known a child, annoyed by its kitten, say “Keep still or I will kill you” and actually do so – to be stunned and horrified a moment later when it realises the kitten’s life will not return … ‘
Here is a classic, and typical, example of Poirot and Hastings in conversation (although they had worked together for over twenty years, Hastings never has an inkling of what Poirot is thinking or how he is feeling):
‘I find it painful to be here, in a way, and yet it brings back to me a hundred old thoughts and emotions that I’d quite forgotten I ever felt. I dare say you feel the same.’
‘Not in the least. I do not feel like that at all.’
‘They were good days,’ I said sadly.
‘You may speak for yourself, Hastings. For me, my arrival at Styles St Mary was a sad and painful time. I was a refugee, wounded, exiled from home, existing by charity in a foreign land …’
‘I had forgotten that,’ I admitted.
‘Precisely. You attribute always to others the sentiments that you yourself experience. Hastings was happy – everyone was happy!’
No-one is happy in this book.
It was a brilliant idea to start and end the partnership between Poirot and Hastings at the same place (à la fin comme au commencement); nothing has changed in their 20-year relationship. As Poirot writes in his confessional letter:
You should, mon ami, have been able to arrive at the truth. I saw to it that you had every indication. If you have not, it is because, as always, you have far too beautiful and trusting a nature. A la fin comme au commencement.
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
Agatha Christie had two brilliant ideas as to how to crown Poirot’s career (and polish him off!): the return to Styles, and the creation of an Iago-esque villain, with Poirot as his judge, jury and executioner. But I don’t think it is one of the best. There is too much padding: pages and pages of dialogue with Hastings demanding that Poirot take him into his confidence and Poirot refusing, for example.
Indeed, the character of Hastings is so dominant that hardly anyone else gets a look in. Yes, he is the narrator, but too much of his narration revolves around his own reactions and what he is thinking.
What shocks this reader is the realisation at the end that, whereas he was prepared to murder the womaniser Allerton, whom he mistakenly thinks is going to seduce his daughter, Hastings is quite happy to endorse her going off to marry a genocidal lunatic.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
The story was written during the Blitz on London in 1940, which Agatha Christie was not sure she would survive: maybe that contributed to the underlying tone of the book. It was to be locked away in a vault and published after her death; in the event, the book was published in 1975, the year before it. Poirot’s death attracted an obituary on the front cover of The New York Times.
Poirot and Hastings never did hunt together again, but Poirot, having already made one appearance that year (Sad Cypress), soon came back to life to make another one (One, Two Buckle My Shoe), followed in 1941 by Evil Under The Sun. Maybe writing took Agatha Christie’s mind off things; certainly, those books were less dark.
There has been one: for ITV’s Poirot series. It features a quite remarkable performance by David Suchet, who shed two stone to age himself and look weak, and a very good one by Aidan McArdle as his adversary, Stephen Norton. Thankfully, for once, no-one in the production team saw fit to try and ‘improve’ the original story.