Death in the Clouds

THE BOOK   Fontana, 1971 pp190  

This book is in beautiful condition for a half-century-old paperback and it was a pleasure to re-read it. The cover is another of the Tom Adams “insect” covers, this time one that is particularly relevant to the story inside.

The German edition is an interesting read – unlike the English, it does not use italics when Poirot lapses into French, and unlike the French, it does not attempt to modernise Poirot’s use of that language.

THE STORY 

Mme Giselle, a notorious moneylender, is found dead on an aeroplane travelling to Croydon. It soon emerges that she was poisoned by a dart during the journey, and three of the passengers on board – Hercule Poirot, Jane Grey and Norman Gale – join forces to investigate how that could happen, in a crowded cabin, without anybody noticing it.

This is the second of the three “Murder on International Transport” Poirot stories from the mid-1930s, following the Orient Express from the previous year and preceding the steamer SS Karnak in Death on the Nile two years later.  It is also the second of three in which he teams up with potential suspects to investigate, following Three Act Tragedy, published in the same year, followed by The ABC Murders, published in 1936.

CHARACTERS 

The most interesting character for a Christie student is that of Jane Grey. She appears to be something of a reprise of Katherine Grey, who appeared in the Mystery of the Blue Train seven years earlier. Both are single women working to support themselves in menial jobs, both come into a windfall that enables them to travel, both are viewed by Poirot as sympathique, both fall for the killer and both escape to the promise of a happier life.

I think that Agatha Christie wrote something of her post-Archie-Christie self into each of them; Jane Grey even ends up travelling to the Middle East with an archaeologist …

The French police (in the character of Fournier) are portrayed as somewhat more intelligent than Inspector Japp: they actually reason Poirot’s hints for themselves and come out with the right answers. Otherwise the characters are straight from central casting. The villain even ‘throws back his head and laughs’ – a sure giveaway in a swigatha.

ATTITUDES 

Although half of the story takes place in France, there is little of the national stereotyping that one can find elsewhere. Agatha Christie obviously had a healthy respect for that country. There is a mention of “Ikey Andrew” at the hairdressers where Jane worked, and then there is the quote below … analyse that!

QUOTES 

Two young people on a first date. How sweet…

They liked dogs and disliked cats. They both hated oysters and loved smoked salmon. They liked Greta Garbo and disliked Katherine Hepburn. They didn’t like fat women and admired really jet-black hair. They disliked very red nails. They disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and Negroes. They preferred buses to tubes. It seemed almost miraculous that two people should have so many points of agreement.

Japp’s French is coming along nicely:

“You mean?”
Chantage.”
“Blackmail?” echoed Japp.
 

Here is a great couple of lines featuring Poirot and the original instance of entrapment (this would not be admissible evidence in court today):

“You even left your fingerprints on the bottle.”
“You lie. I wore -“
“Ah, you wore gloves…? I think, Monsieur, that little admission cooks your gander.”

SWIGATHA RATING  6/10  

A very distinctive setting, and an unusually fair set of clues, but somehow the story never takes off (ironically!). It seems cobbled together with bits and pieces from elsewhere, so it gets an average mark. In the period from 1934-38 Agatha Christie published 11 full-length novels (9 featuring Poirot) and 3 books of short stories, as well as writing two plays for TV and radio. Many of these works are masterpieces of their kind, but this is not one of them.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT 

This was the second of the three “Murder on International Transport” Poirot stories from the mid-1930s, following the Orient Express that he boarded the previous year and preceding the steamer SS Karnak in Death on the Nile two years later. 

It is also the second of three in which he teams up with potential suspects to investigate, following Three Act Tragedy, published in the same year, followed by The ABC Murders, published in 1936.

ADAPTATIONS

ITV provided a reasonably faithful adaptation, but with Captain Hastings, huge extra lashings of Parisian local colour and the French Open Tennis added to fill in for those parts where the plot sags. At one point, while in Montmartre, Poirot even takes time out to explain the Surrealists to Jane Grey …