THE BOOK Fontana 1975 pp 160
The two Tom Adams covers both include the same key elements from the book – dog, wig, gun and elephant. I prefer the one on the left, which cleverly twins (a clue!) some of them, almost suggesting a Rorschach test.1
Mrs Ariadne Oliver (Agatha Christie in disguise) is button-holed at a literary luncheon by the overbearing Mrs Burton-Cox, who announces her that her son Desmond is planning to marry Celia Ravenscroft (Mrs Oliver’s god-daughter). Both of Celia’s parents had died of gunshot wounds in a tragedy some dozen years previously, and Burton-Cox asks whether Celia’s mother had killed her father and then shot herself, or whether it was vice versa.
Mrs Oliver has no idea, having been on a literary tour of America at the time, but resolves to find out what she can, enlisting the aid of Hercule Poirot en route. He advises her to talk to as many people connected with the event as she can.
So she does, and finds out (again) that Old Sins Have Long Shadows …
General Ravenscroft is married to Molly, a woman some 25 years younger than him, having previously been engaged to Molly’s twin, Dolly. Molly is devoted to Dolly, but not vice versa … Vice versa is almost the main theme of the book.
The General and Molly have two children, both of whom were away at school at the time of the shootings. They had also employed two governesses to look after the children as they were growing up, first Maddy, then Zélie (not their real names, but the children’s nicknames for them, presumably taken from the word Made-moi-Selle).
Mrs Oliver interviews a variety of characters (her ‘elephants’) who each remember a bit of, but never the whole of, the story. As in many late Christies, she uncovers cases of child-murder, with the culprit never being brought to justice, but it is Poirot who, by tracking down Zélie to Paris, is able to confirm what happened.
Also as-in-many-late-Christies, Poirot’s enquiries are supported by ex-Superintendent Spence and the wonderful Mr Goby.
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
Once again, as was becoming increasingly the case, a late Christie I is crying out for stricter editing, if only to reduce the amount of repetition. I am not sure, however, whether an editor would have allowed this strange comment to stay in or not:
‘That’s where you’re going to, isn’t it? Famous writers of 1973 – or whichever year it is we’ve got to now.’
That is a strange statement for Mrs Oliver’s maid-cum-dresser, Maria, to make. The year was 1972; whereas some people might imagine that they are still living in the previous year, it is rare indeed to find someone who think they are in a future one.
One of the persistent themes of late Christie2 is child-murderers – in all senses, i.e. children who murder children, children who murder their parents, or adults who murder children. Here, Mrs Oliver is asking about the Ravenscrofts’ son Edward:
‘There was no – no mental trouble, I suppose, in the family?’
‘Oh, you mean the boy – yes, that might be, of course. You do hear very strange things. There was that boy who shot his father – that was somewhere near Newcastle. ‘
Edward would have been about about eleven years old at the time of his parents’ murder. Here’s a potential child-killer who would probably be even younger:
‘Well, these things, as you know, happen quite often among children. Children are pushed in a perambulator into a pond sometimes because an older child, being jealous thinks that “Mummy will have so much less trouble if Edward, or Donald, or whatever his name is, wasn’t here …”‘
These things ‘happen quite often’? I have been alive for over 60 years, and I can think of only two cases in the UK where a child of 10 or 11 has killed another child. Maybe it would have happened more often if this had truly been the average day in the life of the UK:
But look at what you read in the paper every day now. Young men, practically only boys still, shooting a lot of people for nothing at all, asking a girl in a pub to have a drink with them and then they see her home and the next day her body’s found in a ditch. Stealing children out of prams from their mothers, taking a girl to a dance and murdering her or strangling her on the way back.
‘Every day’? Not quite how I remember 1972! This is almost a reprise of some of the author’s introduction to Passenger to Frankfurt.
SWIGATHA RATING 3/10
Nothing actually happens in the present, apart from Mrs Oliver’s interviews, and there were only three characters involved in the actions in the past, so as a ‘swigatha’ (i.e. a whodunit) it is not a difficult one to twig.
The solution is fairly clued, but if I ever have to read ‘did the father kill the mother or did the mother kill the father?’ one more time, I will scream. The problem is that this story is already much shorter (30 pages less than the other Fontana editions) than most of her books, and proper editing would have rendered it even flimsier.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
This was the last Poirot story to be written, but it was followed a couple of years later by the publication of Curtain, which Agatha Christie had kept locked in a safe for some 30 years. One gets the impression from this book that she wishes she could have locked Poirot up with it: he hardly appears.
ITV’s Poirot (2013): to paraphrase Robert Barnard, ‘all the usual strictures about late ITV Poirot adaptations apply’. This production introduces a new character who murders another new character, then tries to strangle a man twice her size, and ends up trying, again unsuccessfully, to throw Celia off a balcony.
The producers clearly felt that not enough happens in the book, which is true, and try to compensate, but it might have worked better if they had stuck with the original plot and cut the running time to one hour.
On the positive side, there is another fine performance by Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver.
1 Rorschach Test: ‘The Rorschach test is a psychological test in which subjects’ perceptions of reflective inkblots are recorded and then analysed using psychological interpretation … ‘
In the book, Mrs Oliver asks a string of people about their memories and impressions of an event in the past, and receives a variety of interpretations of it.
2 See also By the Pricking of my Thumbs, Halloween Party and Nemesis. In each of those books, as well as this one, all of the stories and rumours repeated (again and again) about children abusing and slaughtering one another prove to be irrelevant. Such repetition is just padding.