THE BOOK Fontana 1968 pp 189
This Ian Robinson cover refers to the scene of the crime – the battery at Avonbury – and the pipette used to introduce the fatal poison. I am not sure what the ball of wool refers to! A well-used paperback but still in good condition 50 years on. The blurb on the back over-emphasises the nursery rhyme context that is the weakest element of the book (during that period, Swigatha had a fancy for nursery-rhyme titles). The dedicatee is Stephen Glanville1.
The PAN cover from 1953 shows the five pigs – Elsa Greer, Philip Blake, Meredith Blake, Miss Williams and Angela Warren – lined up in front of the head of Hercule Poirot. It is spoilt slightly by the (incongruous) pair of white spectacles adorning Poirot’s head.
Poirot is commissioned by Carla Lemarchant to investigate the murder of her father 16 years previously. The original police investigation and trial had found her mother, Caroline Crale, guilty of the murder of her artist husband, Amyas, who was apparently planning to leave her for the much-younger Elsa Greer. Caroline was sent to prison for life (‘extenuating circumstances’) but died there soon afterwards. Carla was 5 at the time, but when she came of age she was shown a letter from her mother, protesting her innocence.
Poirot talks to representatives of the prosecution, defence and police, all of whom are convinced of Caroline’s guilt. Unabashed, he sets out to interview the five other people present at the time of the tragedy. Each of them agrees, reluctantly, to write down their recollections of the events during those days in September 16 years before.
Poirot works out what happened and who was responsible, but there is no evidence and the murderer walks free.
CONTEXT AND STRUCTURE
Again and again, one finds that Agatha Christie is at her best when she incorporates what she knows best into the fabric of her stories, whether it be archaeology, travelling, poisons or people. This book is awash with references to her.
For example, the murder took place at Avonbury, a country house based on Greenway, Agatha Christie’s country home in Devon. You can visit Greenway today and walk down the same paths to the battery where it happened, with its view out over the river Dart.
Across that river is the village of Dittisham; Elsa Greer is married to Lord Dittisham when Poirot meets her.
The story was written in 1942-3, 16 years after her own mother had died and husband Archie had walked out on her for a younger woman,2 leaving her alone with a 5-year old daughter, Rosalind. Amyas Crale bears the same initials as Archie Christie. And so on …
This is possibly a bit fanciful, but the fact is that the main characters are treated with far more care and understanding than usual, and Poirot (and we) end up feeling sympathy for just about all of them. Equally unusually, the book is structured carefully. After a prologue, there are four sets of five chapters each:
– 5 chapters of interviews with the forces of the law
– 5 interviews with the Little Pigs
– 5 written statements from the Little Pigs
– 5 chapters of dénouement
Details of the same story are thus described fifteen times, each time from a slightly different angle, and each time it becomes more intriguing. It is Agatha Christie at her very best.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
The characters that dominate the story do not appear in it, except in retrospect. Amyas Crale is an artist for whom the need to create overwhelms not only all other emotions, but also anyone or anything that gets in the way of that need. Caroline has a multi-plex character (as evinced by the ‘little pigs’ five different assessments of it). She loves her family, but her actions are driven by the guilt she feels over an event from the past.
The little pigs pale in comparison, but are by no means cardboard cut-outs: their written statements especially expose their characters, and each of them is still haunted by the events of sixteen years ago.
In most Agatha Christie books, once the murderer is uncovered, everyone else is able to go back home and carry on as normal. Not in this one.
Sympathy is shown to every character – even to the murderer, who is perceived as having been treated cruelly. This book is mercifully free of attitudes that denote the era of the setting, possibly because there is a lack of humour within it: the death of Caroline Crale is a real tragedy.
Caroline Crale’s letter to her sister from prison before she dies is almost Sydney Carton-esque.
I have never told you lies and I don’t now when I say that I am actually happy – that I feel an essential rightness and a peace that I have never known before.
She does not quote Dickens, but it is there between the lines: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far better rest to go to, than I have ever known.3
Poirot looks at the painting that Amyas had been working on when he died; his final thought comes back with a bang at the end:
Yes, here was life. All there was, all there could be of life, of youth, of sheer blazing vitality. The face was alive and the eyes….. What were the eyes of Elsa Greer like now? He went out of the room with one last look. He thought: ‘She was too much alive.’
The descriptions of the paintings throughout indicate that Agatha Christie had a good pair of eyes herself.
Caroline Crale was sentenced to life imprisonment, but it is to the killer that fate has handed the real life sentence (something which the author considered the cruellest outcome for any criminal):
‘She and Amyas both escaped – they went somewhere where I couldn’t get at them. But they didn’t die. I died.’
By dying in prison, Caroline Crale escaped it; Elsa Greer, on the other hand, was indeed ‘too much alive‘, and stuck with it.
SWIGATHA RATING 10/10
Five Little Pigs has little of the overt drama and plot twists that characterise Agatha Christie’s more famous stories but, from beginning to end, this is the most satisfying of her novels. Nothing is wasted. All of the characters have substance, and the ending for once holds much more than just a surprise.
WHERE IT LED
This was the first (and best) of the ‘murder in the past’ stories that became a common feature of Swigatha’s output in the second half of her career. This device enabled her to dispense with a narrator, and explain Poirot’s presence in the story as a consulting detective brought in after the event.
The nursery rhyme titles were packed away for ten years, re-emerging with Mrs McGinty’s Dead in 1952.
The only adaptation I have seen was by ITV for its Agatha Christie’s Poirot series in 2003.
The Granada adaptation was exceptional. I consider it the finest Poirot episode, maybe even the best adaptation anywhere of a story involving him, and much credit for that should go to its producer, Margaret Mitchell. She had to work with a riot of executive producers and came through in triumph (later series would not be so successful).4
Agatha Christie adapted this story for the stage: ’Go Back for Murder’. As with all her adpatations, Poirot does not appear.
1 Glanville was an Egyptologist who, the following year, persuaded Agatha Christie to set a story in Ancient Egypt. The resultant Death Comes As The End was also dedicated to him.
2 Suggested by Robert Barnard A Talent to Deceive
3 from A Tale of Two Cities