THE BOOK PAN, 1967 pp 204
One of PAN’s striking photographic covers depicting key elements of the plot – the diamonds, sheet music for the Dead March, blood, the bedroom door key, a cinema ticket and what must be a passport. I love the font used and also the image of Agatha Christie (wearing what I saw at the time as her all-the-better-to-eat-you-with-my-dear smile).
Compare with the Fontana cover from a few years before, which could have been tagged on to almost any other of her books (but not this one – the victim was a decrepit old man who had his throat cut, not a young man stabbed in the chest). No wonder Fontana sent for Tom Adams …
The title alone would have been guaranteed to make this a best-seller in the run up to December 25th, 1938.
Pilar Estravados makes her way from civil-war-torn Spain to the home of the patriarchal Simeon Lee, who has invited his only grand-child for Christmas. She arrives to find a house full of his sons and their wives, and a poisonous atmosphere deliberately stimulated by old Simeon himself. All around her, she sees strange men stroking their jaws or throwing back their heads and laughing; within two days a bloody murder has occurred in a locked room. Pilar had hoped to experience a typical English Christmas (and maybe she did!), but instead she finds that her sharp eyes hold the key to the mystery.
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
Heredity is a key element in this story. Simeon Lee’s family is divided between those who take after their mother, and those their father. Adelaide Lee is dead, and so only appears in the story as a portrait, but Mr Lee is very much alive, as jaw-strokingly unscrupulous as ever. The three sons who take after him are each also unscrupulous in their own ways. One is a cheat, one a liar and one a murderer, with each constantly giving away their true nature by their physical mannerisms.
Take away the jaw-stroking and the throwing back of the heads (see Quotes, below) and this is a classic type of Christie family group – a prodigal son and his stay-at-home brother, a sensitive artist son and his pompous MP brother, the cheating wife and so on: Alfreds, Georges, Harolds and Lydias may also be found at Enderby Hall (After the Funeral), Yewtree Lodge (A Pocket Full of Rye) and Rutherford Hall (4:50 from Paddington).
Pilar admires Stephen Farr (another example of Agatha Christie disparaging her own race, which she frequently does):
She wondered if he was an Englishman and decided he was not. “He is too alive, too real to be English”, Pilar decided.
Pilar gets philosophical:
“Everyone must die! That is so, is it not? If it comes quickly from the sky – bouff – like that, it is as well as any other way. One is alive for a time – yes, and then one is dead. That is what happens in this world.”
Hilda here is trying to mitigate the shadows obsessing her husband:
“I believe the present matters – not the past! The past must go. If we seek to keep the past alive, we end, I think, by distorting it. We see it in exaggerated terms – a false perspective.”
… and Agatha Christie was the wife of an archaeologist! One of the minor themes in this book, increasingly developed in her later ones, was that ‘old sins have long shadows’.
Here is Simeon Lee on heredity:
“I’ll say this for you, Lydia, you’re a well-bred woman. Breeding tells. I know that well enough. A funny thing, though, heredity. There’s only one of you who’s taken after me – only one out of all the litter.”
Little did Simeon realise that there were at least three … Ironically, the character most like him (Pilar) is not one of his family, but an impostor.
Hercule Poirot reflects on the concept of justice:
Hercule Poirot said: “Justice is a very strange thing. Have you ever reflected on it?”
It is a pity he did not explain his thinking further; Poirot’s own interferences with the paths of justice were manifold.
Likeness and mannerisms are well to the fore in the plot, and Agatha Christie does lay it on with a trowel somewhat:
Harry threw up his head. He drew the finger along the line of his jaw. It was a gesture that was habitual with him …
The Superintendent stroked his jaw …
Harry lifted up his chin and laughed …
For a moment he (Colonel Johnson) took the entering figure to be that of Harry Lee, but as Stephen Farr advanced into the room he say his error …
“Mr Harry Lee seemed in very good spirits, sir. Throwing back his head and laughing a great deal.”…
Pilar was easily recognisable as one of the figures, and he (Poirot) thought the other was Stephen Farr, then he saw that the man with Pilar was Harry Lee …
Superintendent Sugden drew a doubtful finger along his jawbone …
Superintendent Sugden threw back his head and laughed …
Harry laughed, throwing his head back …
“Who’s that out there in the garden? Superintendant Sugden or Mr Farr?”…
Superintendent Sugden stroked his jaw cautiously …
The discovery of Simeon Lee’s blood-spattered corpse prompts some apposite quotations. Lydia quotes from Macbeth:
“Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”
David quotes a classical proverb (not from the Bible) about eventual retribution for evil done:
“The mills of God grind slowly …”
Pilar had already fore-warned Simeon by quoting a strangely-beautiful Spanish proverb at him:
“Take what you like and pay for it, says God.”
This proverb crops up in later Poirot cases, as does the concept of old sins having long shadows.
SWIGATHA RATING 8/10
This is a classic curl-up-at-the-fire-for-Christmas book, and judged as a swigatha it is one of the very best. On just about every page, Agatha Christie repeats the vital clue, but I bet that 99% of her readers are still surprised by the conclusion: A Talent to Deceive1 indeed! The locked room element, however, is quite ridiculous, and the attempted murder of Pilar through the use of a large concrete ball placed on top of her bedroom door even more so. Good fun, though.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Agatha Christie moved on to sleuth-less serial killing in 1939 (Murder is Easy, And Then There Were None). Pilar Estravados obviously made an impression on Kenneth Branagh, because he decided to use her name for one of the characters aboard the Orient Express in his 2017 film.
ITV Poirot 1994. The producers must have felt that the viewing audience would be too easily confused by the issues of heredity and the wider family, so they ditched the characters of David, Hilda and Stephen Farr, and the jaw-stroking was kept to a minimum. I suppose a household full of people throwing back their heads and laughing would have looked rather odd on screen.
1 The title of an excellent appreciation of Agatha Christie by Robert Barnard.