THE BOOK PAN 1968 pp189
PAN’s cover is fairly straightforward: a clock. Which has absolutely nothing to do with the story. Tom Adams cover has the mouse that ran up it: also nothing to do with the story (maybe a cover combining the two would work better). The jewel was at least one of the items stolen.
The title of this book is possibly the most contrived yet – solely related to the name of the street in which a student hostel stands.
When Hercule Poirot finds three mistakes in a letter typed by his secretary, Miss Lemon, he is incredulous. For Miss Lemon had never before made a mistake. She is distracted by worry for her sister, Mrs Hubbard, the manager of a student hostel which has experienced a series of petty thefts. Mrs Hubbard cannot make sense of the random collection of items taken and, in certain cases, destroyed.
Poirot agrees to visit the house on the pretext of giving a talk, and soon realises that Miss Lemon’s sister is right to be concerned …
This book has characters from many lands:
- A somewhat nasty-minded pair of French students, Genevieve and René
- An alcoholic Cypriot landlady, Mrs Nicoletis
- Italian staff Geronimo and Maria, dismissed as ‘liars and thieves’ by their employer
- The Indian Chandra Lal, a medical student ‘preoccupied with politics and persecution mania’
- The West Indian Elizabeth Johnson, with ‘the best brains in the hostel’
- Two Turks who cannot understand a word and keep disappearing
- The nervous American, Sally Finch
- The African Akibombo, genial but with appalling English
- A ‘charming young Iraqi’ (no surprises there!), an aggressive Egyptian, a stolid Dutchman…
On and on it goes, a bit like an episode of Mind Your Language.1 The characters of the British inhabitants are not drawn in much greater depth, and one element of their interaction – that one of them persuades another to steal at random to draw the attention of the psychology student she loves – is somewhat unlikely.
The most realistic characters in this book are the ‘hideous’ Miss Lemon and her feet-on-the-ground sister.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
Poirot considers his confidential secretary, probably for the first time.
His voice held incredulity. For Miss Lemon, that hideous and efficient woman, never made mistakes.
Poirot had never conceived of Miss Lemon having a sister. Or, for that matter, having a father, mother or even grandparents. Poirot is forced to concede that Miss Lemon is human … Later, she considers the impact of what we would nowadays call the Windrush2 generation:
‘Half the nurses in our hospitals seem to be black nowadays,’ said Miss Lemon doubtfully, ‘and I understand much pleasanter and more attentive than our English ones.’
Some of the language used by the characters would be deemed racist now. Jean Tomlinson explains why she thinks that Akibombo spoilt Miss Johnson’s course-work:
‘All these coloured people are very jealous of each other and very hysterical.’
The decidedly un-hysterical Elizabeth Johnson considers Sally Finch:
‘They are all the same, these Americans, nervous, apprehensive, suspecting every kind of foolish thing! Look at the fools they make of themselves with their witch-hunts, their hysterical spy mania, their obsession over Communism.’
This book was written at the time of the McCarthy witch-hunt of those suspected of ‘un-American activities’. Finally, Mrs Nicoletis’ unique brand of man-management is to the fore as she upbraids the kitchen staff:
‘Liars and thieves,’ said Mrs Nicoletis, in a loud and triumphant voice. ‘All Italians are liars and thieves!’
SWIGATHA RATING 4/10
Evelyn Waugh’s diary for July 18, 1955 contains an entry that begins:
The joys and sorrows of a simple life. Joys: … A new Agatha Christie which began well …. Sorrows: … The deterioration of Mrs Christie’s novel a third of the way through into twaddle … 3
Waugh was always a harsh critic, but many people might concur with his assessment. Robert Barnard considered it, if anything, an understatement.4 This book is typical of some of the later swigathas, in that it begins with a great idea and then peters out.
There are some old Christie tricks in it – a letter from a dead person artfully used as a suicide note, the interrupted phone call – and the revelation comes as no real surprise at all. ‘Foreigners’ are never the culprits in her stories, so most of the suspects can be wiped off the list straightaway …
It gets a ‘4’ solely because I remember enjoying it when I was 11. The re-read was another matter.
WHERE IT LED
This book heralds the start of a slow decline in the quality of the author’s work (in my opinion, obviously). The next few books would wipe the floor with most of the opposition for readability and sales but, with a couple of notable exceptions, would not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as her own classics.
The episode made as part of the ITV Poirot series is the only adaptation I have seen. It had a strong cast, including Damien Lewis as Len Bateson, and a strong writer in Anthony Horowitz, but it excluded all the foreign students, so it was even blander than the book.
1 An appalling UK sitcom from the 1970s that cast every racial stereotype it could
2 Named after the boat that brought the first wave of West Indian immigrants to Britain in response to an appeal made by the British Government. Following the devastation of WWII there was a serious shortage of manpower, in particular in factories and the recently-established National Health Service
3 The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed Michael Davie
4 Robert Barnard, A Talent to Deceive