THE BOOK Fontana, 1980 pp 192
This is a replacement copy. The cover is not nearly as appealing as the old “lined” Fontana that I would have read in the 1960s (see right). Some of the print is smudged: this is typical of the shoddy 1970s / 80s versions. These are two reasons why I am re-collecting the editions that I originally read.
Tom Adams at least gets a credit for the painting on the front, which bears echoes of his cover for Roger Ackroyd. He has taken liberties with the actual murder knife (which in the book is one used for Ellis’ corns). The head is that of a very young man for someone with an adult daughter.
Actress Jane Wilkinson asks Poirot to intercede with her estranged husband, Lord Edgware, to secure her a divorce. When they meet, Edgware tells Poirot that, on the contrary, he had agreed to one. He is murdered before this contradiction is resolved. Poirot and Hastings take it upon themselves to investigate what happened.
Mindful that Hastings has a habit of writing up Poirot’s cases, the new Lord Edgware suggests a title for this one. Presumably he was unaware that it might just as well refer to himself.
Lord Edgware’s character is possibly the most interesting: apparently honest and believable but with ferocious undercurrents. His bookshelf is filled with the Memoirs of Casanova, a volume on the Comte de Sade, another on mediaeval tortures. No-one liked him.
His wife is a wonderful study in self-absorption (Agatha Christie possibly had one of the characters from her imaginary School1 in mind when she was thinking about her). His nephew, the future Lord Edgware, is an impecunious, unthinking and drunken racist. His daughter hated and feared her father.
What a family!
There are not many instances of the gentry or super-rich appearing in a swigatha, but when they do appear they are usually unsympathetically described – as here: Lord Edgware is a sadist, his nephew an idiot, the Duke of Merton weak and ugly, the Dowager Duchess a wilful snob.
The murderer is (again, as in Peril at End House) the most likeable suspect in the book – certainly as far as Poirot is concerned.
Away from this poisonous family, the completely different characters of Poirot and Hastings work together beautifully, and some of their interplay is a joy. Inspector Japp plays Inspector Japp.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
What would be seen today as toe-curling racism is still on show, but at least it is put into the mouth of a drunken buffoon rather than the narrator.
Here the future Lord Edgware introduces himself to Hastings:
‘What I say is one face is very like another face – that’s what I say. If we were a lot of Chinks we wouldn’t know each other apart … Anyway,’ he said, ‘I’m not a damned nigger….’
He continues with his alibi:
‘When uncle’s lifeblood is flowing, I am whispering cheerful nothings into the diamond encrusted ears of the fair (I beg her pardon, dark) Rachel in a box at Covent Garden. Her long Jewish nose is quivering with emotion.’
Hastings’ (whose first impressions are usually hopelessly awry) reacts so:
There was something strangely likeable about the young man …
Poirot is well aware of Hastings’ capabilities:
‘No human being should learn from another. Each individual should develop his own powers to the uttermost, and not try to imitate those of someone else. I do not wish you to be a second and inferior Poirot. I wish you to be the supreme Hastings. And you are the supreme Hastings.’
… and the supreme Hastings once again (inadvertently) provides Poirot with the solution to the riddle.
The last line is an all-time classic, and beautifully in character with the person who has confessed all:
PS: Do you think they’ll put me in Madame Tussauds?
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
The construction of the killer’s alibi is Christie at her best, but some of the rest does not bear close scrutiny. For example, the character of Donald Ross, the only person present at both the two crucial dinner parties, introduces himself to Hastings at the second one, under the impression that he had also attended the first, which Hastings had not. The dreaded clue initial of an initial on a personal effect is used again for no real purpose, and one of the ‘Paris’ plotlines just fades out.
On the other hand, the main characters in it are terrifically drawn and not many would put the book away before finishing it.
WHERE IT LED
Hastings returned to the Argentine for three years. Poirot makes the first of his trips to the Middle East, from whence he will return via the Orient Express … This book consolidated Agatha Christie’s reputation as the Queen of Crime.
There was a decent version made by ITV for its Poirot series, but they obviously decided that there was not enough plot to work with, so they added extra plot lines such as Miss Lemon’s filing system and Hastings’ bankruptcy (the latter makes a nonsense of the real reason for his eventual return to England).
The two main actresses, when made and dressed up, are extremely convincing in their “roles”. Lord Edgware is evilly played by John Castle, better known for his smug portrayal of Miss Marple’s godson, Detective Inspector Craddock, in the BBC series.
“Thirteen at Dinner” was the title given to a lamentable outing for Peter Ustinov, aimed at the American market. It portrays Hastings as a complete nincompoop.
1 Agatha Christie, An Autobiography (Part 2 Chapter 4)
When she was a child, Agatha Christie populated an imaginary school with children whose characters she continued to develop in her head well into adulthood. I think that she sometimes used these characters in her books, and you can usually tell because they are the most interesting and well-defined (the most obvious examples are Murgatroyd and Hinchcliffe in A Murder is Announced).
I think Jane Wilkinson is based on ‘Isabel’, a character that the young Agatha didn’t like, but one who kept coming out on top in spite of her. So, Jane has to be given the final word – and Agatha Christie has given her possibly the best last line of any crime fiction book that I have ever read.