Mrs McGinty's Dead

THE BOOK   PAN 1971  pp191

PAN’s rather plain cover matches the (seemingly) plain circumstances of Mrs McGinty’s death – murdered for a few pounds that she was known to keep under her floorboards.

Tom Adams’ cover for Fontana is dominated by yet another of his insects but the rest is an accurate representation of Mrs McGinty’s breakfast on the fateful day.  

The novel is dedicated to Peter Saunders, who produced some of Agatha Christie’s plays on the London stage in the 1950s.


James Bentley has been tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his landlady, Mrs McGinty. The police officer in charge of the investigation, Superintendent Spence, cannot convince himself that Bentley is a murderer. He consults Poirot and asks him to investigate and see if he can find further evidence that the police missed. Poirot leaps at the chance to relieve his boredom.

Mrs McGinty was charwoman to four homes in Broadhinny: the Upwards, the Carpenters, the Rendells and the Wetherbys, all ‘very nice people’. Poirot visits each of them and finds that the cleaner had a reputation for snooping amongst their things, calling to mind the children’s rhyme:

Mrs McGinty’s dead
How did she die?
Sticking her neck out, just like I …

At the Upwards, Poirot is re-united with crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, whom he last met in Cards on the Table.


The plot revolves around a newspaper story about three young women and a girl involved in murders in the past. The article asks: where are they now?

A few of Agatha Christie’s post-war novels share the same theme: no-one really knows who anyone else is anymore. This is particularly apparent in a village, where in the past everyone had known each other’s backgrounds, sometimes only too well. In Broadhinny that is no longer the case, and any one or all of those girls could have been residing there at the time of Mrs McGinty’s murder. 

Another Christie theme resonates throughout the story: the importance of a happy (or indeed unhappy) childhood. References to the characters’ childhoods abound. Thus, we have

  • James Bentley, who has not recovered from the death of his domineering mother;
  • Deirdre Henderson, all her life treated like a slave by her mother and her hated stepfather;
  • Maude Williams, whose mother was murdered and father hanged;
  • Maureen Summerhayes, handed over for adoption and haunted by her mother’s rejection, and
  • Robin Upward, also adopted (in fact, adopted twice).


As the story opens, Poirot is bored stiff, and realises how much he has been missing his only friend Hastings:

‘I cannot, truly I cannot, sit in a chair all day reflecting how truly admirable I am. One needs the human touch. One needs – as they say nowadays – the stooge.’  

Poirot is unhappy, but there are also plenty of unhappy people in Broadhinny, including Deirdre Henderson:

‘But of course nothing – anywhere – is like it used to be.’
‘And do you mind that so much, mademoiselle?’
‘I? Oh, no.’ She seemed surprised. ‘But it’s different for mother. She – she lives in the past a lot.’
‘You look forward, not back?’
Deirdre said slowly: ‘I don’t know that I look anywhere … I mean, today’s usually enough, isn’t it?’   

Maureen Summerhayes is the most likeable character in the book, full of life, but nevertheless haunted by her past:

‘I was an adopted child. My mother parted with me and I had every advantage, as they call it. And it’s always hurt – always – always – to know that you weren’t really wanted, that your mother could let you go.’
‘It was a sacrifice for your own good, perhaps,’ said Poirot.
Her clear eyes met his.
‘I don’t think that’s ever true. It’s the way they put it to themselves. But what it boils down to is that they can, really, get on without you … And it hurts.’  

Many of Agatha Christie’s wartime and post-war books cast a flickering background reflection on the times. The National Health Service, guaranteeing free healthcare for all, had come into being in 1948:

‘Nowadays, even if you’ve got a chilblain you run to the doctor with it so as to get your money’s worth out of the National Health. Too much of this health business we’ve got. Never did you any good thinking how bad you feel.’
‘I expect you’re right,’ said Mrs Oliver.

The Education Act of 1944 had raised the school leaving age to 15 and guaranteed free education for all:

‘Girls aren’t trained nowadays, they’re just educated, like Edna.’
Both women looked at Edna, who leant against the post office counter, sucking a peppermint, and looking particularly vacant. As an example of education, she hardly did the education system credit.  

Finally, here is Poirot showing a sense of humour as he gently mocks his tendency to indulge in franglais when trying to put people off their guard:

‘For somewhere,’ said Poirot to himself, indulging in an absolute riot of mixed metaphors, ‘there is in the hay a needle, and among the sleeping dogs there is one on whom I shall put my foot, and by shooting the arrows into the air, one will come down and hit a glasshouse!’  


The clues are all there, meticulously and fairly laid.


Ariadne Oliver, a self-penned pastiche of the author, having lain dormant for 16 years, returns in four of the following eight Poirot novels. The happy / unhappy childhood theme recurs in A Pocket Full of Rye, published the following year.


The story was adapted for the ITV Poirot series. It is reasonably faithful to the original, although it removes the Wetherbys, amalgamating them with other characters. Unfortunately, the humour of the original is missing: Poirot’s tribulations in the Summerhayes’ house and his affection for his landlady are beautifully written, but not represented on screen. On the other hand, the murderer’s breakdown at the end is surprisingly moving.