Murder in the Mews

THE BOOK  Fontana,1971 pp 191    

Murder in The Mews is a collection of four long (for Agatha Christie) short stories. Tom Adams cover, not one of his favourites, depicts the shattered glass that is one of the clues in Dead Man’s Mirror (the title of the collection in the US). The dog-headed figure is Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead. I cannot think of any other reason for its inclusion, although one of the characters claims to be a ‘reincarnation of Hatshepsut’. The PAN cover on the right shows a desk that is part of the mise-en-scene of the title story of the UK edition.


Murder in the Mews
Poirot and Japp are called in to investigate an apparent suicide that took place on Fireworks Night. A good example of double-bluff, and another example of the author gently exploring the affection between two women living together.  A re-working of The Market Basing Mystery, one of Poirot’s Early Cases.

The Incredible Theft
Lord Mayfield is persuaded, against his better judgement, to call in Poirot to investigate the disappearance from his home of secret plans for a bomber aircraft. A re-working of The Submarine Plans: once again, see Poirot’s Early Cases.

Dead Man’s Mirror
Arch-snob Gervaise Chevenix-Gore writes to Poirot, summoning him to investigate some double-dealing close to home. Poirot consults his friend Mr Satterthwaite about the character of the writer. When Poirot arrives at the Chevenix-Gore abode, he discovers that his summoner is dead (another apparent suicide). 

Triangle at Rhodes
Poirot is on holiday on the island of Rhodes. In the company of Miss Pamela Lyall, he observes the behaviour of fellow guests at their seaside hotel. He finds it lamentably predictable, and is totally unsurprised at the later demise of one of them. As should the reader be: variations on the triangle depicted in this story were also evident in Evil Under the SunDeath on The Nile and The Thirteen Problems.

Although these stories are longer than her usual, indeed Dead Man’s Mirror qualifies as a novella, they still do not permit their characters to emerge fully-formed. In most examples, we are permitted but one sentence to visualise a character; sometimes that sentence is very directional. Here are two ‘give-away’ examples from Murder in the Mews: Charles Laverton-West: 

He was clean-shaven, with the mobile mouth of an actor, and the slightly prominent eyes that so often go with the gift of oratory. He was good-looking in a quiet, well-bred way.

Major Eustace: 

 … was a tall man, good-looking in a somewhat coarse fashion. There was a puffiness about his eyes – small crafty eyes that belied the geniality of his manner.

I think we can assume that Laverton-West is ok if unremarkable, and that Eustace is up to no good, Eustace being yet another example of an ex-Army officer gone to seed. Here are some examples from The Incredible Theft that are less judgmental:

Mrs Vanderlyn:

 … an extremely good-looking blonde. Her voice had a soupçon of an American accent, just enough to be pleasant without undue exaggeration …

Mr Carlile

… a pale young man with pince nez and an air of intelligent reserve. He talked little.

Air-Marshall Carrington 

His career had begun in the Navy, and he still retained the bluff breeziness of the ex-Naval man.

Julia Carrington 

She was very thin but still beautiful. Her hands and feet, in particular, were exquisite. Her manner was abrupt and restless, that of a woman who lived on her nerves.

Mrs Macatta 

barked out short sentences rather than spoke them, and was generally of somewhat alarming aspect.

Reggie Carrington

… 21, weak mouth, charming smile, indecisive chin, eyes set far apart with rather a narrow head.

Lord Mayfield

… a big man, square-shouldered with thick silvery hair, a big straight nose and a slightly prominent chin.

It feels like the reader has been given access to the parade ring at Ascot. The one person whose character is fleshed out a bit more is Jane Plenderleith, flatmate of the victim of the Murder in the Mews, who actually feels emotion about the plight of another:

Poirot said gently: ‘You were fond of your friend?’ He saw her hand clench on her knee, the tightening of the line of the jaw, yet the answer came in a matter-of-fact voice free from emotion. ‘You are quite right, I was …’  .

‘She was a very gentle creature, always anxious to please. She had a really sweet, lovable nature.’ For the first time that hard, matter-of-fact voice broke a little. Poirot nodded gently.

This description reminds me of the despair of Miss Hinchcliffe after the murder of her live-in companion Murgatroyd in A Murder is Announced.

But Jane Plenderleith is the exception in these short stories. In Triangle at Rhodes, Pamela Lyall and her friend Sarah try to persuade Hercule Poirot of the fascination of human nature and the unexpected actions of which a human being is capable. Poirot is having none of it:

‘It is most rare that anyone does an action that is not dans son caractère. It is in the end monotonous… (human) nature repeats itself more than one would imagine. The sea,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘has infinitely more variety.’
Sarah turned her head sideways and asked: ‘You think that human beings tend to reproduce certain patterns? Stereotyped patterns?’  
‘Précisément,’ said Poirot …

These are four decent stories, each very different from the other, and enjoyable to read. They are far superior to the Hastings-narrated short stories of the 1920s, but with each of them one gets the feeling that one has read it before (and in two cases, one just about had!). For a new reader, of course, that would not matter. Ruth Rendell once said that calling Agatha Christie characters ‘cardboard cut-outs’ was an offense to cardboard; in that context, it is quite interesting to hear Poirot (often the mouthpiece of the author) imply that human beings are indeed little more than that.

The Dead Man’s Mirror story allows Agatha Christie the opportunity to include a favourite quote from Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot, one that she used brilliantly 30 years later:

Out flew the web and floated wide
The mirror crack’d from side to side
‘The curse has come upon me!’ cried
The Lady of Shallot

Poirot’s next set of short stories were his last – collected under the title ‘The Labours of Hercules‘ in 1947. In the opinion of many critics, though not in mine, this was the best short story collection that Agatha Christie produced. 

Each of these stories was adapted for the ITV Poirot series. A few liberties were taken, especially with Dead Man’s Mirror, but the productions of the first and fourth stories are huge fun and very typical examples of what made the Poirot series such a huge global phenomenon.