THE BOOK Fontana,1968 pp 190
A typical Tom Adams cover, with two clues – the mixture and the dead canary – augmented by yet another of his creepy-crawlies. The wording on the back is brilliantly enticing to a casual bookshop browser. Contrast the brilliance of that cover with the blandness and irrelevance of the later Fontana version.
Luke Fitzwilliam returns to England having retired from the colonial police force. On the train into London, he shares a carriage with Miss Lavinia Pinkerton. When she discovers that he had been a policeman, the old lady tells him that she is on her way to Scotland Yard to report on a series of murders in Wychwood-under-Ashe, the small village where she lives. She also tells him who the next victim will be.
Luke dismisses her story as an old lady’s fancy, but when he hears of her death in a hit-and-run, and then sees the name she gave him in the Births and Deaths column of The Times, he decides to go down and investigate for himself in the guise of researching village folk-lore …
Wychwood-under-Ashe is the classic Christie village setting, with its two tribes of Masters and Servants augmented by a swarm of old ladies. Wychwood is named after a historic forest in Oxfordshire, and there is a village there (Ascott-under-Wychwood) which could serve as a setting for an adaptation of this story even today.
There are hints of pagan village rituals, and when Luke meets his supposed cousin, Bridget Conway, he thinks she looks like a witch (the supposed modern version of ‘wych’) and imagines her flying on a broomstick. Luke keeps getting the feeling that he has been bewitched.
Most of the victims of the serial killer are culled from what might be termed the servant class: the maid Amy Gibbs, the newsagent’s son Tommy Pearce, Carter the publican and Rivers the chauffeur. It is only when the life of Dr Humbleby is threatened that Miss Pinkerton decides to act!
Luke is staying with Lord Whitfield, who is engaged to Bridget Conway. His Lordship manages the feat of being both the self-proclaimed squire of the village and its village idiot at the same time. He is beautifully drawn – completely self-centred, and convinced that everything that is happening is designed for his own convenience. As such, there is something of the Donald Trump about him. There are very few titled people in Agatha Christie stories that are not portrayed as either ill-tempered, gormless or murderous.
Lord Whitfield’s father had been a cobbler, whereas his ex-fiancée Honoria Waynfleete has come upon greatly reduced circumstances, having been a member of the principal family in the district. She enters the story as a Marple-esque figure but departs it as something quite different.
These people dominate the story, but there is also a range of stock village characters comprising the suspects – doctor, solicitor, antique-shop owner, barmaid, garage-hand, newsagent – with a particularly nasty turn from Amy Gibbs’ aunt, who hopes to make money from her niece’s demise.
Superintendent Battle, a veteran of plots involving feisty young women, appears for the last couple of pages to tidy things up.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
Luke Fitzwilliam’s first thoughts on returning to his native country are not flattering:1
England! England on a June day, with a grey sky and a sharp biting wind. Nothing welcoming about her on a day like this! And the people! Heavens, the people! Crowds of them, all with grey faces like the sky – anxious worried faces. The houses, too, springing up everywhere like mushrooms. Nasty little houses! Revolting little houses!
Luke meets Miss Pinkerton:
Luke’s eyebrows rose. ‘Murder?’
The old lady nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, murder. You’re surprised, I can see. I was myself at first… I really couldn’t believe it. I thought I must be imagining things.’
‘Are you quite sure you weren’t?’ Luke asked gently.’Oh, no.’ She shook her head positively. ‘I might have been the first time, but not the second, or the third or the fourth. After that, one knows.’
What a brilliant start to a swigatha!
‘I cramped your style,’ said Bridget. ‘I saw that. It rather amused me, I’m afraid.’
‘Women with brains are usually cold-bloodedly cruel.’
Bridget murmured: ‘One has to take one’s pleasures as one can in this life.’
Agatha Christie’s young women usually outshine their male counterparts where brains are concerned.2
Luke drew a deep breath. Then he exploded. ‘What the hell do you mean by marrying that absurd little man? Why are you doing it?’
‘Because as his secretary I get six pounds a week, and as his wife I shall get a hundred thousand settled on me, a jewel case full of pearls and diamonds, a handsome allowance and various perquisites of the married state.’
‘But for somewhat different duties!’
Bridget said coldly: ‘Must we have this melodramatic attitude towards every single thing in life …?’
This seems almost daring for the era that it was written: Bridget is the heroine of this story.
It was not a case of the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. It was not a case of a mere garage mechanic. The person in question was one against whom an accusation of murder was a fantastic, and, moreover, a serious matter.
Amy Gibbs’ boyfriend Jim is the ‘mere’ garage mechanic. Luke’s thought processes here are very unusual for a Christie detective. In almost all of her stories the most important element of an investigation is to clear the innocent, no matter who they were. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot would have considered it just as important to clear Jim as any of the others involved – maybe even more so.
O, why do you walk through the field in gloves
O fat white woman whom nobody loves?
These are a couple of (non-consecutive) lines taken from a poem by Francis Cornford (To a Lady Seen From the Train). As selected by Agatha Christie, these two lines work beautifully together. You could almost base a story on them.
Bridget said: ‘Liking is more important than loving. It lasts.’
This is definitely the voice of the author!
SWIGATHA RATING 8/10
The opening chapter is one of Agatha Christie’s finest. The twist at the end is very satisfying, but it is one for which the reader has been fairly prepared. Bridget the witch is one of the best-drawn characters in any of the Christie novels, Lord Whitfield is a hoot and the character of the killer is terrifying. What keeps it out of the top-drawer is the character of Luke and his endless musings.
The first adaptation was for American TV. It updates the setting to the 1980s but the actual plot survives intact. Helen Hayes, who went on to play Miss Marple for American TV, plays Lavinia, and is very convincing. Olivia de Haviland played Honoria in one of her last major roles.
ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series (2008) parachuted Julia Mackenzie as Jane into the village of Wychewood-under-Ashe, but she fits in well with the setting. It has an absolutely stellar cast – Benedict Cumberbatch plays Luke and the wonderful Shirley Henderson is excellent as Honoria – but the underlying motive for the mayhem is changed into something ludicrous for an Agatha Christie story.
1 One cannot help but think that Luke’s thoughts here are an echo of those of the author, when she returned from her world tour and her many trips to the Middle East. Similar sentiments are repeated in other books, such as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and The Secret of Chimneys.
2 See also The Sittaford Mystery, The Seven Dials Mystery, Sad Cypress, The Hollow, the Tommy and Tuppence books and many more.