THE BOOK Fontana 1981, pp 191
This brilliant Tom Adams painting depicts the murder weapon bursting through wallpaper featuring a traditional nursery rhyme – the disturbance of a seemingly cosy world by violent reality (the story was written during the build up to World War II). It was painted in the 1960s, but the copy I now have is from much later. I would give much to be able to have my original copy because it was the first swigatha I ever bought.
Hercule Poirot nervously visits his dentist Mr Morley for a routine appointment. He observes in the waiting room some other patients, also nervously awaiting their appointment with the dentist’s chair.
Poirot’s relief when he gets home afterwards is disturbed by a call from Inspector Japp, telling him that Morley has been shot, probably by one of his patients and probably around the time of Poirot’s appointment.
Not for the first time (but it was for the last),1 Japp asks Poirot if he can ‘help him with his enquiries …’
This story was written in 1939, in the lead-up to the Second World War. There had been civil war in Spain, the spread of Fascism across Central and Southern Europe and North Africa and what was seen as the threat of the spread of Communism championed by an increasingly militaristic Soviet Union.
Accordingly, among the suspects in this story are two radical young men of the Far Left (Howard Raikes) and Far Right (Frank Carter), both anxious to sweep away the old order, and neither the remotest part concerned by the death of a ‘miserable little dentist’.
Ranged against these hotheads is the solid, unruffled character of Alastair Blunt, self-proclaimed figurehead for the stability that would keep Britain from suffering the same fate as the rest of Europe.
Except, of course, that the real menace and threat to the nation’s stability is in fact Blunt: a man so desperate to preserve his status that he does not bat an eyelid at the murder of anyone who gets in his way, a man far more dangerous than any of those opposing him.
The true moral figurehead for Britain requires is, of course, Poirot himself. Frank Carter, a racist bullying thug, stands for everything he despises and fears. Poirot is sorely tempted not to disclose his conviction that Carter was incapable of murder, but resists it.
Alastair Blunt, on the other hand, has many qualities that he admires. Poirot realises, however, that there is one aspect to him that is far more frightening than anything found in the Carters of this world: on mainland Europe in the 1930s there were other tyrants who had started out by believing that they stood between their countries and chaos.
It has been often said that Agatha Christie rarely gives away much of herself in her books, but I think there are at least a couple of elements of her in this one – her concern for the rights of the innocent, even an ugly fascist like Frank Carter, and her instinctive mistrust of the ‘great and good’.
Linus van Pelt is a character from Peanuts who shares some of the mindset of Messrs Carter and Raikes. Unlike Linus, I think Agatha Christie quite liked people, but was very wary of ‘mankind’.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
Some of the descriptions of foreigners, and especially Jews, in early Agatha Christie are shocking to readers today, but they are often deliberately given to particular characters to mislead the reader. She saves her most withering comments for the English as seen through Poirot’s eyes. Here he is observing the patients sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room:
In one of them sat a military-looking gentleman with a fierce moustache and a yellow complexion. He looked at Poirot with an air of one considering some noxious insect. It was not so much his gun he looked as though he wished he had with him, as his Flit spray. Poirot, eyeing him with distaste, said to himself, “In verity there are some Englishmen who are altogether so unpleasing and ridiculous that they should have been put out of their misery at birth.”
The final exchanges between Poirot and Blunt could have come out of an episode of Foyle’s War3. Here are a couple of examples:
“You have said that Mabelle Sainsbury Seale was a foolish human being and Amberiotis an evil one, and Frank Carter a wastrel – and Morley – Morley was only a dentist and there are other dentists. That is where you and I, M. Blunt, do not see alike. For me the lives of these four people are just as important as your life.”
“Don’t you realise, Poirot, that the safety and happiness of the whole nation depends on me?”
“I am not concerned with nations, Monsieur. I am concerned with the lives of private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken from them.”
SWIGATHA RATING 8/10
This is a classic mid-era swigatha – never boring, plenty of murders to keep the thing flowing and very much a reflection of the time it was written.
Poirot is very human in this book – frightened of the dentist, sick of the prejudices held against him, and totally unimpressed by people with no empathy for their fellows.
The solution is a classic example of Agatha Christie toying with a perception that might have been widely-shared by her readership and turning it on its head. Experienced readers should by now be very wary of any character who keeps escaping murder attempts2, as Blunt does, but the vast majority will be fooled yet again.
How she does it …!
Where the book fails to convince is in trying to structure the story to fit the nursery rhyme, to the extent of describing Blunt’s sister-in-law as ‘fat’ simply to fit in with ‘9, 10 The Big Fat Hen’.
The use of nursery rhymes as a theme had begun with And Then There Were None the previous year, and had worked brilliantly. Not so this time.
WHERE IT LED
Agatha Christie continued to employ the nursery rhyme device for a few years. In some cases it worked well – Mrs McGinty’s Dead, Crooked House – and some it most certainly did not (Hickory Dickory Dock being the worst example, and, thankfully, the last).
This was the first swigatha I’d bought and it led to a blissful childhood catching up on the others. I still thrill when I see copies of the versions I read then in second-hand shops today (an increasingly rare occurrence as these editions are always being snapped up).
The ITV adaptation for their long-running Poirot series (1989 – 2014) was one of the early ones. It dispensed with the character of the Communist hothead Raikes, but otherwise sticks closely to the plot, giving away perhaps more about Blunt’s actual marital status than the book does.
1 This was Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp’s final appearance (chronologically) in an Agatha Christie story.
2 A Murder is Announced, Peril at End House, and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side are other examples
3 Foyle’s War was a TV series set in England during WW2. It was created by Anthony Horowitz (who adapted some episodes of ITV’s Poirot series) and concerns the eponymous Inspector’s efforts at preserving the rule of law at a time when it was close to breaking down. He often finds himself confronting members of the establishment and army hierarchies who justify their lawbreaking as being essential to the ultimate success of the campaign against Nazism, and try to persuade him to cover it up.