THE BOOK Fontana, 1972 pp 192
The Tom Adams cover shows the body of victim B, Betty Barnard, on the beach at Bexhill framed in a 1935 Railway Guide. To appreciate how blessed Collins were to have his services, just look at the mess on the right that it superseded.
The blurb on the back is perfect (what great alliteration!). The quote underneath it is by the poet-laureate Cecil Day-Lewis, using the pseudonym Nicholas Blake that he adopted when writing crime fiction. He was the father of Daniel, the actor.
Captain Hastings returns from the Argentine on urgent business to do with his ranch there, which he promptly forgets when he meets up with Poirot again. Poirot receives a letter from “ABC”, taunting him with a hint of a crime to take place in Andover, which turns out to be the senseless murder of Alice Ascher.
It becomes clear that ABC has in mind a series of similarly random murders, with the location and victim chosen by dint of their initials. Before each murder takes place, ABC writes to tell Poirot where and when it will happen. By the time we get to the letter D, Poirot has formed an investigative band, his Special Legion, made up of the people primarily affected by the murders A, B and C. They go to Doncaster to join the hunt …
The characters in this book are among the more interesting created by Agatha Christie – few cardboard cut-outs here. Alexander Bonaparte Cust is a brilliant study of the quintessential societal victim; Lily Marbury, with whom he lodges, unexpectedly takes pity on him and warns him that an Inspector wanted to talk to him, even though it must be apparent to her that he is possibly a serial killer; Megan Barnard is a hugely strong-minded woman who has no qualms about (successfully) pricking Poirot’s self-important waffle, and announces that she hopes the killer will not be found … and so on.
To make the characters so distinctive is quite an achievement because the cast-list in this 192-page book is a huge one. There is yet another single young woman joining forces with Poirot named Grey (Thora), following on from Jane (Death in the Clouds) and Katherine (Mystery of the Blue Train). She is, however, less sympathetically treated.
ATTITUDES AND QUOTES
My selection of quotes for this book is very different to those for all the other swigathas because it is the attitudes of Poirot, Hastings and the author that come through most clearly in it, rather than those of the other characters, and they are not by any means a reflection of attitudes prevalent at the time the story was written.
For example, here are Poirot and Hastings discussing the character of the serial killer ABC:
“No, the poisoning of life for the innocent, that, at least, we cannot lay at ABC’s door.”
“You’ll soon be making excuses for the man!” I said bitterly.
“Why not? He may believe himself fully justified. We may, perhaps, end by having sympathy for his point of view”.
This is a somewhat unexpected statement for Poirot to make about a serial-killer. Agatha Christie often seemed more concerned for the innocent survivors than the victims of crime.
Here is another exchange from the same scene, when Hastings berates him for his lack of action:
“In the meantime people are dying right and left.”
“Three people. And there are, what is it – about 120 – road deaths every week?”
“That is entirely different.”
“It is probably exactly the same to those who die …”
Having forgotten his urgent business concerning his Argentine ranch, Hastings also seems to have forgotten his wife Bella – here Poirot mocks his eye for a pretty girl (in this case the Nordic-looking Thora Grey):
Some of the time I love a brunette
Some of the time I love a blonde
(Who comes from Eden by way of Sweden)1
Poirot overhears children singing ‘And catch a fox and put him in a box and never let him go’2. He asks Hastings what he thinks of fox-hunting:
“I suppose it does sound cruel, but really -“
“The fox enjoys it? Do not say les bêtises, my friend. Tout de même – it is better that – the quick, cruel death – than what those children were singing… To be shut away – in a box – for ever … No, it is not good that.”
Poirot is considering the likelihood that ABC, when caught, will be judged insane and spared the hangman’s rope. He returns to this theme just before Cust’s trial:
“With insanity there can be no acquittal. Imprisonment during His Majesty’s pleasure is hardly preferable to death.”
Agatha Christie shared Poirot’s horror at the concept of life imprisonment, as well as doubts as to the merits of a drawn-out legal process that would end in a capital sentence, which is why she/he often allows the guilty party to take their own way out.
SWIGATHA RATING 10/10
Not only is this a brilliantly constructed story, with a unique idea at the heart of it, but it is one of the best-written, and, yes, most exciting books that she ever wrote. There is no padding whatsoever. Simply first-rate, and the best of the Poirot-Hastings tales by a mile, which is a bit surprising as she had long tired of the pairing.
WHERE IT LED
These days, just about every crime thriller that is published anywhere or televised seems to be based around the character of a serial killing mastermind taunting the police with their brilliance.
That was not the case in the 1930s: Agatha Christie’s plot was hugely original, and it is still unique for the genre because it is about a serial-killer-that-wasn’t. She brought the world a real serial killer three years later, in the book now known as And Then There Were None.
There is some confusion as to when, and in what order, this story and Cards on the Table were written, because characters in each refer to events in the other; both were first published in the UK in 1936. Whichever the way round it was, this book came out in the middle of a run of Poirot classics from the pen of Agatha Christie.
ITV Poirot Series, 1992 : the story works well on television, and this is one of the best, if not the best, of the ‘Suchet Poirots’. The portrayal of Cust, by David Sumpter, is really impressive.
Then there was one of those dreadful 1960s adaptations – The Alphabet Murders – which has Poirot meeting up with Margaret Rutherford hamming it up as Miss Marple; more recently, the BBC made a TV film with John Malkovich playing Poirot as a tortured ex-priest trying to prove himself.
I have no problem with adaptations that try to leave their own mark on a work, but, really …
1 Poirot is quoting (not totally accurately) from “Some Sort of Somebody“, a song by Jerome Kern and and Elsie Janis written in 1915.
2 From the Children’s nursery rhyme “A-Hunting we will go”. Note that the version used in schools today reads:
And catch a fox
And put him in a box
And then we’ll let him go