THE BOOK Fontana 1969 pp 190
The Fontana cover is a Tom Adams painting, I think a rather good one, but he was not fond of it1. It refers to the numbers of the two flats connected with a murder (67 and 76, obviously!) and the character David Baker, who is referred to throughout by Mrs Oliver as ‘the peacock.’
Hercule Poirot’s breakfast is interrupted by a young woman, Norma Restarick, who announces that she thinks she might have committed a murder. Before Poirot can delve any further, she announces that he is too old to help her and leaves the flat.
Poirot employs the wonderful Mr Goby to find out what he can about her. Fearing for the girl’s safety and sanity, Poirot then enlists the aid of his friend Ariadne Oliver to find her …
Norma Restarick is the Third Girl of the title, sharing a flat with two other young women, Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. David Baker, a pretty boy dressed in the latest Carnaby St gear, is Norma’s boyfriend.
One background scenario for this story is very much based on apartment life in the city of Swinging London in 1965, with young people very much to the fore, and drugs and pep pills freely available and freely used: a much freer world for the girls who could cope with it than their parents had enjoyed.
The other scenario is the classic Christie one of a family mansion in the country, with a Restarick family history that shares quite a few features with similar families from her other stories, lack of affection being one of them.
There is one character who is able to flit between the two settings quite seamlessly; that person is not Norma or David.
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
Poirot judges his early-morning visitor. His views often echo those of his creator:
She wore what were presumably the chosen clothes of her generation … Anyone of Poirot’s age and generation would have had only one desire. To drop the girl into a bath as soon as possible.
But he has some sympathy for a young girl unleashed into the world without parental guidance or support:
“She is one of whom others will look around and say ‘We want a victim. That one will do.'”
Poirot and Mrs Oliver are talking about Norma’s boyfriend, David Baker, when Poirot makes an comment that you would not have heard in one of his earlier cases:
“He looked very beautiful,” said Hercule Poirot.
“Beautiful?” said Mrs Oliver. “I don’t know that I like beautiful men.”
“Girls do,” said Poirot.
Norma’s life is saved by Dr Stillingfleet2:
She saw a man of perhaps thirty-odd with red hair and a rather attractively ugly face …
Norma’s grandfather, Sir Roderick Horsfall has a rant against the younger generation:
“They probably look like mods or rockers or beatniks or whatever they call these chaps nowadays with the long hair and dirty nails. One doesn’t like to say ‘Who the devil are you?’ You never know which sex they are, which is embarrassing. I suppose they’re Norma’s friends. Wouldn’t have been allowed in the old days. But you turn them out of the house and you find out it’s Viscount Endersleigh or Lady Charlotte Marjoribanks …”
Notwithstanding this, he ends up betrothed to Sonia, a young girl at least 40 years younger than him.
Here is another of Poirot’s wonderfully subtle put-downs, in this case aimed at Sonia:
“I am not like that. I am an intellectual.”
“Aha,” said Poirot. “That is always nice to know.”
One of Dame Agatha’s great characters is the information agent Mr Goby, a man incapable of talking face-to-face. Hie first appeared in The Mystery of the Blue Train in 1928, and was middle-aged then. Even so, as Poirot ages, he comes to rely more on him. Here Mr Goby takes his leave of his employer:
Mr Goby looked at the bookcase and said goodnight to it.
Another of her greatest hits is the redoubtable Miss Lemon:
She always knew what she was going to do and was she always right in what she did.
Even so, there are weaknesses … here Miss Lemon betrays her insular attitude to her (foreign) employer:
“By the way, what did you think of that young woman who came yesterday?”
Miss Lemon, arrested as she was about to plunge her fingers on the typewriter, said briefly, “Foreign.”
“You do not think anything more about her than that?” …
“Well, I always say that it’s better to know where you are when you are employing someone, and buy British.”
It does not occur to Miss Lemon that if everyone agreed with her, she would be out of a job.
Andrew Restarick opens up about Claudia Holland, a hugely impressive and capable employee:
“I gave her pretty much carte blanche to put through this deal in Manchester on her own terms … and she’s done exceedingly well. She’s as good as a man in some ways.”
No wonder that the Women’s Lib gathered pace in the UK in the 1960s.
SWIGATHA RATING 4/10
I think ‘4’ might be being generous. The plot does not really work, and the solutions to both the murder and the theft are very unconvincing. I don’t think Agatha Christie’s heart was really in it.
There is a sequence of eleven pages that describes Poirot’s thought processes which might have come straight out of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. 3
Even with a stellar cast comprising Poirot, Mrs Oliver, Miss Lemon and Mr Goby, at times it is even boring. Still, it is interesting to get some sense of an author in her 70s trying to incorporate some of the huge changes in Britain during the 1960s into her books.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
The author cast herself / Mrs Oliver again in the final two Poirot novels that she wrote, Halloween Party and Elephants Can Remember.
Although the Poirot stories were published between 1920 and 1972, there was an understandable desire by the producers of the ITV Poirot series (which covered almost all of them) to set most of them in 1936. It doesn’t always work, and this one is a case in point. They might have got away with taking the Swinging out of London and providing a swing jazz accompaniment, but re-writing the story such that the identity of the first victim is changed, and the second is allowed to survive, are unnecessary and silly.
1 Thanks to Scott Wallace Baker for the correction!
2 A character very reminiscent of Dr Lord in Sad Cypress, another ugly young medic who comes to the aid of a damsel in distress:
Dr Lord was a young man of thirty-two. He had red hair and a pleasantly ugly freckled face.
On the other hand, if you get a handsome doctor in an Agatha Christie story, be very suspicious …
3 A compilation by Dr John Curran of the notebooks that Agatha Christie filled when planning her stories.