‘I should, perhaps, madame, tell you a little more about myself. I am Hercule Poirot.’
The revelation left Mrs Summerhayes unmoved.
‘What a lovely name,’ she said kindly. ‘Greek, isn’t it?’
Now this is a Poirot novel that strays from the script a bit. It’s fascinating but there seem to be three parts to this novel and the crime/mystery part is the weakest one. Yet, I really liked the book because first and foremost, Christie made me laugh out loud quite a few times.
Eh bien, let’s start with the weakest part – the crime/mystery:
So, Mrs. McGinty is found dead and her lodger has been arrested, is standing trial, and will probably be sentenced to hang, but … Superintendent Spence is having doubts and is consulting an old acquaintance to have a look at the case.
‘I don’t know what you’ll go there as,’ continued Spence doubtfully as he eyed Poirot. ‘You might be some kind of an opera singer. Voice broken down. Got to rest. That might do.’
‘I shall go,’ said Hercule Poirot, speaking with accents of royal blood, ‘as myself.’
Spence received this pronouncement with pursed lips. ‘D’you think that’s advisable?’
From there on, the typical sleuthing adventure ensues, except that there are a lot – and I do mean way too many – characters that are part of the investigation, a few red herrings, Ariadne Oliver – whose involvement in the book has less to do with the plot (I’ll get to that later) -, and an ending that seems to have been rather far-fetched.
In fact, by the time the mystery was resolved, I had kinda lost interest in the whodunit part and really enjoyed the characters interacting with each other.
This book is really not about the mystery, which, in my opinion, was rather sub-par. No rather, the book seems to have been a self-reverential celebration of all things Poirot. And this may or may not be to readers tastes. I quite liked it in this case.
We have a lot of details about Poirot himself:
In his early days, he had seen plenty of crude brutality. It had been more the rule than the exception. He found it fatiguing, and unintelligent.
My work has enslaved me just as their work enslaves them. When the hour of leisure arrives, they have nothing with which to fill their leisure.
We have a couple of tips of the hat to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was published 25(!) years before Mrs. McGintys Dead, when Poirot discussed gardening with Spence:
Me, once I decided to live in the country and grow vegetable marrows. It did not succeed. I have not the temperament.’
In many of the details that describe Poirot in this book, Christie seems to take a retrospective stance, It serves as a celebration of his previous adventures, but I also could not help feeling that Christie took the opportunity to have some fun herself and poke her famous character at every opportunity. Not only, does she send Poirot to the country – and we all know how much Poirot hates the country –
It’s not really a Guest House, just a rather decrepit country house where the young couple who own it take in paying guests. I don’t think,’ said Spence dubiously, ‘that it’s very comfortable.’
Hercule Poirot closed his eyes in agony. ‘If I suffer, I suffer,’ he said. ‘It has to be.’
And Christie makes sure of it his suffering. This was one of my favourite parts and I am sure anyone who has ever been exasperated by Poirot’s eccentricities would chuckle about the following scene of Poirot taking up lodgings at a country inn:
The room was large, and had a faded Morris wall-paper. Steel engravings of unpleasant subjects hung crookedly on the walls with one or two good oil paintings. The chair-covers were both faded and dirty, the carpet had holes in it and had never been of a pleasant design. A good deal of miscellaneous bric-à-brac was scattered haphazard here and there. Tables rocked dangerously owing to absence of castors. One window was open, and no power on earth could, apparently, shut it again. The door, temporarily shut, was not likely to remain so. The latch did not hold, and with every gust of wind it burst open and whirling gusts of cold wind eddied round the room.
‘I suffer,’ said Hercule Poirot to himself in acute self-pity. ‘Yes, I suffer.’
The door burst open and the wind and Mrs Summerhayes came in together. She looked round the room, shouted ‘What?’ to someone in the distance and went out again.
Mrs Summerhayes had red hair and an attractively freckled face and was usually in a distracted state of putting things down, or else looking for them.
Hercule Poirot sprang to his feet and shut the door.
A moment or two later it opened again and Mrs Summerhayes reappeared. This time she was carrying a large enamel basin and a knife.
A man’s voice from some way away called out: ‘Maureen, that cat’s been sick again. What shall I do?’
Mrs Summerhayes called: ‘I’m coming, darling. Hold everything.’ She dropped the basin and the knife and went out again.
Poirot got up again and shut the door. He said: ‘Decidedly, I suffer.’
As I said I really enjoyed this part of the story but I did keep wondering why Christie took to treating Poirot in such a way. Was it to celebrate him or was she falling out with him as a character that had become so famous that he had a life of his own – just as Arthur Conan Doyle fell out with Holmes?
Which brings me to the third part – Ariadne Oliver. Ariadne is basically Christie’s way of injecting a fictionalised version of herself into the Poirot stories, and in this one Ariadne enters the scene – nearly knocking Poirot over with her car – and spends a lot of time agonising over how her own fictional creation – Sven Hjerson – is being changed inappropriately by theatre and film producers.
Robin continued blithely: ‘What I feel is, here’s that wonderful young man, parachuted down—’
Mrs Oliver interrupted: ‘He’s sixty.’
‘I don’t see him like that. Thirty-five— not a day older.’
‘But I’ve been writing books about him for thirty years, and he was at least thirty-five in the first one.’
‘But, darling, if he’s sixty, you can’t have the tension between him and the girl— what’s her name? Ingrid. I mean, it would make him just a nasty old man!’
‘It certainly would.’
‘So you see, he must be thirty-five,’ said Robin triumphantly.
‘Then he can’t be Sven Hjerson. Just make him a Norwegian young man who’s in the Resistance Movement.’
‘But darling Ariadne, the whole point of the play is Sven Hjerson. You’ve got an enormous public who simply adore Sven Hjerson, and who’ll flock to see Sven Hjerson. He’s box office, darling!’
Yeah, I can see Christie having exactly this sort of conversation with agents and producers about Poirot and Marple, and I can see Christie using this particular book as a dig at people trying to exploit her characters. And given the resolution of the plot, what a dig this is!!! If only it had deterred her estate to employ Charles Osborne to adapt her plays as novels!
So, while the mystery plot is rather mediocre, the context this novel provides for Poirot as a character that has developed a public persona outside of the books is just marvelous.