In which Hercule Poirot is challenged by a serial murderer to solve apparently random killings in an alphabetical sequence, the only clue being that an ABC railway guide is always found near the body. And, like before, don’t worry, you can read this without finding out whodunit!
If you’ve read my earlier Agatha Christie blogs, gentle reader, you will be aware that this was the third Christie I read as a kid and the first of those to feature Hercule Poirot. I don’t think at that time I’d seen any film or TV adaptation of a Poirot book so had absolutely no preconceptions as to how he’d look or behave. What you quickly pick up reading the book is his vanity regarding his hair colour and his moustaches (always moustaches with Poirot, never just one moustache) – his love of symmetry, symptomatic of clarity of thought I suspect, and the fact that he is fully aware of all his idiosyncrasies: “I am like the prima donna!” he says in Chapter One. Re-reading The ABC Murders I was struck by the difference of approach of Christie’s two major sleuths. Miss Marple (as seen in A Pocket Full of Rye and At Bertram’s Hotel) is very quiet. She listens, she considers, she assembles thoughts in her mind but rarely thinks out loud. By the time she comes out with some devastatingly accurate dissection of a crime, it’s already fully formed and reasoned in her brain.
Poirot, on the other hand, thinks out loud all the time. He hardly does anything silently. He experiments with his suspects by splashing out wayward accusations to see how they react. He exercises his famous little grey cells in open banter with his friend and narrator, Captain Hastings, whom he teases for the latter’s partiality to a pretty girl with auburn hair. Poirot can’t resist the occasional portentous pronouncement. Chapter One ends: “You are in error, my friend. You do not understand my meaning. A robbery would be a relief since it would dispossess my mind of the fear of something else.” “Of what?” “Murder”, said Hercule Poirot.” And whereas you feel Miss Marple offers her sleuthing advice out of an altruistic sense of justice, Poirot and Hastings are in it for the challenge, almost for the craic. “If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner” asks Poirot, “what would you choose?” “Let’s review the menu” replies Hastings. “Robbery? Forgery? No, I think not. Rather too vegetarian. It must be murder, red-blooded murder, with trimmings, of course.” The last line of the book reads: “So, Hastings – we went hunting once more, did we not? Vive le sport”. It’s no coincidence that Poirot’s main gripe with the murderer appears to be that the crimes committed were “not sporting”.
In 1936 Christie was absolutely at the top of her game. She was 46 years old, this was her 18th full length novel and the 11th to feature Poirot. This is a highly inventive story, with the apparent identity of its murderer seemingly obvious right from the start (you suspect that this could be like Christie’s version of a Columbo TV film, knowing the identity of the murderer and then working back to see how Columbo solved the crime) but it’s only at the end that you realise that both the apparent murderer and the reader have both been led up the garden path. Structurally too, it’s inventive, with its two different narrators – not just Hastings, but also several chapters entitled “(Not from Capt Hastings’ personal narrative)”. There’s a vast amount of smoke and mirrors, much obfuscation from the criminal mind, committing murders for no reason than to obscure the truth, and it’s written with a great sense of pace and excitement, as you wonder just how far down the alphabet you’re going to get before Poirot works it all out.
Class issues play a major part in this book, with Hastings proving himself to be a complete snob – I’m not sure Hastings comes out of this book as all that decent a chap, actually. There’s much condescension about cheapness and commonness (of things and people) and a huge amount of xenophobia too. There are also many references to Christie’s favourite blanket theme that murderers are mad, with one of the suspects confessing that they had dreamed that they had committed the crimes. The Assistant Commissioner has no qualms about confronting the issue of mental incapacity: “In my day if a man was mad he was mad and we didn’t look about for scientific terms to soften it down”.
It’s definitely a book of its time in other ways – in that there are a number of words and phrases that are frankly meaningless today. One of the witnesses at the murder in Andover is a platelayer – a term that I have managed to go my entire life without having come across – that is, a person employed in laying, repairing and renewing plates on a tramway or railway (according to my OED). Dr. Thompson, who provides psychological insight into the criminal mind, is described as an alienist, a term that I am sure was already on its way out by the time this book was published (my OED suggests mid-19th century for that one). Miss Merrion of the Ginger Cat café is described as wearing “various fichus”, of which the OED says “a triangular piece of muslin, lace or the like, worn by women around the neck and shoulders, and formerly also over the head (mid-18th century). I guess she is an old-fashioned sort of character. Betty Barnard’s parents are proud of their snuggery – I’d heard of a snug but never a snuggery – it’s largely the same thing. Paranoia was referred to as paranoea – an early 18th century spelling; and who on earth today uses the word dugout to describe (OED again) “a person of outdated appearance or ideas, specifically a retired officer recalled to service” (19th century slang). I can’t believe that the young me sat reading this around 1970 with my dictionary by my side. I must have been thoroughly confused.
As far as matching the murderer’s personality with the murders is concerned, Mrs Christie does give us some genuinely good clues along the way, almost bending over backwards to show how someone with a penchant for doing A, would be the kind of person to commit these crimes. “We are confronted here by an unknown personage” says Poirot. “He is in the dark and seeks to remain in the dark. But in the very nature of things he cannot help throwing light upon himself”. Mrs Christie hides the culprit in plain sight, yet I’m pretty sure that for the most part the identity of the murderer comes as a surprise. I can’t remember if I guessed it when I was young – I don’t think I did. This time round, I had already remembered who the murderer was before I started reading, so it’s hard for me to judge.
Just as Chief Inspector Davy in At Bertram’s Hotel was partial to an old song from the musicals, Poirot gives us another musical quotation: “some of the time I love a blonde who comes from Eden by way of Sweden”. It’s from the song “Some Sort of Somebody” from Kern and Janis’ 1915 musical Very Good Eddie, not something that most people would have at the forefront of their minds nowadays. But not only does Mrs Christie make reference to such popular songs, she even refers to her own books. When Poirot and Hastings are discussing what makes the perfect crime, Poirot outlines a case where four people sit down to play bridge, and by the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead – precisely the scenario for Cards on The Table, which would be published a few months later. Even further into the future, Japp teases Poirot that he will end up investigating his own death – have you read Curtain yet? No matter, that comes later on in the oeuvre!
So here’s my at-a-glance summary for The ABC Murders:
Publication Details: 1936. My copy is a third impression of the Fontana publication, from October 1967.
How many pages until the first death: 11. And they keep on coming at regular intervals.
Funny lines out of context:
A conversation between Poirot and Hastings where Poirot describes how choosy he is now over which crimes to investigate: “For Hercule Poirot nowadays, only the cream of crime.” “Has there been much cream about?”
“Is there anything – queer going on, sir?” “Yes my child. There is – something queer going on”.
“I hastily presented the strawberries to a small boy who seemed highly astonished and faintly suspicious. Poirot added the lettuce, thus setting the seal on the child’s bewilderment.”
“A man in drink can be like a ravening wolf.”
“In those hot dog days even his moustaches drooped”.
Hundreds of stories from imaginative people who had “seen a man looking very queer and rolling his eyes”.
Memorable characters: Well, not every book is lucky enough to have its own Alexander Bonaparte Cust. Not only is it a name to conjure with, but his odd presence cropping up throughout the book as the obvious murderer makes him stand out. It’s the juxtaposition between his grandiose name and his insignificant character that makes him interesting. Whilst Mrs Christie is happy to brandish the word “madman” around liberally throughout the book, Cust really does appear to be mad at times; although his final breakdown is said to be due to an epileptic fit.
Christie the Poison expert: No poison here. It’s all bumpings-off and knifings.
Class/social issues of the time:
Hastings thinks that everything about Mrs Ascher is beneath him. “The murder of an old woman who kept a little tobacco shop seemed, somehow, sordid and uninteresting”. He is further dismissive of the case: “This sordid murder of an old woman in a back street shop was so like the usual type of crime reported in the newspapers that it failed to strike a significant note.” When Poirot intimates that “she must have been beautiful once”, Hastings’ reaction is: “Really? I murmured incredulously”. Of her neighbours, Hastings observes: “There were a certain number of small shops interspersed between private houses of the poorer class. I judged that ordinarily there would be a fair number of people passing up and down – mostly people of the poorer classes”. He is dismissive of her possessions: “A couple of old worn blankets on the bed – a little stock of well-darned underwear in a drawer – cookery recipes in another – a paper-backed novel entitled The Green Oasis – a pair of new stockings – pathetic in their cheap shininess – a couple of china ornaments – a Dresden shepherd much broken, and a blue and yellow spotted dog – a black raincoat and a woolly jumper hanging on pegs – such were the worldly possessions of the late Alice Ascher.”
Despite Hastings’ pomposity about the Aschers, they themselves have their own class and social mores issues. Mr. Ascher was a bully and a cad in his treatment of his wife, frequently threatening violence. But could divorce have been an option? ““Your aunt never thought of freeing herself by legal means from this persecution?” “Well you see, he was her husband, sir, and you couldn’t get away from that.” The girl spoke simply but with finality.”
Christie was quick to equate cheapness with class and/or quality issues. Of the photograph of Betty: “Her hair had evidently recently been permed, it stood out from her head in a mass of rather frizzy curls. The smile was arch and artificial. It was certainly not a face that you could call beautiful, but it had an obvious and cheap prettiness”. But Betty too had issues: “Is she likely to have confided in any one? The girl at the café, for instance?” “I don’t think that’s likely. Betty couldn’t bear the Higley girl. She thought her common.”
And there’s a massive wave of distrust of foreigners. Riddell’s response to Poirot’s questioning: “Told it to the blarsted police, I ‘ave, and now I’ve got to spit it all out again to a couple of blarsted foreigners”. When Poirot asks Inspector Crome whether Betty was a pretty girl he mistakes his motivation for asking. “As to that I’ve no information,” said Inspector Crome with a hint of withdrawal. His manner said: “Really – these foreigners! All the same!” Even Poirot himself seems to understand the distrust. When thinking out loud about why ABC is committing these crimes, he wonders: “Is his motive direct personal hatred of me, of Hercule Poirot? Does he challenge me in public because I have (unknown to myself) vanquished him somewhere in the course of my career? Or is his animosity impersonal – directed against a foreigner?” When Cust is overhearing the to-ings and fro-ings of the public in Princess Gardens, Torquay, someone suggests “awful…do you think it was anything to do with the Chinese? Wasn’t the waitress in a Chinese café…” One of the traits Poirot sees in the person he accuses of being the murderer is “the partiality for England that had showed itself very faintly in the jeer at foreigners”. And indeed Poirot does get branded the rather splendid insult: “you unutterable little jackanapes of a foreigner!”
Two other observations about the class/social issues in this book; when Lily and Tom are discussing the policing of the case, he remarks that Inspector Crome is “a bit quiet and ladida – not my idea of a detective”. “That’s Lord Trenchard’s new kind” said Lily, with respect. “Some of them are ever so grand.” Trenchard had been the Metropolitan Police Commissioner from 1931 to 1935, and amongst his reforms had been greater education and training for police officers.
And we get to find out about Poirot’s opinion of foxhunting in a conversation between him and Hastings. “It is very terrible that, Hastings.” He was silent a minute. “You hunt the fox here?” “I don’t. I’ve never been able to afford to hunt. And I don’t think there’s much hunting in this part of the world.” “I meant in England generally. A strange sport. The waiting at the covert side – then they sound the tally-ho, do they not? – and the run begins – across the country – over the hedges and ditches – and the fox he runs – and sometimes he doubles back – but the dogs – “ “Hounds!” “- hounds are on his trail, and at last they catch him and he dies – quickly and horribly.” “I suppose it does sound cruel, but really – “ “The fox enjoys it? Do not say les bêtises, my friend.” Possibly Christie sets this up as a strong example of just how much a foreigner Poirot is, by not sharing in the simple harmless English pastime of foxhunting. (I’m being ironic here). Interesting Hastings only doesn’t hunt because he can’t afford it. You sense otherwise he’d throw himself into it with ruthless abandon.
Classic denouement: Absolutely! A really exciting read. All the suspects are gathered together, and Poirot makes a long and intentionally misleading speech so that we suspect a number of people of doing the deed. When the truth is revealed, the accused lashes out and attempts suicide but Poirot foils it. We even discover that Poirot tells a couple of porkies just to get the accused to confess. Great stuff.
Happy ending? Yes! The much-wronged Mr Cust has an improved social status, income and finally starts to enjoy life. And romance blossoms between two of the other suspects.
Did the story ring true? Although it’s highly far-fetched it really does ring true. You could easily imagine how someone with a lot of chutzpah and a deeply flawed personality could set up a similar crime.
Overall satisfaction rating: 10/10 – can’t see any reason to award it fewer points. A classic!
I hope you enjoyed this little rundown of The ABC Murders, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know your thoughts about it. Please just add a comment – but don’t give the whodunit game away please! From now on in the Agatha Christie Challenge, we’re going back to the books in chronological order. So the next on the list is Christie’s first Hercule Poirot book – and indeed her first book of all – The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Please feel free to catch up on that one, and I’ll be blogging my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. Thanks for reading, and happy sleuthing!