In which Poirot and Hastings set about solving eleven cases, from Egypt to Brighton, through the medium of the short story. As the first of her books not to be in full novel format, it has a very different feel from those previously published. In one respect, it’s punchier, as Poirot has to waste no time getting to the crux of the matter; in another respect it’s also less rewarding as there is no time for character or plot development. The stories had all been originally published between March and October 1923 in The Sketch magazine, at the invitation of the editor, Bruce Ingram, who had become a Poirot fan with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. So when Poirot Investigates hit the bookshops in March 1924, it brought these stories to a wider audience, although I expect some of her readers might have been disappointed not to be getting a brand new novel. Even though they’re just bite-sized stories, they still contain many of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies. I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately – and don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!
The Adventure of “The Western Star”
The first story in the book, although the third to be published in The Sketch; a tale of apparent jewellery theft that, of course, isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. The “Western Star” – the jewel in question – is insured for a sum of £50,000. That’s a helluva lot of jewel – at today’s prices, over £2million. We get to see Poirot and Hastings in their domestic bliss, and confirming their roles within their professional relationship. Hastings is definitely the Watson character, although he aspires to be the Holmes, as can be seen with his opening challenge to Poirot to explain the mystery of why a fashionable young lady is being stalked and pointed at by all and sundry. Poirot knows the reason immediately, and then has to explain it to Hastings, who confesses that his lack of perception is feeble. Another little insight into their relationship comes with the discovery of their guilty secret – that they buy and read Society Gossip magazine. It makes sense – Poirot was becoming quite a celebrity, and he would definitely want to know who’s dating who and who’s cheating who. Poirot gets irked when Hastings replaces a book from the great man’s bookcase in the wrong place – definitely showing signs of OCD. And of course, when Poirot finally solves the case of the Western Star, and Hastings is up a gum tree without a paddle, Poirot cannot help but tease Hastings for his detective uselessness; at which Hastings goes off in a sulky huff, having been made a laughing stock. As I said, domestic bliss.
The story does reveal some psychological insights about how women tick; even though there is some suspicion that her valuable jewel will be stolen, Miss Marvell is still determined to wear it when she visits Yardly Chase – because her husband used to have a dalliance with Lady Yardly, (a friend of Mary Cavendish at Styles – some nice inter-connection there between Christie’s books) and there’s no way the actress is going there without showing off her prize possession. And Poirot solves the case by observing that “never does a woman destroy a letter” – and I reckon that’s pretty damn true.
I always enjoy considering Christie’s use of language. Semantic change is a fascinating thing – and Hastings’ first words in the book are a perfect example: ““That’s queer”, I ejaculated suddenly”. Christie was always enormously fond of the “e” word, and it can give rise to innocent humour today. Elsewhere in this story you can find: “…he stiffened visibly. With an ejaculation, he handed it to his wife”.
The other common Christie theme that’s very much in force in this story is mistrust of foreigners, combined with what might be considered today some racist language. It’s hard to discuss this without at least quoting the words that Christie uses, so I hope you’ll forgive me for some of the language in the rest of this paragraph. All the way through the story there is a mysterious presence of a Chinese man; referred to as a Chinaman, and even, at times, as a Chink. It is this man who appears to be the thief, thus equating antisocial behaviour with the racial slur. To enforce the stereotype, he wears a traditional Chinese robe; Lady Yardly describes him thus: “I realised by the pig-tail and the embroidered robe that he was a Chinaman”. Possibly most offensive of all is this quote by Rolf: “I’ve been getting threatening letters from a Chinaman, and the worst of it is I look rather like a Chink myself – it’s something about the eyes”.
And what of the story itself? It’s quite ingenious, and entertainingly written, and I certainly didn’t guess the whodunit element. But overall, not particularly memorable.
The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor
Once again we have a crime that features an insurance figure of £50,000 – this time life insurance on one Mr Maltravers, who, a few weeks after insuring himself for that sum, was found shot by a rook rifle – a single-shot rifle that went out of favour after World War II. Obviously in the 1920s, shooting rooks was a decent hobby for a decent guy. The insurance company calls on Poirot to investigate and determine whether it could be suicide – because that would invalidate the claim.
Once again Poirot has the opportunity to tease Hastings about his predilection for the ladies. “”Your judgments of character are always profound, my friend…that is to say, when there is no question of a beautiful woman!” I looked at him coldly.” And there’s a typical Poirot tantaliser when he reflects on a witness’s statement and observes “a slight discrepancy… You noticed it? You did not?” and then he refuses to tell us what the discrepancy is.
There’s a little observation that gives us an idea of how to judge wealth back in those days. Poirot asks Dr Bernard if he considered the deceased to be a rich man; his response: “Was he not? He kept two cars you know”. I’m not sure owning a couple of Clios would categorise you as rich today.
It’s quite a strange tale in many respects, going off on a couple of slightly weird tangents. There’s a scene where Poirot interrogates Captain Black (watch out Captain Scarlet) that takes the form of a word association game. Now I don’t know a lot about psychoanalysis, but it seems to me that from this he makes some pretty conclusive deductions out of relative thin air. Naturally, being Poirot, he’s right. Later on, the story turns all ghostly and demonic, with eerie taps at the window and the bloody vision of the late Mr Maltravers dripping all over the place. Still, it prompts a successful confession, and of course, as always, nothing is quite as it seems. More Grand Guignol than little grey cells. Decidedly far-fetched.
The Adventure of the Cheap Flat
Human nature doesn’t change, and it’s interesting to see that the hot topic of conversation at a swanky dinner party in 1923 is the same as it is today – house prices. Hastings’ friend Parker has made a nice little business out of buying property and then selling it for a profit a short while later. So everyone is astonished to hear of the Robinsons’ find – a drop-dead gorgeous flat at Montagu Mansions, just off Knightsbridge, for just £80 a year – that’s under £3400 at today’s value, which probably wouldn’t be enough for a week’s rent nowadays. There’s got to be a reason why it’s so cheap and that no one else has offered on it – but what? That’s the problem Poirot challenges himself to solve.
There really is a Montagu Mansions in London – but it’s in Marylebone, not Knightsbridge, Christie rarely happy to pin down a real location so precisely in her fiction. She’s much happier to target Hastings for his fancyings for beautiful women – incidentally, Cinderella from The Murder on the Links doesn’t seem to feature in Hastings’ life at the moment so he’s either gone off her, Christie’s forgotten about her, or these stories were published out of synch. When describing Mrs Robinson to Poirot: ”well, she’s tall and fair; her hair’s really a beautiful shade of auburn – “ “Always you have had a penchant for auburn hair!”
We’ve seen before how Hastings gets narked when anyone criticises British traditions and influences, but he lets Poirot get away with this particular observation of a British Sunday afternoon: “No one will observe us. The Sunday concert, the Sunday “afternoon out”, and finally the Sunday nap after the Sunday dinner of England – le rosbif – all these will distract attention from the doings of Hercule Poirot.”
For someone as personally finickity as Poirot, I thought it was a little unlikely that he could turn his hand so readily to a spot of DIY carpentry on the door and locks to the coal-lift without as much as a brushing down of his jacket or a manicure – but I guess that’s the difference between fiction and a documentary.
“By the way, Hastings, have you a revolver?” “Yes – somewhere, “ I answered, slightly thrilled. “Do you think – “ “That you will need it? It is quite possible. The idea pleases you, I see. Always the spectacular and romantic appeals to you”. I’m not sure about “spectacular and romantic”, but this lackadaisical approach to gun regulation sounds scary. But back in 1923, the fact that Hastings would have had a gun – particularly as he had been active in the First World War – would not have been unusual. The most recent legislation at the time, the 1920 Firearms Act, would not have affected Hastings’ gun ownership in any way. He probably would have been perfectly legal until the post-Dunblane massacre legislation.
We’ve already seen Christie’s capacity to indulge in a little latent racism in The Adventure of the Western Star. Now she turns her attention to talk of “Japs”, which, to be fair, didn’t really become offensive until after the Second World War, but it still stands out when you read it today. The story includes the theft of naval plans from the American government, that showed the position of important Harbour defences – and interestingly, Hastings/Christie assumes that the Japanese might be involved in the crime. And I couldn’t decide whether it was hilarious, or racist, or both, when our brave detectives encounter an Italian, to whom the writer gives these cod-spaghetti lines: “Who was it dat croaked Luigi Valdarno?…. Youse sure o’ dat, eh?” I think she’s playing at gangsters here.
The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge
Poirot is struck down by the flu – which, as it’s very easy to forget, was quite a killer in those days – and so it is left to Hastings to travel up to Derbyshire to attempt to solve the murder of one Mr Harrington Pace, accompanied by Mr Pace’s nephew. Poirot requires Hastings to report back by telegram what he has discovered so that the great detective’s little grey cells can go to work in absentia and tell Hastings what he should do next. Today they would have Facetimed. Inspector Japp is also up in Derbyshire, and isn’t entirely complimentary about Hastings’ attempt to go it alone: “What have you done with the little man, by the way, Captain Hastings?” “He’s ill in bed with influenza.” “Is he now? I’m sorry to hear that. Rather the case of the cart without the horse, your being here without him, isn’t it?”
Not only is Poirot now recognised as a fiendishly brilliant detective, he is also a celebrity, with a paragraph about his sniffles in Society Gossip magazine, which already played a part in the first of these short stories. Hastings appears supportive of his friend’s success but his nose is quite easily put out of joint. After a hard day’s interrogating and sleuthing, he wires back his discoveries, only to be ridiculed for his deductions and photographic endeavours. “His request for a description of the clothes worn by the two women appeared to me to be simply ridiculous, but I complied as well as I, a mere man, was able to.” He’s definitely comparing himself unfavourably with the boss.
A couple of interesting references that need to be checked out:
Of Lady Havering, Hastings observes: “I rather fancy that’s the girl who used to act at the Frivolity”. The Frivolity Theatre – did it exist? I can find references to Frivolity theatres in Berlin and Boston but not in London. I don’t think it was an actual theatre – but it may have been a turn of the century burlesque-style company, a way of legitimising some Edwardian semi-nudity. Naughty Hastings.
“The wicked flourish like a green bay tree”, Hastings tells Poirot, when it appears the guilty party in this crime will not be brought to book. Hastings here is mixing his Psalms. Psalm 92 says: “the righteous shall flourish like the palm tree”; and the opposite is found in Psalm 37: “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree”.
I like Christie’s slight irony in Hastings’ account of his go-it-alone investigations: “I may as well confess at once that they were rather disappointing. In detective novels clues abound, but here I could find nothing that struck me as out of the ordinary…..”
And what is this meant to mean: “Harrington Pace was a small, spare, clean-shaven man, typically American in appearance”. If I think of “typically American” in appearance, I think of Yosemite Sam.
An enjoyable little story, with a rather ghoulish moral conclusion – and it’s fun to watch Poirot playing puppet-master whilst his minion goes off and does his work for him.
The Million Dollar Bond Robbery
A million dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds goes missing on board the Olympia from London to New York, while under the hapless observation of young Philip Ridgeway, whose fiancée seeks help from old Papa Poirot to prove his innocence. Of course all is not quite as it seems and Poirot is easily able to solve the mystery of how the bonds were traded a mere half hour after the Olympia docked. If you’re interested, a million American dollars in 1923 is worth over £9m today, so that’s quite a haul.
So what were Liberty Bonds? According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, “a Liberty Bond was a war bond that was sold in the United States to support the allied cause in World War I. Subscribing to the bonds became a symbol of patriotic duty in the United States and introduced the idea of financial securities to many citizens for the first time. The Act of Congress which authorized the Liberty Bonds is still used today as the authority under which all U.S. Treasury bonds are issued”. So now you know. What does seem today delightfully antiquated is the way you physically had to pick them up and carry them – it does seem an amazingly old fashioned way of moving money around. But there was no electronic banking in 1923, so I guess they had no choice. Christie goes into lots of detail about the special lock on the portmanteau that was made by Hubbs – I’ve not been able to find out much about the company, or indeed if it was real or a Christie invention.
The London and Scottish Bank certainly existed – right up to 2008 when it went into administration as a result of all that subprime lending. And the Cheshire Cheese, where Poirot and Hastings have lunch with Ridgeway and the fiancée, still exists too, on Fleet Street, almost five hundred years after it was built. But the Laverguier method of combatting seasickness? A reference to which is also found in The Kidnapped Prime Minister? Pure fiction, I think.
Once again we get a nice little exchange between the detectives, showing the nature of their friendship: ““Good Lord, Poirot! Do you know, I’d give a considerable sum of money to see you make a thorough ass of yourself – just for once. You’re so confoundedly conceited!” “Do not enrage yourself, Hastings. In verity, I observe that there are times when you almost detest me! Alas, I suffer the penalties of greatness!” The little man puffed out his chest, and sighed so comically that I was forced to laugh.”
As for the story itself, it’s rather fun, with an exciting and ingenious denouement considering it’s just a short story, and I appreciated its sudden and jokey ending.
The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb
This was Christie’s first foray into writing about Egypt, ancient or modern; a country that would play a significant part in both her fiction and her home life. Her first visit to Egypt was when she was in her early 20s, with her mother, staying at the Gezirah Palace (now, apparently, part of the Marriott) in Cairo. Do we believe those old stories which suggested that there was a curse put on all those explorers who opened up the tombs of the Egyptian kings? This story has no fewer than four deaths before Poirot works out what’s going on. That’s one helluva curse for a short story.
I had presumed that King Men-her-Ra was a fictitious invention of Christie’s, describing him as she does: “one of those shadowy kinds of the Eighth Dynasty”. But he is in fact mentioned in W M Flinders Petrie’s book Scarabs and Cylinders with Names, published in 1917, described as a vassal chief under the overlordship of the Ethiopians. I rather hope she got the name from there.
Visiting Egypt is pure hell for Poirot. ““My boots”, he wailed. “Regard them, Hastings. My boots, of the neat patent leather, usually so smart and shining. See, the sand is inside them, which is painful, and outside them, which outrages the eyesight. Also the heat, it causes my moustaches to become limp – but limp!” “Look at the Sphinx,” I urged. “Even I can feel the mystery and the charm it exhales.” Poirot looked at it discontentedly. “It has not the air happy,” he declared.” Poirot and Hastings check in to the Mena House Hotel, “right in the shadow of the Pyramids”. Having stayed in the very same hotel myself in 2010, I can confirm the view of the Pyramids from one’s balcony is stunning.
Lady Willard refers to Hassan as “my husband’s devoted native servant”. The sentence looks a little outdated today, and has an element of being patronising, but I don’t think there’s anything more than that. Later, we are treated to a little Christie homespun nugget of how the Brits and the Egyptians rub along together: ““I guess,” said Dr Ames, “that where white folk lose their heads, natives aren’t going to be far behind.”” That’s what my Australian brother in law would call colonial imperialism. Christie’s better when she’s expressing Poirot’s philosophy of crime. In this story he proclaims: “I will tell you an interesting psychological fact, Hastings. A murderer has always a strong desire to repeat his successful crime, the performance of it grows upon him.” That’s certainly a philosophy that Christie took to her heart as she developed as a crime novelist.
There’s a nice little hint of poison in this story – when questioning the doctor about what caused the deaths of the deceased, Poirot asks if strychnine could have been involved. The early Christie seems quite obsessed with strychnine. Later, a smell of bitter almonds pervades the air, which can only mean one thing in Christieland – cyanide.
Lastly I was a little surprised by some of Captain Hastings’ observations in this story. I was wondering if he was on the turn, as Julian Clary would put it. “We were to ride there on camels, and the beasts were patiently kneeling, waiting for us to mount, in charge of several picturesque boys…” Then Hastings meets Dr Toswill: “there was something at once grave and steadfast about him that took my fancy.” I expect it was just a passing phase.
Another enjoyable story, packed with deaths, which is always an advantage in a detective yarn, and I certainly didn’t guess whodunit.
The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan
When the Poirot Investigates stories were originally published in The Sketch, sequentially this was the first one to hit the press, on 14th March 1923; however, it was published under the title The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls. A jewellery theft from a posh hotel room safe is no problem for Poirot, who solves the case with consummate ease and not a little entrapment.
There’s an enjoyable sense of “smoke and mirrors” surrounding the crime, and as you read it you realise that Christie is pulling the wool over your eyes and there’s nothing you can do to stop her.
As in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Hastings draws us a useful sketch of the crime scene. It adds to Hastings’ air of forensic derring-do, but is only minimally helpful in assisting the reader’s sleuthing.
I rather liked Christie’s description of Hastings’ average day. He has a pretty wonderful life. “I went out for a stroll, met some old friends, and lunched with them at their hotel. In the afternoon we went out for a spin.” That work he was doing for the MP in The Murder on the Links certainly seems to have taken a back seat. There’s also a nice description of Hastings’ being rather awkwardly British when confronted with Poirot’s continental shows of emotion. “”Embrace me, my friend; all has marched to a marvel!” Luckily, the embrace was merely figurative – not a thing one is always sure of with Poirot.” I’m guessing the “gay throng” he found himself in down in Brighton (where the Grand Metropolitan had its home) was not quite the same as that which he might find today. Currently (and indeed in 1923) there is no Grand Metropolitan Hotel in Brighton – but there is a Grand Metropole. I daresay it was the inspiration.
The Kidnapped Prime Minister
The early Christie was never one to shy away from scandal in the Affairs of State, with espionage and high ranking civil servants and politicians frequently taking an important role. Perhaps none more obviously so than in this short story, where the PM is kidnapped on his way to a wartime peace conference in Versailles. The investigations take place on both sides of the Channel, but when Poirot gets to Boulogne he merely sits in his hotel room and exercises the little grey cells. He could have done that in England and saved a packet.
This story takes us back to the last few weeks of the First World War, and Hastings relates the events as a kind of retrospective. The PM is one David McAdam – in real life it was David Lloyd George, Christie keeping the same first name but changing him from Welsh to (presumably) Scottish. Hastings describes himself as having a recruiting job when he was invalided out of the army, but there’s no mention of that in The Mysterious Affair at Styles – which, admittedly, would have taken place earlier than the kidnapping of the Prime Minister. But I do sense a little inconsistency with Christie’s attempts to fill in the back-stories of her protagonists.
There is something a little odd about the style of writing in this story; it is as though it was written much earlier. Japp is introduced like it was the first time that Christie had involved him in a story. Descriptions of Poirot as a dandy again suggest that we had no prior knowledge of his appearance or traits. There’s also something simplistic about the plot, which relies on the fact that no one would recognise the Prime Minister if he were in hospital, which is pretty unlikely. Christie also refers to the Laverguier method of controlling sea sickness again (see The Million Dollar Bond Robbery), which is a repetition that stands out as being accidental rather than deliberate. There’s even use of that very old fashioned device of giving a proper noun by reference only to its capital letter: “The have found the second car, also the secretary, Daniels, chloroformed, gagged and bound in an abandoned farm near C____.” These all add to a sense of detachment and distancing. There’s no denying Christie’s innate snobbery though, amusingly encapsulated in a conversation between Poirot and Hastings about his current, rather drab, case: “I assist a – how do you call it? – ‘charlady’ to find her husband. A difficult affair, needing the tact. For I have a little idea that when he is found he will not be pleased. What would you? For my part, I sympathise with him. He was a man of discrimination to lose himself.”
As this story is set in wartime, which was only a few years prior to publication, there are a few hints of Christie’s long memory of recrimination against the country’s erstwhile foe. There’s talk of “German agents in England” and mention of “Les Boches”, and Poirot uncovers a German spy as a by-product of solving the case, which is doubly satisfying.
And there’s a nice little out-of-place line to snigger about: “”A near escape,” I ejaculated, with a shiver.” Is this the source of T S Eliot’s “a cold coming we had of it”? No I don’t think so either.
The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim
A neat, intriguing and clever little case which Poirot solves as a £5 bet with Japp – that’s the equivalent of some two hundred quid today, so no laughing matter. A banker – the eponymous Mr Davenheim – goes missing at the same time that he is expecting a visit from a Mr Lowen, only for the police to discover that Davenheim’s safe has been emptied of all its wealthy contents whilst Lowen was in the room. An open and shut case? Of course not.
Like The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, the challenge for Poirot is to solve this case sight unseen. Japp allows himself to be lulled into a false sense of security by Poirot’s apparently flawed reasoning: “The detective shook his head sadly at me, and murmuring, “Poor old fellow! War’s been too much for him!” gently withdrew from the room.” Poirot of course is razor sharp, belittling Hastings’ ability properly to pick apart a case, and cashing in on Japp’s misfortune with faux regret as he looks forward to a grand dinner paid for by the fiver to celebrate.
There were elements of this story that brought to mind that old TV favourite, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – a man goes missing, they find his clothes, and so on. With the benefit of hindsight, the story has probably gained significance in regard to society’s view of bankers – plus ça change… It’s very tightly written and with a lot of humour as well as intricate plotting. A petty criminal is referred to as a “human derelict”, a description that pulls no punches when it comes to assessing moral turpitude. Japp also describes Mrs Davenheim as “a pleasant, rather unintelligent woman. Quite a nonentity, I think.” Pity, she spoke so highly of him.
The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman
Poirot and Hastings are entertaining their neighbour, Dr Hawker (who, like Parker in The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, never reappears in any other stories), when the doctor’s housekeeper arrives with the news that one of his patients, Count Foscatini, has been on the phone, crying out for help. When the three of them arrive at Foscatini’s flat, the Italian Nobleman is dead, with his skull smashed in by a marble ornament, and all around are the remnants of a dinner party for three. A classic whodunit set up, instantly intriguing, a most enjoyable read; and of course, Poirot sees through the artifice to uncover the truth.
There’s a nice brief conversation between Poirot, Hastings and the lift attendant at Regent’s Court, where Foscatini lived: “”Is the count alone in the flat?” “No sir, he’s got two gentlemen dining with him.” “What are they like?” I asked eagerly [….] “I didn’t see them myself, sir, but I understand that they were foreign gentlemen.”” Foreign gentlemen, in Christie-speak, is laden with overtones of suspicion and mistrust.
Parts of this story reminded me of the episode of The Vicar of Dibley when Geraldine overcommits and ends up eating several Christmas lunches. Read it, and you’ll get my meaning. This is another cracking little nugget of a tale, with huge power in its brevity; thirteen pages in all, and halfway down the twelfth page I still hadn’t worked out whodunit or how.
The Case of the Missing Will
And we finally come to the last of these short stories; not a crime as such but a puzzle. Sadly, for me this is the least interesting of the whole collection as far as the little grey cells are concerned. Uncle Andrew had fixed views about how women should behave – and reading improving books and making their way in the world were not among them. So he basically disinherited his niece Violet unless she could find his missing will within one month of his death. She calls in Poirot to do the thinking for her, which Poirot sees as showing enormous wisdom; and of course, he does find another will that reverts Uncle’s possessions back to her.
It is interesting in other ways though. Christie takes the whole “women are for breeding and cooking” thing and criticises it implicitly and explicitly throughout the story, by making the heroine, Violet, a rather attractive and spirited girl, and having her disconcert Hastings because of his natural disaffection for “modern women”. It also shows a very different light towards charity from that which we see today. Mrs Baker, Uncle Andrew’s housekeeper, opines: “Us don’t want to see Miss Violet done out of what’s hers,” declared the woman. “Cruel hard ‘twould be for hospitals to get it all”. But then today I guess the hospitals need it more than they did in those days. That Devonian drawl of the Bakers is a bit over the top though. Made me think of Edgar in King Lear: “Chill pick your teeth, zir.”
Hastings thinks Mr Baker is lying when Poirot asks him to confirm it was Uncle Andrew’s writing on the envelope attached to the desk key. This isn’t properly resolved in the denouement, and I feel the plotting on this story is not as perfect as it should be.
So there we are at the end of this rather exhaustive look back at what originally looked like an easy book to write about! Thanks for sticking with me, if you did. Fortunately the next book in the Agatha Christie challenge goes back to the novel format, The Man in the Brown Suit. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!