The Agatha Christie Challenge – Peril at End House (1932)

Peril at End HouseIn which Poirot and Hastings are reunited on holiday at the Cornish coast and meet Miss Nick Buckley, who has survived several accidents, any or all of which could have been fatal. Whilst Poirot is in conversation with her a bullet whizzes past and makes a hole in her hat! The great detective needs no further invitation to investigate who has got it in for Nick and vows to discover the identity of the would-be murderer before they are successful! Eventually he discovers the truth, but not before there is a fatality… And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

garden-of-edenThe book is dedicated to Eden Philpotts, “to whom I shall always be grateful for his friendship and the encouragement he gave me many years ago.” A successful writer in his own right and a family friend, he took an interest in young Agatha’s work and gave her contacts and encouragement. There’s no indication (that I could find) that he continued to play a great part in her life, although this dedication came more than twenty years since he first helped her.

excited-about-readingLet me start by saying what a terrific read this is. I think if I had been around in 1932, and had read all Christie’s books year by year as they had appeared in print, I would have said this was my favourite so far. The characterisation is excellent; the plot is as twisty-turny as you can get; the writing is fluid and un-put-downable; the denouement is genuinely exciting and offers up much more than you were ever expecting; and the final revelations are a huge surprise and very rewarding to the reader. I couldn’t remember who had “dunnit” whilst I was re-reading it, and spent the last forty or so pages holding my breath and trying hard not to race ahead to the conclusion, just so that I could savour the developing story and investigation.

centre-partingPoirot is as self-obsessed as ever. His overweeningly high opinion of himself is already well known: “They say of me: “That is Hercule Poirot! – The great – the unique! – There was never any one like him, there never will be!” Eh bien – I am satisfied. I ask no more. I am modest.” He also has plenty of opportunities to direct vitriolic fury at himself when he perceives he has made a mistake. Poirot wouldn’t be the same without his Hastings, but remains begrudging about his friend’s abilities: “you are that wholly admirable type of man, honest, credulous, honourable, who is invariably taken in by any scoundrel. You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread.” On another occasion, Poirot refers to Hastings’ “romantic but slightly mediocre mind”. At times Poirot comes across as a nagging wife: “If only, Hastings, you would part your hair in the middle instead of at the side! What a difference it would make to the symmetry of your appearance. And your moustache. If you must have a moustache, let it be a real moustache – a thing of beauty such as mine.”

argentine-ranchAs usual, Hastings is quick to note, in his role as narrator, the relative attractiveness of the young women he encounters, even though his beloved Bella is still waiting for him patiently in The Argentine (as it was called then.) At least, that’s what I presume. Christie never actually tells us why Hastings is back in England – maybe they’re both back, having sold the ranch. Perhaps it will become clear in later books. None of the young ladies has auburn hair – if they had it would have triggered Hastings’ libido into making a fool of himself.

alphabetPoirot and Hastings work together extremely well in this case. They hold several deep conversations where they explore the possibilities and consider the suspects, motives and alibis. They make for genuinely entertaining reading and your own understanding of the case grows stronger as you read their own reflections. Poirot sets out a table of suspects from A to J which helps him analyse the characters, and to which he returns late in the case to ensure he solves the crime correctly. Yet despite all this analysis and the workings of the little grey cells, it is, as often is the case, just a chance remark from Hastings that sets Poirot off on the final trek towards the correct answer.

philosophyThis book also allows Poirot the space to consider the whole subject of murder in a slightly more philosophical way. He spends virtually all the book trying to make sure that no one has the opportunity to murder Nick, but this is an unusual challenge for him. “Consider for one little moment, Hastings. How we are handicapped! How are our hands tied! To hunt down a murderer after a crime has been committed – c’est tout simple! Or at least it is simple to one of my ability. The murderer has, so to speak, signed his name by committing the crime. But here there is no crime – and what is more we do not want a crime. To detect a crime before it has been committed – that is indeed of a rare difficulty.” And what of the nature of a murderer? “It is an interesting subject of after-dinner conversation – are all criminals really madmen? There may be a malformation in their little grey cells – yes, it is very likely. That, it is the affair of the doctor. For me – I have different work to perform. I have the innocent to think of, not the guilty – the victim, not the criminal.” It’s clear that Poirot sees his responsibility as the best detective in the world to be not unlike that of a Coroner.

chocolate-boxEven though Christie was to have another forty-four years of Poirot’s escapades to write about, the book already makes a few respectful nods to Poirot’s appearances to date. Remember, Poirot began life as an old man, and presumably he gets older every year! The book begins with Poirot reflecting on his success at solving the murder on the Blue Train heading down to the south of France, and how he missed Hastings not being there to help him; interestingly, I agree, the book suffers from the lack of his trusted companion. The neighbour Mrs Croft also remembers Poirot solving that case in a moment of what we might call fangirling. On another occasion Hastings tells Nick about the time Poirot solved a crime because of his habit of straightening ornaments on a mantelpiece – this is a reference to Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. When wallowing in self-pity, Poirot recollects the case of the box of chocolates back in 1893, when he failed to bring the criminal to book. This, apparently, is a reference to the short story The Chocolate Box, which didn’t appear in the UK until it features in Poirot’s Early Cases, published in 1974, so it’ll take a good while before I get to re-reading that one. As well as that, the séance that Poirot calls as part of the denouement reminded me strongly of The Sittaford Mystery, and the dragon-decorated kimono that Nick wears when Maggie Buckley arrives is surely a forerunner of a similarly atmospheric garment in Murder on the Orient Express.

looeOnce again Christie has given us an evocative combination of fictional and factual geographic locations to consider. As in The Sittaford Mystery, we are firmly placed in the south west of England, although it’s Cornwall rather than Devon. The story is set in the fictional resort of St. Loo; although it doesn’t exist, with a name like that it really should. It conjures up a mixture of St Austell and Looe, although there certainly isn’t a Majestic Hotel in those parts; commentators associate the Majestic with the Imperial in Torquay – but that’s Devon. Other places mentioned include the real locations of Plymouth and Tavistock, but also the little village of Shellacombe, described as 7 miles from St Loo. There is no such place, of course. Try as I might, I can’t find anywhere in that neck of the woods with a similar name.

amy-johnsonNow it’s time for a quick look at some of those more obscure references and terms that cropped up in this book and gave me the research bug. There aren’t that many this time, to be honest. Perhaps the most obvious is the aviator referred to by Lazarus when they’re considering the fate of the pilot Seton. It is of course Amy Johnson, who flew to Australia in 1930, becoming the first woman to fly the route solo – she enjoyed great fame and celebrity as a consequence.

rubber-tyred-hearsePoirot is trying to make Nick realise the danger she is in from all these attempts on her life. “”Four failures – yes – but the fifth time there may be a success.” “Bring out your rubber-tyred hearses,” murmured Nick.” What was that? It’s a reference to that old American song Frankie and Johnnie: “They brought out the rubber-tyred hearses, they brought out the rubber-tyred hack, thirteen men went to the graveyard, but only twelve came back; he was her man, but he done her wrong.”

nutriaFunny how some words just don’t get mentioned in the English language anymore. Consider this exchange between Nick and the unnamed police inspector: “We came in to fetch her coat – it was rather cold watching the fireworks. I flung off the shawl on the sofa here. Then I went upstairs and put on the coat that I’m wearing now – a light nutria one.” Nutria? What’s that? One must remember that in the time of this book it was very fashionable to wear real fur coats. Nutria is the proper name for the Coypu or River Rat. This would have been a very trendy fur in 1932 but demand for its pelt declined in the 1940s. Poor little coypus.

Mrs GampAs the denouement gets going and Poirot “produces his play”, Hastings arrives at the dining room to discover that all the people on Poirot’s list of suspects were seated together: “every person on Poirot’s list from A to I (J was necessarily excluded, being in the Mrs Harris-like position of “there ain’t no sich person”). Who is Mrs Harris and what has she got to do with it? She’s a character in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit – Mrs Gamp’s imaginary confidante.

artist-with-paintingOnly one financial element to consider in this book – the picture that is worth £20 and for which Lazarus the art dealer offers £50. The equivalent today would be offering about £2500 for an item worth about £1000. But there’s more to that story than meets the eye… Enough said!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Peril at End House:

Publication Details: 1932. Fontana paperback, 7th impression, published in December 1979, priced 85p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts an aviator (presumably Seton) together with an unidentified lady with the backdrop of an early plane and rather hippy skies, but with a lethal looking pistol looming in the clouds. Rather surreal and very effective.

How many pages until the first death: 63. A bit of a wait. Not as late as The Secret Adversary though.

Funny lines out of context: the usual suspects:

“My friend was silent and distrait during our meal. He crumbled his bread, made strange little ejaculations to himself, and straightened everything on the table.”

“She’s had a rotten life. Married to a beast – a man who drank and drugged and was altogether a queer of the worst description.”

“I am hot. My moustaches are limp.”

Memorable characters:

Nick is a good creation. She’s kind of glamorous, kind of at risk, self-effacing, needing protection, but she’s got a few tricks up her sleeve as well. She rather outshines all the other characters, although I rather liked the slightly creepy Australian couple Mr and Mrs Croft; his calling her “mother” feels awkwardly inappropriate!

Christie the Poison expert:

Christie the poison expert has been rather missing of late. Again, this book contains no poisoning – the murder is committed by shooting with a pistol.

Class/social issues of the time:

The book throws up the usual array of class and social issues, plus a couple of other more unusual ones. For example, as indicated earlier, there is an element of excitement in some of the passages regarding the early days of aircraft travel. Amy Johnson is considered a heroine – plucky Nick would love to do what she achieved. And of course, there is the suggestion of a love attachment with a pilot – I’ll say no more.

There are also a couple of interesting fashion observations. Poirot is firmly of the opinion that a hat should sit on top of a fine, high, rigid coiffure, with the hat attached to the head by a battalion of hat pins. But of course, that is an old-fashioned view; and Nick proves it to Poirot by simply taking her hat off “so prettily, so easily.” Another item of clothing that is on the way out are those splendid things, galoshes. Poirot has been walking in the grass. “Poirot lifted first one, then the other foot from the ground with a cat-like motion. “It is the dampness of the feet I fear. Would it, think you, be possible to lay hands on a pair of galoshes?” I repressed a smile. “Not a hope,” I said. “You understand, Poirot, that it is no longer done.”

Apart from that, it’s the usual sexism, racism and xenophobia. When Poirot first comes to End House and tries to speak to Nick, Ellen, the housekeeper is obstructive. “Miss Buckley, she said, had not yet returned. Poirot explained that we had an appointment. He had some little difficulty in gaining his point, she was the type that is apt to be suspicious of foreigners. Indeed, I flatter myself that it was my appearance which turned the scale.” Later, when Maggie first appears on the scene, she’s particularly untrusting of Poirot. “”Nick has been telling me the most amazing things,” she said. “Surely she must be exaggerating? Who ever would want to harm Nick? She can’t have an enemy in the world.” Incredulity showed strongly in the voice. She was looking at Poirot in a somewhat unflattering fashion. I realised that to a girl like Maggie Buckley, foreigners were always suspicious. “Nevertheless, Miss Buckley, I assure you that it is the truth,” said Poirot quietly. She made no reply but her face remained unbelieving.”

There’s an unfortunate description of Jim Lazarus, the art dealer: “rolling in money, of course. Did you see that car of his? He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” That’s from one of his friends – we’ll not speculate what his enemies might have said. And, as usual, Christie can’t conceal her deep-seated mistrust of women’s abilities. A woman could make a lousy murderer under certain circumstances, thinks Poirot: “The fact that the boulder was dislodged at the wrong minute, and consequently missed Mademoiselle, is more suggestive of feminine agency.” In other words, a woman would be more likely to mess it up.

In the same conversation, Poirot and Hastings compare what course of action Vyse would take, if he were the murderer, in comparison with a woman. “Until last night there was no certitude that Seton was dead. To act rashly, without due assurance, seems very uncharacteristic of the legal mind.” “Yes,” I said. “A woman would jump to conclusions.” “Exactly. Ce que femme veut, Dieu veut. That is the attitude.” Later, the Chief Constable, Colonel Weston, starts considering the crime and discussing it with Poirot. “If Vyse is the chap, well, we’ll have our work cut out. He’s a cautious man and a sound lawyer. He’ll not give himself away. The woman – well, there would be more hope there. Ten to one she’ll try again. Women have no patience.”

Classic denouement: It’s a very strong denouement indeed, and sends you away once you’ve finished the book with a huge sense of satisfaction. It’s full of mini-cliffhangers and revelations, including a séance, and discoveries about other people not directly involved with the murder which obfuscate the plot beautifully. You get the feeling that at least two other people are going to be exposed as the murderer before the guilty party is finally identified. Very enjoyable and a true page-turner.

Happy ending? Moderately so. There are wedding bells for one couple, but to be honest they’re not the most interesting people in the book.

Did the story ring true? Overall, I’d say yes, but there is an enormously far-fetched scene where Poirot witnesses a bullet being shot through Nick’s hat but it misses her; that’s both stupendously hard to believe, and hard to believe that anyone would believe it.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. It’s a brilliant read – very exciting, and very hard to guess whodunit. I’d have given it a 10/10 if there had been more memorable characters.

The Thirteen ProblemsThanks for reading my blog of Peril at End House and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the short story format with Miss Marple holding court in The Thirteen Problems (that’s The Tuesday Club Murders if you’re American!) As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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