In which that famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot travels on board one of those new-fangled aeroplane things and one of his fellow passengers is murdered in plain sight of everyone else. With the help of Inspector Japp and contributions from fellow passengers Jane Grey and Norman Gale, Poirot uncovers the truth of this extremely bold murder. And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
Christie dedicated the book to Ormond Beadle. This is likely to be Ormond A. Beadle, 1903 – 1976, osteopathist and writer, but I can find no evidence of a friendship between him and Christie. The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during February and March 1935 under the title Murder in the Air; in novel format, again in the US, it first appeared in March 1935, its publication coinciding with the final magazine instalment. In the UK, an abridged version was published at the same time in six instalments in Women’s Pictorial Magazine as Mystery in the Air; the full novel appeared in the UK in July 1935, this time as Death in the Clouds.
This is a terrifically exciting and entertaining read. Even though I was fairly sure all the way through that I could remember whodunit – and I was right – this didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the book. In fact, in many ways it enhanced it, as you realise what a clever cat-and-mouse game Poirot plays with the murderer on and off throughout the investigations. He tells us early on that he is certain he knows who the murderer is – it’s apparent to him as soon as he receives the list of the contents of everyone’s luggage – but he cannot fathom a motive. “Poirot gathered up the loose typewritten sheets and read them through once again. Then he laid them down with a sigh. “On the face of it,” he said, “it seems to point very plainly to one person as having committed the crime. And yet, I cannot see why, or even how.”” From that point of view, Christie is scrupulously fair with her reader, as she gives us all the same information that Poirot receives, alerting us to the fact that he has already virtually solved the crime under our noses, so it’s easy for us to go back and re-read the information that Poirot found so crucial. Which item(s) is/are so revealing to Poirot? Unless we make our own guess, we do not find out until the very end. And it’s not until he is satisfied with the motive that he calls for one of those exciting showdown denouements.
Elements of the book examine the subject of the psychology of crime. Much is made of the boldness of the crime; how it was committed in an enclosed environment, and the fact that it must have been witnessed by a number of people who simply didn’t recognise or weren’t aware of what they were looking at. Christie had a similar enclosed environment in Murder on the Orient Express, but in that book, there was always the possibility that someone could have got on, or got off the train, whilst it was stuck in snowdrifts. No one can get off an aeroplane mid-flight! Furthermore, it was committed in front of the great Hercule Poirot, but I’m suspecting that the murderer wasn’t aware he would be on the plane. Fournier, of the Sûreté, is convinced there must have been a psychological moment – either a point in time when everyone was distracted by another event, or when everyone simply forgot to pay attention for whatever reason – when the murderer struck. They may, for example, have been distracted by the wasp. Poirot reflects on the fact that there was such a moment in Three Act Tragedy.
Another of Poirot’s observations on the psychology of crime addresses a major problem of his trade: “In every case of a criminal nature one comes across the same phenomena when questioning witnesses. Everyone keeps something back. Sometimes – often indeed – it is something quite harmless, something, perhaps, quite unconnected with the crime; but – I say it again – there is always something.” And Christie makes a further observation that I don’t believe had appeared in her books before, that of the societal implication of being associated with a crime. Rumour and gossip work in two directions. Jane Grey, for instance, suddenly becomes much more in demand at Antoine’s, the salon where she works, whereas Norman Gale’s patients at his dentists’ practice start leaving in droves. The same association with the same crime can have very different effects on an individual’s work, socialising, reputation and character. Poirot accepts that this wider effect is something one cannot overlook when trying to solve a crime.
Once again, there is no named narrator for this book; just Christie’s own voice telling us the story. But she creates a brilliant first chapter by interspersing the third person narration with the first-person thoughts of many of the passengers. We hear the commentaries of Jane Grey, Norman Gale, the Countess of Horbury, Venetia Kerr, Dr Bryant, Mr Ryder and indeed Poirot himself. It’s a quick and effective way for us to get inside the skins of the main characters and it gets the book off to a fast and furious start. Structurally, the book is typical of a number of Christie’s books where Poirot involves some of the younger people in assisting him to solve the murder – here he gets Jane and Norman to accompany him on meetings and act as his eyes and ears in different locations. It’s been a while since we last met Captain Hastings (that was in Lord Edgware Dies) but he would return for Christie’s next book, The ABC Murders, and Poirot seems to lack a degree of male companionship that helps him find the truth. However, in this book he does have Mr Clancy, writer of detective fiction, off whom he can bounce some ideas.
Clancy is possibly more like Ariadne Oliver, last seen as part of the Parker Pyne Investigates team, on whom Christie based herself to a large extent. There are a few tongue-in-cheek passages in the book about Clancy where Christie pokes fun at herself; Japp is not a fan, for example. “These detective story writers… always making the police out to be fools… and getting their procedure all wrong. Why, if I were to say the things to my super that their inspectors say to superintendents I should be thrown out of the Force tomorrow on my ear. Set of ignorant scribblers! This is just the sort of damn-fool murder that a scribbler of rubbish would think he could get away with.” Christie also employs her own personal knowledge of the world of archaeology to colour the characteristics of the Duponts, almost ridiculing them as they argue amongst themselves to the extent that they notice nothing else going on around them; a typical archaeologist’s trait, one expects she would argue.
Science and technology are wonderful things, are they not? is a question Poirot might have rhetorically asked during the course of this book. For Christie’s contemporary readers, the thought of travelling in an aeroplane would probably have been an exciting and innovative thing to do, and you can sense more than a little general wonderment at the whole air-travel experience here. “Jane caught her breath. It was only her second flight. She was still capable of being thrilled. It looked – it looked as though they must run into that fence thing – no, they were off the ground – rising – rising – sweeping round – there was Le Bourget beneath them.” For her readers today, it’s fascinating to see the differences between the 1930s and modern day air travel. There’s no obvious weight or baggage restrictions: “The maid passed along the gangway. At the extreme end of the car were some piled-up rugs and cases.” The Countess of Horbury and Venetia Kerr both assume they would be allowed to smoke during take-off, but the steward tells them off – no doubt they could smoke later on though. Seats don’t all face in the same direction, some of them face backwards as in a traditional railway configuration. Stewards provided food and drink to the passengers and expected to be tipped like any other waiter. This is a very different aviation experience from today!
But it’s not only air travel that makes a technological impact in this book. When the case causes him to interrogate someone in Canada, Fournier remarks “it is romantic, you know, the transatlantic telephone. To speak so easily to someone nearly halfway across the globe.” Poirot’s response: “the telegraphed photograph – that too is romantic. Science is the greatest romance there is.” Today we text each other photos without a second’s thought. But in the 1930s, this was a huge achievement; and the evidence it provides wraps up the case for Poirot: “a photograph of your transmitted by telephone has been recognised” is the killer line he uses to capture the killer.
There are many references in this book, that I couldn’t resist but research. The flight of the Prometheus was from Le Bourget to Croydon. Le Bourget airport opened in 1919 and was the only airport to service Paris until the arrival of Orly in 1932. It was at le Bourget that Nureyev defected to the West; and Hitler made his only tour of Paris from le Bourget airport. It closed its doors to international traffic in 1977, but it is still used for domestic and international business aviation. It is also the home of the Paris Air Show. Croydon Airport, on the other hand, opened in 1920 and was the main airport for London at the time. It was the commercial home for Imperial Airways who operated from 1924 to 1939, and it remained in use until 1959.
Several of the passengers on board had been to visit either Juan les Pins or Le Pinet. The former is a well-known resort on the French Riviera; the second a small town near Beziers, not far from the French coast. When Mr Clancy was being pestered by the wasp on the plane, he was working out a plot concerning the 19:55 train at Tzaribrod. Christie is playing a little game with us there, as Tzaribrod also featured in Murder on the Orient Express, and no doubt she too had to investigate its train timetables. Modern day Dimitrovgrad, it’s on the extreme edge of modern day Serbia near its border with Bulgaria (and would indeed be taken over by Bulgaria for three years during the second world war).
Christie gives us the home addresses of all on board the plane, so naturally I have checked to see how many of them are real places. Madame Giselle lived at 3 rue Joliette in Paris; there are two rue Joliettes in France but neither of them is in Paris. Dr Bryant lives at 329 Harley Street; the street of course exists, but in real life only goes up to number 125. Lady Horbury lives at Horbury Chase, Sussex; the village of Horbury exists, but it’s in Yorkshire, near Wakefield. She also has an address at 315 Grosvenor Square, but Grosvenor Square maxes out at number 50. Venetia Kerr is said also to live in Horbury Chase. Norman Gale lives at 14 Shepherd’s Avenue, Muswell Hill; there are plenty of avenues in Muswell Hill – Kings, Queens, Princes and Dukes but no Shepherds. Jane Grey lives at 10 Harrogate Street, NW5, and works at Antoine’s in Bruton Street, which is also the location for Mrs Dacres’ posh shop in Three Act Tragedy – Christie obviously liked the area. NW5 is the Tufnell Park area of London, but there’s no Harrogate Street. Mitchell lives at 11, Shoeblack Lane, Wandsworth (a good old working-class type name for that address) but sadly it doesn’t exist. Mr Clancy lives at 47 Cardington Square; success! This is a real address in Hounslow, just off the Staines Road.
Some other references to grapple with – the Duponts have been excavating in Persia (Iran) at a site not far from Susa. According to Wikipedia, so it must be right, this was an ancient city of the Proto-Elamite, Elamite, First Persian Empire, Seleucid, and Parthian empires of Iran, and one of the most important cities of the Ancient Near East. It is located in the lower Zagros Mountains about 250 km east of the Tigris River, between the Karkheh and Dez Rivers. Mr Clancy’s book that features a blowpipe is The Clue of the Scarlet Petal, but sadly such a book does not exist. In other book news, Mr Ryder possesses a copy of Bootless Cup, which Christie tells us is banned in this country. It also doesn’t exist, but it implies that Ryder is a bit of a lad. Miss Kerr has two Tauchnitz novels. Not a writer, but a publisher – Kipling, Galsworthy, Henry James, all published by Tauchnitz.
Jane won her holiday by entering the Irish Sweep. Properly known as the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, this was a lottery game based in Ireland before the legalisation of lotteries in the UK, but many British people entered it anyway. Winning tickets were assigned to a horse expected to run in one of several horse races, including the Cambridgeshire Handicap, Derby and Grand National. The sweepstake raised money for hospitals and the health service all over Ireland, and the final sweepstake was held in January 1986. Fournier refers to the Stavisky business, when assessing the honesty or otherwise of the Duponts. Alexandre Stavisky was an embezzler whose death caused a political crisis in France in 1934. You can read all about it here.
Jane and Norman speculate on the kind of person that Lady Horbury and Venetia Kerr might be tempted to murder – and come up with an MFH. This didn’t mean anything to me, and it doesn’t really seem to fit in here either. The nearest I can come to understanding this is Master of Foxhounds. I suppose that might be correct…. Unless you know different!
As usual, I’ve converted any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. The sum of £100 is mentioned twice – it’s the amount that Jane won on the Irish Sweep, and also the amount she is offered by the hound at the Daily Howl for an interview. Today the equivalent would be a little under £5000. When Poirot gets Gale to pretend to be a blackmailer and call on Lady Horbury, he tells him to ask for £10,000. You can probably work out that that tidy sum is the equivalent of nearly half a million pounds. Madame Giselle’s estate is valued at between 8 and 9 million francs. Today this is an astronomical figure – somewhere in the region of £600 million. Worth committing murder for?
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Death in the Clouds:
Publication Details: 1935. Pan paperback, 7th impression, published in 1983, priced £1.25. The simple illustration on the front cover shows the wasp-like dart that Poirot finds on the floor. Quite a dull cover, really.
How many pages until the first death: 8. No messing around.
Funny lines out of context: I drew a blank here. Shame!
Memorable characters: Characterisations aren’t really this book’s strong points. However, Jane Grey and Norman Gale appear like the typical Christie sweet young things, and Jane, in particular, is a well-drawn character. Madame Giselle’s maid Elise is also fiery and solid in support.
Christie the Poison expert:
Christie takes the mickey out of herself for the suggestion that the death is caused by the “infamous arrow poison of the South American Indians”. Dr Bryant confirms that would be curare. The second death is caused by hydrocyanic acid, a solution of hydrogen cyanide in water; better known in the detective books as Prussic Acid.
Class/social issues of the time:
Plenty of examples of Christie’s usual bêtes noires; none more so than that strange xenophobia frequently expressed when it comes to characters from overseas. The coroner’s jury that considers the death of Madame Giselle decides to find Poirot guilty of the crime. “”Foreigners,” said the eyes of the square-faced man, ”you can’t trust foreigners, even if they are hand in glove with the police””. The verdict rather pleases Poirot: “”Mais oui! As I came out I heard one man say to the other, “that little foreigner – mark my words, he done it!” The jury thought the same.” Jane was uncertain whether to condole or laugh. She decided on the latter. Poirot laughed in sympathy.” Later, when Poirot is questioning Mitchell, his wife adds her twopenny worth. “I tell him not to bother his head so. Who’s to know what reason foreigners have for murdering each other; and if you ask me, I think it’s a dirty trick to have done it in a British aeroplane.” Christie adds – as if we couldn’t imagine it ourselves – “She finished her sentence with an indignant and patriotic snort.”
M. Zeropoulos, the antiques dealer, on the other hand, offers quite a low opinion of Americans. “An American – unmistakably an American. Not the best type of American either – the kind that knows nothing about anything and just wants a curio to take home. He is of the type that makes the fortune of bead sellers in Egypt – that buys the most preposterous scarabs ever made in Czecho-Slovakia […] He asks the price and I tell him. It is my American price, not quite as high as formerly (alas, they have had the depression over there). I wait for him to bargain but straightaway he pays my price. I am stupefied. It is a pity; I might have asked for more!”
In some more purely racist moments, at Antoine’s, Jane’s friend Gladys uses the pejorative slang term “Ikey” to refer to their Jewish boss. And when Norman and Jane are finding out about each other on an early date, they discover that they have a mutual dislike of “negroes” (along with loud voices and noisy restaurants) – and there’s no sense of embarrassment or discomfort at this revelation. That’s quite a hard one to take nowadays.
The French also come in for their fair share of the disapprobation. When Jane is engaged in conversation with Jean Dupont she tells herself “he’s French, though. You’ve got to look out with the French, they always say so.”
There are also observations about class; one is almost the reverse of the anti-French sentiment, where a character (Mr Clancy’s housekeeper) is belittled by Christie in a rather Dickensian way, poking fun of her language; she announces Hercule Poirot as “Mr Air Kule Prott”. On another occasion, Christie returns to a subject she’s tackled before, that certain members of the lower classes (that would be her terminology) are intimidated by the police. “Fournier was much excited, though distinctly irate with Elise. Poirot argued the point. “It is natural – very natural. The police? It is always a word frightening to that class. It embroils them in they know not what.””
The 1930s were not a time of great financial security. As Zeropoulos noted, “they have had the depression” in America. One of Christie’s more unusual observations on the world around her comes with Cicely Horbury’s conversation with Poirot about the family finances. “”You have a generous heart, Madame; and besides, you will be safe – oh, so safe – and your husband he will pay you an income.” “Not a very large one”. “Eh bien, once you are free you will marry a millionaire”. “There aren’t any nowadays.” “Ah, do not believe that, Madame. The man who had three millions perhaps now he has two millions – eh bien, it is still enough.””
One last and maybe surprising issue of the day: “Nowadays, we have discovered the beneficial action of the sun on the skin,” notes Poirot. “It is very convenient, that.” People were starting to cover up less in public, even if this was rather shocking to some older fuddy-duddies.
Classic denouement: Yes, although there are a limited number of people present, so unless the murderer is going to be unveiled in absentia – no reason why that can’t be done – Christie has done some narrowing down for us in advance. Once again, there is no indication as to the identity of the murderer in advance. It’s a beautifully written finale to the book and you want to savour every moment of it, as the murderer goes through various self-assured, then anxious phases before Poirot makes his final pronouncement.
Happy ending? Yes. There’s almost a Shakespearian getting together of couples; nothing certain though, Poirot is merely content to have created the possibilities that various people might hit it off. He’s distinctly playing the matchmaker.
Did the story ring true? Absolutely. I can easily imagine how the murder could have been achieved in the way Christie suggests, and the general plot progression all makes perfect sense. It’s a first-class book.
Overall satisfaction rating: Even allowing for a couple of unfortunate, non-PC, racist comments, I still can’t see a reason not to give this a 10/10. Christie achieves a truly fluid and entertaining writing style in this book, and Poirot has never been so manipulative.
Thanks for reading my blog of Death in the Clouds and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Sequentially, Christie’s next book is The ABC Murders but I’ve already read and written about that here, as it was one of the first three of her books that I read when I were a nipper. So next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge will be Murder in Mesopotamia, featuring Hercule Poirot in among the ruins of Christie’s beloved Middle East archaeological digs. 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!