The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder in the Mews (1937)

Murder in the MewsIn which Hercule Poirot takes us on four cases, novella length, where he solves a range of crimes from an apparent suicide to a deathly love triangle. Of course, the usual rules apply; if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I shan’t spoil the surprise of any of the four revelations!

William Morris fabricThe book was first published in the UK in March 1937, and in the US in June 1937, but under the title Dead Man’s Mirror. The stories had all been individually published previously in magazine format. Christie dedicated the collection “to my old friend Sybil Heeley, with affection.” Sybil was the daughter of Wilfred Lucas Heeley, at Cambridge with William Morris, and friend of Rudyard Kipling’s sister Alice. “Ruddy” and Sybil would keep up a correspondence until his death in 1936. Sybil was also the author of Ellie and the China Lady, “A Tibetan Fairy Tale”, published in 1895.

Murder in the Mews

Guy FawkesMurder in the Mews, the first story, was first published in the UK in Woman’s Journal in December 1936. It had previously been published in the US in Redbook magazine in September and October 1936. Poirot and Japp are heading back to Poirot’s flat on Guy Fawkes Night, remarking that, with all the sounds of fireworks all around them, it would be a perfect night on which to commit murder with a pistol. Sure enough, next morning, Mrs Allen is found dead in her flat in the very mews where Poirot and Japp had that conversation. It appears to be a suicide, but the most minor of investigations reveal that it couldn’t possibly be; so Japp and Poirot set about finding the murderer.

It’s a very entertaining and enjoyable read, very much with the feel of a mini-novel, with ten, progressing chapters covering 49 pages. With only a few suspects mentioned and questioned, there’s only a limited number of murder options for the reader to imagine, but even so Christie surprises us with Poirot’s denouement.

ShaverWe have the usual badinage between Japp and Poirot, with Japp’s colleague Inspector Jameson implying that Poirot is going “gaga”. Poirot’s sense of superiority and vanity comes out with his assertion that, if he were to commit a murder, Japp would never find out about it. Jameson is also seen as a figure of stuffy British superiority as he clearly disapproves of Poirot’s involvement in the case. There is some curious use of language, with one character described as a “stuffed fish and a boiled owl”; another is called “a bright kind of shaver” – which sounds like a compliment. Indeed, my OED confirms that “shaver” was a colloquial word for “humorous chap”.

There’s an ironic line when Major Eustace is being interviewed, and asked whether he was smoking during a certain conversation: “yes, and smoked. Anything damaging in that?” I expect in 1937 people weren’t aware of the dangers all that smoking was causing.

Onslow SquareThere are a few locations to check out: the death takes place in Bardsley Gardens Mews; there is a Bardsley Gardens in Sydney, Australia, but I don’t suppose it’s that one. Jane Plenderleith spent the weekend at Laidells Hall, Laidells, Essex, and Laverton-West lives in Little Ledbury, Hampshire; both totally fictitious. His London address is in Onslow Square though, and that’s a real enough part of South Ken.

Standard SwallowMajor Eustace drives a Standard Swallow saloon, which means (according to Wikipedia, so it must be right) that it was one of only 148 cars to be built by the Swallow Coachbuilding Company (later Jaguar) between 1932 and 1936. Very swish and exclusive. Mrs Allen died by means of an automatic pistol – a Webley .25. I know nothing about guns, but Webley and Scott were, and still are, noted manufacturers of air rifles and pistols; the .25, according to Wikipedia again, had a 3-inch barrel and a 6-round magazine. Manufacture was discontinued in 1940.

That £200 that Mrs Allen withdrew that may (or may not) have been to pay a blackmailer, is the equivalent of about £9,500 today. Not chickenfeed by any means.

A good start to the book! What’s next?

The Incredible Theft

SubmarineThis story is a reworking of The Submarine Plans, originally published in The Sketch magazine in November 1923 – fourteen years earlier than the publication of Murder in the Mews (the book). That version was eventually published in Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. In the US, The Submarine Plans was first published in the Blue Book Magazine in July 1925. In the UK, the revised The Incredible Theft first appeared in serialised form in the Daily Express in April 1937. There was no US magazine edition prior to its publication as part of Dead Man’s Mirror.

spyNot a murder mystery this time, but the theft of some highly sensitive security documents from a politician; and there’s a known spy who’s a guest in the household, so did she take them, and if so, where are they? It’s a pacey story that takes place over no more than about 18 hours by my estimate, with some colourful characters and an intriguing resolution. But there’s some distinctly misogynistic conversations between some of the men in this story, that rather stand out as being at best pompous, at worst pretty unpleasant.

Expensive fragranceWe get an insight into a little more of Poirot’s personality – he doesn’t like being beaten at all. When it looks as though the spy character is going to get away with it, Poirot is not amused: “You wish me success, do you? Ah, but you are very sure I am not going to meet with success! Yes, you are very sure indeed. That, it annoys me very much.” Mind you, Lord Mayfield, whose documents have been stolen, is equally fuming; and not just at the theft. George Carrington gets him to admit that he suspects the spy: “”You don’t doubt, do you, that she’s at the bottom of this?” “No, I don’t. She’s turned the tables on me with a vengeance. I don’t like admitting, George, that a woman’s been too clever for us. It goes against the grain. But it’s true.”” Previously, he’d already commented on her fragrance: “it’s not a cheap scent. One of the most expensive brands in the market, I should say […] I think a woman smothered in cheap scent is one of the greatest abominations known to mankind.” I think Mayfield needs to get out a bit more. Not only are these men sexist, but also xenophobic. At the suggestion that Poirot might be able to solve the case, Mayfield replies “”by the Lord, George, I thought you were too much of an old John Bull to put your trust in a Frenchman, however clever.” “He’s not even a Frenchman, he’s a Belgian,” said Sir George in a rather shamefaced manner.”

maidPoirot’s conversation with the maid Leonie is decidedly creepy too. “Do you know […] I find you very good to look at […] I demand of M. Carlile whether you are or are not good-looking and he replies that he does not know […] I do not believe he has ever looked at a girl in his life, that one”. He is, in fact, testing an alibi, but it’s not one of Poirot’s most eloquent exchanges. Earlier, Poirot had questioned Carlile on this subject, and he had steadfastly refused to pass comment on Leonie’s looks. “Sir George Carrington gave a sudden chuckle. “M. Poirot seems determined to make you out a gay dog, Carlile”, he remarked.” Funny how the change of meaning of the word gay gives that sentence an entirely different inference today.

I was interested to note that a typical office working week is considered cover 48 hours. That’s very different from today’s 35 to 37 hours. The Prime Minister is referred to as Hunberly – of course, in 1937 it was Baldwin, then Chamberlain.

A good story, that holds the interest. Next up:

Dead Man’s Mirror

Dinner gongThis tale is an expanded version of the story The Second Gong which appeared in the Strand Magazine in July 1932 (and in the USA, in Ladies Home Journal in June 1932). It was eventually published in the UK in the book Problem at Pollensa Bay, which wasn’t published until 1991.

Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore writes to Hercule Poirot to invite him to stay; but when he arrives, his host is already dead. Everything points to his having committed suicide, except Poirot doesn’t believe a word of it. The story develops into a full-blown and thoroughly intriguing mystery, another perfect little whodunit in miniature, with a proper denouement and bags of suspects. It also keeps back a very charming twist right up till the final line. It’s this story that Tom Adams’ cover illustration depicts; the shattered mirror with dripping blood.

Great detectiveWe welcome back Mr Satterthwaite, of The Mysterious Mr Quin fame, whom we also met in Three Act Tragedy. As there was a social gathering at the Chevenix-Gores, it’s not surprising to discover Mr Satterthwaite had an invitation too. Satterthwaite immediately becomes the recipient of some of Poirot’s famous egoism: “It did not seem to occur to this Sir Gervase that I, Hercule Poirot, am a man of importance, a man of infinite affairs! That it was extremely unlikely that I should be able to fling everything aside and come hastening like an obedient dog – like a mere nobody, gratified to receive a commission!” Later, when Poirot bumps into Susan Cardwell as he was checking the footprints in the flower bed, he remarks: “you now behold a detective – a great detective, I may say – in the art of detecting!”

MoraviaThere are a few possibly interesting references; the grandeur of the Chevenix-Gores’ address (Hamborough Close, Hamborough St Mary, Westshire) couldn’t be more imaginary if it tried. Sir Gervase’s chef was formerly employed by the Emperor of Moravia. This land, which is currently the eastern end of the Czech Republic, was up until 1918 part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So even though the Emperor of Moravia sounds at worst a made-up title and at best a pub, there really would have been an Emperor with that title.

lady of shalottGodfrey Burrows is described as being “slightly hairy at the heel”. I’ve never heard that phrase before, but in many ways it’s rather splendidly descriptive. It means they’re an unmitigated bounder – ill-bred, like a race horse in need of refinement. Another phrase, this time one I have heard before, is spoken by Lady Chevenix-Gore when she sees the broken mirror – “the mirror crack’d from side to side, the curse is come upon me cried, the Lady of Shalott” – taken from Tennyson’s poem of the same name. Twenty-six years later Christie would be using the phrase as the title of a Miss Marple novel.

Sir Gervase’s will left £5000 to his nephew, Hugo, and £6000 to his widow. At today’s value, that would be the equivalent of legacies of £250,000 and £300,000. That’s not that much, given the grandeur of their lifestyle.

Triangle at Rhodes

TriangleTriangle at Rhodes was first published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in May 1936 under the slightly longer title of Poirot and the Triangle at Rhodes, and in the US in the 2 February 1936 issue of the weekly newspaper supplement This Week magazine. Critics have pointed out that there are some similarities with Evil Under the Sun, which Christie would write five years later.

RhodesPoirot’s on holiday in Rhodes where he observes a self-consciously beautiful woman stealing another woman’s husband right from under her nose, but she seems powerless to prevent it. The first woman’s husband is also extremely affronted at their behaviour. Poirot warns the wronged wife that she must “leave this place […] if you value your life”. She doesn’t; and there are catastrophic consequences. But what and how and why? The story includes two of Poirot’s often-found wise old sayings. He maintains that one never does something outside one’s character; this was the basis of his solution to the crime in Cards on the Table. He also uses to his advantage what he calls a criminal’s chief vice: “Conceit. A criminal never believes that his crime can fail.” Using these two guidelines Poirot sees through the play-acting and gets to the truth. It’s an extremely clever and surprising little story.

acokantheraFor the one and only time in this collection, we see Christie the Poisons Expert at work. A murder is committed, by using Strophanthin, which is a fairly unusual compound. It was used by African tribes as an arrow poison. Strophanthin is derived from Acokanthera plants native to east Africa and has similarities to digitalis. It’s exceptionally lethal!

In another of Poirot’s less enlightened moments, he seems to be condoning brutish behaviour towards women. “”It is possible,” said Poirot. “Yes, it is quite possible. But les femmes, they like brutes, remember that!” Douglas muttered: “I shoudn’t be surprised if he ill-treats her!” “She probably likes that too.””

NutsAn interesting reference point: a character hums the tune “here we go gathering nuts and may”. Nuts and may? Not nuts in May? No. Originally it was nuts and may, with “may” being the hawthorn or its blossom. Believed to be a corruption of “knots of may”. Things get confusing when you dig deep.

This is a bumper pack of four excellent stories and I can’t see why it shouldn’t merit a 10/10. Each of them is excellently written, full of characterisation, with surprising storylines and unguessable denouements. Highly recommended!

Dumb WitnessWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and continuing with that vain but brilliant detective, Hercule Poirot, it’s Dumb Witness. I can’t remember that much about it but I know it’s a page turner and that I really enjoyed it in the past. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s