Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) by Agatha Christie

After my stupendous last read I was a bit unsure what title to choose next, as any new to me read was going to have a lot to live up to. So I decided in the end to go for a re-read, in particular a re-read which I knew going in was middle of the road. My memories of this book are a bit fuzzy to say the least and are predominately based on the Suchet TV adaptation, which I think had a few changes in it.

For those unfamiliar with the story it is set at a prestigious girl’s school called Meadowbank, though early on in the novel this setting is paralleled with scenes in Ramat in the Persian Gulf, in which a revolution takes place. It is from this setting that we receive a key piece of intrigue – namely a collection of expensive jewels which are to be smuggled out of the country and of course make their way to Meadowbank. That isn’t a spoiler, as any reader will tumble to this notion fairly rapidly. Murder eventually rears its head, more than once, causing confusion and dismay. Christie throws in other lines of investigation for the reader to contemplate including wartime espionage and teacher rivalry. Poirot makes a very late appearance into the tale, though that doesn’t prevent him from getting to the bottom of things.

Overall Thoughts

So I have to admit I left this book feeling rather lukewarm about it. A younger Christie could have done a lot better with this plot, as in itself it is not a bad one, but I think in parts it is poorly executed. After The Big Four, this is closest Poirot gets to being in a thriller, with its political intrigue and spy undertones. In conjunction with this, I think Poirot’s late, and rather forced in my opinion, entrance into the book, makes his final solution feel less satisfying. Definitely an out-of-a-hat feeling to it all. Personally I think the book would have been better if Poirot had not been in it at all and even more heretical, aside from making a good non-series story, I think perhaps it could have made for a good Tommy and Tuppence novel.

Given the thriller vibe of the book that also means we tend to get Christie’s generalisations on the world, in particular the difference between the West and the East and how the latter perceives the former. We even get generalisations about women from Europe and all of these assumptions tend to get boiled down into the international school children and teachers, who invariably are presented as much more sexually aware in comparison to the innocent and plain English girls. I think in particular this re-read drew to my attention the sexualisation of Princess Shaista. I know there are reasons related to the mystery plot for this but I did find it odd to come across an extended passage in which a school teacher complains to the head teacher about Shaista’s unnecessary equivalent of a push up bra. It felt all too convenient for the head teacher to then brush this issue aside suggesting that girls develop quicker from the Middle East physically but are somewhat behind intellectually. On the whole I would say the characterisation fell a bit flat for me in this book, the two exceptions being the two pupils Julia and Jennifer, along with Mrs UpJohn. This trio are delightful and memorable characters. I could definitely read a follow on book with these three in.

There is an underlying theme of women at work vs. women choosing marriage, but like the characterisation, it lacked impact and overall I think this is one of Christie’s novels which lacked depth for me, in comparison to some of her other works. A few touches I did enjoy were the unexpected nature of the murder victim identities. These Christie did cleverly conceal and I also liked the aptness of the story’s title.

I wonder whether in some ways I preferred the TV adaptation. Its’ thriller nature at times is probably more suited for the screen. Having written my last sacrilegious sentence, I will now wait with bated breath for all the reader responses explaining how I am wrong.

Rating: 3.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): At school

25 comments

      • And possibly too loose and uninteresting a plot — “murder at a school” for someone of Christie’s range and invention feels like something of a step backwards. It’s not socially interesting for the time, there’s not an especially gripping solution or core idea, she clearly doesn’t want Poirot in it at all…it’s just a misfire on every level, but she had too much class for it to be actively bad. So it remains far more disappointingly utterly forgettable as a result.

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  1. Aaagggggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!,

    You . . . are . . . sooooooooo . . . wrong!

    Everything you say, and more, may be true, Kate, but I have always loved th8s book. At first I thought it was just nostalgia because I first read and fell in love with it as a kid, but every re-read works for me. It’s the only Christie thriller I love. I think I’ve written about it, but clearly I have to write again!!!

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  2. Thanks for the review. 😊 I recall feeling slightly let-down after reading this novel for the first time. In retrospect, I would say the puzzle was decent, as were some of the attempts at red herrings and misdirections; one or two of the thriller scenes were thrilling. The pacing, however, made the story less engaging. But what I think was most disappointing was that I’d enjoyed Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s stories, but didn’t get the same amusement from the school milieu in “Cat among Pigeons”. 😅

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      • This is one of the few Christie novels I’ve not re-read, and so I’m basing my evaluation off youthful memories… 😅 My overwhelming recollection was the disappointment of coming in expecting yet another Malory Towers or St Clare’s novel – only to discover a very different beast. 😨 Which was foolish of me to expect a murder mystery to be similar to a boarding school story!

        In terms of the puzzle, I thought the murderer(s) was/were pretty well-hidden and unexpected. Beyond that, my only recollection pertained to knees! 😅 And then one character holding a shoe, anticipating having knock at the walls and scream till the neighbouring student wakes up, and then pretend she had a bad dream. 😅😅

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  3. Compared with the school milieu of Robin Stevens’s Murder Most Unladylike series, this is indeed a disappointment. I don’t remember much about it, except for the main villian who I thought was very well hidden and therefore still lingers in my mind.

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  4. I’m with Brad! I love this book, it is one of my favourite Christies. Such a shame it didn’t work for you. I thought it had great characters, a lot of funny lines, and a suitably convoluted plot. Different tastes I guess – I liked the discussion of the bras (obviously I have done a blogpost on it for Dress Down Sunday!) because it does turn out to be relevant. I re-read this one every few years, and always enjoy it enormously. But we can’t all like the same ones…

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    • When reading the book I did pause over the bra passage and go oh I bet Moira must have commented on this at some point! The mere presence of your blog makes us readers all the more aware of the clothes going on in mystery novels. I didn’t mind the bra passage in relation to how it links to the mystery plot but I didn’t like the way it was then used as a springboard for racial generalisations. We don’t get as close to characters in this book as we do in other Christie’s, so some of her remarks became less qualified in my opinion.

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    • Clearly, Moira, we’re sitting together whenever I finally make it to Bodies in the Library. We’ll sit, point at the others, and whisper! #juliaupjohnrocks

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      • Absolutely Brad. I am shocked to realize I was probably Julia’s age when I first read this. Loved her then, love her now.

        I think my favourite moment in the whole of Christie (though I do keep changing my mind about this, choosing new ones) is when Julia tells Poirot that her Auntie Maureen provides very strange food, BUT makes nice omelettes. And he says words to the effect of: ‘The life of Hercule Poirot has not been in vain. It was I who taught your Auntie Maureen how to make an omelette.’

        Kate: I think what I liked was that they made racial generalizations but they turned out to be wrong! Their stereotyping stood in the way of the truth… Always one of my favourite features in a crime story.

        Oh dear, it’s going to be difficult at Bodies next year – a frosty atmosphere, whispering in the corners, Brad and me giving everyone hard stares. We’ll have to hope we find something to agree on before then! and don’t forget your uniform Kate – did you see I sent Brad this picture of the ladies of GA in our semi-formal playsuits?

        http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2014/03/the-king-and-corpse-by-max-murray.html

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      • No I hadn’t seen the picture, but a very good choice. I would probably go for either the one on the left or right. Not got the height for the middle one – definitely one for the longer legged person. I’ll have to see what I can do on the vintage fashion front for next year’s conference. Hopefully Brad will have forgiven me by then!

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  5. I do not think much of this either. There were some clever aspects but overall it is well below Christie’s standards. She wrote atleast forty better than this one.

    Her best thriller, I think, was The Seven Dials Mystery, which has a truly jaw-dropping twist at the end.

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  6. Surely this is primarily a whodunit with thriller elements playing a smaller part? Anyway, I enjoyed it overall when I read it and liked the school setting and most of the characters.

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    • For me I found it very much more a thriller, from the middle east scenes political unrest and the missing jewels, to the way the case is solved and revealed. I think Poirot would needed to have investigated the case much more upfront and earlier in the text for it to feel more like a whodunnit for me.

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      • I suppose for me the thriller-type Middle East scenes were brief and the vast bulk of the story took place in and around the school. Those thriller elements are present but I never got a sense of them dominating, and I can’t honestly say that the absence of Poirot till late on felt like it weakened the book. And mind you, I’m someone who generally gets on pretty badly with those Christie books where she drifted towards espionage and intrigue.

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