Dead Man’s Folly (1956) by Agatha Christie: In Which We Learn Poirot is not a Fan of Women in Shorts

Given how woolly my memories were of this book I thought it would be a suitable title for my ongoing re-reading project. Going into this book it was the situation of the victim I remembered the most. Anyways on with the plot…

Ariadne Oliver comes into Poirot’s life once more in typical whirlwind fashion, even if it is only over the telephone to invite him to come down to Nasse House in Devon, where she is staying. Well invite is too mild a word, more commands him to come down, all without giving him a clue why. Despite Miss Lemon’s protests Poirot goes. Nasse House may be an old fashion country house, but its current inhabitants are certainly not, and the surrounding area also shows signs of changing times, with the conversion of another large property into a youth hostel, which is very popular with backpackers. Ariadne is staying at the home of Sir George Stubbs because he has been employing her to organise a Murder Hunt as part of a local fete which is taking place the next day. Poirot fears he has been roped in to help and whilst Ariadne does intend to have him hand out the prizes, she has also called him on a much darker mission. She feels something is wrong with the upcoming hunt, a sense that she had been ‘engineered… jockeyed along’ into making certain changes to her synopsis. She melodramatically says to Poirot, ‘Call me a fool if you like, but I can only say that if there was to be a real murder tomorrow instead of a fake one, I shouldn’t be surprised!’ No reader will be shocked when her fear is proven correct, though there may be some surprise over who the chosen victim is and the other curious incidents surrounding the case. The local police suspect a ‘foreigner’ did the deed, but with our own Poirot twinkle in our eyes, we know the culprit will be much closer to home…

Overall Thoughts

The Puzzle

To start on a positive note, I think Christie setups an interesting puzzle for her readers to solve. She may conjuror up some familiar jigsaw pieces, but you can see that she is using them as a way of keeping you guessing. For instance, the motive for the victim at the fete, is an easy one to deduce, but duplicitously so, as it is one which can send you down many a wrong rabbit hole. The way the case of the actual murder parallels or diverges from Ariadne’s artificial crime was also an appealing aspect to the story, as was how Christie used the Youth Hostel element. However, whilst I feel she distracts her readers’ attention quite well, I feel the solution is particularly dissatisfying, not in and of itself, but because of the out-of-the-hat feel it comes with and way it presents a certain character, which didn’t hugely add up. It has this feeling especially, due to Poirot’s more truncated investigative presence. After the first full day of the police investigation, Poirot returns to London, which then leaves a rather short final third of the novel, for Poirot to repick up the case and then suddenly have its’ solution all fall into place after a couple of conversations. It all felt a little too hurried for my liking. I personally think this final third should not have been drawn over such a long time period, as it meant the story lost its oomph, as before that point 2/3s of the novel takes place over 2-3 days, with emphasis on the day of the fete. This actually felt like such a short time frame that I wondered whether this story could be adapted into a play, though the setting/fete aspect might be tricky to carry across.

What is Christie doing with her characters?

Accusations of cardboard thin characters is something Christie’s works have had thrown at them for quite a long time and by and large I would often say it is an inaccurate comment. Yet when it comes to this book, it is a little harder to make any defence. But I suppose rather than think that Christie was having a bad day writing this book, I got to thinking over why Christie wanted to imbue her suspects with such a sense of artificiality. What was Christie trying to do through this?

Well since I am no Phelps, I am won’t say I have the definitive answer on Christie’s ideas when it comes her books and characters, but I did wonder whether she was trying to make her suspects to seem as though they had come out of a murder hunt game. It seems fitting that another edition of Cluedo/Clue was released the year this book was brought out. After all, look at the sort of characters we are faced with:

‘Sir George Stubbs… Rich and plebeian and frightfully stupid outside of business… Lady Stubbs – Hattie – about twenty years younger than he is, rather beautiful, but dumb as a fish… Michael Weyman – he’s an architect, quite young; and good looking in a craggy artistic sort of way.’

Oh and don’t forget the efficient secretary in love with her boss, the wife of the original owner of Nasse House renting the lodge and a young married couple holidaying nearby, who are drifting apart from one another.

I suppose though that this leaves us with another question of why she would want to do that and again I can only offer a suggestion. Perhaps she wanted to create an intense disparity between the exteriors of these characters and who they are really are. With so many stock-like characters, it is harder for the reader to figure out which ones are using their social appearances as a camouflage for murder and which are not.

Feel free to add your penny’s worth in the comments below, as I admit I just don’t want the reason to be a case of Christie going off the boil. Nevertheless, I found it harder to engage with this set of characters, aside from the serial ones of Poirot, Miss Lemon and Ariadne. It’s hard to not like Ariadne in fairness, as from the very first pages she is immediately endearing, such as when she asks whether Poirot has forgotten her. He replies in the negative, but her reply is rather sweet: ‘Well, people do sometimes. Quite often, in fact. I don’t think that I’ve got a very distinctive personality. Or perhaps it’s because I’m always doing different things to my hair.’ I also quite enjoyed how in the opening chapter Miss Lemon is set up as an antithesis of Ariadne. The latter is an exuberant creative and imaginative writer, whilst ‘Miss Lemon only read improving books and regarded such frivolities as fictional crime with contempt.’ She equally has a dim view of creative persons in general, saying to Poirot that, ‘I have always noticed that these artists and writers are very unbalanced – no sense of proportion.’

How do you solve a problem like Hattie?

In modern times I think most readers will have some issues with the depiction of Hattie, who is cast as ‘mentally deficient’ and as ‘subnormal.’ Moreover, her vapid, vacuous childlike selfish is equally attributed to her West Indies ancestry, with comments on too much inter-marrying. Hattie’s questioned intelligence also leads into an inroad for another character to bring up a eugenics-based conversation, which made me think back to Murder is Easy (1939). In fairness Poirot does not endorse the suggestion that only intelligent people should be allowed to ‘breed’ and that ‘every feeble-minded person [be] put out,’ but it remains a troubling part of the text.

I appreciate that with Hattie’s limited mental acumen, Christie is trying to weave in several strands of the book’s mystery, regarding how intelligent she actually is and how much of what she says is true, but I am not sure that this approach translates well into our modern culture. Yet she does make for an interesting focal point in the investigation and through Poirot’s many conversations with the suspects, as each person has a different idea of who she is and in a way you could almost regard her as cipher-like or a canvas upon which those around her, paint on what they want to see.

Haven’t I come across this before? [Only read this section if you have read Christie’s novels of the 1940s, up to and including Dead Man’s Folly in 1956, as well as Curtain (1975)]

Having re-read this book, I am left wondering whether one of the reasons this book did not stick well in my memory was because that it seemed to so heavily borrow from other titles in terms of the tropes used. For instance, our primary victim, Marlene Tucker, is described as ‘an adolescent, rather silly girl, her head full of film stars and glamour – there were hundreds of Marlenes.’ A line I feel should put all Christie fans in mind of The Body in the Library (1942), where another star struck teenager meets a grisly end. A mis-remembered name put me on to my next Christie connection, as I initially thought the secretary, Amanda Brewis had the same name as a woman in Evil Under the Sun (1941), a Miss Emily Brewster. Yet when I thought about it, I again felt a feeling of familiarity between the two texts. Poirot mentions how easy it is to disguise and lose oneself within a sea of youth hostel continental backpackers and this took me back to Poirot’s comments in Evil Under the Sun, which suggested that sunbathers are similarly indistinguishable. Equally, given the early setup hints of pre-marital affairs and mis-matched marriages, a reader would be forgiven for wondering whether another dangerous love triangle was going to rear its head.

There also seemed to be a continuation of theme from Christie’s previous book, Hickory Dickory Dock (1955), as both include establishments which seek to accommodate younger people. There is of course the backpacker link as well, which I felt became a little bit of a red herring in Dead Man’s Folly. Thinking of specific characters, I was also reminded of Crooked House (1949), as I felt Mrs Folliat held a similar-ish role/gave a similar vibe to Edith de Haviland, but that might just be me. Bringing this kaleidoscope of Christie novels to an end, I think there is also a thread running between today’s read and Curtain (1975). Whilst it was published much later, it was written before Dead Man’s Folly. Both include to varying degrees the concept of a culprit orchestrating events through others, as from very early on in this book, Ariadne feels one person has manoeuvring things so specific changes were made to her hunt.

Based on this myriad of connections, I feel justified in saying that I found this book to have less distinguishing factors about it. The murder hunt element is the exception and it was the bit I remembered the most from my last read, but aside from that I feel like the remainder of the book quickly recedes.

Final Thoughts

I think overall this book had a lot of promise in its opening chapters and I did really like Ariadne’s role in the book and her murder hunt. But once murder has been committed I felt the book became increasingly weaker and I am not too convinced about how much of the solution the reader could have figured.

However I would like to end this review with a potentially controversial question: Would this book have made a better Miss Marple story?

Discuss…

Rating: 3.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): During a Special Event

Calendar of Crime: October (6) Original Publication Month

22 comments

    • I hadn’t made that connection so thanks for the info. You saying it is a padded out short story makes a lot of sense having just read the book, as it starts out well but then quickly dissipates.

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  1. I am always torn by this one – as you so rightly say, it starts off so well, and is such a promising idea, but it never quite lives up to that. However, what I love about it is that it is so plainly set at Greenway, Christie’s holiday home in Devon. I took my family for holidays there from when it first opened to the public (10 years ago) till quite recently, we were repeat visitors, and we all loved it so much. It is a magical place, and I loved following the tracks of (particularly) Dead Man’s Folly and Five Little Pigs. So I have a soft spot for DMF, cannot be as rigorous as I should be!
    However, am VERY intrigued by your idea that it should have featured Miss Marple – makes perfect sense…

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  2. I think the reason this one pisses me off so much is that it opens with such promise! The “murder game” idea is old as the hills, but filtered through Ariadne Oliver, one of my favorite characters in all mysterydom, makes for a delightful start. I agree with you that 1) the characters are stick figures, and 2) the whole thing feels recycled from earlier, better novels. Then Christie brings the architect back in Hallowe’en Party and recycles the central truck here in Third Girl. The whole scheme, with minor variations, also forms the basis of The Clocks! And I don’t buy the need for this complicated scheme for a minute!

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    • haha yes it is somewhat of a convoluted plan, that it makes you wonder how Poirot figured it all out.
      I didn’t realise about the architect turning up in a future Christie novel. Though Hallowe’en Party is another book on my list to re-read.

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      • Oh, and about the Marple thing . . . it occurs to me that I bought and read this one side by side with They Do It With Mirrors, another country house mystery with an odd juxtaposition of communities (the gentry vs. the transients/the gentry vs. the delinquents). I always paired them up – maybe for that reason – but I find the Marple book superior to the Poirot here, not something I say often.

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      • That’s a good idea. I can see those two as a pair, though as you say Marple’s book is the superior one. Probably because it didn’t start life as a short story. It feels like a more fully formed book.

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  3. This is a very thoughtful and detailed post! Thank you for it 🙂 You made me want to re-read Christie’s work (which I’m actually planning on doing, but I haven’t got to it yet). I have read ‘Dead Man’s Folly’ a long time ago, and I also feel likey vision of it is now very blurry. I found it very interesting what you wrote about the characters. I’ll have to re-read the book, though, before I can answer your question in the end.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the review and sorry for the delay in replying to your comment. For some bizarre reason I found it in my spam folder. Re-reading Christie is definitely something I can recommend, as I find there’s always something more to find on a second read, even if it has its problems. Very slowly getting through Christie’s titles, though I am not sure I can be tempted enough to give Passenger to Frankfurt a re-read lol

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      • No problem, I’ve been there! I mean there were comments I found way later in spam for some unknown reason… I love that there’s always something new to discover when re-reading! I’m especially excited to do it because the last time I read most of Christie’s books I was 14-15 years old, and I’m very interested in finding out what I think about them now, as an adult 🙂

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      • That would definitely be interesting. I only read Christie for the first time about 7 years ago so I don’t have that luxury. But I am looking forward to the time I can introduce Christie to my niece. (She’s only 2.5 years old so I’ve got a little while to go lol)

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      • My mother was the same way when I was little, that’s why I read them so early in my life
        .. She couldn’t wait to introduce me to Agatha Christie books! 😁

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  4. I can’t help being fond of this, despite its flaws. It has a lot of good moments that don’t quite come together as a whole but are each enjoyable on their own. The friendship between Poirot and Mrs. Oliver is always so endearing as well.

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  5. “In Which We Learn Poirot is not a Fan of Women in Shorts ”

    In chapter 7 of Taken At The Flood (1948), when Mrs Leadbetter says referring to the girls,”Look at the way they dress. Trousers! Some poor fools wear shorts – they wouldn’t if they knew what they looked like from behind!”, Poirot replies,””I agree with you, Madame, indeed I agree with you.”

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  6. In answering your question about whether it would be a better Miss Marple book, while that notion is intriguing, I have to say no – because Miss Marple and Ariadne Oliver don’t co-exist in the same universe and many of my favorite moments in this book are because of her. We lose her along with Poirot, and I want to keep her.

    Also, the renowned architect pops back up in Endless Night, published in 1967.

    This is one of my favorites of the later Poirots, and I like it better than The Clocks and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (although that one contains some absolutely delightful Ariadne Oliver moments) and much better than Third Girl, which is my second to the least favorite Poirot, coming in slightly ahead of The Big Four. I think that it is a better mystery than Hallowe’en Party, but I love the setting/tone of Hallowe’en Party so much that I give that one the nod by just a hair.

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      • In one of those classic moments of serendipity, I was finishing up a Christie short story collection (Double Sin) over the weekend, which contains the original short story on which this book was based – it’s called Greenshaw’s Folly. It was a Miss Marple story, featuring Raymond West as the Ariadne Oliver analogue. So, I think you are definitely on to something here! If you can track down the original story, you can actually see how it worked with Miss Marple instead of Poirot.

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