The ABC Murders (1936) by Agatha Christie

My first re-read of the month and this time I went for a Christie which I read for the first time over a decade ago (oh I feel so old!!). According to my Goodreads account I gave it a 5/5, so I was interested to see what I made of it, 10 years on, with over a 1000 further crime fiction reads under my belt.

This book seems to have received a warm reception at the time, even with The Saturday Review, who could be quite tough on Christie’s work. They urged readers not to ‘miss it’ and they also wrote that ‘Agatha Christie at her best, with a really ingenious idea, plenty of action, humour, and expert sleuthing.’ Fellow crime writer Todd Downing was another fan of the mystery who declared:

‘Hats off again to Miss Christie and her positively uncanny ingenuity in devising plots with which to surprise her readers! One likes to imagine her ladylike equivalent of a whoop when the inspiration for this one came to her […] Skilfully plotted and told in Miss Christie’s best vein, The A. B. C. Murders will brighten the life of any mystery fan.’


Original dust jacket cover for The ABC Murders. It shows in the background an ABC railway guide and the title of the story is superimposed over the top of the image.


‘There’s a serial killer on the loose, bent on working his way through the alphabet. And as a macabre calling card he leaves beside each victim’s corpse the ABC Railway Guide open at the name of the town where the murder has taken place. Having begun with Andover, Bexhill and then Churston, there seems little chance of the murderer being caught – until he makes the crucial and vain mistake of challenging Hercule Poirot to frustrate his plans…’

Overall Thoughts

Unusually, for a Christie, we have a foreword written by Captain Hastings. The purpose of this foreword is to explain why Hastings is writing a first-person account of the mystery which also includes some third-person sections:

‘In this narrative of mine I have departed from my usual practice of relating only those incidents and scenes at which I myself was present. Certain chapters, therefore are written in the third person. I wish to assure my readers that I can vouch for the occurrences related in these chapters. If I have taken a certain poetic licence in describing thoughts and feelings of various persons, it is because I believe I have set them down with a reasonable amount of accuracy. I may add that they have been “vetted” by my friend Hercule Poirot himself.’

Reading this foreword, and maybe because this was a re-read, I wondered if this explanatory foreword was really necessary? Would many readers have complained if the explanation had not been included? Would readers just have accepted the times when the narrative switched from first to third? Or is that something we are more used to as modern-day readers? If nothing else this foreword highlights the limitations of adopting a first-person narrative when writing a mystery. For Christie’s mystery to work as it needed to, she had to be able to get outside of Captain Hasting’s head and personal experiences.

The different narrative viewpoints are important as they set up the expectation of an inverted mystery, as it looks like we are being shown the killer from as early as chapter 2 and the reader may begin to think that this story is going to be of the cat and mouse variety. Chapter 2 contains descriptions which would normally signpost a character as a killer and it is this type of information that we are looking out for as readers, ignoring perhaps the obvious or commonplace interpretations of a characters’ appearance or actions. You could say the set up is setting us up!

Cover for Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders. It has a purple and orange colour scheme. It shows a train stopped near to a tobacco shop with a man in a long coat and flat cap standing outside it.

Captain Hastings’ acumen has not increased during his time in Argentina. He is unable to figure out why Poirot’s hair has become blacker over the intervening years and Hastings is also comically sensitive about remarks concerning his own hair loss, as well as about suggestions for buying a toupee. I was surprised by how much of the opening takes an interest in the theme of getting older and aging even crops up again within the first murder, as Hastings considers a photograph of the victim and her husband, noting that they were far more attractive when they were younger. This comment of his might seem unkind but I think it is something he notices because he is struggling with anxiety over his own appearance.

The opening of the mystery also effectively re-establishes Hastings’ and Poirot’s friendship along its familiar lines:

“You know, Hastings, in many ways I regard you as my mascot.”

“Indeed?” I said. “In what ways?”

Poirot did not answer my question directly. He went on:

“As soon as I heard you were coming over I said to myself: something will arise. As in former days we will hunt together, we two.”

Furthermore, Poirot is quick to revert to dishing out backhanded compliments:

“But I believe in luck – in destiny, if you will. It is your destiny to stand beside me and prevent me from committing the unforgivable error.”

“What do you call the unforgivable error?”

“Overlooking the obvious?”

I turned this over in my mind without quite seeing the point.

One of their first chats is a discussion on what crime they would like to solve if they could order one and unsurprisingly the crimes they pick reflect their own differing characters and tastes. Captain Hastings picks first saying:

“Who shall the victim be – man or woman? Man, I think. Some big-wig. American millionaire. Prime Minister. Newspaper proprietor. Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere. As for the weapon – well, it might be a curiously twisted dagger – or some blunt instrument – a carved stone idol –”

Poirot is unimpressed by such a suggestion, going as far as sighing and looking sad. He complains that Hastings has “made there a very pretty resume of nearly all the detective stories that have ever been written.” Conversely, Poirot’s ideal case anticipates the setup for the later Christie mystery, Cards on the Table (1936):

“Supposing […] that four people sit down to play bridge and one, the odd man out, sits in a chair by the fire. At the end of the evening the man by the fire is found dead. One of the four, while he is dummy, has gone over and killed him, and, intent on the play of the hand, the other three have not noticed. Ah, there would be a crime for you! Which of the four was it?

Captain Hastings, of course, returns the incomprehension at his friend’s choice: “I can’t see any excitement in that!”

Which sort of case interests you best as a reader? Are you a Hastings or a Poirot?

One thing which surprised me in this re-read was the connections I saw between The ABC Murders and Christie’s later Poirot case, Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952). Firstly, when the first murder is announced in The ABC Murders, Captain Hastings is disappointed in the choice of victim, an old woman who owned an inconsequential tobacco and newspaper shop. He said it ‘seemed somehow sordid and uninteresting’, a sentiment which Poirot echoes in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, when he first hears about the charwoman’s murder.

So, what makes a case worthy of interest? Poirot previously in the story says that Captain Hastings’ taste in mysteries is always for the melodramatic, but Hastings himself also reveals another factor which makes a murder investigation interesting:

‘I think that I can date my interest in the case from that first mention of the A B C railway guide. Up till then I had not been able to raise much enthusiasm. This sordid murder of an old woman in a back street shop was so like the usual type of crime reported in the newspapers that if failed to strike a significant note. In my own mind I had put down the anonymous letter with its mention of the 21st as a mere coincidence. Mrs Ascher, I felt reasonably sure, had been the victim of her drunken brute of a husband. But now the mention of the railway guide […] sent a quiver of excitement through me.’

An unusual or outré aspect to a crime has been shown since Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), to be a key way of making a mystery story interesting. And as much as I worry about likening myself to Captain Hastings (it never feels like a compliment to do so), I do agree with that sentiment. I have enjoyed many mysteries which do not have odd clues or features, but there is something beguiling about a mystery which hints at a crime which is not your usual murder. It is one of the reasons I have been enjoying Robert Thorogood’s Death in Paradise novels recently.

The second parallel between The ABC Murders and Mrs McMcGinty’s Dead is that the true murderer provides themselves with a scapegoat and they then commit their crimes in such a way as to present the police with a false criminal profile, which fits the character of the scapegoat. This is most successfully done in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, probably because the killer only needed to eliminate one person and their overall modus operandi was simpler. Nevertheless, the killer in The ABC Murders does generate a false impression about what sort of person they are. For example, Poirot says in one conversation that “you must remember such a type has usually all the outer signs of insignificance – he belongs to the class of person who is usually passed over and ignored or even laughed at!” Yet when the true murderer is revealed, they do not meet these criteria nor the other criteria mentioned in other passages by Poirot and other investigating characters. Perhaps one of the failings of the killer in today’s read is that the type of man his scapegoat was, Alexander Bonaparte Cust, does not perfectly fit the impression given by the anonymous ABC letters to Poirot. The reader is prepared for this through the third person sections in the book which look at Cust’s experiences during the investigation and his growing confusion about what is going on around him. He is depicted as someone who is muddle headed and lacking in confidence. Quite a pitiable image is created, contrasting with other killers we might have met in other inverted mysteries of the time period, such as in The Murder of my Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull and Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought (1931).

Cover for The ABC Murders. The top half shows fingers using a typewriter, whilst the bottom half is blue in colour and shows the author's name and title of the book.

Something else which interested me during this re-read was the moments in which Captain Hastings and Hercule Poirot’s friendship is placed under strain by the investigation. The case brings to the surface Hastings’ expectations of Poirot as a sleuth and Poirot’s frustrations at being expected to perform in that way. The performative pressure of detecting is not something I had considered in regards to Poirot, but it seems quite pertinent to this story. Captain Hastings’ conception of a great detective is grounded in sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, which Poirot intuits in passages such as this one:

“Well?” I demanded eagerly.

We were seated in a first-class carriage which we had to ourselves. The train, an express, had just drawn out of Andover.

“The crime,” said Poirot, “was committed by a man of medium height with red hair and a cast in the left eye. He limps slightly on the right foot and has a mole just below the shoulder-blade.”

“Poirot?” I cried.

For the moment I was completely taken in. Then the twinkle in my friend’s eye undeceived me.

“Poirot!” I said again, this time in reproach.

“Mon ami, what will you? You fix upon me a look of doglike devotion and demand of me a pronouncement a la Sherlock Holmes! Now for the truth – I do not know what the murderer looks like, nor where he lives, nor how to set hands upon him.” “If only he had left some clue,” I murmured. “Yes, the clue – it is always the clue that attracts you. Alas that he did not smoke the cigarette and leave the ash, and then step in it with a shoe that has nails of a curious pattern. No – he is not so obliging.”

Like many other fictional sleuths, Poirot indulges in parodying one of Holmes’ most famous habits. Yet he also must remind Hastings about the lack of evidence there is to go on at this stage, which is repeated in this next exchange:

“No, but what do we do?”


“Nothing?” My disappointment rang out clearly.

“Am I the magician? The sorcerer? What would you have me do?”

Poirot is correct in saying there is nothing that can be down yet, as unfortunately more crimes are needed in order to bring up further clues and for a pattern to be established. Nevertheless, at times in the story there is a note of blame in some of Hastings’ comments towards Poirot, showing he has high expectations of what he thinks his friend should be able to achieve. You could say he treats him like a superhero almost.

One question I had at the end of this story was: How much of the solution can you work out before the denouement? As for example, Poirot gets his more meaningful proofs of guilt off the page, and he reports at the end how the murderer was said to have been recognised by various witnesses. Before this point, it is more a case of the reader firstly deciding that Cust must be the scapegoat and from this casting their eyes over the other existing characters. The reader also needs to ignore the false criminal profile built up by the letters, as well as have their attention grabbed by the third killing, which out of the four has the least in common with the others. This third killing is almost much more representative of the types of mysteries Christie had written previously. I am not the only one who has thought to question the amount of evidence available to the reader, as this comes up in Bev Hankins review on her blog My Reader’s Block. In addition, the murderer’s guilt is corroborated by them panicking and giving themselves away and commentators such as John Goddard in his book: Agatha Christie’s Golden Age: An Analysis of Poirot’s Golden Age Puzzles (2018), have noted that in a number of Poirot’s early investigations he has a tendency to bluff suspects in order to get an admission of guilt from them.

So as you can see below I have given this read less than 5/5 this time. On balance I felt that was too generous a score. The issues of cluing mentioned above are partially responsible for this, but I also noticed during this re-read that we get less interaction with characters outside of Poirot and Hastings. I wonder if my previous Christie re-reading this year has made this point more prominent as in my other re-reads I think I found there was more to go at character-wise.

Rating: 4.25/5


  1. This was always one of my favourites, but that may be because lived in Andover for part of my childhood! As for Hastings and Poirot, I love their exchanges in this one, and also how Christie subverts the idea of the all-powerful, all-knowing detective!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, it’s VERY lightly clued— indeed,I feel the Chesterton story which shares the same central deception concept— and I believe which may have served as Christie’s inspiration here— is significantly more robust in its clueing, even within its very limited page space. Still, THE ABC MURDERS is a nice, solid (if not particularly inspired) work.

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  3. I’ve only seen the Suchet adaptation so far but I loved it.

    I’ve come to realize that my favourite type of mystery is the one that tricks you about what kind of mystery you are reading or even the fact that it’s a mystery at all! I bought into the serial killer angle or even “inverted mystery” angle and the realization at the end was huge. The fact that it’s structured like one, with the different murders and the “cat and mouse” chase really got me.

    As you can imagine, this is a difficult type of mystery to talk about, since just mentioning the fact is a huge spoiler! But it really is my favourite twist

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like this one, especially the central idea/twist, but it was never one of my favorites and since reading your review I’ve been trying to figure out why. In general I feel the Poirot novels that are narrated by Hastings aren’t as good as the others, and I include Curtain in that opinion. The writing just doesn’t seem as sharp. Dumb Witness I found particularly weak for a Poirot book of that era, and even the one I like best, Peril at End House, suffers from a bit of heavy-handedness in the prose. It’s difficult, however, to make a direct comparison since most of those with him were written early in her career and there are probably more books overall without him.

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      • My guess is yes and yes. Hastings probably limited Poirot’s versatility as a detective. Maybe she also got tired of repeating Hastings’ obtuseness and Poirot’s gibes at him. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles their interactions had more subtlety. If I recall correctly, Barnard talks about this as well in his book about Christie.

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        • Yes I think the Hastings and Poirot dynamic would be difficult to keep fresh time after time. I think her decision to send him to Argentina probably helped to make his appearances more meaningful than if she had kept him in all of the Poirot mysteries. The TV series of course put Hastings in far more of the Poirot stories but perhaps it works differently somehow on the screen as opposed to the page.

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          • Barnard’s theory is that many of the early GAD writers were influenced by Sherlock Holmes, and one way that manifested was in creating their own Watson figure. He thinks Christie pretty quickly figured out she didn’t need that for what she was doing, and hence Hastings’ early banishment to Argentina. He felt that although Poirot and Miss Marple had some recurring people in the periphery of their lives, they were essentially solitary figures, and that enabled them to be inserted into a myriad of situations (I’m going by memory but I believe that was his assertion).

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    • Thank you for the link. I have no idea what my top 4 Poirots would be, but your choices are certainly intriguing. Interesting to see two short story collections in their, as well as a very late Poirot case. Do you think your decisions were influenced by the fact they were audio books? Would your four have been different if they had been read rather than listened to?

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  5. This is a favorite Poirot for me, not quite in the same category as Peril at End House or Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, but up there. Partly because of the central twist, but also because of Poirot’s struggles with this case.

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