This is my latest Christie re-read. It is Poirot’s second outing in a novel and to be honest it was a book I had lukewarm memories of, so I was interested to see what I would make of it a second time round.
SPOILER WARNING: The remainder of this post is best read if you already know the solution to this novel.
‘On a French golf course, a millionaire is found stabbed in the back… An urgent cry for help brings Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies face downwards in a shallow grave on a golf course. But why is the dead man wearing his son’s overcoat? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse…’
There’s something quite self-conscious/metafictional in the way Captain Hastings opens this story:
‘I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence:
‘“Hell!” said the Duchess.’
Strangely enough, this tale of mine opens in much the same fashion. Only the lady who gave utterance to the exclamation was not a duchess.’
Interestingly this anecdote became the title for a 1934 horror crime novel by Michael Arlen, but its origins are harder to determine. One webpage managed to locate an instance of the same anecdote being used in 1915 in The Story of My Life—No. 44 by Noel Robinson. If you know of any earlier examples do let me know.
Following on from this we get something quite Dr Watson-like in the line: ‘I was still sharing rooms with my old friend, the Belgian ex-detective, Hercule Poirot.’ Overall, though the opening page or two were not overly inspiring. I think it was because the narrative voice echoes so many others in mystery fiction, and as such comes across as more generic and less distinctive.
Things pick up though when Captain Hastings gets on a train to England, and he encounters a woman who calls herself Cinderella. I think she demonstrates how society was changing at the time, as she is an independent woman who is an acrobat/stage performer, and she is not afraid to clash with Hasting’s preconceived notions of how a woman should behave. She also gives the end of chapter one a fairy tale like feel, as she disappears out of Hasting’s life. We know she will probably crop up again, which is something I will discuss later in this review.
On a random note, I found it amusing to learn that Captain Hastings is employed, in this story, as a private secretary to an MP, the amusing part being that his job consists of about two hours work a day. What a doddle! And more importantly it does not prevent Captain Hastings going with Poirot on his cases. I guess you could say this is similar to Dr Watson, whose patients never seem to get in the way of his sidekick work with Holmes. On the subject of Holmes, chapter two opens see Poirot and Hastings enact the typical Holmes/Watson breakfast scene, with Poirot also receiving a letter from a new client. This is flagged at the time as a duplicitous letter by Poirot himself, yet this is a bit of a red herring, as it encourages the reader to think no further about why the letter is suspicious as Poirot has already given a reason for it being so. Also, like Holmes, we have a moment where Poirot decries the lack of enterprise within the criminal classes, with him saying that ‘the great criminals, the criminals of method, they do not exist’. This reminded me of a lament made by Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887): “There are no crimes and no criminals in these days. What is the use of having brains in our profession […] There is no crime to detect, or, at most, some bungling villainy with a motive so transparent that even a Scotland Yard official can see through it.”
Yet for all these parallels, Poirot does present a challenge to Holmes way of detecting. Early on the narrative suggests that Poirot questions the supremacy and primacy of physical clues:
‘He had a certain disdain for tangible evidence, such as footprints and cigarette ash, and would maintain that, taken by themselves, they would never enable a detective to solve a problem.’ [Emphasis my own]
This criticism is picked up later when Parisian detective Giraud enters the case. He becomes something of a Holmes parody in the way he interacts with physical clues. A prime example can be seen in this passage:
What do you see there?’ he asked. There was something almost brutal in his tone. It made my cheeks flush. But Poirot remained unmoved. He shrugged his shoulders.
‘A cigarette end and a match.’
‘And what does that tell you?’ Poirot spread out his hands.
‘It tells me – nothing.’
‘Ah!’ said Giraud, in a satisfied voice. ‘You haven’t made a study of these things. That’s not an ordinary match – not in this country at least. It’s common enough in South America.’
Yet before the book is over, Poirot shows that the cigarette end and match are red herrings, a ruse created by Paul Renauld himself, who wanted to give the appearance that someone from South America was there. It is examples like this, which enable Poirot to demonstrate that it is not enough to identify a clue and know a lot of information about it. You must be able to interpret clues the right way. This is not to say that Poirot lacks interest in physical clues, but his attention is focused upon ones which the police do not consider important, such as a footprint in a flower border.
Another instance of Giraud missing the point with a set of clues is this one:
‘It was Renauld’s own spade, and the man who used it wore gloves […] And they’re Renauld’s too – or at least his gardener’s. I tell you, the men who carried out this crime were taking no chances. The man was stabbed with his own dagger, and would have been buried with his own spade […]’.
Giraud interprets this as the crooks planning ‘on leaving no traces!’ However, this is not the truth, as Poirot ultimately shows that the reason why so items belonging to Paul are used, is because Paul was enacting a criminal plan of his own which is the interrupted by someone else’s. Poirot is must better at noticing the fact that there are two criminal plots in this crime scene.
In the opening third of the story, I would say Christie is generous in her cluing. Through Poirot it is brought to our attention that Paul Renauld sent his chauffeur on holiday, despite writing in his letter to Poirot that he would send a car to meet him when he arrived in France. This should make us ask the question of why Paul wanted the chauffeur out of the way. The conflicting testimony of the witnesses also obfuscates the case and Paul’s new will is another good clue, as the fact he leaves his money to his wife and none to his son, can be read two ways. Firstly, it could mean he was displeased with his son and was therefore cutting him out of his will. Or it could mean that he needs his wife to retain full financial control for some reason. This reason is eventually shown to be that it was because he needed to regain access to his wealth in his new life, once he faked his own death.
Clothing is another important aspect of the case, as to begin with Paul is found dead only wearing his underclothes under his coat. This makes sense if he is going to don other clothing and therefore this is an early indicator that Paul was about to take on a new identity. Yet there are other fashion peculiarities that Poirot notices:
‘Poirot lingered a moment, looking back towards the body. I thought for a moment that he was going to apostrophise it, to declare aloud his determination never to rest till he had discovered the murderer. But when he spoke, it was tamely and awkwardly, and his comment was ludicrously inappropriate to the solemnity of the moment. ‘He wore his overcoat very long,’ he said constrainedly.’
Christie conveys this point comically, as for the casual Christie reader it encourages you to overlook exploring the idea Poirot brings up. Seasoned Christie readers know better of course, as the clues which everyone scoffs at except Poirot, tend to be crucial. One of the many things I am enjoying about my Christie re-reads this year are that they are helping me to notice her cluing more, in terms of the types of clues she deployed, as well as how they work and how they are given a smokescreen.
It is interesting how the first theory Poirot has about the crime is right, namely that Mrs Renauld’s story about the two masked men is a lie. This is a key part of understanding the final solution, yet Poirot discounts the idea for a time because of the genuine injuries caused to her wrists from being bound so tightly and because of her grief at seeing her husband’s body. It is clever of Christie to have one criminal plan (Paul Renauld faking his own death) thwarted by a separate murder plot, as it successfully muddies the investigative waters.
Inspector Giraud is an entertaining addition to the story, in the way he gets everyone’s backs up and even insults Poirot! For example, when he first sees Poirot, he says: ‘“I know you by name, Monsieur Poirot,” he said. “You cut quite a figure in the old days, didn’t you? But methods are very different now.”’ Poirot is quite mild in his reply: ‘“Crimes, though, are very much the same,” remarked Poirot gently.’ This element of conflict is an enjoyable part of the plot because you know Giraud will be shown up at the end, that Poirot will triumph over him and find the real solution to the murder.
Poirot’s victory is all the greater because during the middle of the story everyone, including Captain Hastings thinks Giraud is the best detective:
‘Efficiency seemed to radiate from the man. I could not help feeling that, so far, Poirot had not greatly distinguished himself, and it vexed me. He seemed to be directing his attention to all sorts of silly puerile points that had nothing to do with the case.’
Like in The ABC Murders (1936), Captain Hastings is critical of Poirot’s approach as it does not live up to Hasting’s ideal of the great detective. Poirot calls him out on this however:
‘At last you have seen the detective you admire – the human foxhound! Is it not so, my friend?’
‘At any rate, he’s doing something,’ I said, with asperity. ‘If there’s anything to find, he’ll find it. Now you –’
‘Eh bien! I also have found something! A piece of lead-piping.’
‘Nonsense Poirot. You know very well that’s got nothing to do with it. I meant little things – traces that may lead us infallibly to the murderers.’
‘Mon ami, a clue of two feet long is every bit as valuable as one measuring two millimetres! But it is the romantic idea that all important clues must be infinitesimal.’
In this passage we see a return to Poirot challenging the Holmesian sleuthing method, as Holmes’ cases often relied upon the small details.
So, we return to the matter of Hastings and Cinderella, who meet again on the grounds of Renauld’s house. We all know, except Hastings naturally, that Cinderella is up to something when she asks to see Paul’s body. This sickens Hastings: ‘What were women coming to nowadays? The girl’s ghoulish excitement nauseated me.’ Yet Cinderella confronts this viewpoint:
‘Come off your high horse,’ said the lady suddenly. ‘And don’t give yourself airs. When you got called to this job, did you put your nose up in the air and say it was a nasty business, and you wouldn’t be mixed up in it?’
‘No, but – ‘
‘If you’d been here on a holiday, wouldn’t you be nosing round just the same as I am? Of course you would.’
‘I’m a man. You’re a woman.’
‘Your idea of a woman is someone who gets on a chair and shrieks if she sees a mouse. That’s all prehistoric.’
I like Cinderella as a personality, but I enjoy her function within the plot less, primarily because it exacerbates Captain Hasting’s annoying qualities. This in turns drags out the second half of the book and allows the suspense/romance angle to dictate events too much. Nevertheless, I did like how Cinderella serves as a red herring. Poirot when they first arrive at the crime scene warns him off one woman, Marthe Daubreuil, and the reader is left wondering which of the two women Hastings may end up with, given his romantic failures in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Moreover, Cinderella’s incriminating behaviour draws attention away from the real killer. This “two women” element is replicated with Jack Renauld as he too has two love interests in his life, with Cinderella’s sister once more taking attention away from Marthe, who is Paul’s murderer.
Whilst the past case Poirot digs up in Paris does come across a mite convenient in plugging a large gap of information in the investigation, I did enjoy how the similarities between the past murder and the present one causes more questions than answers. Nevertheless, I still feel the second half of the book has too much theorising and is heavy on dialogue between Poirot and Hastings, as the former tries to get the latter to see the case like he does. But let’s just say Hasting is a bit on the slow side and this does become a little tiresome at points.
All in all, I would say this mystery has a clever crime in it, but that I had issues with how it was solved, the romance subplot having a greater pull on the way the solution is delivered. Although I did like how Cinderella got to use her acrobatic skills to save the day. So overall, I would say that I enjoyed this book more than I thought it would, but that the first half was the best part of the story for me.
See also: Bev at My Reader’s Block, the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, John at Countdown John’s Christie Journal, She Reads Novels and Kerrie at Paradise Mysteries have also reviewed this title.
I find the romantic subplot with Hastings and Cinderella to unusually unbelievable, two people who are less suited to each other seems difficult to find. Also, the other romantic subplot has the trope of sacrificing yourself for the lover taken to the extreme.
I do like the misdirection, and how the phrase “girl with the anxious eyes” gets reinterpreted by Poirot at the end. But I remember finding the originally intended plan from Mr. Renauld unbelieavable. Even in pre-Internet days, surely the similarity to the old case would be discovered quickly?
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It is perhaps a not a plot which bears much scrutiny but I think there is something a little inept about Paul Renauld when it comes to murder anyways – so the fact he would plan what he did, even if it was flawed – perhaps sort of makes sense, even if it was not sensible. I like the multiple crimes element it introduces. The romance element is less satisfying though as you say.
I found this in the New York Times edition of February 2nd, 1913:
Special to The New York Times. WASHINGTON, Feb. 1.—‘’ The answer to that question,’’ said Secretary Stimson to one of his callers to-day, ‘‘is a quotation from the alleged opening of an alleged novel:
‘Oh, hell,’ said the Duchess, who up to this time had taken no part in the conversation.”
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