Hickory Dickory Dock is a Poirot mystery, first published in 1955. The nursery rhyme title actually bears no relevance to the plot, even though Poirot quotes the rhyme at the end when he hears a clock strike one. The only links I can see are that it’s about the residents of a students’ hostel at 26 Hickory Road and one of the suspects also parodies the rhyme.
Poirot is drawn into the plot through his secretary, Miss Lemon. This is her first appearance as Poirot’s secretary in a full length novel, although she had featured in some of Agatha Christie’s short stories. She had also appeared in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934) when she worked for Mr Parker Pyne. I’m used to Pauline Moran’s portrayal of Miss Lemon, in Agatha Christie’s Poirot TV series – efficient and smart but also attractive. So I was surprised to read this most unflattering description of her as ‘that hideous and efficient woman … she was not a woman at all. She was a machine – the perfect secretary’ , with ‘strong grizzled hair.’ Poirot just cannot believe that she has made three mistakes in one letter and discovers that she is worried about her sister who manages a student hostel where strange things have been happening.
Now this is not the usual setting for an Agatha Christie novel – no quintessential English village, no grand country houses, or quaint cottages, but a crowded London house, owned by Mrs Nicolstis, a Greek and full of a mixed group of young people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures – from America, West Africa and India as well as an assortment from the British Isles. Miss Lemon’s sister, Mrs Hubbard gives Poirot a list of items that have recently gone missing and.invites him to talk to the students about detection and some of his celebrated criminal cases. At first it all seems to be quite low key, as some of the missing items are rather trivial – lipstick, and a box of chocolates, for example, but others are rather odd – such as one evening shoe, a rucksack, discovered cut up in pieces, and boracic powder. But then one of the students commits suicide – or is it murder? And more deaths follow.
I did enjoy this book, although the plot is somewhat far-fetched, but I liked the characterisation, particularly the way in which Agatha Christie reveals contemporary attitudes (1950s) to race and politics, as the characters’ prejudices come out in their discussions. There are plenty of suspects and red herrings and some interesting reflections on crime and the psychology of behaviour. And I also liked this insight into Miss Lemon’s mind. Poirot has quoted from one of Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and she responds:
‘You mean these Baker Street societies and all that’, said Miss Lemon. ‘Grown men being so silly! But there, that’s men all over. Like the model railways they go on playing with. I can’t say I’ve ever had time to read any of the stories. When I do get time for reading, which isn’t very often, I prefer an improving book.’ (page 9)
It’s just as well we don’t all think like that.