Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

I’ve read about half of Agatha Christie’s books ranging from her first books in the 1920s to the later ones in the 1970s and the quality of her writing does change, with some of the later books being rather loosely plotted and meandering. Cat Among the Pigeons is one of her later books, first published in 1959 and it’s one of the best of these later novels.

It’s set mainly in an exclusive and expensive girls’ school, Meadowbank, in England, said to be based on her daughter Rosalind’s school. The summer term has just started and there are some new members of staff as well as some new pupils, including Princess Shaista from Ramat, a small and rich Arab state in the Middle East, which has just suffered a revolution. Her fiancé Prince Ali Yusuf the Hereditary Sheik, has been murdered and his family jewels have disappeared.

The success of the school is down to Miss Bulstrode, the headmistress and founder of Meadowbank, but she is thinking of retiring. Miss Chadwick, who had helped Miss Bulstrode to found Meadowbank would like to be her successor, but Miss Bulstrode has other ideas. Will it be Miss Vansittart, who is her second in command, or one of the other teachers who would be able to develop the school in line with modern educational thinking? Miss Bulstrode is not sure. She is busy greeting one of the parents when her attention is distracted by one of the mothers approaching clearly in a state of advanced intoxication, so she misses something else that could very well be important. And although she feels uneasy:

There was nothing to tell her that within a few weeks Meadowbank would be plunged into a sea of trouble; that disorder, confusion and murder would reign there, that already certain events had been set in motion … (page 27)

The new staff members are not all fitting in very well. There is Miss Springer, the new Games Mistress, who is not popular with the girls and asks too many personal questions, Mlle Angele Blanche, the new French teacher, whose teaching leaves much to be desired, Ann Shapland, Miss Bulstrode’s new and efficient secretary, and last but not least Adam Goodman, the handsome young new gardener, who is good at his job and has other talents too.

As well as Princess Shaista, Jennifer Sutcliffe is new to the school this term. She’s an uncomplicated character who lives mainly for tennis. She makes friends with Julia Upjohn, who is a much more thoughtful, observant character. So when Miss Springer is found shot dead in the new Sports Pavilion, followed not long after by the murder of Miss Vansittart, it’s Julia who decides to contact Hercules Poirot.

There are several possible motives and suspects and Agatha Christie combines the murder stories with a thriller element by introducing Colonel Pikeaway, who it is hinted is in charge of British Intelligence – ‘We know all about things here. That’s what we’re for.‘ (page 46) and the mysterious Mr Robinson, who is most decidedly not an Englishman although his voice was English with no trace of an accent.

Poirot, of course, although arriving very late in the investigations, works it all out and explains what had happened. But Julia also has worked it out and without giving too much away I’m quoting this passage where she is writing an essay on the contrasting attitudes of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to murder:

Macbeth, Julia had written, liked the idea of murder and had been thinking of it a lot, but he needed a push to get him started. Once he got started he enjoyed murdering people and had no more qualms or fears. Lady Macbeth was just greedy and ambitious. She thought she didn’t mind what she did to get what she wanted. But once she’d done it, she found she didn’t like it after all. (page 239)

There in a nutshell are the motives for the murder – a ruthless disregard of the value of life and greed and ambition.