Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

There are many things I like about Five Little Pigs, a Poirot mystery first published in 1943. I like the plot and the way it’s structured, the characterisation, the dialogue, and Agatha Christie’s fluent style of writing. In addition the solution is convincing and satisfying.

Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.

Poirot checks the police records, talks to the lawyers who conducted the trial and to the five eyewitnesses, persuading them to write down their versions of events. He finds that she had ample motive for the crime, at no time had she protested her innocence, although she contended that he had committed suicide, and all the eyewitnesses thought she was guilty.

Inevitably there are different versions of the events and conflicting views of Caroline’s character, all very clearly set out. So what did actually happen? Was Caroline innocent or guilty?

Poirot, in his usual methodical manner, goes through the sequence of events, and having gathered together all the people involved, using logic and psychology to detect the incongruous he makes his denouement.

The description of Amyas Crale’s house, Alderbury appears to have been modelled on Agatha Christie’s own house, Greenway, complete with a Battery overlooking the river, just as at Greenway. The book was written in 1943, making it 16 years after 1926, the year of her disappearance before her divorce from her first husband, Archie Christie, so I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Amyas Crale, a womaniser who was proposing to leave his wife for another woman has the same initials as Archie Christie!

I think the nursery rhyme theme of the title and the chapter headings is rather forced, as it doesn’t really throw any light on the mystery. It seems that Agatha Christie was a bit carried away with her ‘crimes of rhymes’, just as Poirot was obsessed with the jingle:

A jingle ran through Poirot’s head. He repressed it. He must not always be thinking of nursery rhymes. It seemed an obsession with him lately. And yet the jingle persisted.

This little pig went to market, this little pig stayed at home…’ (page 33)

This is the first Agatha Christie book I’ve read this year and I’m pleased it was such a good one!

Five Little Pigs is my 8th TBR book I’ve read this year in the Mount TBR Challenge, and the TBR Triple Dog Dare, the 2nd for the My Kind of Mystery Challenge and the 2nd for the What’s in a Name 7 Challenge (in the category, a book with a number written in letters in the title). And last, but by no means least, it’s the 56th Agatha Christie book I’ve read in the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

Third Girl by Agatha Christie

Third Girl was first published in 1966. In it Poirot is probably meant to be approaching eighty, although if he had aged with the books he would have been well over a hundred! Anyway, the young lady who comes to see him about ‘a murder she might have committed‘ runs out of his room after blurting out:

You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old. I really don’t want to be rude but – there it is. You’re too old. I’m really very sorry.’ (page 13)

Poirot is bored. He had finished his Magnum Opus, an analysis of detective fiction writers, in which he had spoken scathingly of Edgar Allen Poe, and had complained of the lack of method or order in the romantic outpourings of Wilkie Collins. He had no idea what to do next, so, his interest is aroused by the young lady’s announcement and he sets out to discover what murder she ‘might have committed.’ It turns out that Mrs Ariadne Oliver had told the girl about him when talking with friends about detectives and together they discover that she is Norma Restarick, the ‘third girl’, sharing a flat with two other girls.

Norma thinks she might be crazy, but won’t see a doctor. She doesn’t always remember what she has done. She hates her stepmother and thinks she might have poisoned her. Poirot is intrigued but when a suspicion of espionage surfaces it is all too much for him:

Poirot gave an exasperated sigh.

‘Enfin,’ he said, ‘it is too much! There is far too much. Now we have espionage and counter espionage. All I am seeking is one perfectly simple murder. I begin to suspect that that murder only occurred in a drug addict’s brain! (page 211)

But as Poirot reminds himself it is his ‘metier’ to deal with murder, to clear up murder, to prevent murder and eventually with a casual phrase spoken by Mrs Oliver it all becomes clear to him.

The plot is complex, which is rather puzzling,  but for me Third Girl is also interesting because of its commentary on the 1960s culture seen through the eyes of the older characters – the disparaging remarks about the youth of the day – beatniks, long hair, clothes that were of doubtful cleanliness, and skimpy skirts, and the Van Dyke type clothes some of the young men wore, the drink and drugs and wild parties. Mrs Oliver has her usual gripe about people saying things to her about her books and how they longed to meet her, making her feel ‘hot, bothered and rather silly‘ and how much they love the ‘awful detective Sven Hjerson‘ she had created and now hates.

Maybe it’s not one of Agatha Christie’s best books but I think it’s very entertaining.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

I think Cards on the Table is one of the best of Agatha Christie’s books. It was first published in 1936 and has been reprinted many times since then. My copy is a Pan Books edition published in 1951 with this cover:

Cards on the Table

From the back cover:

Mr Shaitana is a collector. He collects snuff boxes, Egyptian antiquities … and … murderers.

His murderers are of the very finest. Not the second rate individuals who are caught and convicted. Delighting in his role as a modern Mephistopheles, Shaitana gathers his four murderers for an evening of cards.

Before the evening ends, Mr Shaitana will himself be a murder victim. How very fortunate that he invited a fifth guest to his gathering, M. Hercule Poirot.

One of the things that pleased me about this book is Agatha Christie’s Foreword in which she states that it is not the sort of detective story where the least likely person is the one to have committed the crime. This story has just four suspects and any one of them ‘given the right circumstances‘ might have committed the crime. She goes on to explain that there are four distinct types, the motives are peculiar to each person and each would employ a different method. She concludes:

The deduction must, therefore, be entirely psychological, but it is none the less interesting for that, because when all is said and done it is the mind of the murderer that is of supreme interest.

All of which suits Poirot down to the ground as he considers the psychology of each of the four suspects, Dr Roberts, a very popular doctor who may have killed a patient or two, Mrs Lorimer, a first-class bridge player and a widow who husband died under suspicious circumstances, Major Despard, a daring character, an explorer who possibly killed a botanist whilst on an expedition up the Amazon, and Anne Meredith, a young woman, a timid and careful bridge player, who may have poisoned her employer.

Poirot is not on his own, also at the bridge party were Superintendent Battle, a stolid officer from Scotland Yard (he first appeared in The Secret of Chimneys), Colonel Race, a Secret Service agent (he first appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit), and Mrs Ariadne Oliver, writer of popular detective fiction, (meeting Poirot for the first time). It helps if you can play bridge to understand  how Poirot uncovered the murderer, but it’s not necessary – I managed with just a minimal memory of the card game, and it all hinges on the psychology of the characters anyway.

As Ariadne Oliver is used by Agatha Christie to convey some of her own opinions I wondered whether this description of her physical appearance was how she viewed herself:

… she was an agreeable woman of middle age, handsome in a rather untidy fashion with fine eyes, substantial shoulders and a large quantity of rebellious grey hair with which she was continually experimenting. One day her appearance would be highly intellectual – a brow with the hair scraped back from it and coiled in a large bun in the neck – on another Mrs Oliver would suddenly appear with Madonna loops, or large masses of slightly untidy curls. On this particular evening Mrs Oliver was trying out a fringe. (page 13)

I think there is no doubt that Ariadne’s views on writing and on the character of her detective are Agatha Christie’s own views. For ‘Finn’ in the extract quoted below read ‘Belgian’:

… I regret only one thing – making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. (page 55)

And this must be from her own experience too:

I’m always getting tangled up in horticulture and things like that. People write to me and say I’ve got the wrong flowers all out together. As though it mattered – and, anyway, they are all out together in a London shop. (page 110)

And this about writing?:

One actually has to think, you know. And thinking is always a bore. And you have to plan things. And then one gets stuck every now and then, and you feel you’ll never get out of the mess – but you do! Writing’s not particularly enjoyable. It’s hard work, like everything else. …

Some days I can only keep going by repeating over and over to myself the amount of money I might get for my next serial rights. That spurs me on, you know. So does your bank-book when you see how much overdrawn you are. …

‘I can always think about things,’ said Mrs Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’ (pages 110 – 111)

But back to the mystery, Mr Shaitana is murdered whilst his guests are playing bridge. Two games were set up – one made up of the four people he considered were murderers and the other in a separate room made up of the four detectives or investigators of crime. Mr Shaitana sat by the fire in the room with the murderers. When the four detectives finished their game they return to the other room where they find the game still in progress and Mr Shaitana still sitting by the fire – stabbed in the chest with an ornamental dagger.

What follows is that each detective carries out their own investigations and as I read I swung from one suspect to the other, but I was never really sure who the culprit was. Poirot is his usual brilliant self even though at one point he is astonished and upset at the possibility that he might be wrong:

‘Always I am right. It is so invariable that it startles me. But now it looks as though I am wrong. And that upsets me. (page 163)

But was he wrong?

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

I don’t usually find short stories as satisfying as novels, but the stories in Murder in the Mews are good, mainly, I think, because with one exception they are novellas, longer than the average short stories. The collection was first published in 1937.

There are four stories about crimes solved by Hercule Poirot:

  •  Murder in the Mews – at first it looks as though a young widow, Mrs Allen has committed suicide, but as the doctor pointed out the pistol is in her right hand and the wound was close to her head just above the left ear, so it’s obvious that someone else shot her and tried to make it look like suicide. The plot is tightly constructed, with a few red herrings to misguide Poirot and Inspector Japp and a moral question at the end. The book begins on Guy Fawkes Day and I like this conversation between Poirot and Inspector Japp:

(J): ‘Don’t suppose many of those kids really know who Guy Fawkes was.’

(P): ‘And soon, doubtless, there will be confusion of thought. Is it in honour or in execration that on the fifth of November the feux d’artifice are sent up? To blow up an English Parliament, was it a sin or a noble deed?’

Japp chuckled. ‘Some people would say undoubtedly the latter.’ (page 7)

 

  • The Incredible Theft – Poirot is called in to investigate the theft of top secret plans of a new bomber from the home of a Cabinet Minister, Lord Mayfield, where a number of guests are gathered for a house party: Mrs Vanderlyn is an American siren who had formed friendships with ‘a European party’ (this was written in 1936). Air Marshall Sir George Carrington  wonders why she is there. Lady Julia Carrington, Sir George’s wife is a keen bridge player, who has ‘the most frightful overdraft’ and their son Reggie, fancies the French maid. Also present are Mrs Macatta MP, and Mr Carlile, Lord Mayfield’s private secretary. This is perhaps the weakest story in the collection.
  • Dead Man’s Mirror – a conventional murder mystery. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is found dead in his locked study, shot through the head. The bullet had shattered the mirror on the wall behind his desk. Again it looks like suicide, but the question is why he should kill himself. Poirot considers it’s all wrong psychologically – Sir Gervase was known as The Bold Bad Baronet, with a huge ego, much like Poirot, considering himself to be a man of great importance. This is another story, complicated by family relationships. Things of interest I noted are that Poirot studies the footprints in the garden outside the study, Mr Satterthwaite (seen in later stories) makes an appearance, and on a personal note I wondered if this was Agatha Christie’s cynical view of divorce?

 I can’t see it makes a ha’p’orth of difference who you marry nowadays. Divorce is so easy. If you’re not hitting it off, nothing is easier than to cut the tangle and start again. (page 115)

 

  • Triangle at Rhodes – although this is the shortest story, not my preferred length, I think this is the best one in the book. It’s similar to her later book Evil Under the Sun in that it is about a love triangle and a crime of passion. Poirot is on holiday in Rhodes and observes the jealousy and passion between two couples as he sits in the sun on the beach. He foresees trouble ahead and is worried as he traces a triangle in the sand. There aren’t many people on holiday there and he wonders if he is imagining things , reproaching himself for being ‘crime-minded‘. But he is not wrong and Valentine Chantry, a famous beauty, married to a commander in the navy, a strong, silent man, is murdered.

These stories demonstrate some of Agatha Christie’s plot elements and endings – the locked room murder, the murderer conceals the motive, Poirot foresees murder, the clues (often odd clues) are there hidden or in plain sight, there are red herrings and bluffs, chance remarks that have significance, and the final denouement, explaining the solution to the mystery.

Mrs McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

Mrs McGinty 001

I think Agatha Christie enjoyed herself writing Mrs McGinty’s Dead, especially the character of the crime novelist, Ariadne Oliver. It was first published in 1952 and written not long after the end of the Second World War, reflecting the difficulties of finding employment and the changes for the post-war impoverished middle classes.

Hercule Poirot is rather bored, missing his friend Hastings and finding that his days are revolving around his meals: ‘One can only eat three times a day. And in between there are gaps.’ Even a newspaper report about the result of the McGinty trial doesn’t interest him: ‘It had not been an interesting murder. Some wretched old woman knocked on the head for a few pounds. All part of the senseless brutality of these days.

It is only when Superintendent Spence comes to him for help, convinced of the innocence of James Bentley, convicted of the murder and under sentence of death that Poirot agrees to reinvestigate the case. And so it is that he goes to the village of Broadhinny, treating it as a ‘challenge to the little grey cells of my brain.’

He investigates in his usual way, with method and logic, first of all by considering the motive and then looking at the characters of Mrs McGinty and James Bradley. He decides that the answer is to be found in the personality of the murderer.There is a sense of urgency, as the death penalty was still in force and there is little time left before James Bentley is due to be hanged. Poirot talks to Mrs McGinty’s neighbours and the people she worked for as a charlady and eventually solves the mystery, but not without a second murder and nearly getting killed himself.

It’s a lively book, the characters and dialogue moving the plot along smoothly. There are plenty of surprises and a lot of misdirection before the killer is revealed. The clues are all there and although I did pick up on the main clue, I picked the wrong person as the murderer.

As always, for me, there is more to the book than the puzzle of the murders, and in Mrs McGinty’s Dead there are several things, including the view Agatha Christie paints of life in an English village not long after the war (usually the setting for a Miss Marple mystery), the mix of characters, working class and middle class, the very amusing picture of the dreadful Bed and Breakfast, run by Major Summerhayes and his wife, Maureen, where Poirot stays in Broadhinny, and then there is Ariadne Oliver.

In portraying Ariadne I think Agatha Christie is revealing her feelings about writing about Poirot, a character she described in her Autobiography as ‘hanging round my neck, firmly attached there like the old man of the sea.’ Ariadne’s detective is a Finn, Sven Hjerson and she has been writing about him for thirty years:

 How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the  idiotic mannerisms he’s got? …

And people even write and say how fond of him you must be. Fond of him? If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve invented. (page 201)

She also reveals her feelings about playwrights adapting her plays (and about money for her books!):

So far it’s pure agony. Why I ever let myself in for it I don’t know. My books bring me quite enough money – that is to say the bloodsuckers take most of it, and if I made more, they’d take more. But you have no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things that they never would have done. And if you protest, all they say is that it’s “good theatre”. (page 125)

She also wrote in her Autobiography about the ‘terrible suffering you go through with plays, owing to the alterations made in them.'(page 448). I find it reassuring that she didn’t like the way dramatisations changed her books, because I don’t either, although I do like David Suchet as Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

There are references to real life murder cases. On the Sunday before her death, Mrs McGinty had been reading the Sunday Comet, which had an article on women victims of tragedies from the past. Poirot looks at these in detail, concluding that one of the women might have been in Broadhinny when the murder took place.

A short while ago I wrote a guest post for Alyce’s blog At Home With Books about the best and the worst of Agatha Christie’s works. Trying to decide between her numerous novels which one is the best is an impossible task, but I think that Mrs McGinty’s Dead is up there amongst the best of them.

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.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

I thoroughly enjoyed Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, first published in 1953.

Synopsis (from the official Agatha Christie website):

‘When Cora is savagely murdered, the extraordinary remark she made the previous day at her brother’s funeral takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it…But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”  In desperation, the family solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel what happened next …

Published in 1953, and appearing in the United States under the title Funerals are Fatal, Christie dedicated the novel to her nephew, James Watt III “in memory of happy days at Abney”, her sister’s family home. The novel  formed the basis for MGM’˜s Murder at the Gallop, although they chose to swap Poirot for Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple and took ‘˜artistic licence’ with the book’s plot!  It was broadcast in 2006 with David Suchet as Poirot.’

My view:

I read it quickly and consequently had little idea who had killed Cora. I did spend some time looking at the family tree at the beginning of the book, working out the family relationships and who was present at Richard Abernethie’s funeral and their reaction to Cora’s question. It seemed to me that any of the family could have done it – Agatha Christie goes through the actions and thoughts of each character and there’s cause for suspicion for each one.

None of them had had any close ties and consequently they didn’t feel any deep grief. His brother expected he would inherit as Richard’s only son had died six months before his father. Instead Richard had distributed his property equably between his brother and his nephews and nieces – everyone is disappointed.

Apart from trying to solve the mystery I was interested in the glimpses into life in post-war Britain, where jobs are scarce, servants even more scarce and there are complaints about the economic situation, with high taxation and the prospect of properties such as the Abernethie house being turned into a hotel, or institute, or even worse being pulled down and the whole estate built over.

  • Paperback: 378 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece edition edition (6 May 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007119364
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007119363
  • Source: I bought the book
  • Rating: 5/5