Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case by Agatha Christie: Book Review

Curtain was first published in 1975, but it was written in the 1940s during the Second World War. Agatha Christie had written it with the intention that it be published after her death, but in 1975 her publishers persuaded her to release it so that it could appear in time for the Christmas season – a ‘Christie for Christmas’.

In this book Poirot and Hastings have come full circle, returning to Styles, the scene of their first case. Poirot is now an old man (just how old is not revealed  – I think if you go by the chronology of the novels he must have been about 120, but there is no need to be too precise), and close to death.  Hastings is the narrator of this mystery. He is saddened by the devastation age has had on Poirot:

My poor friend. I have described him many times. Now to convey to you the difference. Crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself about in a wheeled chair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now. His face was lined and wrinkled. His moustache and hair, it is true, were still of a jet black colour, but candidly, though I would not for the world have hurt his feeling by saying so to him, this was a mistake. There comes a moment when hair dye is only too painfully obvious. There had been a time when I had been surprised to learn that the blackness of Poirot’s hair came out of a bottle. but now the theatricality was apparent and merely created the impression that he wore a wig and had adorned his upper lip to amuse the children!

Only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling, and now – yes, undoubtedly – softened with emotion. (pages 12-13)

Curtain is in many ways a sad book. Sad because this is Poirot’s last case and he dies, with  X, the murderer, apparently having got away with his crimes. Sad, too because Hastings is in a nostalgic and morbid frame of mind, mourning the death of his wife and wishing himself back into happier times. It doesn’t help him that one of his children, Judith, a secretive child now aged 21, is also staying at Styles, the assistant to Dr Franklin who is engaged in research work connected with tropical disease. She resents her father’s interference in her life and is scornful of what she considers his sentimental and old fashioned ideas. Sad too, because of the setting. Styles, once a well-kept country house has been sold  and is now being run as a guest house, the drive badly kept and overgrown with weeds and the house iself badly needing a coat of paint.

But is also an interesting puzzle. Poirot knows the identity of X, a murderer who is present at Styles but will not tell Hastings, because Hastings would not be able to conceal his knowledge – his face would give him away. Poirot is convinced that X will kill again, but he doesn’t know who the victim will be. He asks Hastings to be his eyes and ears whilst he is confined to his wheelchair. He also gives Hastings newspaper cuttings of five murder cases, all of which were committed by different people. X apparently had no motive for killing any of the victims, but he/she was connected with all of them.

Hastings is intrigued and suspects all the people staying at Styles in turn. The first mishap occurs when Colonel Luttrell, the owner of Styles, accidently shoots his wife, but she is only wounded and recovers. Then Barbara, Dr Franklin’s wife, who suffers from her nerves and is looked after by Nurse Craven is found dead, poisoned by one of the toxic substances her husband is researching. Finally Stephen Norton, another guest is found dead in his locked bedroom with a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. It looks like suicide, but there is something about the scene that reminds Hastings of an earlier death.

When Poirot, himself dies, the mystery is unsolved, but there is a twist in the ending, which I didn’t see coming, making this one of my favourite Agatha Christie books. It is also a theatrical and dramatic ending to the book and to Poirot, himself.

Agatha Christie on Poirot

These are some of Agatha Christie’s thoughts on creating Hercule Poirot, taken from her Autobiography.

She had decided to write a detective story whilst working in a hospital dispensary during World War 1. Surrounded by poisons it seemed natural that death by poisoning would be the method. She then decided who should be poisoned, who would be the poisoner, when, where and how. And then who should be the detective? She was steeped in the Sherlock Holmes tradition but decided she had to invent a detective of her own and he had to have a friend as a ‘kind of butt or stooge’. He had to be unique, a character that hadn’t been used before. She considered a schoolboy, or a scientist, but when she remembered the Belgian refugees who were living in a colony in Tor that is who she settled on.

She decided her detective should be a Belgian – a refugee and a retired police officer and only later realised what a mistake she had made:

What a mistake I made there. The result is that my fictional detective must be well over a hundred by now.

Anyway, I settled on a Belgian detective. I allowed him to grow slowly into his part. He should have been an inspector, so that he would have a certain knowledge of crime. He would be meticulous, very tidy, I thought to myself, as I cleared away a good many untidy odds and ends in my own bedroom. A tidy little man, I could see him as a tidy little man, always arranging things, liking things in pairs, liking things square instead of round. And he should be very brainy – he should have little grey cells of the mind – that was a good phrase: I must remember that – yes he would have the little grey cells. (page 263 -4)

And then he had to have a name, rather a grand name. She wondered about calling her little man Hercules but his last name was more difficult. She didn’t know how the name Poirot came to her – whether it just came into her head or whether she saw it in a newspaper or written down somewhere, but it didn’t go with Hercules; eventually she decided that it should be Hercule – Hercule Poirot. So, The Mysterious Affair at Styles was conceived and eventually published. She was jubilant – her book was going to appear in print. She didn’t know that this was the start of her long  writing career and that

Hercule Poirot, my Belgian invention, was hanging round my neck, firmly attached there like the old man of the sea. (page 285)

Because  Poirot had been quite a success in The Mysterious Affair at Styles she was encouraged to use him again and then she realised that she was tied to both Poirot and his Watson: Captain Hastings.

I quite enjoyed Captain Hastings. He was a stereotyped creation, but he and Poirot represented my idea of  a detective team. I was still writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, eccentric detective, stooge assistant, with a Lestrade-type Scotland Yard detective, Inspector Japp – and now I added a ‘human foxhound’, Inspector Giraud, of the French police. Giraud despises Poirot as being old and passé.

Now I saw what a terrible mistake I had made in starting with Hercule Poirot so old – I ought to have abandoned him after the first three or four books, and begun with someone much younger. (page 290)

Poirot, whatever Agatha Christie thought of him is one of her most famous characters, vying in popularity with Miss Marple. Each time I read on of the 33 novels he appears in or see him portrayed by David Suchet (who is Poirot for me) I think he is my favourite. But then I’m equally as fond of Miss Marple (Joan Hickson fitted the part to perfection) and she too is my favourite. I can’t pick one over the other – they are both outstanding creations.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie: Book Review

Agatha Christie didn’t enjoy writing The Mystery of the Blue Train (first published in 1928). In her autobiography she wrote that it had not been easy writing it and that she had always “hated” it:

To begin with I had no joy in writing, no élan. I had worked out the plot – a conventional plot, partly adapted from one of my other stories. I knew, as one might say, where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive. I was driven on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money.

That was the moment when I changed from being an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing and aren’t writing particularly well. (pages 368-9)

As she was writing this book at the time of her disappearance and divorce from her first husband, Archibald Christie it’s hardly surprising. It may not be her best book, but it’s still a good read. Ruth Kettering, the daughter of millionaire Rufus Van Aldin, is married to Derek, against her father’s advice. Agatha’s views on divorce are clear when Van Aldin tells Ruth she should divorce Derek, who he thinks is no good, rotten through and through and had only married her for her money, saying:

Have you got the grit to admit to all the world that you’ve made a mistake. There’s only one way out of this mess, Ruthie. Cut your losses and start afresh. (page 20)

Later Ruth is found strangled in her compartment in the Paris-Nice train, known as the train bleu, on its arrival in Nice and the fabulous ruby, the Heart of Fire that Van Aldin had given her, has been stolen. Fortunately Hercule Poirot is also travelling on the train and he of course unravels the mystery. There are a number of suspects ranging from Derek and his mistress, the dancer Mirelle, who had both the motive and the opportunity, to Ruth’s lover, the Comte de la Roche, suspected of stealing the jewels.

I liked the reflections on detective novels through a conversation Poirot has with another passenger on the train, Katherine Grey, from St Mary Mead who has inherited money from her employer. She is reading a roman policier when they meet at dinner and Poirot comments that they always sell well. She replies that may be because they give ‘the illusion of living an exciting life’ and that ‘nothing of that kind ever happens to me.‘ From then on however, she is drawn into the mystery along with Poirot, that

 small man, distinctly foreign in appearance, with a rigidly waxed moustache and an egg-shaped head which he carried rather on one side. (page 80)

It may be that Poirot is a bit of a caricature in this book, but the characters are in the main believable and the book certainly has a 1920s feel to it.