Poirot Investigates was the first collection of short stories featuring the Belgian detective. Published in 1924, it is usually described as the third Poirot book though many of the stories contained here were originally published prior to The Murder on the Links.
The collection is an interesting one made up of a pretty diverse blend of cases. While the majority involve murders, there are a couple of thefts and disappearances to solve as well. In short, it makes quite a nice change of pace for the character and allows Christie to show some different sides of his character.
Unfortunately I feel that the quality of these stories also differs quite sharply with only a couple of truly memorable stories and quite a few duds in this particular assortment. On the positive side I would say that The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, The Kidnapped Prime Minister and The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman are all quite compelling, engaging adventures. I am far less impressed with the others however, finding some stories such as The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb and The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor to live up to the promise of their premises while others such as The Lost Mine and The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge are pretty tedious.
One influence that can be felt on many of these tales are Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Not only are they structured similarly, being written as accounts of Poirot’s cases for publication, many touch on similar themes or plot elements. In some cases this can be quite charming but it sometimes means that some parts of a solution stand out a little too much.
I should also probably mention at this point that the stories contained in this book differ based on where you are purchasing it. The American edition of the book is longer, containing three additional stories. Those stories would eventually be collected in the UK as part of the Poirot’s Early Cases collection (which would also be released in the US – go figure!).
For the purposes of this review I am working with that American edition. The three extra stories are each marked in the individual reviews below. While none of the three are classics, I think two of them are very good and significantly boost the quality of the collection.
While I think a number of these stories are quite flawed, I did enjoy rereading this collection and I appreciate the author’s attempts to provide a variety of settings and styles.
The Adventure of “The Western Star”
An American film actress consults Poirot about letters she has received from a Chinaman threatening to steal a valuable necklace at the next full moon.
This first story is an entertaining play on The Moonstone with a pair of matching priceless jewels taken from their homelands by British imperialists. Christie uses this premise to tell her own story though that is quite cleverly worked and fairly clued.
As you might expect from a work of this period, some of the language used in discussing ethnically Chinese characters would be deemed offensive today.
The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor
Poirot is employed by an insurance company to investigate the death of a man who had only recently insured his life for a large sum.
Unsatisfactory though there are a few things to appreciate here. For instance, I do think the explanation of the cause of death is fairly clever. The problem though is that it relies on a character making an extremely questionable decision. I couldn’t buy that element of the story which undermined the rest of the story for me.
The Adventure of the Cheap Flat
A couple who are friends of Captain Hastings tell him about a strange experience they had while trying to find a flat to rent. They had followed up on an unlikely lead from their agent telling them about a flat at a desirable address far below the usual market rates.
Christie appears to have drawn inspiration from several of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventures in devising this story. I won’t say which to avoid spoiling those who have not read this before. Though some of the individual deductions are quite simple, the way those ideas are combined is clever.
The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge
A client tries to call on Poirot when he is indisposed with flu to seek his assistance investigating the death of his uncle. He was in London at his club the previous evening when the uncle was found shot dead, apparently by an American visitor. Hastings is dispatched to investigate in Poirot’s stead with the latter noting that he knows his methods.
Perhaps it is as a result of the previous story putting this in my mind but I felt that this story once again evoked the Holmes adventures where Watson takes the lead. The purpose is to show the reader that someone can do all of the things that the detective does and yet still reach the wrong result because they lack the spark of genius that the great detective has.
As an example of that sort of story this works reasonably well and I did feel that it is fairly clued. That being said I did find the story’s resolution, as opposed to its explanation, to be pretty unsatisfying.
The Million Dollar Bond Robbery
Poirot is asked to prove the innocence of a man who stands accused of stealing a million dollars of Liberty bonds he was entrusted to carry on behalf of his employer to New York. The bonds had been placed in a portmanteau with a special lock but the packet they were contained in was found to have been stolen shortly before the liner docked in New York.
I enjoyed this story a lot and consider it the first big hit of the collection. Unfortunately I remembered the solution pretty clearly which means that I can’t judge how challenging it is to solve though I think that speaks to the impact the story made on me. The mechanics of how the crime was committed are interesting and clever, being cunning but playing fair with the reader.
The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb
Three mysterious deaths have occurred following the opening of the Tomb of Men-her-Ra, an Egyptian king who ruled toward the end of the Old Kingdom. Sir John Willard, a famous Egyptologist, dies of heart failure while several weeks later Mr. Bleibner, the man financing the expedition, dies of blood poisoning. When Bleibner’s nephew dies just a few days later in New York talk of a curse spreads and Sir John’s widow consults Poirot out of worry for her son who has travelled to Egypt to take over the expedition.
Clearly this plays off the sensation of the curse of Tutankhamun. The deaths linked to the opening of that tomb began in April 1923 and continued past the publication of this short story. It would have been an extremely topical subject for a story but in spite of that I think it has enduring appeal thanks to its setting and way this story plays with some supernatural elements.
The premise for the story is extremely strong and I think it has a real appeal to the imagination. I appreciated that Poirot himself travels to the dig with Hastings which gives this story a very satisfying sense of scale.
Unfortunately I think it all collapses a bit with the explanation and resolution phase of the story. In particular, I think Poirot has no way of knowing why the person he accuses has a motivation to carry out murder at the point at which he accuses them. He ends up rationalizing his accusation by producing a possible motive that he has no evidence for which subsequently turns out to be correct.
Don’t get me wrong – this is a great idea but the execution is poor.
The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan
Poirot and Hastings stay at the Grand Metropolitan where they meet a woman who collects expensive jewels. When Poirot shares his own enthusiasm for jewels the woman runs upstairs to show off her pearl necklace to him but discovers that the case has been emptied.
The second jewel theft in the collection though I think this has far less to recommend it than The Adventure of the Western Star. The mystery is generated by some really convoluted security arrangements being made by the owners of the necklace. The explanation is mechanically pretty clever but I was not particularly satisfied by the way in which the guilty party is caught.
Oh, and those who are irritated by Poirot’s snobbery will find the ending to this particularly irksome.
The Kidnapped Prime Minister
Following an unsuccessful but sensational assassination attempt, the British Prime Minister disappears while on his way to an important conference in France. He was expected to make a critical speech there that would sway the delegates in favor of taking a more aggressive response to German antagonism.
I remembered this story as being more of an adventure than a detective story but it turns out my memory was a little faulty. While there is perhaps a little more action and movement here than in some other stories, Poirot uses some pretty solid methodology to deduce what exactly has taken place. The logic is pretty sound and while readers may initially be frustrated that Poirot’s solution seems to come from nowhere it is based on a pretty sound and simple premise.
The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim
Inspector Japp tells Poirot and Hastings about the strange disappearance of a banker at his country home after he stepped out to post letters. Poirot makes a bet with Japp that he will be able to solve the crime without leaving his armchair within a week.
This story is not the most explosive or confounding in the collection but it has several points of interest. Once again we have the idea that Poirot’s skills are so developed that he can solve a crime without meeting any of the figures involved or visiting the scene. This is similar to The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge but I think it is more effective because the competent but unimaginative Japp is the conduit of information rather than Hastings. The bet also adds a little fun to the proceedings.
I think the solution is also pretty clever and the process by which it is reached is quite clear and sensible. The only problem I have with it is that, once again, it feels as if Christie is drawing on ideas from famous Holmes adventures though I think that the solution is less obvious than in some other stories in the collection.
The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman
Poirot and Hastings are socializing with a neighbor who is a doctor when he receives a telephone call from Count Foscatini, an Italian nobleman, who needs urgent assistance. When they arrive at his home they find him lying dead having been beaten on the back of the head with a marble statue. He apparently had two visitors shortly before his death and Poirot is intrigued by the remains of their dinners.
As with The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, I came to this story remembering its solution very clearly in spite of it being fifteen years or more since I last read it. While that means I can’t really speak to how clever the solution is, I think it is an indication that I found it highly effective at the time.
I like that we are brought into this adventure inadvertently rather than as a result of a formal consultation – I think it not only provides some welcome variety, it also allows us to experience the discovery of the body at the time it happens rather than having a third party recount the events to us. Christie presents us with a surprisingly orderly crime scene but I think that only makes the circumstances of the murder seem more puzzling when you consider the violence of that scene.
One of the highlights of the collection for me.
The Case of the Missing Will
Violet Marsh tells Poirot of how her uncle, disapproving of her decision to attend university, said that she would only inherit his fortune if she was able to prove her wits after his death. She would have one month to live in his house and if she failed to do so then his fortune would go to charitable causes. Poirot quickly guesses that there must be a second will so the question becomes how it will be located.
The British version of this collection ends on a bit of a high note with this story, even if it is more adventure than detective story. There are two aspects of this story that I feel are particularly successful. First, the hiding place is suitably inventive and well concealed. I am not sure that the reader could deduce it but it certainly appeals to the imagination.
The other is the ending in which Hastings and Poirot reflect on the case. Most of the stories in this collection seem to end on weak notes so I appreciated that this feels like it builds to a real punchline.
The Veiled Lady
The clearest Holmesian pastiche in the collection, this story begins with Poirot lamenting the lack of interesting cases. He is visited by a veiled woman who is about to be married and looking for his assistance in retrieving some explicit love letters she wrote some years earlier.
If this were just a gender-flipped A Scandal in Bohemia it would be of little interest. That aspect of the story is certainly entertaining (and leads to Poirot acting outside of the law) but a development towards the end of the story pushes it in a more inventive direction.
The Lost Mine
In which Poirot and Hastings have a chat about investment strategies and the former tells about how he was given shares in a mining concern after locating the only paper with directions to old lead-silver mines in China.
Limehouse opium dens? Agatha was clearly once again showing her Holmesian influences here. Tedious and muddled, I didn’t find the premise of this story particularly engaging and the “let me tell you a story about my investment portfolio” framing structure feels extremely awkward.
The Chocolate Box
When Hastings asserts that Poirot has never known failure professionally, the latter recounts a story in which he failed to capture a murderer. It concerns the suspicious death of a rising French politician in Brussels from heart failure.
This story is more successful than the previous one though the structure still feels pretty awkward. I did find the puzzle interesting however and felt that the solution to what happened was both quite compelling and also pretty surprising.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Professional is main sleuth (Who)