Originally published in 1932
Hercule Poirot #8
Preceded by Black Coffee
Followed by Lord Edgeware Dies
On holiday on the Cornish Riviera, Hercule Poirot is alarmed to hear pretty Nick Buckley describe her recent “accidental brushes with death.” First, on a treacherous Cornish hillside, the brakes on her car failed. Then, on a coastal path, a falling boulder missed her by inches. Later, an oil painting fell and almost crushed her in bed.
So when Poirot finds a bullet hole in Nick’s sun hat, he decides that this girl needs his help. Can he find the would-be killer before he hits his target?
One of my favorites. It is cleverly plotted with a memorable setup and some entertaining interactions between Poirot and Hastings.
I had not planned to be writing about Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House today but this week I have found myself tremendously distracted. Every fifteen or twenty minutes I seem to be checking to see if those test results are in and, as a consequence, I find I cannot really concentrate on anything. Realizing that anything new I read was not going to get a fair hearing, I decided to revisit an old favorite instead.
While I do not typically think of myself as Cornish (my parents both having moved there as adults), I spent my entire childhood living there. As a consequence any time I encounter a book that is set there it tends to stand out and stick in my memory. Peril at End House stands out all the more as the first novel I can remember reading to be set there. That is not to say that I think the setting comes through particularly in the prose – it is really just a series of place names – but at the time that gave it a huge amount of novelty, grabbing my attention for long enough for me to notice the superb plotting.
The story begins with Poirot and Hastings holidaying together in a hotel in Cornwall. They encounter a beautiful young woman, Nick Buckley, who tells them about her frequent narrow escapes from death over the previous few days. During their conversation Nick complains of a wasp flying past her head but Poirot finds a bullet nearby leading him to suspect that she had just survived yet another attempt on her life.
Poirot, although still retired, decides that he will act as Nick’s protector. He meets her friends and, fearing that one of them may be responsible, persuades Nick to invite her cousin Maggie to stay and act as a protector. Unfortunately that act does not prevent a murder from taking place.
One of the things I remember most about the experience of reading this for the first time was my sense of shock at the killer’s identity and their motive. It was a significant enough surprise that I never had any difficulty remembering that solution. I have revisited Peril at End House many times over the years since though and I find that each time I am struck by how very cleverly and carefully it is constructed. This is one of Christie’s purest puzzle plots and I appreciate that it is achieved with some simple but very effective uses of misdirection.
My enjoyment of the story begins with the very organic way in which Poirot is brought into this case. He is not hired or compelled into taking this case but he is a witness and his decision to become involved is a consequence of his feelings of empathy towards Nick and his natural sense of curiosity. In short, I appreciate that this is a case that emerges out of his character and that, as such, it feels like it fits with the more empathic and gallant Poirot that we see at points in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
It struck me that this case is the first time we really see Poirot challenged to prevent a murder. This is an idea that Christie returns to in several other Poirot stories, most memorably in my favorite Poirot story The A.B.C. Murders, and I think it suits his character particularly well. This case represents a challenge to him and makes him feel personally involved in its resolution. I think this helps us understand better why he becomes so agitated about any little failures or misjudgments on his own part – here it is less a matter of vanity and more the knowledge that if he fails it could mean death for those he has sworn to protect.
I also really appreciate that this novel brings back Hastings and builds on the sense of friendliness and comradeship we see on display in The Big Four. Here, once again, we get the sense that the two men simply enjoy each others’ company and care about each other. They are, after all, choosing to holiday with each other. There are, of course, plenty of Poirot’s typical little dismissive comments about Hastings’ mental abilities but towards the conclusion we see another little instance of Hastings being valuable to Poirot precisely because he thinks so differently from him and I think he has a much clearer purpose here than in his first few appearances.
Nick is an intriguing character and it is easy to understand why Poirot and Hastings are drawn to want to protect her. She epitomizes that sense of carefree living in the moment that was in vogue at the moment. This carries through into some of the details we learn about her life and those of the set she associates with and, as a result, the story feels quite youthful and energetic. This is not only entertaining, it also reminds us that Poirot and Hastings are of a different generation and that, quite amusingly, Poirot seems more aware of what is in fashion than his considerably younger friend.
The other characters are perhaps a little less fully sketched but each is easily distinguished and several are quite entertaining. There is just one story strand that I think feels disconnected from the others. I cannot identify the character or characters without spoiling their role in the plot but I will say that I find their appearances to be a little tedious and that I find it hard to take seriously as a killer or killers. They are not in it enough however to really irritate me and I can imagine others may find their appearances more entertaining than I did.
The plotting is, as I suggested above, generally very good with Christie pacing out her little moments of surprise and intrigue well. Things build to a close with a rather wonderful set piece sequence that stands out for me as being one of the great Hastings moments and sets up a powerful sequence in which Poirot identifies the killer. Unfortunately a choice made in the ending seems to undermine it a little, not feeling entirely earned, but on the whole I think the story is wrapped up very tidily.
While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a greater work with a more intricately worked plot and narrative trickery, I find Peril at End House to be the more entertaining read. The situation is clever and I really enjoy the interactions between Poirot and Hastings throughout the book. I am happy to find, each time I revisit it, that it stands up to repeated reads and I am sure that I will find myself reading it again before I reach Curtain in my read-through.