Also known as Thirteen at Dinner
When Lord Edgware is found murdered the police are baffled. His estranged actress wife was seen visiting him just before his death and Hercule Poirot himself heard her brag of her plan to “get rid” of him.
But how could she have stabbed Lord Edgware in his library at exactly the same time she was seen dining with friends? It’s a case that almost proves to be too much for the great Poirot.
By no means a classic story but the plot has a few interesting features while the characterizations are pretty good.
Lord Edgeware Dies begins with Poirot and Hastings attending a theatrical performance at which they witness an impersonation of the actress Jane Wilkinson by Carlotta Adams. As it happens Wilkinson is in the audience and afterwards loudly voices her frustrations towards her husband, Lord Edgeware, who refuses to grant her a divorce, declaring that she would willingly murder him. Later she approaches Poirot and begs him to intervene for her by visiting him and making a case for why it would benefit him to divorce her. He is persuaded and tries to set up an appointment, only to be told Lord Edgeware needs to meet that day instead.
In their meeting Lord Edgeware declares he withdrew his opposition to divorce some time before and had written to Jane agreeing to proceed. Poirot is confused but breaks the good news to Jane who is delighted. The next morning however Inspector Japp visits Poirot to tell him that Edgeware was murdered in his home and Wilkinson was witnessed visiting him that night. The problem is that another group of witnesses can confirm that she was present at a party at exactly the same time some miles away.
Up until just a few years ago when I first discovered GAD blogs, I would have likely cited Lord Edgeware Dies as one of the classic Poirot novels. I should say that was not based upon my own assessment but rather my perception of what others thought of the novel. I was rather surprised when I learned that its standing was lower than I had anticipated and, incidentally, broadly in line with my own opinion of the novel.
The reason for my belief that this must be a classic was that the novel was one of the first four adapted when Poirot returned to our television screens in its glossier, star-studded TV movie format. The other three books – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Evil Under the Sun and Murder in Mesopotamia were all clearly highly regarded so I naturally assumed that this one must be of a similar status. Knowing no other Christie fans at that time, I simply assumed that I must be the outlier and that I simply didn’t get it.
Before I dig into the problems I had with the novel both then and now, let me take a moment to point to some of the things I think it gets right. First, I really enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between Poirot and Hastings in this novel which blends moments of warmth with a fair number of moments when Poirot is being quite insufferable towards his friend. The pair share quite a few amusing exchanges with each other and I think that sense of their being friends enjoying each others’ company on this investigation comes over well. Japp similarly fares well with the novel doing a good job of capturing the teasing, frustrated relationship between him and Poirot.
I also think that Christie does a pretty good job of conveying both Jane Wilkinson’s appeal and also her rather enigmatic qualities to the reader, helping them understand the differing opinions of her character held by others. While I do not think she is quite as magnetic a figure as Nick in Peril at End House, the interpretation of her personality and actions by Poirot and others is central to this novel.
As much as I appreciated these aspects of characterization, I feel that the book is much less successful in terms of its plotting. To be clear, I do not have a problem with the logic of the solution – Christie’s explanation of the crime made sense for me and seemed quite credible as a sequence of events. Instead, my issues with it are more structural and based on Poirot’s own responses to the facts of the case.
I do not think I will be spoiling anything for first-time readers by saying that Christie spells out rather openly near the beginning a possible explanation for what happened. Readers well-versed in her work will likely spot some implications of the setup and notice how they might lead to some opportunities for murder but even those less familiar with her work will likely be able to make some logical deductions about the crime based on what we learn. Of course, the reader will also probably realize that it is unlikely that they will have solved the whole thing just a couple of chapters in.
One problem I have is that Poirot really does not consider the most obvious and simple explanation for what has happened for much of the novel, instead positing a more complicated solution. Even when parts idea falls through he never stops to think what the simplest solution to the puzzle might be, making him appear rather dense or stubborn. That is certainly not the Poirot I think of and does not show him in a particularly strong or brilliant light.
Indeed I was rather struck that Christie never really seems to consider that the reader might simply not read the evidence in exactly the same way as Poirot. For that reason there never really is any attempt to hide the facts associated with the real solution and instead it just seems to be assumed that it will never occur to the reader.
I also felt it was strange that there are several aspects of this book that do seem to parallel or mimic aspects of a previous and then quite recent novel by the same author. This immediate repetition feels rather unfortunate and seems to keep the book from feeling as original as it could have done, also causing some unflattering comparisons with that other – and in my opinion, superior – novel.
When we do get to the end of the novel I am struck by the sense of being rather underwhelmed. That is not because the book is bad – there are some very well written moments and ideas to be found here but the misdirection simply did not work for me here making for a disappointing experience.
Overall then, though I would not suggest that this is my favorite Poirot, I should stress that I consider it to be far from the worst. Even the elements that don’t really work here are at least quite interesting while Christie creates several interesting characters who do stand out as being quite effectively developed, particularly Jane and Carlotta, while the motive for the crime is reasonably clever.