Originally published in 1935
Hercule Poirot #12
Preceded by Three Act Tragedy
Followed by The A.B.C. Murders
Also titled Death in the Air
Hercule Poirot must solve a perplexing case of midair murder in Death in the Clouds when he discovers that the woman in seat two of the airborne aeroplane he’s traveling on is quite unexpectedly—and unnaturally—deceased.
From seat No. 9, Hercule Poirot was ideally placed to observe his fellow air passengers on the short flight from Paris to London. Over to his right sat a pretty young woman, clearly infatuated with the man opposite; ahead, in seat No. 13, sat a countess with a poorly concealed cocaine habit; across the gangway in seat No. 8, a writer of detective fiction was being troubled by an aggressive wasp.
Yes, Poirot is almost ideally placed to take it all in, except what he did not yet realize was that behind him, in seat No. 2, sat the slumped, lifeless body of a woman. Murdered, and likely by someone in Poirot’s immediate proximity.
This boasts a memorable setting and method of murder but I was unconvinced by the solution.
As its title suggests, Death on the Clouds concerns a murder that takes place during a plane flight from Paris to Croydon. Poirot is aboard the flight though dozing to combat his airsickness but he is woken by a steward asking if he might be a doctor. The steward is concerned about the health of another passenger, Madame Giselle, who seems unresponsive. Another passenger volunteers his services only to reveal that she has died during the flight which based upon the medical evidence and the crew’s interactions with her must have occurred during a very narrow window.
A mark is noticed on the woman’s neck and at first this it is supposed that she must have been stung by the wasp that bothered several passengers within the cabin but when Poirot notices a small yellow and black object on the floor he discovers it is a poisoned dart. This, coupled with the discovery of a blowpipe behind Poirot’s chair, suggests murder yet it seems impossible that anyone could have carried out such a murder without drawing attention to themselves.
One of the most appealing elements of the book for me is Christie’s use of the aeroplane to create one of her most extreme examples of a closed circle. With the murder taking place and being discovered during the flight there is clearly no way that anyone could leave or enter meaning we can be certain that the murderer is either among the passengers or the crew (narrowing that to just the people who were present inside the first class compartment during the flight).
I also appreciate that this story gives us yet another variation on the idea that Poirot is a poor traveller, placing him in the vicinity of the crime but incapacitating him for the crucial lead up to the discovery of the crime. As with many of his stories from this decade, this is a case where a murder is commited under his very nose – a situation I love because it always leads to him feeling obliged to investigate. Christie however manages to give him an even more personal reason at the end of the coroner’s inquest that stands for me as the highlight of the book.
Much is made of the idea that Poirot has identified the killer early in the book merely from an inventory that he has made of the passengers’ belongings. This certainly adds a lot of intrigue to the story and at the end of the novel the evidence is explained logically, showing exactly why Poirot has reached that correct conclusion. Of course he does not share his suspicions with either the reader or Inspector Japp though and some feel that he behaves recklessly by keeping those suspicions to himself. Personally I accept Poirot’s reason that he could not begin to prove his case at that point however.
On the subject of Japp, I think that this is easily the character’s best outing to this point in the series. I think a large part of the reason for this is that Hastings does not appear in this novel, allowing him to work more closely with Poirot than he does elsewhere. In doing so I feel we get a stronger sense of his general competence at running down leads as well as the limitations of his imagination in theorizing about the case.
Christie provides us with quite a large cast of characters we can suspect though inevitably some can be discarded quite quickly. Most are colorfully drawn and distinctive and while I do not intend to go through the whole list, not least because I don’t want to inadvertantly draw your attention to their importance to the case, there are a few who are worthy of comment for other reasons.
Daniel Clancy, the mystery writer who excitedly identifies the blowpipe and describes its use, is a rather wonderful comedic creation. Much like Ariadne Oliver in Christie’s later novels, Clancy is used to lampoon some of the practices and poor taste of other crime writers though while Oliver feels more of a self-parody, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some other figure she had in mind with him.
I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of his own series detective, Wilbraham Rice, whose defining character trait appears to be his love of eating bananas. With a television detective series now in the offing for Ariadne Oliver’s Sven Hjerson perhaps we can hope for a similar effort to bring Wilbraham to our screens in the future. We can but hope.
The other two characters I should mention are dentist Norman Gale and Jane Grey. These two characters are quickly established to be attracted to one another and remain close throughout the novel, working together at points to assist Poirot. This idea that Poirot will recruit assistance from within the circle of suspects is used by Christie in several novels of this period and I think that it is used well here, allowing them to not only help advance the investigation but to explore how the events have affected them both personally and professionally.
There is however an aspect of their characterization that I have to comment on because it will stand out as pretty appalling to modern readers. I had been quite enjoying the interactions between the pair until we get a short passage in which the pair talk over dinner and compare their opinions, finding themselves to be compatible. Many of their preferences are quite innocuous and so shallow as to be potentially comedic until we read that ‘[t]hey disliked loud voices, noisy restaurants and negroes’.
Clearly Christie intends that remark to be comedic and yet it sits really badly because it seems to suggest that racism is a whimsical personal preference rather than something more serious and insidious. While it is an isolated remark in the book, I found that I had little enthusiasm for either character after that point and did not feel invested in their finding happiness.
In addition to my problems with the romance, I also had some problems with the novel’s solution. To be clear, those problems do not relate to the killer’s motives which I feel are excellent and explained very well. Instead the problems lie with the practicality of the plan. In short, I feel that the killer takes on a very high level of risk to execute an extremely complicated murder plan. For a more spoilery explanation of what I mean see the end of this post.
There are some aspects of Death in the Clouds I really enjoy. I think the setting for the crime is pretty novel and the circumstances surrounding the murder are intriguing, not least the killer’s motive. I also think Poirot is quite clever and charming here, particularly appreciating the way he works with Japp in this story.
Unfortunately I was unable to look past some of the issues I had with it, not least the killer’s needlessly risky plan. For that reason I see this as a decidedly lesser effort, particularly when compared with the stories on either side of it.
This counts towards the Scene of the Crime category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.
Aidan Spoils It All
I don’t plan on this being a regular feature of the blog but in this case I want to make some points about the killer’s plan and worry that I can’t do so without risking giving the game away. While I have not named the killer in what follows I do describe how it was done so please do not read it unless you have already read the book.
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