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.
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.
The Verdict: This boasts a memorable setting and method of murder but I was unconvinced by the solution.
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.
ROT13: N pbhcyr bs ceboyrzf urer sbe zr. Gur svefg vf gung guvf pevzr vf ernyyl biregubhtug. Gur xvyyre vagebqhprf frireny ynlref bs snvyfnsrf qrfvtarq gb guebj fhfcvpvba njnl sebz gurzfryirf ohg juvpu bayl freir gb znxr gurz zber nccnerag. V jbhyq nqq gung gurl ner nyfb pbzcyrgryl haarrqrq – vs gur xvyyre vf abg frra pneelvat bhg gur qrrq gura gurer vf ab ernfba gb guvax gung gurl jvyy or fhfcrpgrq. Gurl unir ab nccnerag zbgvir naq, vs fhfcrpgrq, gurl bayl arrq jnvg n yvggyr ybatre orsber zbivat ba gb gur arkg fgntr bs gurve cyna.
Gur frpbaq vf gung gur cyna vf onfrq ba gur vqrn gung crbcyr qb abg abgvpr gur uryc. Guvf vf n uhtr evfx orpnhfr vs gurl ner bofreirq gurl ernyyl unir ab tbbq rkcynangvba. Abj fbzr bs lbh znl cbvag gb n yngre obbx va juvpu Puevfgvr hfrf gur fnzr vqrn va juvpu V pbzcyvzragrq gung vqrn ohg V guvax gurer ner fbzr qvssreraprf. Guvf cynar jvyy or jryy yvg naq gur punenpgref ner va pybfr pbasvarf. Rira vs gur cnffratref qb abg erpbtavmr gur xvyyre, V svaq vg uneq gb oryvrir gung gur pnova perj jbhyq abg abgvpr n fgenatre va gurve enaxf vs gurl ybbxrq hc ng gurz.
15 thoughts on “Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie”
In some editions, the offensive word has been deleted. The sentence simply reads,”They disliked loud voices, and noisy restaurants.”
Thanks Santosh – I had wondered if that might be the case because I had no memory of the word being there from my previous reads.
Well, they didn’t leave it out of MY edition – because who wants to read this without the famous wasp on the cover?!? I agree that this is a nasty smear of casual racism on the page; the other one that particularly bothers me occurs in The Hollow where Midge Hardcastle, in every other way a perfectly delightful character, becomes an ugly anti-Semite in a turn of a phrase. The perils of liking old things – you should watch me navigate through my current on-line class on old Westerns and their treatment of indigenous people.
I agree with you on the highlights you present and the basic weakness of the murderer’s elaborate plot. I think I still enjoyed it, especially the killer’s identity and the travails of “Papa” Poirot, but as a “travel novel,” it feels much smaller than Orient Express or Death on the Nile. And one added point to your ROT-13 complaints:
Puevfgvr genqrf nyy gbb bsgra ba gur Purfgregbavna pbaprcg gung genqrfzra naq freinagf snqr vagb gur jbbqjbex. Jung’f bqq gb zr vf gung Abezna syvegf jvgu Wnar rneyl ba – va snpg, uvf gubhtugf ner SHYY bs Wnar orsber ur qbrf gur qrrq – naq Wnar ergheaf gur nggenpgvba. Naq lrg jr’er fhccbfrq gb oryvrir gung orpnhfr ur chgf ba uvf qragvfg’f wnpxrg naq pneevrf n fcbba, ur vf abj vaivfvoyr gb Wnar?!? Lrf, guvf qbrf frrz sne-srgpurq!!!
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You are right to suggest this is somewhat inherent in works of this era. I normally don’t comment on it to this level but I think it is that sense that it is so irrelevant to the story and so it comes out of nowhere while the attempt to be cute or whimsical that makes it all the more offensive.
I found it quite readable too – it just feels less substantial than the books on either side of it.
As for your final point, totally agree! I think you put the particular issue in this book very neatly:
Gur punenpgre npgviryl ybbxvat sbe gur zheqrere vf gur qvssrerapr orgjrra guvf abiry naq gur yngre bar V ersrerapr. Va gung obbx bgure punenpgref ner nofbeorq va gur cnegl ohg jub qbrfa’g ybbx hc va naablnapr be phevbfvgl jurarire fbzrbar pbzrf qbja gur pbeevqbe ba n cynar?
For Brad to decode in ROT-13:
Nf gb lbhe dhrfgvba Oenq, gurer vf na nafjre gb gung. Juvyr Abezna chyyf bss znfdhrenqvat nf n fgrjneq qbja gur pbeevqbe naq onpx, Wnar jnf nccylvat ure znxrhc naq yvcfgvpx. Arne gur raq bs Puncgre 1, vg ernqf, “Abezna Tnyr ebfr naq jrag gb gur jnfuebbz. Nf fbba nf ur unq tbar, Wnar qerj bhg n zveebe naq fheirlrq ure snpr nakvbhfyl. Fur nyfb nccyvrq cbjqre naq yvcfgvpx.” Guvf znl frrz sne-srgpu va gur tenaq fpurzr bs guvatf, cnegvphyneyl nf gb gur hacynaarq nggenpgvba orgjrra Abezna naq Wnar. Orpnhfr bs Wnar’f nggenpgvba, guvf vf flfgrzngvpnyyl yvaxrq gb ure chyyvat bhg ure pbzcnpg. Ohg jung vs Wnar jnfa’g nggenpgrq gb Tnyr naq qvqa’g chyy bhg ure pbzcnpg jura ur chyyrq bss uvf cyna? Jbhyq gur cyna bs Tnyr cnffvat ol Wnar nf n fgrjneq unir jbexrq? Gurve nggenpgvba gb bar nabgure vf gur pehk bs Tnyr abg orvat frra ol ure. Naq V guvax Tnyr unq fhpu rkcrevrapr jvgu jbzra gung ur xarj be pbhyq ernq jbzra jryy, rira Wnar, lrg fgvyy, vg’f fhpu n evfx naq Abezna’f jubyr cyna jnf n evfx sebz gur ortvaavat!
Aidan – thanks for the review. I read this 15 years ago but am unlikely to ever go back to it. While as you highlight, there is much to like about this book, the assumption the culprit makes committing the murder is implausible. It reminds me of the second murder in another Poirot novel, Murder in Three Acts, where again the murder makes a similar assumption. Neither is believable. Yet for me something similar in After the Funeral is far more effective.
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Unfortunately I had fonder memories of this before rereading it. Perhaps I was less critical of the problems with the scheme then than I am now.
I am looking forward to rereading After the Funeral though I have a little way to go yet!
Norman and Jane’s “compatibility” was shallow, surface-level at best. They have a few likes and dislikes in common but other than that there was no depth. She didn’t really know Norman. There was more to him than the man with the handsome bronze skin, white teeth, and the few things they had in common as we know by the end. The little they had in common reveals just how fast she fell for him. I think the relationship between Jane and Jean Dupont will grow naturally with time as she trails behind him on his expeditions eventually resulting in marriage as Poirot predicts and had worked to make happen. Near the end, Jane is disappointed that she’s not with the man she’s with and ends up saying to Poirot, “He was so terribly attractive” and adds right after, “I shall never fall in love again.” Just goes to show this relationship went way too fast and the next minute she’s planning to leave England to be with Norman!
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I think that’s a pretty fair summary. There is certainly a sense that it is an infatuation, at least on her part.
To Aiden (to decode in ROT-13):
Qb lbh guvax Abezna ernyyl ybirq Wnar? Va Cbvebg’f fhzzngvba bs gur pnfr, ur fnlf gung Abezna znqyl ybirq Wnar. Gura Cbvebg jneaf Wnar nf gur obbx raqf, rffragvnyyl gung Abezna cebonoyl jbhyq unir zheqrerq ure ng fbzr cbvag. V’z n ovg pbashfrq jvgu guvf!
V guvax gung’f n tbbq dhrfgvba – gur ceboyrz vf gung V srry jr qba’g ernyyl xabj Abezna gur jnl jr xabj fbzr bs gur fvzvyne punenpgref va bgure Puevfgvr abiryf. Vf gur Abezna va gur pnsr npghnyyl Abezna be vf ur n cerqngbel znfx? V’z vapyvarq gb guvax gur sbezre ohg vg vf cbffvoyr ur pbhyq or n irel qvssrerag crefba yngre ba. Zl thrff vf gung Cbvebg vf gelvat gb pbaivapr ure bs ure pubvpr engure guna funevat nal cnegvphyne vafvtug ohg V fhccbfr gur fhqqraarff bs gur zbbq gb cvpx ure zvtug or zngpurq jvgu na rdhnyyl fhqqra qrfver gb qebc ure.
Jr pregnvayl frr zheqreref gnxr terng evfxf guebhtubhg Puevfgvr: guvax Pneqf ba gur Gnoyr, Guerr Npg Gentrql, naq Svir Yvggyr Cvtf. Ohg vg znxrf ab frafr gb zr gung Abezna jbhyq pngpu Wnar’f rlr guebhtubhg gur rneyl cneg bs gur syvtug – naq, va snpg, ybfr uvf pbby n yvggyr orpnhfr bs uvf fhqqra nggenpgvba gb ure. (Naq fur znl or vasnghngrq, ohg ur cynaf ba zneelvat ure!) V qba’g frr jul ur jbhyq gnxr gung evfx evtug orsber ur znxrf n obyq-snprq pebff qbja gur nvfyr “qvfdhvfrq” va n . . . pbng??
Birenyy, guvf cyna jnf evfxl naq qrsvavgryl bar gung jbhyqa’g or fhttrfgrq gb nggrzcg va erny yvsr vs nalbar unq nal arsnevbhf cynaf, Tbq sbeovq. Vs n cnffratre envfrf uvf be ure urnq vg’f tnzr bire. Gurer ner whfg gbb znal cnffratref va gung cynar va fhpu na rapybfrq fcnpr gb pbzzvg n zheqre yvxr gung–ntnva gbb evfxl.
Bar bs gur dhrfgvbaf V unq naq fgvyy pna’g svther bhg vf ubj qvq Abezna xabj jura Znqnzr Tvfryyr jbhyq vagraq gb obneq ba n cynar–nal cynar–gb Ratynaq? Gung jbhyq znxr uvz cflpuvp! Naar Zbevfbg, Tvfryyr’f qnhtugre, pbhyq unir gbyq uvz gung ure zbgure, ohg ubj jbhyq fur xabj? Gur bayl bar jub xarj gung Tvfryyr jnagrq gb gnxr syvtug, gur BAYL bar gung Tvfryyr gbyq guvf gb jnf ure znvq Éyvfr, arvgure Abezna abe Naar jnf va rnefubg bs bognvavat guvf xabjyrqtr hayrff Tnyr erprvirq fhpu vasbezngvba guebhtu n jbexre sebz Havirefny Nve Yvarf jura ur qvfthvfrq uvzfrys nf na Nzrevpna.
Ooops, the comment above this one is for Brad.