Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #13
Preceded by Death in the Clouds
Followed by Murder in Mesopotamia
There’s a serial killer on the loose, bent on working his way though the alphabet. There seems little chance of the murderer being caught — until her makes the crucial and vain mistake of challenging Hercule Poirot to frustrate his plans …
One of Poirot’s most interesting cases. As good upon revisiting it as I felt it was the first time around. Highly recommended.
When I realized that I was headed for my 400th book review I thought that I needed to mark the occasion somehow. Rather than trying something new, I decided that I would use the milestone to revisit and review an old favorite and took a list of possibilities to Twitter for people to vote on. The overwhelming favorite turned out to be this novel which I have often suggested is my favorite Christie. The thing is though that while I have often revisited the book’s radio adaptation over the years, it’s been over a decade since I read it which rather begs the question – would it hold up to my memory?
The story begins with the return of Captain Hastings from Argentina to London for a brief stay. After catching up with Poirot he learns about a strange letter that his friend had recently received. That letter was signed by ‘A. B. C.’ and challenged Poirot to stop him from committing a crime saying that he should ‘Look out for Andover, on the 21st of the month’. Poirot shares the information with Scotland Yard but when an Alice Asher is found dead in her tobacco shop it seems he has failed. Then another letter arrives referring to events to come at Bexhill…
One of my favorite tropes in mystery fiction is the idea of the cat and mouse game. While the detective and killer are always conscious of each others’ activities in detective stories, I really enjoy when the killer interacts more directly and try to influence the other’s actions as opposed to simply waiting to get caught. When done well this can make for a rich source of intrigue and tension and The A. B. C. Murders does this extremely well.
There are lots of things that I like about the setup here but let’s start at the beginning with the manner in which we, and our heroes, learn of the challenge. The idea of the anonymous taunting letters being sent directly to Poirot works well and serves to personalize this conflict very effectively. These letters not only come to insult Poirot’s professional abilities, seeming to suggest that his powers may have diminished, they also are imbued with a hint of xenophobia while the act of giving the detective the date and the general location of each crime feels shockingly arrogant. We understand what will drive Poirot to take A. B. C. seriously and why he will so active in this case – far more so than in any of the previous few adventures Christie had written for him.
The idea of a killer working with an ‘alphabetical complex’ is equally interesting and it is striking just how quickly Poirot comes to that idea. What I like about this as an idea is that it seems to narrow the focus, imposing a series of rules that the killer must work to. Those restrictions level the playing field a little, allowing the detective and the team of police profilers a chance to interpret those rules and the choices that are being made in the efforts to get an edge in identifying the killer.
Finally by starting at a point after the first letter has been received establishes the novel’s pace which is notably far faster than any Poirot story up until this point. Given that we do not know any of the victims prior to their murder, Christie avoids setting up households of characters or multiple motives. Similarly it is made quite clear that the victims come from quite different places and backgrounds. The killings appear to be the work of a madman, albeit a very neatly organized one, and so the focus instead falls on the story’s action and the sense that a net is slowly closing in around the killer.
Each murder feels quite distinct from those which precede it and while we do not spend much time with each of the other figures in their lives, I feel that each manages to pack a lot of impact and information into a very small number of pages.
Christie makes an interesting structural deviation from her usual style, mixing typical first person narration from Captain Hastings with some chapters titled ‘Not from Captain Hastings’ Personal Narrative’. These are short at first but increase in length and detail as we get further into the book and introduce us to the character of Alexander Bonaparte Cust who we encounter as a lodger in a shabby room, surrounded with paraphenalia that appears linked to the crimes that will soon occur.
The decision to have Hastings imagine the thoughts and experiences of Cust can be a rather awkward one at times given that he admits he didn’t witness these events himself. The benefit is that it raises the possibility that we may be reading an inverted mystery and while it is not clear whether that is the case for a substantial portion of the book, the reader is able to glean information that may help them make their mind up on that matter.
Structural issues aside though, this is probably my favorite of the Hastings stories and the reason is that Christie has a clear idea for how to use him. He shares several important exchanges with Poirot in the novel such as the memorable discussion about the importance of clues, each of which throw light on the character and his investigative philosophy. The most interesting of these exchanges though, at least for me, is highlighted by Poirot himself at the end of the novel and earns Hastings a ‘full meed of praise’ from his friend. It is built on a very simple idea but I feel that the novel accurately captures just how much it forces a reevaluation of the broader evidence. This not only works to contrast the pair but it shows us that Hastings actually does have a role in that partnership and can make important deductive contributions, even if he doesn’t always recognize their importance.
Another notable aspect of the novel is its incorporation of some psychological profiling techniques. While we have seen Poirot use similar techniques himself to whittle down a field of suspects in previous stories, here it seems to be used in a more critical way. The distinction between the way Poirot does it and the Police experts do may feel rather arbitrary and hard to fully understand but I think I appreciated it more on revisiting it this time. The techniques may be similar but Poirot disregards aspects of the profile when they do not conform to the logic of the crime scene.
So, what doesn’t work here? Well, not a lot. A few of the secondary characters from the investigation perhaps feel a little underdeveloped but each are recognizable as types and most play important roles in terms of the plot. I think that this is unfortunate but not unexpected given the amount of incident packed into this story. There is a particularly unconvincing example of a final pages coupling that seems to come from nowhere though and suggests some strikingly bad decision-making on Poirot’s part.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that some aspects of the solution feel rather obvious in the context of the focus being placed on certain aspects of the story. I think were this book read slowly the reader would be strongly positioned to work out the solution – the challenge is in whether they keep the story moving swiftly enough as to distract everyone. For me this definitely managed to do that and I am happy to be able to report that I enjoyed it as much on revisiting it as I did the first time around.
I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to revisit this story which brought some memories flooding back. It remains one of my favorite Poirot adventures and I look forward to hopefully wrapping up this reread project over the next 400 posts.