Originally published in 1937.
Collects four short works published between 1932 and 1937.
An edition was published in the US as Dead Man’s Mirror though that edition excludes The Incredible Theft.
How did a woman holding a pistol in her right hand manage to shoot herself in the left temple? What was the link between a ghost sighting and the disappearance of top secret military plans? How did the bullet that killed Sir Gervase shatter a mirror in another part of the room? And should the beautiful Valentine Chantry flee for her life from the holiday island of Rhodes?
Hercule Poirot is faced with four mystifying cases—each a miniature classic of characterization, incident, and suspense.
When I posted my review of Dumb Witness a little over a month ago I noted that I had goofed in my efforts to reread the Poirot stories in order as I had managed to overlook this short story collection. Well, such a mistake could not be left uncorrected – particularly given how much I want to get on and reread Death on the Nile – so let’s crack on and discuss the four stories that comprise Murder on the Mews.
The opening adventure lends its title to the collection and concerns a death that occurs during the height of the fireworks on Guy Fawkes Night. When Barbara Allen does not respond to knocks at her locked door, her housemate sends for the police. When the door is opened they find her lying dead of a bullet wound to the side of her head, a gun loosely in her hand. At first glance it seems like a case of suicide and yet there are some inconsistencies in the scene. How, for instance, could she hold the gun in her right hand but shoot herself in the left side of her head?
This is the first of three stories in the collection that style themselves as impossible situations and of those three, I think it is possibly the most successful of them. Though the length of the story necessitates some simplicity and the mechanics are pretty straightforward, Christie does give some thought to why this would be a locked room problem in the first place, devising a pretty convincing reason for that by the end.
There are, of course, flaws. I doubt that I will court much outrage by asserting that I think Christie was far more suited to the novel than the short story. One of the reasons for that is her writing style will often become overly economical such as in an early exchange where the flatmate casually drops into conversation, in argument against the idea of suicide by gunshot, that they had a lengthy discussion about possible methods of suicide which that she had been quite emphatic that she couldn’t shoot herself. While I understand the need for that part of the story, I do think that the writing feels very functional.
I should probably acknowledge that there is an argument concerning whether the absence of the key to her bedroom does perhaps undermine the impassability of that entrance. Still, why it may not be the purest example of the form, I do think that the story does do something interesting with it. Though I am not wholly convicted that the scheme makes sense, I do admire the story for trying something a little different and I appreciate the interesting framing Poirot puts on what the mastermind of it all was attempting to do.
I would characterize the second story, The Incredible Theft, as a pastiche or homage to the Sherlock Holmes stories (specifically The Adventures of the Naval Treaty) that we know had played an important role in inspiring Christie to write and enjoy mystery fiction. The action is centered upon the theft of some secret plans from a senior government minister’s home. The problem is that the plans had been out from the safe for just a few moments and no one was in the room at the time while each of the entrances were monitored at the time the crime must have taken place.
This is another story that seems to be an impossible crime, albeit one that is presented as an espionage story. In this case we have a room whose entrances are under observation by two different parties. In spite of that impossible setup however, I would suggest that the case underwhelms when read as an impossible crime – particularly in light of its solution.
It was this story that prompted me to muse on the difficulty of assessing the quality of a solution when reviewing a story you have previously read. It has been probably twenty years since I last read this short story and I didn’t recall much about it (unlike the other three stories which I remembered pretty well) but much of the solution occurred to me immediately. Was that because I remembered the problem, even if I didn’t recall any of the other details? I can’t rule it out. I can say though that the solution here strikes me as unimaginative and disappointing.
Dead Man’s Mirror on the other hand is a much more entertaining example of a locked room problem. In this story Poirot receives a summons from the highly eccentric Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. Poirot journeys to his home where he meets the members of his household who, strangely, do not seem to be expecting him. When the obsessively-punctual Sir Gervase does not arrive when the dinner gong is sounded the group break into his locked study to find him dead and the word sorry scrawled on a sheet of paper. The key to the door is in Sir Gervase’s pocket and the only other entrance to the room is also locked and bolted so is this suicide or was it murder?
Of the stories in this collection, this felt the most substantial to me offering a much more developed cast of characters and a more complex solution than any of the others possess. That is reflected in some of the complexities of the various characters’ relationships, as we are prompted not only to consider the suspects’ relationships with the deceased but with one another. I enjoyed getting to know this cast of characters, several of whom felt quite boldly drawn. For instance, I would suggest that even though Sir Gervase never appears to the reader, he is far more of a personality and presence than anyone who appears in the previous story.
The solution is similarly pleasingly complex with Poirot presented with multiple clues and several aspects of the crime scene requiring explanation. While I think that there are some aspects of the crime that were not entirely convincing (the reason for the telegram being sent is particularly poor in my opinion) and the explanation of the motive felt initially quite shaky until it was given more detail at the end of the story, I appreciate that this feels a much more substantial effort than any of the other stories in the collection.
So, why don’t I find it as impressive a locked room as Murder in the Mews? I think it boils down to a matter of originality. That story, while far less complex than this, is using the locked room in an unusual way. This story does something far more familiar with it and so while the execution is fine enough, it felt significantly less ambitious and interesting to me.
This brings me to the final story in the collection, Triangle at Rhodes. This concerns two couples who Poirot gets to know while on holiday. He witnesses the couples’ interactions and anticipates what is likely to occur based on those observations. When the inevitable occurs, Poirot then explains what happened and ensures justice is done.
While each of the three previous stories could be described as a novella, this is definitely a short story. While its is the narrowest of the four stories however, I find it to be one of the more successful. That is partly because it recognizes the limitations of its page count, narrowing the focus to a matter of character and psychology. I also think it is one of the better examples of Christie anticipating the reader and engaging in a game with them.
The flaw in the story for me is a rather unexpected one: I don’t think Poirot reads like himself. There is a speech he gives where he compares what he is witnessing to other crimes he has encountered that struck me as far more the sort of thing that Miss Marple or Ariadne Oliver might say. I also think it a little unsatisfactory that Poirot abdicates himself of responsibility once he has issued a warning of sorts – while I understand why that happens to serve the plot, I think he could and should have done more to block the crime from happening. (ROT13: Uvf nethzrag gung ur unf vffhrq n jneavat naq gur pevzr vf varivgnoyr vf abg fb zhpu gur ceboyrz – engure V srry gung ur jneaf gur jebat crefba, pubbfvat gb fcrnx gb gur nppbzcyvpr vafgrnq bs gur ivpgvz.)
Still, in spite of those gripes I think the story is told at a near-perfect pace and does a wonderful job of capturing the building sense that a crime is inevitable and I do recall being quite shocked when I read this the first time around. While I think that this collection is unfortunately a little uneven, this does it end on something of a high note and it is the story that has stayed with me most strongly in the years since I last read it.
The Verdict: A rather uneven collection of stories. Those who feel that Christie works best as a novelist will find little here to challenge their belief.