Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #14
Preceded by The A. B. C. Murders
Followed by Cards on the Table

The Blurb

Suspicious events at a Middle Eastern archaeological excavation site intrigue the great Hercule Poirot as he investigates Murder in Mesopotamia, a classic murder mystery from Agatha Christie.

Amy Leatheran has never felt the lure of the mysterious East, but when she travels to an ancient site deep in the Iraqi desert to nurse the wife of a celebrated archaeologist, events prove stranger than she could ever have imagined. Her patient’s bizarre visions and nervous terror seem unfounded, but as the oppressive tension in the air thickens, events come to a terrible climax–in murder.

With one spot of blood as his only clue, Hercule Poirot must embark on a journey not just across the desert, but into the darkest crevices of the human soul to unravel a mystery which taxes even his remarkable powers.

The Verdict

Not a favorite. The setting and characters feel well-observed but I find Amy Leatheran tiresome and to say a couple of plot points are incredible would perhaps be understating things.

“She’s an odd woman. A mass of affection and, I should fancy, a champion liar – but Leidner seems honestly to believe that she is scared out of her life by something or other.”

My Thoughts

Last week I put the call out on Twitter for my followers – a small but intrepid band – to help me select the title I would read and write about for today’s locked room or impossible crime post. It was quite rightly pointed out that I had somewhat stacked the decks by including a Christie title among the ones offered. While I do not think it was conscious, I suspect that my doing so was rather purposeful. I needed a little extra push to get around to reading Murder in Mesopotamia again so thank you to the Big Four who voted this into the lead.

Before I explain why this novel is not a favorite, let me first recap the scenario. Amy Leatheran is a nurse who is invited to join an archaeological dig to help care for the wife of the leading archaeologist, Dr. Leidner. It seems Mrs. Leidner appears to be nervous though it takes some time for Amy to discover the cause of that anxiety and learn about her past. Soon afterwards she is discovered dead in the bedroom of her house having been forcibly struck on the head. There was only one entrance to the bedroom, which could not have been entered, while the window was shut and barred. Nor was there any sign within the room of an object that might have been used to murder her.

The mystery of the death initially puzzles the local police. Fortunately Hercule Poirot happens to be traveling in the region and he is persuaded to travel to the dig to assist with the investigation. He soon appalls everyone however when he asserts that the murder must have been carried out by someone involved in the dig. With the assistance of Amy Leatheran who documents the case, he begins to look into the matter…

It is the choice of narrator that is largely responsible for my lack of enthusiasm for this title and I am sorry to report that my feelings are not significantly altered. While I think there are some positive things that come of Poirot’s association with a tough and rather straightforward nurse, I find this particular character rather unlikable and I am not a fan of the awkward structure that this then imposes on the novel’s opening chapters.

Some of my issues with Amy Leatheran stem from her personality traits. From the start of the novel she comes off as highly judgmental and occasionally xenophobic, particularly towards Poirot. While I appreciate the idea of undermining some of Poirot’s own pretentious behaviors and quirks, my problem is that I find Leatheran’s less endearing. That is in spite (or perhaps because) of their being quite realistic and well observed. This means that I can find her company something of a chore.

Her role in this particular story requires her to enter as an outsider, both to the characters involved at the dig but also to Poirot. This leads to a certain amount of awkwardness however as it requires a certain degree of setup to be done to explain her presence and then her involvement with the investigation. This would not be such an issue if Christie didn’t also include a rather awkward and frankly quite unnecessary preamble in which we learn how she came to be asked to write this manuscript. All of this slows down the start of the story and leads to it feeling somewhat self-conscious.

The introduction of Poirot is welcome, both in terms of signaling the start of the investigation but also because it gives the proceedings a greater degree of focus. He quickly focuses our attention on some specific questions and pieces of evidence as well as starting to interview the various suspects. This section of the book is done fairly well and I appreciated that those interviews are not presented in full but rather key moments from each are pulled out and put into focus for us.

Poirot is on pretty solid form here. Certainly he has some moments where he not only shows off his brilliance and imagination but also his understanding of people’s characters, drawing some rather striking conclusions at times. More on those later… What I like most though, and this is the one aspect of the narration I think works well, is the sense of Poirot as an outsider. We have had some hints of that in previous stories, perhaps most recently in Three Act Tragedy, but I think this novel presents it as far more significant than most of its predecessors, even if it is not terribly important to the plot.

The main strength of this novel though lies in its depiction of the workings of an archaeological dig and of the types of individuals who might be involved in them. Christie by this stage in her life had quite some experience of digs, having accompanied her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, to some. She even is supposed to have drawn on some real people as inspiration for characters in this story. That detail helps the setting and characters feel quite credible, even if the narrator threatens to eschew providing any sort of local color in her narrative.

Let’s turn to the locked room aspect of the story which was, after all, my inspiration for revisiting it this time. The circumstances of the murder are intriguing and I appreciate that the clues are rather limited and relatively subtle. I think it might be fair to suggest that Poirot is rather fortunate that the murderer feels it necessary to commit a second killing as that does push things forward quite a bit and highlight some key aspects of the crime – certainly I cannot imagine him solving it based on the initial pieces of evidence.

There are challenges in accepting some of the aspects of this plot. Much has rightly been made of a rather ridiculous matter of identity and while I think Christie wisely tries to prime the reader early by discussing the idea in generalities, it is really hard to believe that it could work in practice. Some may also feel that the murder method relies on everything working in the killer’s favor and some extremely fortunate timing that they could not have counted on. I am rather more forgiving of this however as I feel that had things not happened that way then the murder would simply have been quickly solved and the case would never have come to Poirot’s attention at all.

Murder in Mesopotamia does have some points that I think do commend it. The setting feels credible and well-observed and while Amy may intend to provide no color, I think this is one of Christie’s more atmospheric locations for a Poirot story. I do also enjoy some of the aspects of the solution. My problem is that there are a couple of points which feel incredible in all the worst senses of that word. Those few ludicrous reveals, coupled with a tiresome choice of narrator, make this hard-going for me.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World by Mark Aldridge

Book Details

Originally published in 2020

The Blurb

From the very first book publication in 1920 to the upcoming film release of Death on the Nile, this investigation into Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot celebrates a century of probably the world’s favourite fictional detective.

This book tells his story decade-by-decade, exploring his appearances not only in the original novels, short stories and plays but also across stage, screen and radio productions.

Poirot has had near-permanent presence in the public eye ever since the 1920 publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. From character development, publication history and private discussion concerning the original stories themselves, to early forays on to the stage and screen, the story of Poirot is as fascinating as it is enduring.

Based on the author’s original research, review excerpts and original Agatha Christie correspondence, Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World is a lively and accessible history of the character, offering new information and helpful pieces of context, that will delight all Agatha Christie fans, from a new generation of readers to those already highly familiar with the canon.

The Verdict

A comprehensive overview of the development of the great detective both on the page and beyond it. Pitched well to offer something to both newcomers and established fans. Let’s hope a similar volume follows for Miss Marple!

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, (probably) the greatest detective in the world, will outlive us all.

My Thoughts

If you follow a lot of Golden Age of Detection blogs you have probably already come across a review of this book which was published in the UK last year and arrives in the US next month. Even if you haven’t you probably already will instinctively know whether this type of book will appeal to you and so rather than attempt to respond to the book in exhaustive detail it seems more productive to share some general thoughts about it that may answer some of your questions about whether it is the book for you.

Probably the place to start is with describing the book itself. Aldridge has designed this book so it could either be read cover-to-cover or dipped into on a more random basis. Knowing that I intended to write about this book here I decided to do the former but prior to doing that I opted to read the chapter on The A. B. C. Murders on its own in preparation for my reread and I found it to be perfectly self-contained and very easy to follow.

Aldridge avoids giving out spoilers in the main body of the text and while there are a few in the (excellent and comprehensive) endnotes they are flagged to warn those who wish to avoid them. That means that this is a book you can put in the hands of someone who does not have an exhaustive knowledge of the character with confidence that they won’t curse you forever for spoiling the end of Elephants Can Remember for you.

Each book and short story collection receives its own chapter. I think it is important to stress that these entries are not plot recaps or reviews, nor are they collections of facts related to the book. Instead these chapters tell the story of where a project came from, some of the background about its journey to publication including details of exchanges between Christie and her agent. Where critical opinion is offered it is usually in the form of contemporary reviews or Christie’s own reflections rather than Aldridge’s.

In addition to the core canon texts, there are also chapters discussing projects in different media such as film, television, video games and key theatrical productions as well as Sophie Hannah’s continuation novels. These are treated with the same level of detail and care, offering a fascinating glimpse into how Poirot was developing beyond the written page. While I feel I got something out of every chapter in the book, these were the ones that offered the highest concentration of new information for this reader and helped me better understand Christie’s highly possessive relationship with her own creation and the decisions that her estate is taking in more recent years. In fact some of the most intriguing pieces of information relate to the projects that didn’t happen rather than those that did.

The book does go right up to date with comments on the development of the upcoming Death on the Nile movie, listed here as released in 2020 (but now pushed back to 2022). That was of course unfortunate but the information offered is interesting and makes me even more curious to see the finished movie whenever it does finally appear.

The entries themselves are organized in chronological order rather than being grouped together by their medium meaning that we learn about the theatrical and film experiments as they occurred between the development of the various novels. This is really helpful because it adds context of Christie’s broader endeavors and also allows us to see how experiments in one field sometimes affected the chances of another quite different project happening.

The hardcover print copy is also illustrated with lots of black and white pictures, usually with various book cover images but also production photographs, hand-drawn sketches and the like. This not only adds a little visual interest to the page layout, I think it also makes the print copy feel even more special. It certainly made me feel glad I made the decision to import my copy rather than get the plainer ebook edition (which is already available in the US).

Though the book is quite thick it is a quick and accessible read that I think offers interesting information at a level that should please both those starting to love the character and those who can already claim a lifelong appreciation for him. I certainly have already made good use of it and expect I will continue to do so whenever I revisit the Poirot novels. I just hope that we don’t have to wait until 2027 for a Miss Marple-themed sequel to appear…

The A. B. C. Murders by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1936
Hercule Poirot #13
Preceded by Death in the Clouds
Followed by Murder in Mesopotamia

The Blurb

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 …

The Verdict

One of Poirot’s most interesting cases. As good upon revisiting it as I felt it was the first time around. Highly recommended.

“Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack.”

My Thoughts

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.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

Book Details

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

The Blurb

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. 

The Verdict

This boasts a memorable setting and method of murder but I was unconvinced by the solution.


My Thoughts

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.

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #11
Preceded by Murder on the Orient Express
Followed by Death in the Clouds

Also known as Murder in Three Acts (original US title) though there are apparently some plot differences between the original UK and US editions outlined on the All About Agatha podcast. Beware it will spoil both versions though!

The Blurb

Sir Charles Cartwright should have known better than to allow thirteen guests to sit down for dinner. For at the end of the evening one of them is dead – choked by a cocktail that contained no trace of poison. 

Predictable, says Hercule Poirot, the great detective. But entirely unpredictable is that he can find absolutely no motive for murder.

The Verdict

Very cleverly plotted with some great characterization.


My Thoughts

For the past few years I have maintained on this blog that I have read all of the original Poirot novels. When I started to read Three Act Tragedy however it quickly became apparent to me that might not actually be the case as I remembered next to nothing about the case. Could it be another case of faulty memory? Perhaps. I certainly have heard a radio adaptation of it so I ought to have been able to recall more than I did. Not that it really matters because whether I have read it before or not, it felt entirely new to me and that was a very exciting feeling!

The story begins with the retired actor, Sir Charles Cartwright, about to entertain a group of guests for dinner. There are thirteen in the party so his secretary suggests that she should join the party to prevent any worry from the more superstitious members of the gathering. In the end however tragedy still strikes when the mild-mannered Reverend Babbington drops dead from nicotine poisoning moments after drinking a cocktail. There is no trace of poison in the glass, nor any in the food served at dinner. Adding to the confusion, it is hard to imagine any motive why someone might want the elderly clergyman dead.

There is lots to love about the circumstances surrounding the opening murder. For example, this is a case where Poirot is present from the beginning and while his role elsewhere is rather limited, it does mean that he is not relying on third party observations. He has met all of the players involved and so when he fails to even detect that it might be murder, which of course it is because Agatha Christie didn’t write novels about people dying from heavy smoking (Tuberculosis in Three Acts?), it demonstrates just how clever this puzzle is and how challenging it will be for Poirot to solve it.

One knock that people will often make against Christie’s writing relates to her characterizations. Three Act Tragedy is the perfect evidence to offer to refute that claim. Each of the characters present at Sir Charles’ party, who will either serve as surrogate sleuths for Poirot or make up our circle of suspects, feel dimensional and well-observed. There is certainly little sense that anyone is present just to make up the numbers and flesh out the circle a bit.

Several characters are related to the world of entertainment, which allows Christie a little opportunity to comment on aspects of that profession, and there is also some discussion of life in the Cornish countryside. For instance, Lady Mary Lytton Gore, a woman living in difficult financial circumstances, reflects on how she is not able to take her daughter (who is nicknamed Egg) to the city where she would meet a variety of different men. Instead she likely has two options – either the young mechanic Oliver who is regarded as a communist or the much older Sir Charles.

What struck me most about the attention to characterization here is that it also applies to Poirot himself. While he appears relatively little, we are actually given something of a description of Poirot’s life and career as well as an explanation for some of his quirks as an investigator. Quite why this was the book that did that, I am not sure, but it is interesting and helps to make him seem a little more human and sympathetic than he often appears.

As I suggested earlier, the death of Babbington is simply the opening murder – the first of our three “acts”. I do not intend to identify the victims of the subsequent murders except to say that I think the choice of victims are surprising and that only adds to the sense that this is a particularly baffling crime. Were I less familiar with some of the elements and ideas that recur frequently in Christie’s work I am sure I would have been completely stumped by this one and in understanding the relationships between the three murders.

I previously referred to Poirot’s limited role in this story and the presence of some surrogate sleuths so let’s discuss the manner of the investigation here. In this story Poirot learns of the second death after the fact and at a point where several other characters have decided to undertake their own investigation. One of these, Mr. Satterthwaite, had previously appeared in The Mysterious Mr. Quin short stories a few years earlier. He is not unintelligent but he does have some qualities that mark him as being quite Hastings-like, such as the way he reads the evidence in front of him. Poirot describes him as being like an audience member at the theater and that is not inaccurate – he is highly perceptive and notices details but also rather credulous. I rather liked him by the end of the story, particularly when paired with Sir Charles, and would have liked to have seen him appear again alongside Poirot.

Also investigating the case is Egg who has used it as a pretext to spend time with Sir Charles. The pair conduct interviews with witnesses and while clearly nowhere near as sharp as Poirot, they are quite entertaining to follow. I particularly enjoy a sequence in which Egg uses deception to try and get some answers out of a witness. Did I really expect them to get to the solution themselves? Perhaps not, but I did like the setup with those two characters working together and how it allowed their romance subplot to feel not just entertaining but important to the central mystery plot.

Of course, while Poirot stays in the background content for these other sleuths to divide the work up between them that situation cannot stay forever. Inevitably Poirot eventually takes control of the proceedings and he will be the one to provide the explanation of what happened. The downside of this approach is that we do not spend much time with him but I think the time we do get feels all the more significant as a result, helped by some of the actions he takes once he gets involved (my favorite being the sequence in which he throws a small sherry party).

I have already described the puzzle here as challenging and it remains so right up to the end. While I may have been able to identify the guilty party and even something of their motives, the how of the matter is really quite clever and uses an idea that is used again later in one of my favorite Christie novels, albeit in a slightly different way. Its use here is just as good though and there are some other clever elements that are unique to this novel.

Do I buy everything about that solution? Well, I think that the motive will be problematic for some readers. This resulted in some changes being made for the American edition. I have not read that version of the text myself so I can’t speak to the details other than to say that based on the description it takes something admittedly quite far-fetched and substitutes for it something that seems like it would be quite an unsatisfying ending.

Personally I quite like the explanation we get. It reminded me a little of one of my favorite novels (as well as possessing some similarities to another Christie novel I adore – can’t say which ones without spoiling) and I appreciated how clever and original the method used feels. It is smart, fair and as far as this reader is concerned one of her best puzzles in terms of how it is worked mechanically.

Overall then I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Perhaps the icing on the cake is the last paragraph which is for my money one of the best and most in character endings to any Poirot novel.

This counts towards the Murder by the Numbers category in the Golden Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

Five to Try: Memory Mysteries

I first began compiling this list in response to Curtis’ Friday Fright Night meme (more on that here). You see, being of a somewhat squeamish disposition I don’t typically read books that really fit with the trappings of the horror genre and so I thought rather laterally about things that scare me.

The first thing that came to mind was the idea of losing my memory or my sense of awareness of my own actions. The odd thing is that I cannot really identify the origin of that fear. There is no great incident in my own life I can think of, nor do I have any reason to think that it is likely to happen to me. Still, the idea unsettles me and so I often find myself drawn to stories that use it in some fashion.

One work that does this well, though I have not included on my list, is the fascinating short story Diary of a Serial Killer by Young-Ha Kim. I decided against this book because only one of the stories, the titular one, is really a genre work. That story however is fascinating as we experience the thoughts of a serial killer who is suffering from dementia and struggles to keep his memories and thoughts in order – a dangerous prospect for someone whose life is comprised of secrets that might someday slip out. The presentation of what that would be like and, particularly, how distressing it could be is really effective and makes for a really powerful reading experience.

Looking at the five titles I have picked, none of them are really horrific or spooky in their presentation though I think some create horrific situations for their protagonists. I will try harder next time!

What I tried to do was select five books that handle the idea of memory in different ways, each focusing on some different aspect of it. In some you experience, quite directly, the narrator’s sense of confusion about their actions as they try to piece together what happened. In others the reader is kept at a distance from that character whose memory loss might be treated more ambiguously.

As always with these Five to Try-style posts, I invite you to share your own favorites of stories that play with memory-loss or manipulation in the comments. I love reading your thoughts and expanding on my wishlist of titles to read in the future!

One final note – I might very well have selected Great Black Kanba for this list had I not previously chosen it as part of my Railway Mysteries list just a few weeks ago. That offers a great example of how a character’s memory loss leaves her utterly confused about just who to trust and is definitely worthy of a closer look if you can track down an affordable copy. And so with that out of the way, on with the list!

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Ordeal by Innocence (1958) by Agatha Christie

If Only I Had Remembered…

I think it is fitting to begin this list with a book by Agatha Christie since she herself was supposed to have experienced one of the more mysterious cases of amnesia herself. For more on that story, check out this episode of the excellent Shedunnit podcast.

Ordeal by Innocence begins with Arthur arriving at the home of the Argyle family to share some information with them. Several years earlier the matriarch of the family had been murdered and her adopted son, Jacko, had been sent to prison for the crime. He had claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger at the time but that stranger could never be found. Arthur reveals he had been that man and the reason he could not verify the information was that he had lost his memory due to a car accident.

Unfortunately this piece of newly remembered information does not bring the peace Arthur had hoped for. Jacko had died in prison some time before and, as everyone soon realizes, if it wasn’t him then someone else in the house must have been responsible.

While the premise to this one is rather convoluted, it explores some interesting issues and family dynamics. Christie uses a structure where the story is told from the perspectives of each of her characters which allows us to understand how they are feeling and explore the sense of paranoia that Arthur’s revelation causes in most of them. Though not wholly successful, the book was one of Christie’s favorites and feels quite different from much of the author’s other work.

The Executioner Weeps (1957) by Frédéric Dard (Translated by David Coward)

Who Is She?

Most of the examples I have chosen on this list feature a protagonist who is struggling to piece together their memory of some events that happened to them. This work by Dard takes a different approach by having the person trying to piece that memory together be someone who finds the woman experiencing memory loss and falls in love with her.

What this book deals with, very effectively, is the idea that someone losing their memories might develop a secondary or different personality and that – in time, as their memories return – the original personality may reappear. It makes for a really compelling slice of noir drama and a great introduction to Dard’s work.

The Good Son (2016) by You-Jeong Jeong (Translated by Chi-Young Kim)

Why Did I Do It?

A young man wakes up to the smell of blood and a confusing telephone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. As he explores his house he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.

The main character suffers from seizures and frequently does not remember things following them. Slowly his memories come back as he decides to try and cover up what he did.

While I prefer You-Jeong Jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness, this book is a better match for the theme of this list and does a really good job of portraying how disconcerting this experience is for the protagonist.

Net of Cobwebs (1946) by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Did I Do That?

Malcolm Drake served as a merchant seaman before his boat was torpedoed leaving him quite nervous and volatile. He is staying with his brother and their family to convalesce which includes his rather domineering Aunt Evie. During a party Aunt Evie drops dead of alcohol poisoning. Several members of the party are sure that Malcolm was responsible and one, the butler, even claims to have witnessed it.

Holding is a superb writer who explores compelling psychological situations. Several of her stories incorporate some aspect of memory or the idea that the mind is playing tricks on a character. I think Malcolm’s volatility makes him an interesting protagonist however and left me quite unsure how this story would end.

The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

Why Don’t I Remember?

My final selection is also one of my favorite reads on this list. The Red Right Hand is told from the perspective of a character who ought to have been a witness to a murderer fleeing. The way the road is laid out they must have passed him and yet he cannot remember seeing anything. As he delves deeper into his memory, replaying events, we may begin to doubt the trustworthiness of those memories and if there might be some other reason that he cannot recall seeing a killer pass him.

This was recently reissued by Penzler Publishing as part of their American Mystery Classics series and is one of my favorite releases of this past year. Part of the reason for that is the book is not simply an unsettling suspense or thriller story but it also plays fair with the reader.


So those are my selections on this theme. What are some of your favorite mysteries that play with the idea of memory?

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1934
Hercule Poirot #10
Preceded by Lord Edgeware Dies
Followed by Three Act Tragedy

The Blurb

Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. Without a shred of doubt, one of his fellow passengers is the murderer.

Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.

The Verdict

A well-plotted story with a truly memorable conclusion. It is not my favorite Poirot novel but it deserves its reputation as a classic.


My Thoughts

Hercule Poirot arrives at his hotel in Istanbul where he receives an urgent telegram that suggests he needs to return to England immediately. Poirot decides to book passage on the Orient Express, a train line that spans Europe, and asks the hotel desk to make arrangements. Unfortunately the first and second class compartments are fully booked but his friend, Monsieur Bouc, is a director at the railway and is able to intervene and secure him a berth when a passenger does not show up for their reservation.

At dinner Poirot is approached by Ratchett, an American businessman, who wants to hire him. He tells Poirot that he has received death threats and wants Poirot to sniff out the responsible party. He declines the commission however, telling Ratchett that he does not like his face. Poirot retires to his berth and tries to sleep, only to be woken in the early hours by a series of noises in the corridor.

Meanwhile weather conditions outside the train seem to be worsening and before long the train has come to a halt, trapped in a snowbank. Then Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment, his body have been stabbed twelve times. Bouc implores Poirot to carry out an investigation while the train is halted in the hope that they can present their findings to the Yugoslav police at the next station and avoid further delays.

It is a curious thought that this is one of just a handful of mystery titles I could write about that I can reasonably expect anyone reading this post to have experienced in some form. Even if you haven’t actually read or watched a version of this story, even if you do not like mystery fiction, there is still a very good chance that you will know some elements of the general setup and perhaps its solution.

Though I suspect anyone reading this blogpost will already know most of this book’s secrets, I will still do my best to avoid providing spoilers. I would suggest though that if you haven’t read this book yet and you have any sort of interest in mystery fiction that you should seek it out while you remain unspoiled – if you can preserve and experience the surprise of its ending then I think you owe it to yourself to do so while you still can.

So, why do I think Murder on the Orient Express became regarded as one of Christie’s best stories? I think the answer to that begins with its setup. This was not the first Christie story to be based around a train but I think it is much more successful than the previous one because the train itself, its features and internal space and geography feel more important to the crime and the detection of the killer. The use of a snowdrift to shape the geography of the crime is also very clever, avoiding the problem of a train’s accessibility as customers move on and off and making it into a very effective closed circle.

Another reason I think the setup to this story is effective is that unusually we have a victim who expects the murder. The question of who the victim is and why they have attracted enemies is an interesting one and here, as in The Murder on the Links, Christie opts to take inspiration from a famous real-life crime. The answers to those questions are effective, both in establishing Ratchett as a character but also in providing a credible motive for his murder.

There is one other aspect of the setup that I think works particularly well – Poirot is on the scene from the very start of the case. As he is also travelling on that train, he is able to observe the suspects’ behavior prior to the crime and has already noticed some things about them prior to being aware of the death threats or the murder itself. This is not only an economical choice in terms of the narrative, allowing the sleuth to notice some key points and relationships organically rather than having them explained to them, it also adds some excitement in the idea that the crime has been committed in the presence of the detective – an idea used very effectively in Peril at End House and which Christie frequently returns to in subsequent Poirot adventures.

Christie also creates an interesting mix of suspects to consider from a variety of different backgrounds. One of the initial challenges is understanding why any of this multinational cast, all apparently unknown to Ratchett, would have motive to kill him at all. In the course of his investigation, Poirot will turn up multiple possible killers and uncovers lots of secrets.

This brings me however to the thing I like least about the book – the lengthy succession of interviews. In practice the detection process in mystery novels often boils down to a series of interviews but these are often broken up, differentiated or disguised by moving them to different locations or requiring a little effort on the part of the detective to track the interviewee down. Here however it is presented as a succession of interviews and while many of the disclosures made are interesting, the structure that information is delivered through can feel a little limited and repetitive.

[To digress – it is that same succession of interviews that makes this book such a popular choice for adaptation. You have twelve really good single scenes of about the same length – ideal for bringing in a group of A list actors for just a short filming period.]

And yet while I think the somewhat flat presentation of the interviews can be disappointing, I find it only elevates the puzzle itself. It takes confidence in the ingenuity of your solution to risk stripping everything back and place so much testimony side by side to really highlight the contradictions between them. In doing this we also see Poirot’s brilliance as he pieces the puzzle together, using logic to resolve the differences and problems in the accounts and come up with the book’s memorable solution (or, more accurately, solutions).

Which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. When I first read this I disagreed with the way the case is resolved and the resolution of a central theme of the novel but returning to the book itself I find that I feel differently about that ending. Perhaps I am reading this section of the book slightly differently – my views on the themes discussed haven’t shifted so it must be the way I am interpreting the material itself.

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Revisiting this with the knowledge of the solution, I was impressed by how well it was set up and clued and I think it manages to be surprising without feeling gimmicky. I probably enjoyed it more on revisiting it than I did on my first reading. Certainly I can understand why this story remains one of Christie’s most popular, even though I prefer some of Poirot’s other cases in terms of the interest of their initial scenarios.

Second Opinions

Brad at AhSweetMystery has written extensively about this book. Two of the highlights are this post in which he discusses it in the context of Christie’s output in the 1930s and this discussion of the book, what it means to him and its adaptations.

Kate at CrossExaminingCrime shares eleven things she finds interesting about the book.

Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery similarly found that they enjoyed this more on revisiting it – perhaps this is a story that is more enjoyable if you ignore its reputation.

Christian at Mysteries Short and Sweet covered this as part of his Christie at 100 series and gave this a glowing review. One of my favorite things about this series of reviews is looking at the various covers that have appeared on Swedish editions and seeing how different publishers have interpreted the book.

Bev at My Reader’s Block discusses the importance of this book to their becoming a mystery reader and many of the adaptations.

Dead Yesterday also shares some personal experiences of the book and how it shaped their reading. There are some spoilers but they are clearly labeled and avoidable.

Countdown John shares his notes on this book including research of some of the references contained in the book.

Nick at The Grandest Game in the World calls this a masterpiece and provides some interesting contemporary reviews.

Jose at A Crime Is Afoot describes the book as a classic and gives it his highest recommendation.

Lord Edgeware Dies by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1933
Hercule Poirot #9
Preceded by Peril at End House
Followed by Murder on the Orient Express

Also known as Thirteen at Dinner

The Blurb

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.

The Verdict

By no means a classic story but the plot has a few interesting features while the characterizations are pretty good.


My Thoughts

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.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1932
Hercule Poirot #8
Preceded by Black Coffee
Followed by Lord Edgeware Dies

The Blurb

On holiday on the Cornish Riviera, Hercule Poirot is alarmed to hear pretty Nick Buckley describe her recent “accidental brushes with death.” First, on a treacherous Cornish hillside, the brakes on her car failed. Then, on a coastal path, a falling boulder missed her by inches. Later, an oil painting fell and almost crushed her in bed.

So when Poirot finds a bullet hole in Nick’s sun hat, he decides that this girl needs his help. Can he find the would-be killer before he hits his target?

The Verdict

One of my favorites. It is cleverly plotted with a memorable setup and some entertaining interactions between Poirot and Hastings.


My Thoughts

I had not planned to be writing about Agatha Christie’s Peril at End House today but this week I have found myself tremendously distracted. Every fifteen or twenty minutes I seem to be checking to see if those test results are in and, as a consequence, I find I cannot really concentrate on anything. Realizing that anything new I read was not going to get a fair hearing, I decided to revisit an old favorite instead.

While I do not typically think of myself as Cornish (my parents both having moved there as adults), I spent my entire childhood living there. As a consequence any time I encounter a book that is set there it tends to stand out and stick in my memory. Peril at End House stands out all the more as the first novel I can remember reading to be set there. That is not to say that I think the setting comes through particularly in the prose – it is really just a series of place names – but at the time that gave it a huge amount of novelty, grabbing my attention for long enough for me to notice the superb plotting.

The story begins with Poirot and Hastings holidaying together in a hotel in Cornwall. They encounter a beautiful young woman, Nick Buckley, who tells them about her frequent narrow escapes from death over the previous few days. During their conversation Nick complains of a wasp flying past her head but Poirot finds a bullet nearby leading him to suspect that she had just survived yet another attempt on her life.

Poirot, although still retired, decides that he will act as Nick’s protector. He meets her friends and, fearing that one of them may be responsible, persuades Nick to invite her cousin Maggie to stay and act as a protector. Unfortunately that act does not prevent a murder from taking place.

One of the things I remember most about the experience of reading this for the first time was my sense of shock at the killer’s identity and their motive. It was a significant enough surprise that I never had any difficulty remembering that solution. I have revisited Peril at End House many times over the years since though and I find that each time I am struck by how very cleverly and carefully it is constructed. This is one of Christie’s purest puzzle plots and I appreciate that it is achieved with some simple but very effective uses of misdirection.

My enjoyment of the story begins with the very organic way in which Poirot is brought into this case. He is not hired or compelled into taking this case but he is a witness and his decision to become involved is a consequence of his feelings of empathy towards Nick and his natural sense of curiosity. In short, I appreciate that this is a case that emerges out of his character and that, as such, it feels like it fits with the more empathic and gallant Poirot that we see at points in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

It struck me that this case is the first time we really see Poirot challenged to prevent a murder. This is an idea that Christie returns to in several other Poirot stories, most memorably in my favorite Poirot story The A.B.C. Murders, and I think it suits his character particularly well. This case represents a challenge to him and makes him feel personally involved in its resolution. I think this helps us understand better why he becomes so agitated about any little failures or misjudgments on his own part – here it is less a matter of vanity and more the knowledge that if he fails it could mean death for those he has sworn to protect.

I also really appreciate that this novel brings back Hastings and builds on the sense of friendliness and comradeship we see on display in The Big Four. Here, once again, we get the sense that the two men simply enjoy each others’ company and care about each other. They are, after all, choosing to holiday with each other. There are, of course, plenty of Poirot’s typical little dismissive comments about Hastings’ mental abilities but towards the conclusion we see another little instance of Hastings being valuable to Poirot precisely because he thinks so differently from him and I think he has a much clearer purpose here than in his first few appearances.

Nick is an intriguing character and it is easy to understand why Poirot and Hastings are drawn to want to protect her. She epitomizes that sense of carefree living in the moment that was in vogue at the moment. This carries through into some of the details we learn about her life and those of the set she associates with and, as a result, the story feels quite youthful and energetic. This is not only entertaining, it also reminds us that Poirot and Hastings are of a different generation and that, quite amusingly, Poirot seems more aware of what is in fashion than his considerably younger friend.

The other characters are perhaps a little less fully sketched but each is easily distinguished and several are quite entertaining. There is just one story strand that I think feels disconnected from the others. I cannot identify the character or characters without spoiling their role in the plot but I will say that I find their appearances to be a little tedious and that I find it hard to take seriously as a killer or killers. They are not in it enough however to really irritate me and I can imagine others may find their appearances more entertaining than I did.

The plotting is, as I suggested above, generally very good with Christie pacing out her little moments of surprise and intrigue well. Things build to a close with a rather wonderful set piece sequence that stands out for me as being one of the great Hastings moments and sets up a powerful sequence in which Poirot identifies the killer. Unfortunately a choice made in the ending seems to undermine it a little, not feeling entirely earned, but on the whole I think the story is wrapped up very tidily.

While The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a greater work with a more intricately worked plot and narrative trickery, I find Peril at End House to be the more entertaining read. The situation is clever and I really enjoy the interactions between Poirot and Hastings throughout the book. I am happy to find, each time I revisit it, that it stands up to repeated reads and I am sure that I will find myself reading it again before I reach Curtain in my read-through.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

Book Details

Originally published in 1928
Hercule Poirot #6
Preceded by The Big Four
Followed by Black Coffee

The Blurb

When the luxurious Blue Train arrives at Nice, a guard attempts to wake serene Ruth Kettering from her slumbers. But she will never wake again—for a heavy blow has killed her, disfiguring her features almost beyond recognition. What is more, her precious rubies are missing.

The prime suspect is Ruth’s estranged husband, Derek. Yet Hercule Poirot is not convinced, so he stages an eerie reenactment of the journey, complete with the murderer on board. .

The Verdict

This dull mystery plot has never really sparked any excitement in me. Sadly this time is no different.


My Thoughts

Ruth Kettering, an American heiress, is in an unhappy marriage to an English aristocrat. Her father, Rufus van Aldin, gifts her a fabulous ruby – The Heart of Fire. He advises her to keep it at home but instead she decides to take it with her on a trip on board the Blue Train through France.

During the train’s journey Ruth’s body is discovered in her compartment having been strangled and the jewel has vanished. Poirot, still in retirement and also travelling on board the train, is asked by her father to take on the case. He agrees to take on the case, comparing himself to a retired doctor who has stumbled upon someone needing medical treatment.

According to several sources I have read this novel was one of Christie’s least favorites and unfortunately I rather share her feelings (although I suspect her reasons were rather different from mine). A month or so ago I tweeted about how I have spent the past two decades of my life attempting to listen to the BBC Radio adaptation of this novel and never made it all the way through. Part of that is that I really just don’t dig that production but it also reflects that this plot is, for me, a bit of a snooze.

Let’s start with some positive comments about the book – while I do not love the mystery, I think Christie’s writing continued to mature and the prose is pretty engaging. Actually one of the reasons I think I had no problem concentrating on the book was because her narration was sharp, clear and generally quite entertaining. The radio adaptation loses that and instead forces you to focus on the more melodramatic elements in characters’ conversations with each other.

I also quite like the way Poirot is brought into this story and the awkward relationship he forms with van Aldin. One of the things I think that this story conveys very effectively is that Poirot considers the dead woman (and the truth) to be his client rather than the man who hired him. There are several points at which Poirot asserts himself over his employer and in those moments I think make him appear rather heroic.

Unfortunately here I rather run out of good things to say about a book that shares some of my least favorite traits of the thrillers she was writing in this decade.

Let’s start with the character of Katherine who serves as the replacement Hastings for this story. I actually rather liked the idea of Katherine – the former companion who was left a huge bequest by her last employer and who is now travelling. It makes for an appealing backstory but I really do not love the way she is provided with a really unconvincing romance. This is partly because I just don’t see why that relationship would work for her but mostly I think it overwrites the character’s actual arc of trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life (I don’t actually buy that either but the two resolutions seem completely incompatible with each other).

The second relates to the setup to the murder plot which feels far too forced and mechanical. Part of the problem is, I think, that we are given too much information about the suspects and possible motives from the start. While Poirot still has things to do, the closed circle nature of this crime feels all the more evident and I do feel there are chapters in the middle of the book that seem to drag as though the investigation is being stretched out.

The biggest other issues I have with the book though veer far more into the spoilery territory of discussing the villain or villains of the piece. Some of the clues given struck me as rather unconvincing such as a dropped cigarette case which is discussed in depth yet seems to me to be far less clearly incriminating than the novel suggests. Throw in a rather unexciting group of suspects and you have a recipe for a book that just seemed to drag on for me.

I had come to The Mystery of the Blue Train hoping that my feelings towards it might have changed with time or familiarity. Sadly they have not. Still the good news for me is that I have nothing but fond memories of our next Poirot story – Peril at End House. Hopefully I will find it holds up!