Poirot Investigates was the first collection of short stories featuring the Belgian detective. Published in 1924, it is usually described as the third Poirot book though many of the stories contained here were originally published prior to The Murder on the Links.
The collection is an interesting one made up of a pretty diverse blend of cases. While the majority involve murders, there are a couple of thefts and disappearances to solve as well. In short, it makes quite a nice change of pace for the character and allows Christie to show some different sides of his character.
Unfortunately I feel that the quality of these stories also differs quite sharply with only a couple of truly memorable stories and quite a few duds in this particular assortment. On the positive side I would say that The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, The Kidnapped Prime Minister and The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman are all quite compelling, engaging adventures. I am far less impressed with the others however, finding some stories such as The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb and The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor to live up to the promise of their premises while others such as The Lost Mine and The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge are pretty tedious.
One influence that can be felt on many of these tales are Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Not only are they structured similarly, being written as accounts of Poirot’s cases for publication, many touch on similar themes or plot elements. In some cases this can be quite charming but it sometimes means that some parts of a solution stand out a little too much.
I should also probably mention at this point that the stories contained in this book differ based on where you are purchasing it. The American edition of the book is longer, containing three additional stories. Those stories would eventually be collected in the UK as part of the Poirot’s Early Cases collection (which would also be released in the US – go figure!).
For the purposes of this review I am working with that American edition. The three extra stories are each marked in the individual reviews below. While none of the three are classics, I think two of them are very good and significantly boost the quality of the collection.
While I think a number of these stories are quite flawed, I did enjoy rereading this collection and I appreciate the author’s attempts to provide a variety of settings and styles.
This year marks the first time in over twenty years in the US that new titles have entered the public domain. This covers books originally published in the United States in 1923 and one of the most prominent titles on the list is this early Hercule Poirot novel, The Murder on the Links.
I was shocked when I realized that I have not written about a Christie title in over six months so when I saw this piece of news I couldn’t resist dusting off my copy to take a fresh look at it.
The Murder on the Links was the second of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. It followed his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styleswhich I found an enjoyable read though I felt that the mystery plot was not particularly compelling. I think this novel, though still having some flaws, features a much more interesting and compelling mystery plot.
This novel begins with Poirot receiving a letter from a Paul Renauld who writes requesting his help and asking him to travel to his new home in Merlinville-sur-Mer in northern France. Poirot sets out immediately with his friend Hastings to travel on the overnight train but when they get there they learn that he was found dead that morning. Feeling a sense of obligation to the dead man to honor his commission, Poirot decides to stay and investigate the murder.
It turns out that his body was discovered dead in a shallow grave that had been dug in a patch of ground that would soon be turned into a bunker at a local golf course. He had been stabbed in the back with a letter opener. His wife claims that in the early hours of the morning two masked men broke into their home and tied her up, taking him with them and the French authorities suspect that they may be gangsters from South America but Poirot is unconvinced.
This book strikes me as a more complex and intricately plotted book than its predecessor and one of the reasons is the way this story is set up. Christie provides us with an apparently clear reading of the crime scene supported by physical evidence and witness testimony and yet Poirot spots the small details that suggest that the crime scene has been managed and that something else may be going on here.
The way Christie does this is quite masterful, emphasizing the logical flaws and in one particularly brilliant observation the absence of a piece of evidence that ought to be there. This showcases Poirot’s attention to small details and is an early source of tension between him and Giraud of the Sûreté.
The antagonistic relationship between Poirot and Giraud is one of the joys of this novel for me and I think it helps bolster our sense of Poirot’s brilliance. Giraud certainly makes mistakes and reaches for an easier or more obvious reading of the crime scene and the facts but he is not stupid and we understand that he is a character that is regarded as being at the top of his profession. By creating a competition between the two men which it is hardly a spoiler to reveal Poirot will win makes him seem only more brilliant and builds a sense of his unconventionality which here is identified as lying in his supposedly old-fashioned approach to the art of detection.
At the same time, I think this is a crime scene where we cannot blame Giraud for his errors because it is quite intricately set up. We are given a surprisingly large amount of information in these early chapters and one complaint I have heard is that this makes this chapter feel quite dense. I have no problems with this however because unlike his previous case the important thing here for the reader to solve it is to understand the narratives and psychology implied by the evidence.
Where I think the critics have more of a point is in the argument that Christie incorporates some information about a previous case inelegantly, dropping a hefty amount of back story that takes up a whole chapter before resuming the story in the ‘present day’. I certainly think this is awkwardly structured and a little jarring but I have no inherent problem with a past case being relevant to the present one. After all Murder on the Orient Express similarly requires us to learn about a historic crime and no one really holds it against that novel. I consider it a perfectly fine idea, just inartfully executed.
The historical crime described here is a little complicated and messy in its application to the ‘present day’ case which I suspect to be part of the reason it does not sit quite as well with readers. Certainly I think it adds an additional layer of complexity to some of the character relationships, making it once again feel like quite a dense chapter to unpick. It may perhaps have worked better had Poirot explained it to Hastings in dialogue, putting emphasis on the most important details.
I am less forgiving of the way Christie uses Hastings here. I have no problem with using him as light comical relief but this story requires him at several points to act thoughtlessly, becoming a liability to Poirot and the investigation. In the end no lasting harm is done and yet I find it hard to believe that Poirot would ever be able to trust him on future investigations based on his conduct here. In other stories Christie will often balance any moments of buffoonery with some action or observation that sets Poirot back on track but there is no such moment here and I am struck by how small a contribution he makes to solving the case.
Still, that solution to the case is clever and I did enjoy the final few chapters of the book a lot. I think it does showcase Poirot’s talents well and I did appreciate the story’s French setting which also helps give a sense that Poirot is sufficiently good at what he does that he can command interest in clients from all over the world, further building our belief in his abilities. It is, in my opinion, a big step up for Christie and Poirot although it would soon be overshadowed by his next appearance in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by knife/dagger/etc. (How)
I had initially planned for my next Agatha Christie read to be The Man in the Brown Suit but in an act of absent-mindedness I contrived to leave it at work and was stranded without a read. My Audible collection came to the rescue and I quickly settled on a recording of the story read by David Suchet. Incidentally, if you do wish to listen to this on audio, his reading is superb.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles is narrated by Captain Hastings who, after receiving an injury at the front, has returned to England for convalescent leave. At a loss for what to do he visits a friend at their country house, Styles. This house is owned by his friend’s stepmother who inherited it for the remainder of her life upon her husband’s death along with the majority of his fortune. This has made her stepchildren reliant on her for financial support. She had been fairly generous, if controlling, with them in previous years but we learn that things have changed following her marriage to a much younger man.
Several days later Emily Inglethorp is found dead in her boudoir from an apparent case of strychnine poisoning though it is not clear how the drug had been administered. Hastings suggests that the family bring in a friend of his, Hercule Poirot, who he has discovered is staying in the village as a refugee and the family agrees after being persuaded of his discretion.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles was Agatha Christie’s first published novel and so it also introduces one of mystery fiction’s most iconic characters: the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot with his egg-shaped head, military moustache and desire for neatness and order. While the character would become richer over the years and play a larger role in later adventures than he does in this narrative, it is striking just how well formed he already is at this point.
Rather than focus on the things that are already in place here, I was more interested in a couple of things that felt a little different from the character or the style of the later mysteries.
Firstly, it is immediately apparent that this is a book that evokes a sense of the period in which it was written in a way that few other Christie stories do. Here we see a family whose circumstances are actually being affected by the war and throughout the book there are references given that remind us of this. Economies are being made at Styles and we hear Emily Inglethorp complain that her stepchildren are not doing enough to help the cause. And, even more noticeable, a woman is working in a professional capacity.
Given Christie’s popular image as a stodgy, conservative voice, I was struck by how Christie writing in 1916 is a progressive voice for that time. Her women are strong and patriotic, whether they are working to put Styles on a war footing or serving in a pharmacy. Meanwhile the males are mostly coasting on financial handouts, not seeking to contribute while believing that they are owed a living. The contrast is striking and gives the lie to the notion that Christie was someone who deplored progress.
The question of Christie’s politics is, of course, contentious and I think more complex than it appears. Part of the problem is that her longevity meant that many of her later works were written when she was a much older figure, seemingly from a bygone age. Those novels seem to wistfully reflect on the past and while I think that there is some acceptance of the need for progress in those later books, that can often be overlooked by readers. While I do not think you can base an opinion on a single novel, I would argue that at the very least it illustrates that there was a period of her career where Christie was more forward-thinking and perhaps even a little disapproving of her supposedly beloved establishment.
Secondly, while Poirot’s later adventures usually put a primary importance on the analysis of the psychological factors of a case, here he seems almost entirely focused on the question of motive and opportunity. While Poirot may later berate Hastings for what he suggests is an obsessive focus on the clue, here we see him finding scraps of a will in a fire grate and some of those unlikely strands of fabric stuck on a door latch.
Thirdly, in this case we actually see a suspect being brought to trial. I am not entirely sure that trial writing was really a strength of Christie’s and the narrative does seem to slow quite significantly at this point yet its inclusion is important and does serve a real purpose in the story.
Finally, here we have a version of Poirot that is living in difficult circumstances as a refugee and yet is managing to retain his sense of pride. This is essentially the same character we will see later and yet he is not initially the master of the crime scene through reputation but because of his inherent competency.
So, the final question I want to consider is whether this book, were it not the first Poirot mystery, would be considered a particularly noteworthy one. I say that because I think it is one of those books that anyone with an interest in GAD should try for its significance to the genre but that is not necessarily a mark of quality.
I personally rather enjoy The Mysterious Affair at Styles but I do think the mystery itself is one of Poirot’s less interesting cases. Certainly there is an element of the resolution (the identity of the killer) that I think is quite clever and utilizes Christie’s soon-to-be iconic skills at misdirection well but the cast of suspects are not particularly interesting either in variety or motive.
Also there is also an element of the resolution (the means of death) that I think is too clever and technical for me to be entirely happy with it. Not so much because it isn’t fair play but because it isn’t ingenious enough to be interesting and the death could have been contrived in a simpler way.
Still, I would reiterate that I did enjoy revisiting the novel. It is fascinating to see how much of the Belgian detective’s character is already in place in his first appearance and there are some wonderful moments along the way, not least one of Hasting’s customary and misguided acts of chivalry.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At a country house (Where)
I am unlikely to have time to go and see Murder on the Orient Express this weekend due to a busy work and childcare schedule but I couldn’t resist posting something that might tie in with its release. An added bonus would be that this will be my first post about Dame Agatha – it’s fairly amazing that I managed to go fifteen posts without so much as mentioning her name!
I initially toyed with doing a top five listing of my favorite Christie stories but it has been such a long time since I read many of them that I am not sure my memory would be entirely reliable. Another option was to write something about Christie’s legacy but that wouldn’t be particularly personal.
Instead I decided to do some suggestions of other Christie stories that I would recommend to those who loved this movie and want to investigate some of her other works. Below are a number of reasons you may have liked the movie with a suggestion or two to match. I am confident that if you do try them you will find a great read!
You Liked MOTOE Because… Of The Exotic Setting
Christie’s work doesn’t always feature settings as magnificent or appealing to the imagination as the Orient Express but when Poirot or Marple do travel they often do so in style.
Death On the Nile is a great example of this. Here Poirot is approached by a beautiful woman while traveling in Cairo who has recently married but now finds that she is being stalked by her husband’s lover. While Poirot initially declines to assist believing there to be no crime, events take a murderous turn.
While much of the novel is spent aboard a steam ship on the great river itself, we get a sense both of the country and of the experience of travelling before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Also consider Murder in Mesopotamia, another Poirot story which is set against the backdrop of an archaeological dig.
You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Ingenious Solution
Christie’s plotting is one of her greatest strengths and she pulled off some wonderful surprises throughout her career. Some are famous such as the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but I’d rather focus on two stories that don’t get quite the same press but which I think are quite brilliant.
The ABC Murders is, to my mind, Christie’s best book that people just don’t know about. Perhaps that reflects its title or the lack of a major modern movie adaptation. In short, Poirot is challenged by a serial killer to anticipate his moves and stop him before he kills again. The serial killer is working alphabetically and leaves an ABC Railway guide near the body as a calling card. The solution is wonderfully simple and just as cunning and memorable as that of MOTOE.
A Murder Is Announced is a Miss Marple novel which has a wonderful hook: someone has placed an advert letting people know when and where a murder will take place. Inevitably the whole village seems to gather at the indicated date and time expecting a game and are shocked when a murder really is committed. Once again, the genius of this story lies in its cunning simplicity.
You Liked MOTOE Because… Trains
Well, once again Dame Agatha provides and if trains are your thing, consider The Mystery of the Blue Train or The 4:50 From Paddington.
I’d prefer to switch gears though and suggest Death in the Clouds. Sure, the murder takes place in the skies instead of on tracks but some of the elements of this story are quite memorable and the solution to how a murder is conducted mid-flight is really quite clever.
If you are planning to watch rather than read my suggestions, I seem to remember that the David Suchet adaptation is not one of the better ones though so you may want to chase it down with a viewing of the quite wonderful (and not particularly faithful) adaptation of The 4:50 From Paddington, Murder She Said!
You Liked MOTOE Because… Of Its Star-Studded Cast
Well, books aren’t really star-studded so let’s shift formats and switch to films. The good news is that there were a heap of film adaptations made in the seventies and eighties featuring some really big name stars. The Albert Finney Murder On The Orient Express is a great example – it features Sean Connery and the wonderful Ingrid Bergman among its cast.
Though I think some parts of the adaptation stretch a little too far from Christie’s original (especially the bacchanal sequence), the recent 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None is quite chilling and features a superb cast that includes Charles Dance, Sam Neill, Aidan Turner and Toby Stephens. It also comes closer than most adaptations to using the actual ending of the novel.
So, there are some of my suggestions for some literary (and movie) chasers to wash down your viewing of Murder on the Orient Express with. Hopefully you loved the movie and I hope it won’t be too long before I get to go see it myself. If you have any comments or suggestions of your own, please do share – I’d love to read them.