I am almost embarrassed to admit that this is the first Agatha Christie book I have read. Though I was a
fan of PBS's Mystery, I actually never watched any episodes of Poirot, (although I did see all the Geraldine
McEwan episodes of Miss Marple because I am a big fan of her). There is no particular reason I have avoided Christie, other than none of her books
happened to cross my desk. They will now, though. This is another of those "can't put it down till it's finished" masterpieces—clever—well that is a major
understatement. Brilliant, devious, filled with surprises and twists and turns to confuse the reader who thinks they might have it all figured out. Not a
chance! And not only that, it is easy to understand. (Sometimes I am a little dense with mysteries, and don't quite "get it," but this one I got and it all
made sense.) And Poirot is a lovable little Belgian that I'd like to get to know much better.
The introduction to this Dover edition contains some interesting background information on how Christie got her start in detective novels. She was working in a dispensary during World War I, and "surrounded by poisons she began plotting her tale." She had decided that:
"the whole point of a good detective story was that [the murderer] must be someone obvious but at the same time, for some reason, you would find that [he or she] was not obvious."
And so her stories pointedly lead you to the guilty one, and then away, and tantalize you with the possibility it is someone
altogether unsuspected. It takes mastery to deliberately fool readers with such certitude!
In this, her first work, we meet Hastings, who becomes Poirot's assistant, of sorts. He is convalescing from the war when he runs into his friend John Cavendish. He learns that John's stepmother has just remarried—quite a shock, as she is in her seventies, but still active, especially in her work for charities. She had raised John and his brother Lawrence as a generous mother, and inherited the property when the boys' father died. After her death, it would automatically go to John, with funds for Lawrence. But now, since her remarriage, perhaps everything had changed. John invites Hastings to stay at the estate.
Alfred Inglethorp is basically hated by the whole household, except, of course, by his wealthy wife. Hastings meets John's wife, Mary, cool and reserved—and rather unsuited to John. She seems to be particularly close to a doctor, a German named Bauerstein. Another young lady, Cynthia, also lives there, befriended by Mrs. Inglethorp. She works at the dispensary, and does, in fact, have access to poisons. And lastly is Miss Howard, a large, forty-ish rather outspoken woman who is dear to Mrs. Inglethorp. But early on in the story, she leaves abruptly, voicing her hatred of Alfred.
So, now, all the characters have been revealed, and it is time for a murder—Mrs. Inglethorp, of course, early in the morning after having supposedly had a fight with her husband the day before. With the doors bolted from within, they must be broken down, only to have her family witness her writhing in pain before she dies. Though there is a possibility it might have been from natural causes, as Dr. Wilkins believes, Bauerstein, who just happened to be near at the time thinks not, and John approves the autopsy. It is strychnine.
Of course, the first suspect is her loathsome husband, and during the inquest he does nothing to defend himself, even though he was out, and had witnesses to his whereabouts (which may have been with another woman.) Poirot notes this with interest. And he notes a lot of other things that others barely notice. Hastings wonders if he is going a bit senile in his later years, but, ahhh, just wait and see.
As the tale spins around, it seems there is evidence that just about any of them could have done it, yet there is just as much evidence that they did not. Who stood to benefit? It seems a new will had been made shortly before Mrs. Inglethorp's demise, but it had been burned in the fireplace, ordered lit by Mrs. Inglethorp herself during the hot summer. And who smashed the coffee cup to bits? And where was the missing coffee cup? And what about that little fiber of green fabric caught in the bolted door?
This one will keep you on your toes (though I didn't even try to guess whodunit), and it will certainly keep your nose in the book. And I do promise that there will be more Agatha Christie appearing in these reviews!
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