Poirot’s help is requested by Paul Renauld, who fears his life is in danger, but by the time the detective arrives in Northern France, the millionaire has been found stabbed to death in an open grave. Who were the mysterious men who tied up his wife before taking him out to find “the secret”? Which of the many women in his life could be involved? And is there a connection between a similar crime that happened twenty years ago?
Having read it before, I knew roughly what was going on, but I couldn’t remember who the murderer was, in common with a contemporary review which said “the solution is one of those ‘once revealed, instantly’ forgotten.” That said, what comes before is quite entertaining, as Poirot focuses on elements that the man from the Sûreté thinks of little importance, but which ultimately lead to his triumph.
Recurring character development
Is now sharing rooms with Hastings in London and has set himself up as a private detective.
He mentioned the “little grey cells” once in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and mentions them again in this story, thus creating his much impersonated catchphrase.
Has been working on the “Aberystwyth Case” with Inspector Japp.
Worked with Lucien Bex, the Commissary of Police, in Ostend in 1909.
He is unfamiliar with the phrase “to have a bee in one’s bonnet”.
He carries what is described as “a turnip of a (pocket) watch”.
He can detect a genuine faint from turning up the eyelids and checking the pulse.
He assisted Joseph Aarons, a theatrical agent, in the little matter of a Japanese Wrestler.
He uses the winnings from his wager with Giraud to buy a model foxhound.
We learn that his rank is Captain and his first name is Arthur.
Is working as a private secretary for a Member of Parliament.
Presumably speaks fluent French.
He sometimes smokes a pipe.
At the end of the case he is considering relocating to South America.
References to previous works
Hastings recounts the “Styles Case” to the girl on the train.
Signs of the Times
The story is set in the summer of 1921.
The girl in the train says: “It’s not everyone who can distinguish between a demi and a duchess. There now, I believe I’ve shocked you again!” A demi in this context is probably either a demi-mondaine (French) or a demirep (English) – both have similar connotations of a woman of dubious morals.
Poirot refers to the “Bertillon System” in relation to fingerprints. Alphonse Bertillon (1853 – 1914) was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who applied anthropometry to law enforcement by creating an identification system based on physical measurements. The nearly 100-year-old standard of comparing 16 ridge characteristics to identify latent prints at crime scenes against criminal records was based on claims he made in a paper he published in 1912.
The approximate exchange rate is 50 Francs to the Pound. When France moved to the Euro in 2002, the exchange rate was 10 Francs to the Pound.
Giraud works for the Sûreté (literally “surety” but usually translated as “safety” or “security”). It was founded in 1812 and inspired the formation of both Scotland Yard and the FBI. In 1966 it formally changed its name to Police Nationale.
Gabriel Stonor has travelled in Korea, which at this time was ruled by Imperial Japan, before becoming divided into North and South following the Second World War, and in the South Sea Islands, now more commonly referred to as Polynesia.
Jack Renauld served in the English Flying Corps. This was actually the Royal Flying Corps, the air wing of the British Army, formed in 1912, merged in 1918 with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force.
It is rumoured that Madame Beroldy’s mother had a morganatic marriage with an Austrian archduke. This was a legal marriage, normally between a high-ranking male and a socially inferior female, but where neither she nor any offspring had any claim on his succession rights, titles, or entailed property.
Poirot proposes that Giraud would explain that the tramp was an apache. Les Apaches, taking their name from their supposed similarity in savagery to the Native American tribe, were gangs of criminals in France in the early 20th century.
Poirot refers to the “English Baths Murderer”. This was George Joseph Smith, who was found guilty in 1915 of murdering a bigamous wife by drowning her in the bath; evidence of two other similar crimes was admitted at his trial in order to establish a pattern of behaviour.
Poirot suggests that Hastings should write for the Kinema. The “k” is in line with the Greek origins of “kinematography” but I can’t find when that was fully replaced by the French “c” and it became standardised in English as “cinema”.
Whilst watching a show, Hastings notes that “a comic comedian endeavoured to be Mr George Robey and failed signally”. George Robey (real name Sir George Edward Wade) was one of the greatest music hall performers of his day. He was only modestly successful on the big screen, but did play Falstaff in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 “Henry V”.
Another act wears enormous “Buster Brown” bows. Buster Brown was a comic strip character created in 1902 who wore a distinctive type of suit with a big bow at the front. The suit was beloved by mothers and loathed by sons.
Vintage Reading Challenge
Captain Hastings fulfils the category “Who – Retired from or in the Armed Forces”.
Renauld/Conneau is quick-witted and ruthless in taking advantage of the tramp’s unfortunate demise, but extremely careless in discussing his plans in the open air. That aside it was a good plan – providing a corpse that would be discovered in due course in a state of decomposition, thus allowing his wife to inherit all his assets, and for them both to escape his blackmailers.
There is a poetic justice that a murderer ultimately meets his end from preparing to falsify his own death, particularly at the hands of the daughter of his one time lover.
Hastings’ romance is believable from his side, he has an eye for any pretty young thing, especially one in trouble, but for the girl to reciprocate seems unlikely. Perhaps she is a little more practical: if the other half of her act marries her rich young man, what will become of her?