Hercule Poirot and ten fellow travellers board a flight from Paris to London but at the end of the short journey one of them is dead. Poirot has been dozing so noticed nothing amiss at the time but he does find a poisoned dart on the floor near the dead woman and later the police find a blowpipe…down the side of his chair!
After the coroner prevents the jury from accusing Poirot of the crime, he is able to commence his investigation in earnest, crisscrossing the Channel as he explores the lives of the victim and his fellow travellers and finds that a number of them may have had a reason to kill.
An interesting aspect of this case is that we see the impact that being a suspect in a high profile crime has on their lives; from Jane Grey benefitting initially from curious customers to Norman Gale losing cautious patients.
One of the first Christie’s that I ever read and so I have a strong liking for it, although on this re-reading I thought that the ending was a little rushed, with a lot of important police work having been done in the background, which is then all revealed at once. This highlights a key difference between Poirot, who begins with a firm idea about the case based upon a particular piece of evidence, which he keeps to himself, and then finds the evidence to support that conclusion, and someone like Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French, who would investigate all the suspects in equal detail, begin to find evidence that pointed to a likely killer and then have had the flash of inspiration at the end to understand how the rest of the evidence fits together.
A good ending to the year and I look forward with relish to next year when we will find some of Christie’s best work and certainly her most consistent period of excellence.
Recurring character development
Suffers from air sickness.
Has had previous encounters with both Inspector Fournier and M. Gilles, Chief of the Detective Force.
Speaks French slowly and carefully. In the David Suchet TV version he speaks no French at all.
Signs of the Times
The story is set in 1935.
Jane Grey’s trip to Le Pinet was financed from her winnings on the Irish Sweep. The Irish Free State Hospitals’ Sweepstake was a lottery established in 1930 to fund Irish hospitals. Lotteries at this time were illegal in the UK and a 1934 act prohibited the import and export of lottery related materials.
The murder occurs on a flight from Le Bourget to Croydon. Le Bourget was France’s only airport until Orly opened in 1932. It closed to international airline traffic until 1977. Croydon Aerodrome was the UK’s main airport until 1946 when London (now Heathrow) Airport opened.
During the flight Poirot eats “thin captain biscuits”. These are apparently a hard, fancy biscuit.
The Duponts have been excavating a site near Susa, Persia. Following a diplomatic request in 1935, Western countries started to refer to the country as Iran. The modern town of Shush is located at the site of the ancient city of Susa.
Daniel Clancy was constructing a perfect cross-Europe alibi with the assistance of Bradshaw. This is a possible homage to Freeman Wills Crofts whose “12.30 from Croydon”, featuring a death on an aeroplane, had been published the year before. Crofts was well known for his murderers having well-planned, seemingly unbreakable alibis.
The flight belonged to Universal Airlines. In reality this would have been Imperial Airlines.
Norman Gale says that Venetia Kerr would only kill an unpopular MFH which given the context must be Master of Foxhounds, the organiser of a local hunt.
Fournier refers to the “Stavisky business”. Alexandre Stavisky (1886-1934) was a fraudulent financier with links to the French government. He died from gunshots to the head; the official verdict was suicide but even at the time it was believed that he had been murdered, possibly on orders by those on high. The ensuing scandal caused the prime minister, Camille Chautemps, to resign.
The banned book, “Bootless Cup”, found in James Ryder’s luggage, does not exist.
Dr Bryant’s luggage includes “Memoirs of Benevenuto Cellini” and “Les Maux de l’Oreille”. The former is the autobiography a 16th century goldsmith; the latter is presumably a medical textbook on ear disorders.
Norman Gale’s luggage includes “La Vie Parisienne”, “The Strand Magazine”, and “The Autocar”. The first is a weekly French magazine published between 1863 and 1970; a new magazine with the same name has been published since 1984. The second is a monthly English magazine, most famous for publishing the majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which ran from 1891 to 1950. It was revived as a quarterly magazine in 1988. The third is a weekly English magazine, first published in 1895 and still going strong today.
The Duponts are going to speak to the Royal Asiatic Society. Formally the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, this was founded in 1824 and publishes a quarterly journal.
Venetia Kerr’s luggage includes two Tauchnitz novels, “Vogue”, and “Good Housekeeping”. Tauchnitz were a family of German publishers who published works by British authors in English for sale on the European market. Vogue began in the USA in 1892 as a weekly newspaper targeted at men. It was bought in 1905 by Condé Nast and switched to being a unisex magazine before being fully targeted at women. British Vogue was launched in 1916 and French Vogue in 1920. It went monthly in 1973. Good Housekeeping is another originally American magazine, first published fortnightly in 1885, moving to monthly in 1891, with a British edition launched in 1922.
Lady Horbury’s luggage includes boracic powder. Better known as boric acid, this has a number of uses, including acting as an antiseptic.
Madame Giselle gave money to the Little Sisters of the Poor. This is an order founded in France in 1839 by Jeanne Jugan to care for the elderly.
Poirot has a picture of Lady Horbury taken from The Sketch. This was a weekly journal that ran from 1893 to 1959. Featuring photographs of society figures, it also contained short stories, including forty-nine by Christie herself.
M. Zeropoulos refers to “the most preposterous scarabs ever made in Czechoslovakia”. This country was created in 1918 on the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire and had a difficult history due to Nazi and Soviet invasions before splitting amicably into Slovakia and the Czech Republic (now in the process of becoming known popularly as Czechia).
Jane and Norman like Greta Garbo and dislike Katharine Hepburn. In 1935 Garbo (1905-1990) was at the peak of her career, before retiring in 1941, whereas Hepburn (1907-2003) was at the start of a temporary decline before making a comeback and earning a third of twelve Best Actress Oscar nominations for “The Philadelphia Story” (1941).
Clancy notes that Jane does not use the Pitman system of shorthand. Sir Isaac Pitman (1837-1897) created his system in 1837. His brothers took it to the USA and Australia, but it was overtaken in the former by Gregg shorthand, and then more generally by Teeline.
Norman says that there is a saying about Irish eyes having been put in with a smutty finger. I can’t find where this comes from or quite what it means, but it is used in other works, including “Taken at the Flood” as cited by Clothes in Books.
References to previous works
Poirot recollects that he was once taken for a hairdresser (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).
Inspector Fournier has heard about Poirot from Inspector Giraud (The Murder on the Links).
Poirot alludes to both Three-Act Tragedy and Murder on the Orient Express.
Vintage Reading Challenge
Poirot’s fellow passengers include a doctor and a dentist so fulfils “Who – in the medical field”.
The solution to this case is essentially a combination of two Father Brown stories: one from “The Innocence of Father Brown” and the other from “The Incredulity of Father Brown”. Someone who has not been noticed and a weapon used in an unexpected manner.
The introduction of the wasp, whilst it provides one of the most memorable Christie covers – and inspired an episode of Doctor Who – I don’t think actually makes sense. We are told that the blowpipe could have been thrown out the window, rather than pushed down the side of a chair, and as the dart was delivered by hand, why not throw that away rather than having to risk recovering it later?
However I love the fact that the presence of the blowpipe forces us down the line of believing that the crime was committed from a distance and this leads to Fournier’s suggestion of a psychological moment where no one would notice the murderer’s actions. Although not used here, Christie would later use it to great effect in a similarly closed situation.