Captain Hastings has returned from South America at the same time that his old friend Hercule Poirot has received a letter signed “ABC” which advises him to “look out for Andover, on the 21st of the month”.
Hastings, as Scotland Yard have already done, dismisses it as a hoax but Poirot is deeply concerned and his instincts are proven to be correct when the Andover police report that the body of Alice Ascher has been found in her tobacco shop. Poirot’s questioning of the local inspector reveals that an ABC Railway Guide had been left on the counter. And then a second letter drawing Poirot’s attention to Bexhill is delivered…
So begins one of Poirot’s hardest cases: even forewarned as to when a crime is to be committed how can he find a madman amongst millions? And yet, by talking to the families of the victims, he is able to create a portrait of a murderer that will help the police in closing the net and trapping the man that the whole country is talking about.
For once, the reader is ahead of the Great Detective as Christie tries her hand at an inverted mystery with Hastings’ usual narrative interwoven with the exploits of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, but is still kept in the dark about what the killer’s underlying motive is as even Poirot finds it hard to fathom the purpose of the sequence of deaths.
Overall a very pleasing read, in particular as regards the acknowledgement from both Poirot and a psychologist working with the police that due to the limited information provided by each letter and crime scene, ABC may be able to realistically commit five, six, or even more murders before they are caught, and that nobody will be able to prevent it. You just have to hope that you aren’t called Frank Field from Farnham – and even that may not be enough to save you!
Recurring character development
Has moved into a new flat since Hastings’ last visit which he chose due to the building’s “strictly geometrical appearance and proportions”.
Dyes his hair with “Revivit”.
Carries a flask of brandy.
Has been awarded an OBE.
Is sensitive about his thinning hair.
Has never hunted as he cannot afford to.
Chief Inspector Japp
Has gone ” as grey as badger”.
Signs of the Times
The story is set in the summer of 1935.
Inspector Glen says that the railway guide found at Mrs Ascher’s shop was “a big one – kind of thing only Smith’s or a big stationer would keep”. Founded in 1792 by Henry Walton and Anna Smith, what is now WHSmith began as a news vendor, before becoming a British retail giant. Of most interest to bibliophiles is that they created Standard Book Numbers which went on to become ISBNs.
Mrs Ascher possessed the fictional paperback “The Green Oasis”.
As well as owning an ABC, Mr Partridge’s shelves also include “Kelly’s Directory”. Kelly’s, Post Office and Harrod & Co Directory was effectively a Victorian Yellow Pages, containing addresses of businesses and tradespeople for a given locale.
When asked whether a second murder can be prevented, Poirot refers to the “long-continued successes of Jack the Ripper”. Jack the Ripper was a name used by someone claiming to be the Whitechapel Killer who killed a number of women in 1888. The true identity of the murderer has never been resolved.
Inspector Crome refers to Stoneman in 1929 who ended by “trying to do away with anyone who annoyed him in the slightest degree”. This does not seem to refer to a real case as I can find no trace of it – grimly though the name Stoneman was given to a serial killer who operated in Calcutta in 1989 and was never caught.
There is a suggestion that ABC drinks White Horse whisky. This is a blended scotch, first produced in 1861 by James Logan Mackie. The brand is now owned by Diageo.
“Not a Sparrow”, the film enjoyed by Mr Cust, is fictional.
A young man who talks to Mr Cust is wearing a bright blue Aertex shirt. Lewis Haslam, a textile manufacturer, ran experiments with two medical colleagues on trapping air within fabric to provide an insulating effect between the skin and the outside air. In 1888 they formed the Aertex Company to produce this new material. This “Cellular Clothing Company” still operates today.
The song hummed by Hastings and then sung by Poirot which refers to brunettes and blondes is “Some Sort of Somebody” by Elsie Janis and Jerome Kern from the 1915 musical “Very Good Eddie”.
The Doncaster murder is scheduled to take place on the same day as the St Leger. The oldest of the five British Classic horse races, the St Leger was first run in 1776 by Anthony St Leger. It is always the last of the five to be run and takes place in September. The real winner in 1935 was Bahram, who completed the Triple Crown having already won the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby, not the 85-1 outsider Not Half as mentioned in the book.
The quotation “God’s in His heaven. All’s right with the world” comes into Mr Cust’s head. This is from Robert Browning’s 1841 verse drama “Pippa Passes”.
Tom Hartigan says that Inspector Crome is “a bit quiet and lah-di dah – not my idea of a detective” to which Lily Marbury responds “That’s Lord Trenchard’s new kind.” Hugh Trenchard, 1st Viscount Trenchard (1873-1956), after having a key role in founding the Royal Air Force , became Metropolitan Police Commissioner in 1931. He instigated a number of changes including establishing separate career paths for lower and higher ranks similar to that in the military. Those with university degrees were encouraged to apply and would often go through the newly created Hendon Police College (now the Peel Centre).
Poirot and Hastings hear some Brownies singing. Originally called Rosebuds and founded in 1914 as the then youngest section of the Girl Guide movement for girls aged 8 to 11, their name changed to Brownies in 1915. The age range is now 7 to 10.
Poirot refers to Mahatma Gandhi. At this time he was in the middle of his struggle for Indian independence.
Poirot says it is likely that ABC will be committed to Broadmoor. Broadmoor Hospital, Berkshire, is a high-security psychiatric hospital which evolved from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum founded in 1863.
References to previous works
Japp refers to Poirot’s involvement in “all the celebrated cases of the day. Train mysteries, air mysteries, high society deaths.” These would be The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder on the Orient Express, Death in the Clouds, and Lord Edgware Dies.
Poirot refers to his first case in England, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “How – death by strangulation”.
I have lot of things I want to say here but they don’t necessarily follow on so I’ll just put them into numbered sections:
The backcover of the edition I first read says the following (quite spoilerish but brilliant):
A is for Andover and Mrs Ascher battered to death
B is for Bexhill and Betty Barnard strangled
C is for Sir Carmichael Clarke clubbed and killed
From the point of view of this blurb it would have been more apt if Mrs Ascher had been asphyxiated and Betty Barnard bludgeoned!
A question for my fellow bloggers – how you do a spoiler-free review when there is such a major plot twist as there is in this. You can’t not mention Cust’s presence as that would look odd, but if you do mention him how can you not be misleading? How do you praise a book like this to the skies – which it deserves – without implying that there is a twist?
An inverted serial killer story that is not actually inverted and doesn’t feature a serial killer (at least not in the conventional sense) – the main reasons I included it in my Top 5 when I started this blog.
When I first read it I hadn’t come across the concept of an inverted mystery, so whilst it seemed odd that we were being shown who ABC was I was perfectly willing to believe that was the case (unlike my brother who thought that if we were being told who ABC was then that couldn’t possibly be the case). This is where reading GAD fiction chronologically would help because you would see the development of the inverted mystery and be even more surprised about how Christie subverts the form. Also, whilst the idea of hiding a specific murder within a number of murders is now quite commonplace e.g. Martin Beck, Jack Reacher, at the time I can imagine it was quite groundbreaking – although a similar sort of idea had already been used by Chesterton in one of the best Father Brown stories.
The way that ideas are planted is so well done. A pair of new stockings is mentioned amongst the contents of Mrs Ascher’s bedroom. Door-to-door salesmen (and the example of stockings is given) are mentioned by Mrs Fowler, not in response to Poirot’s questions, but because she has initially mistaken him for something in that line.
Poirot makes the point that without ABC’s letters Franz Ascher and Donald Fraser would be the respective prime suspects for the Andover and Bexhill murders, but this is cleverly not repeated again after the Churston killing.
Then there is the masterfully misaddressed third letter which means that they are too late to prevent the Churston murder and ultimately explains why it is Poirot, rather than Scotland Yard, who has been designated as ABC’s adversary.
When Cust has been arrested and is found to have an alibi for the Bexhill murder, Poirot is inclined to believe it because psychologically Cust could not have committed that murder in the way it was done.
One thing that I only realised relatively recently is that once it becomes apparent that the real killer is not Cust, the key murder has to be Churston as it is so much smaller than Andover and Bexhill so you would choose a larger C place if that was one of the random murders.
The one quibble that I do have is that there is no real reason why Poirot is more concerned about ABC’s letters than other similar ones that he often receives. He later says that the problem is that they were written by a sane man pretending to be insane. Whilst a sane man could fake such a letter, by the time he decides to post them and embark on a scheme that will leave at least four people dead, I don’t think he is completely sane any more.
I don’t mind some of the recent BBC adaptations being darker in tone but they turned a classic mystery into a complete nonsense. Either this is a story where the detective with the tortured past is being targeted by a serial killer for a particular personal reason (which has been done to death) or it is the original story – it doesn’t make sense to mix them together.
The scene where Franklin Clarke covered in blood enters the bathroom occupied by the bathing Thora Grey was ridiculous – surely she would have screamed the house down – she had no reason not to.
And this particular Poirot who takes murder so seriously because of his past would not have involved himself in a murder party. If he had to already know the Clarkes surely something more likely could have been devised?
I can understand why some of Christie’s novels have been changed for TV e.g. Appointment with Death as they wouldn’t necessarily film that way. I can also see that there may be no point doing a faithful version as Suchet has already given us many of those, but in that case why do it at all? Create new stories rather than twisting something completely out of shape to put it into a particular mould.