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”.