Mr Shaitana collects art. He also collects murderers. Successful murderers. Those who have not been caught. He invites Poirot to dinner to meet some of his specimens.
Three other representatives of the forces of law and order attend the dinner party: Superintendent Battle of the Metropolitan Police, Colonel Race of the Secret Service, and Mrs Oliver, writer of crime fiction. Poirot assumes that the other four guests, Dr Roberts, Mrs Lorrimer, Miss Meredith, and Major Despard, are part of Shaitana’s collection.
After dinner, the good guys play bridge in one room, while the bad guys play in another, watched by Shaitana. Almost inevitably the evening ends with the discovery that their host has been stabbed to death. No one else has entered the room so one murderer has struck again to preserve their secret.
In her foreword, Christie explains that she has deliberately written a different type of detective story – not one where the least likely person did it but instead where all suspects are equally likely to have done it.
So instead of investigating the murder in the present, our sleuths have to first identify and then investigate murders from the past which hitherto have gone unsuspected. Poirot hopes that by studying these cold cases he may learn enough about each suspect to determine which of them committed this particular murder in this particular way. But even if he can identify the killer, will he be able to provide sufficient evidence to convict them?
I’ve always liked this one a lot because of the way suspicion passes around the field of suspects, and although there is no final surprise – Christie has played fair with her foreword – events do take a number of turns before the truth is revealed.
Mrs Oliver is a fascinating character and Christie obviously has fun with her literary alter ego, especially when dealing with picky readers: “I’m always getting tangled up in horticulture and things like that. People write to me and say I’ve got the wrong flowers all out together.”
Recurring character development
Knows of Colonel Race before the evening of the murder but they have not met before.
Is an “early-to-bed” man.
This is one of his favourite cases.
Had a friend in the English police force about forty years ago.
Is “an agreeable woman of middle age, handsome in a rather untidy fashion with fine eyes, substantial shoulders and a large quantity of rebellious grey hair with which she was continually experimenting”.
Is a “hot-headed feminist” and one of her favourite sayings is “Now if a woman were the head of Scotland Yard.”
Her thirty-two books (forty-six according to Parker Pyne Investigates – perhaps she writes in other genres and here she is referring to crime fiction only) include “The Body in the Library”, the similarly plotted “The Lotus Murder”and “The Clue of the Candle Wax”, an untitled work where all the Chief Constables are shot simultaneously, “The Death in the Drainpipe”, and “The Affair of the Second Goldfish”.
Her recurring sleuth is the Finn, Sven Hjerson, although she wishes she had made him a Bulgar as then she would receive fewer complaints about accuracy. He has to break the ice on his bath every morning.
Lives in a top-floor flat close to Harley Street. Her study has tropical rainforest wallpaper.
Knows of Hercule Poirot before the evening of the murder.
Is an “early-to-bed” man.
Inspector Japp has told him that Poirot has a tortuous mind.
In 1925 he was “about forty, with a touch of greying hair at either temple, and was easily the best-looking man on board”.
Known at that time as a big-game hunter but with the general idea that he does Secret Service work.
Was jilted in his youth, so threw himself into his work.
Becomes the administrator of the Eardsley estate.
The above were disclosed in The Man in the Brown Suit but given he is a possible suspect in that book I did not include him as a recurring character in that review.
Signs of the Times
The story is explicitly set in 1937 yet the crime occurs on Friday 18th and shortly afterwards Mrs Oliver visits Anne and Rhoda in October. This combination is not possible. 18th September was a Friday in 1936.
Mr Shaitana is described several times as “Mephistophelian”. In the “Faust” story, Mephistopheles is an agent of the Devil.
Poirot asks if Shaitana has his own private “Black Museum”. An act of 1869 allowed the police to retain or destroy items used in the commission of a crime which previously had to be returned to their owners. In 1874 Inspector Neame and PC Randall collected some of these items together in order to instruct other officers. This was nicknamed the Black Museum in 1877, though is officially known as the Crime Museum.
Anne Meredith is named after one of Lucy Malleson’s pseudonyms. Under this name she wrote Portrait of a Murderer but is better known as Anthony Gilbert.
When Mrs Oliver says “now if you had a woman there”, Battle says “as a matter of fact we have—”. In the UK, Edith Smith was the first woman to be appointed a police officer with full powers of arrest in 1915. Policewomen were placed in separate teams to policemen such as the A4 division in the Metropolitan Police.
After Shaitana finishes discussing various types of accidents, there is a silence and Mrs Oliver breaks it by saying “Is it twenty-to or twenty-past? An angel passing…My feet aren’t crossed – it must be a black angel!” This is a reference to the sometimes observed phenomenon that a room falls silent at twenty past the hour, possibly because the angels are singing and humans unconsciously stop to listen. As her feet aren’t crossed for luck it must be a dark angel.
Poirot refers to Sherlock Holmes and the curious incident of the dog in the night. This refers to Holmes’ case “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”.
Anne’s former employer, Mrs Eldon, now lives in Palestine. Mandatory Palestine was established following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I by the British in 1920. It came to an end in 1948 with the founding of modern Israel.
Poirot meets Major Despard just after he has left the Albany. Melbourne House was built 1771-76 by Sir Williams Chambers for the 1st Viscount Melbourne. Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany lived there from 1791-1802. After this the three-storey mansion house, seven bays wide, was converted into sixty-nine bachelor apartments by Henry Holland. Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham lived here as did Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman – to be reviewed here later this month.
Major Despard had noticed a good eland head in Shaitana’s hall and says that it probably came from Rowland Ward’s. James Rowland Ward (1848-1912) was a taxidermist. His premises in Piccadilly were nicknamed “The Jungle”. He published “Records of Big Game” in 1882 which entered its twenty-ninth edition in 2014. The firm is now owned by an American company and operates from California.
Reference is made to Lord Byron’s famous poem “I never loved a dear gazelle”. The actual line is “I never nurs’d a dear gazelle” from Irish poet Thomas Moore’s “The Fire-Worshippers, part of his epic poem “Lalla Rookh”.
Poirot wishes that he had a some Brasso and a rag to clean Mrs Luxmore’s door-knocker. Brasso is a liquid metal polish, created by Reckitt & Sons (now Reckitt Benckiser) in 1905.
Poirot when saying “I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not cricket more” is deliberately misquoting Richard Lovelace’s poem “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars”.
Mrs Lorrimer sends a letter to Fortnum and Mason’s. This department store was founded in 1707 by William Fortnum and Hugh Mason.
References to previous works
Poirot, with a touch of foresight, had described the scenario presented in this book in The ABC Murders.
Anne Meredith says that it was really Poirot who solved The ABC Murders.
Poirot tells Major Despard that his last failure was twenty-eight years ago. This is “The Chocolate Box” included within “Poirot’s Early Cases”.
Poirot reveals the solution of Murder on the Orient Express to Rhoda Dawes. It can be inferred that although he tried to keep the truth a secret, given that a little journalistic work may have put someone on the same trail, the facts did become public.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “How – death by knife/dagger”.
It is interesting that the psychological moment mentioned in a previous title but not used there, is picked up here as the key factor in Shaitana’s murder. Roberts is able to manufacture a grand slam contract and provide himself with the best opportunity to kill whilst all eyes are concentrated elsewhere. Although “He had no business to make such a call”, because he has been overbidding his hands in the earlier rubbers, this is consistent with his play and so does not get commented on.
After this re-reading, I thought it would have been amusing if, after her foreword where she promises that there will be no least likely suspect, it had turned out to be Major Despard after all. He may not have killed in the past but may have had a particular reason to become a killer in the present.