“Elinor Katharine Carlisle. You stand charged upon this indictment with the murder of Mary Gerrard upon the 27th of July last. Are you guilty or not guilty?”
This book starts with the opening of a murder trial which is being attended by Hercule Poirot before taking us back through the events that led up the crime.
Poirot is only asked to investigate by the village doctor after Elinor’s arrest and whilst his inquiries shift the jigsaw pieces of the puzzle and motives come and go, all roads keep leading back to Elinor. For once has he backed the wrong horse?
This is the second and last Christie title that I first read in French in order to avoid reading a proper French book, although I definitely understood this more than “Drame en trois actes”.
Whilst I was fairly sure that I had read this in English before (which I did eventually prove to my satisfaction) I had no memory of the structure of the novel and my expectations for the denouement were definitely based on the David Suchet adaptation which is much more dramatic, but also more unlikely.
A solid if unspectacular mystery, but even an average Christie is a good thing.
Recurring character development
Dr Lord comes to Poirot because he has about his success in the Benedict Farley case from Stillingfleet.
Chief Inspector Marsden says that Poirot will be granted an interview with Elinor because he’s got the present Home Secretary in his pocket, presumably for services rendered to the British government.
Has some useful assistants – including a former burglar who he uses to search a residence.
Signs of the Times
The story is set in 1939 but there is no feeling of an impending World War. Dr Lord sees no reason why Poirot should not have personally been to Germany to make inquiries.
Roddy refers to Elinor as “la Princesse Lointaine“. This description of an unattainable woman comes from the 1895 play of the same name by Edmond Rostand (1868-1918).
Nurse Hopkins saw Elinor’s picture in “Tatler”. This British magazine, initially published weekly, was created in 1901 by Clement Shorter. It was named after a short-lived literary and society journal of the same name from the early 18th century. It briefly changed its name in the mid-Sixties to “London Life” and is now owned by Condé Nast.
Nurse Hopkins suggests massage or Norland as opportunities for Mary Gerrard. Norland College was founded in 1892 by Emily Ward to train women in caring for and educating children. It has changed locations a number of times and is now based in Bath.
Euthanasia is referenced but not by name. Charles Killick Millard had founded the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society (now Dignity in Dying) in 1935.
Dr Lord asks Laura Welman if she has heard of “the Little Ease – you couldn’t stand, sit or lie in it”. This is a cell beneath the Tower of London’s White Tower, 1.2m on each side. It is unclear whether it was used to house prisoners but it sounds quite unpleasant.
Roddy compares Mary Gerrard to Atalanta. She was a huntress in Greek mythology who could beat any man in a footrace until she was tricked by Hippomenes with three golden apples given him by Aphrodite.
Ted Bigland refers to films featuring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable but based on the brief descriptions I can’t easily find any of their actual films to match.
The two nurses begin their letters Dear Hopkins/Dear O’Brien with no title or honorific.
Nurse Hopkins’ letter says “Considering the easy way you get divorces nowadays, it does seem a shame that insanity shouldn’t have been a ground for it then”. Until the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937, the only grounds in the United Kingdom for divorce had been adultery. The Act included the following as reasons for divorce: unlawful desertion for two years or more, cruelty, incurable insanity, incest, and sodomy.
Nurse Hopkins enjoyed watching “The Good Earth”. This 1937 film was based on Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 novel of the same name and tells the story of Chinese farmers struggling to survive.
The washing-up bowl is made from papier-mâché which struck me as a little odd.
Laura Welman had a musquash coat which is another term for a coat made from muskrat fur.
Poirot refers to the Hearne case. An interesting account of the 1931 case against Annie Hearn can be found here.
Elinor and Poirot refer to Eleanor of Aquitaine and Fair Rosamund. Eleanor (1122-1204) was the wife of Henry II (1133-1189) and Rosamund Clifford (1150-1176) was his mistress. Legend tells that he kept her hidden within a maze but that Eleanor found her and offered her the choice to die by dagger or poison of which she chose the latter.
Dr Lord drives a Ford 10. The Model C 10 was built by Ford UK between 1934 and 1937 with the 10 referring to its 10 British Fiscal Horsepower.
Poirot mentions “Charlotte and the poet Werther”. This refers to “The Sorrow of Young Werther” (1774) by Goethe.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “How – Death by poison”