A house party for family and friends is taking place at The Hollow, country residence of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot is the special guest for Sunday luncheon but when he arrives he is confronted with the sight of Gerda Christow holding a gun and standing over her dying husband, John.
Yet this is no open and shut case for reasons which become quickly clear but as the murder is relatively late to say any more would be spoilerish.
The first half of the book introduces us to the people who make up the house-party, in particular John, a driven doctor who is seeking to cure a debilitating disease, his slow-witted and socially awkward wife, Gerda, and his mistress, Henrietta, who is just as driven as John in her chosen field of sculpture.
When I started this blog I placed this in my bottom 5 and whilst I can appreciate some of the touches (see Spoiler section) overall I’m still not convinced and neither was Christie who wrote in her autobiography that she had ruined it by introducing Poirot.
Recurring character development
Met the Angkatells in Baghdad when Henry was High Commissioner.
Knows how the English dress in the country but deliberately chooses to retain his urban style.
Owns a country cottage called Resthaven.
Has a Belgian gardener, Victor, whose wife, Françoise, cooks.
Signs of the Times
Although published in 1946 this is still set pre-World War II.
According to Lady Angkatell, Henrietta’s sculpture “Ascending Thought” looked “rather like a Heath Robinson stepladder”. William Heath Robinson (1872 – 1944) was an illustrator who drew extraordinarily complicated machines that accomplished only minor tasks. As well as embodying this idea a Heath Robinson contraption also has connotations of being ramshackle and rickety and liable to fall to pieces at any moment.
Henrietta is trying to create a sculpture of Nausicaa. In Greek mythology Odysseus met Nausicaa when shipwrecked on the coast of the island of Scheria. She ends up marrying his son Telemachus.
John Christow is investigating a cure for Ridgeway’s disease which is fictional but may be based upon multiple sclerosis.
When John thinks “Who was it who had said that the real tragedy of life was that you got what you wanted?” he is probably of the Oscar Wilde quote “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
Henrietta has a Delage car. Louis Delâge (1874 – 1947) founded a car manufacturing business in 1905. It was sold to Delahaye in 1935 and ceased production in 1953.
Henrietta doodles a tree which she calls Ygdrasil. Yggdrasil is an enormous ash tree in Norse mythology.
Veronica Cray had “views on Strindberg and on Shakespeare”. August Strindberg (1849 – 1912) was a Swedish playwright.
Hercule Poirot sees Gerda as middle-aged. John is in his late thirties and I assume Gerda is of a similar age. Nowadays middle-aged is probably at least fifty but in a number of GAD books I have recently noticed that late thirties is described as middle-aged, which given lower life expectancies makes some sense and is also literally more accurate.
Inspector Grange prefers Hedy Lamarr to Veronica Cray. Hedy Lamarr (1914 – 2000) was best known as an actress but was also an inventor in her spare time. During World War II, with composer George Antheil (writer of Death in the Dark under the pseudonym Stacey Bishop), she designed and patented a frequency-hopping system which could not be jammed. It was not used during that conflict but was installed on US Navy ships in the 1960s.
Inspector Grange thinks that the Chief Constable of Wealdshire is “a fussy despot and a tuft-hunter”. Titled undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge were entitled to wear golden, rather than plain black, tassels on their academic caps. In the late 17th century these became known as “tufts” and this name was then given to the wearers, with those who followed and looked-up to them being known as “tufthunters” so the sense here is an obsequious sycophant. “Tuft” changed over time to become “Toff”.
Lady Angkatell quotes “If apes had been content with tails” which is from a poem called “Discontent” by Ellen Wheeler Wilcox (1850 – 1919). She also wrote the lines “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone”.
Lady Angkatell says that it would have been all right for the murder to be the leading article in The Observer but not The News of the World. The Observer is the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper, first published in 1791. Since 1993 it has been part of The Guardian Media Group. The News of the World was first published in 1843, also as a Sunday newspaper, and was the cheapest at the time. It closed in 2011 following the phone-hacking scandal but was unfortunately just replaced with The Sun on Sunday.
Lady Angkatell imagines that Inspector Grange is married with sons and helps them with Meccano in the evenings. Meccano is a metal construction kit invented in 1898 by Frank Hornby and is still made today. A similar toy called Erector was launched in the USA in 1913 and was eventually taken over by Meccano in 2000.
Henrietta’s quote beginning “The days passed slowly one by one” is from the poem “Creature Comforts” by Harry Graham. Graham (1874 – 1936) was a humorous writer best known for the 1898 collection “Ruthless Rhymes”.
Poirot is puzzled that Ainswick was not inherited by Sir Henry ” as he has the title” to which Henrietta responds “Oh, that’s a KCB”. This a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath which is a non-hereditary award which allows a man to be known as Sir or a woman to be known as Dame. Benito Mussolini, Nicolae Ceausescu, and Robert Mugabe were all members before their infamous deeds prompted their expulsion.
Lady Angkatell had had a rich chocolate and cream dessert with a very offensive name made for Poirot as it was “Just the sort of sweet a foreigner would like for lunch”.
Midge’s quote that begins “He is dead and gone, lady, he is dead and gone” is from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “How – At least two deaths with different means”.