Charles Hayward returns to England two years after the end of the Second World War to propose to Sophia Leonides. She won’t consent to marriage until her grandfather’s death by poisoning has been resolved.
Whilst it would be convenient if Aristide Leonides had been murdered by his second wife and/or her lover, Sophia suspects that a family member could be responsible.
Charles, as son of an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, has a semi-official role in the investigation and hopes to get close enough to the Crooked Family in the Crooked House, but he can have no idea of what he will ultimately find.
Another tale of a family who have been financially spoiled, not always to their betterment, but this was one of Christie’s favourites as she explains in the foreword that this was a pleasure to write, which is only the case for one book in six.
There is also this description of the Leonides library: “It was a big room, full of books. The books did not confine themselves to the bookcases that reached up to the ceiling. They were on chairs and tables and even on the floor. And yet there was no sense of disarray about them.”
Who wouldn’t enjoy a room like that!
Signs of the Times
The story is set in autumn 1947.
Charles’ father says “There’s not even a case to put up to the DPP so far”. In England and Wales the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions reviews evidence gathered by the police and determines whether it is sufficient to be taken to court. Often in GAD fiction although the reader is satisfied that a case has been solved, it is likely that in the absence of the killer’s confession, the defence counsel would tear the solution to pieces.
Edith de Haviland says “Not nice to think one has a Borgia sort of person loose about the house”. The Borgia family produced two 15th century popes and were suspected for a number of murders, often by arsenic poisoning.
Magda Leonides wants to put on a play about Edith Thompson. In 1923 she and her lover Frederick Bywaters were found guilty of the murder of her husband Percy, although only he was the only one to stab the victim and there was nothing to suggest that she knew about his plans in advance.
Magda reminds Charles of Athene Seyler (1889-1990) an English actress.
On the day of Aristide’s death Magda was in London, lunching at the Ivy and then having a drink at the Berkeley. The Ivy is a restaurant founded in 1917, possibly named after the song “Just Like the Ivy, I’ll Cling to You” and became a favourite amongst theatre stars, partly as it opened until midnight. The Berkeley Hotel started life as the Gloucester Coffee House at some time in the 1800s before taking its current name in 1897.
The police ask Clemency Leonides if she is working on the atom bomb. Although the UK had worked with the USA on the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bombs, cooperation ended after the Second World War. Post-war the British continued their own work conducting their first independent tests in Australia in 1952.
Aristides was painted by the Welsh artist Augustus John (1878-1961) and his wife by the American artist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).
When she met Aristide, Brenda believed that she was “in trouble – just like some dreadful little servant girl”, a euphemism for pregnant outside of marriage.
Magda says that the drawing up of Aristide’s will was like “The Voysey Inheritance”. This is a 1905 play by Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946).
Discussing poisoners, Charles’ father says “Pritchard was a good mixer”. He is presumably referring to Dr Edward William Pritchard (1825-1865) who poisoned his wife and mother-in-law with antimony for which he was hanged.
He later refers to Constance Kent who killed her baby brother. Four-year-old Francis Kent was murdered in June 1860. His 16-year-old half-sister Constance was arrested the next month but was released without charge. Five years later she confessed to the crime and was sentenced to death which was then commuted to life imprisonment. She was released in 1885 and the next year emigrated to Australia to join her brother. She changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye and trained as a nurse. She retired in 1932 and died in 1944 at the age of 100. Despite suspicions that she confessed to shield somebody else (possibly her father or brother) she never recanted her confession, even after their deaths.
Charles asks whether it will be difficult to send Josephine to school in Switzerland with all the currency regulations. A relatively common them in GAD fiction is how to get the proceeds of crime abroad and it seems controls were generally a lot tighter then than they are now.
Josephine refers to The Brains Trust. This was a radio programme which ran from 1941 (originally under the name Any Questions? which was later used for a different programme) until 1949 when it transferred to television and ran until 1961. Listeners sent in questions which the panellists would debate both seriously and/or comically. Panellists included Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, and Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour MP and author of the 1932 novel “The Division Bell Mystery”.
Magda is reading a new play cribbed from Arsenic and Old Lace. This is a 1939 play by Joseph Kesselring, filmed in 1944 by Frank Capra starring Cary Grant.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “How – Death on wheels”. This means I have now completed the pre-1960 challenge in full.