Mrs McGinty was clearly killed by her lodger for the small amount of cash she kept under a floorboard in the house. And James Bentley would have been hanged had not Hercule Poirot been asked to review the case.
Through patient investigation he is able to identify the one anomalous activity that Mrs McGinty took in the days leading up to her death that opens an entirely unexpected motive and a wealth of possible murderers in the village of Broadhinny.
There are distinct parallels to “A Murder is Announced” as once again we are looking for someone who has changed their identity, possibly aided by confusion during the War.
Christie reuses a trick from a previous book but here it is done much more effectively as there is a genuine foundation for it which was definitely not the case in the earlier work.
A solid read, with comedy provided from Poirot’s martyrdom due to his accommodation and a second appearance by detective writer Mrs Oliver, who would become a more regular recurring character in his later cases.
Recurring character development
Doesn’t take risks with his health and turns up his collar out of prudence, rather than necessity.
Regrets that he can only eat three times a day. Beginning with a breakfast of chocolate and croissants, then lunch no later than one o’clock, never afternoon tea, and then climaxing with dinner.
In his early days as a police officer – not a priest! – he had seen plenty of crude brutality and is bored of it.
Generously offers Spence a loan, although that is not what Spence is asking for.
Had been reading a good deal of English poetry in an anthology recently.
It is a long-time since he has seen Poirot, but at most six years since Taken at the Flood.
Was due to have retired eighteen months ago, but stayed on. Will now retire in six months.
Recently moved home and is implied to be married.
Is keen on marrows and roses.
Unbeknown to Poirot he keeps beer in the flat.
Described as a large woman in a small car.
Has a great liking for apples.
One of her books is being adapted for the stage and through her we see Christie’s own views on the subject, although by this time she had long-determined to be the only one to adapt her own works:
“But you’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have done. And if you protest, all they say is that it’s ‘good theatre’. That’s all Robin Upward thinks of. Everyone says he’s very clever. If he’s so clever why doesn’t he write a play of his own and leave my poor Finn alone. He’s not even a Finn any longer. He’s a member of the Norwegian Resistance Movement.”
Wrote “The Cat it was Who Died” where a blowpipe was only a foot long and it should have been six feet (Christie acknowledging her own error in Death in the Clouds) and “Death of a Débutante” where at least eight people died before Sven Hjerson had his brainwave. Along with “The Affair of the Second Goldfish” these were available as Penguins at the local post office.
Expresses some of Christie’s frustrations with a long-running character:
“How do I know why I ever thought of that revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all those idiotic mannerism he’s got?… And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”
Signs of the Times
The murder took place on Wednesday 22nd November 1950, so the rest of the book is set in the spring of 1951.
The book is named after a nursery rhyme, that unlike other Christie titles such as “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” and “Hickory Dickory Dock” I had not come across before reading the book as a teenager. Its explicit mention of death has probably lead to parents not to pass it onto to their children.
The death penalty, which is the reason Spence would like the case reviewed gives Poirot’s investigation urgency, continued to be used in the United Kingdom until 1964, twelve years after the publication of this book.
Bentley had Young Graybrook allotted to him under the Poor Persons’ Defence Act. The Poor Prisoners Defence Act of 1903 allowed for defendants of insufficient means who pleaded not guilty to be represented with the expenses paid for by the state equivalent to those paid to the prosecution. In 1930 this was updated to cover those pleading guilty in some cases. This was further updated in 1949 with the Legal Aid and Advice Act.
Mrs McGinty, despite being relatively poor, was unable to be removed from her cottage due to the Rent Restriction Act. The Rents and Mortgage Interest Restriction Act of 1915 was brought in to prevent profiteering during World War One, and although intended to be a short-term measure, some aspects of it were not finally repealed until 1918. Who knows what legislation being brought in to combat the coronavirus pandemic may be with us much longer than first expected?
Poirot’s room at the guest house has faded Morris wallpaper. William Morris (1834-1896), a founder of the British Arts and Crafts movement, designed at least fifty floral based wallpaper blocks.
Poirot quotes from the poem “Settle the Question Right” in which each of the four verses ends “No question is ever settled, Until it is settled right”. This is by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) who was American, although Poirot refers to her as “one of your poets”.
Mrs McGinty had a newspaper clipping about Mother Shipton’s prophecies. Ursula Southeil (c.1488-1561) was an English soothsayer or prophetess. The first book to contain her prophecies was published in 1641. Her most famous prophecy “The world to an end shall come, In eighteen hundred and eighty one” was actually made up by Charles Hindley in the 19th century.
Poirot quotes “Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead” the first line of the poem “Evelyn Hope” by Robert Browning. Someone later quotes “Roses, roses, all the way” from “The Patriot” by the same writer.
Poirot says that Alfred Craig can be found in the Chamber of Horrors. This was originally a “Separate Room” at Madame Tussaud’s waxwork exhibition when it opened in 1802. It took its name from Tussaud’s own advertising around 1843 and over time has housed the likes of Dr Crippen, William Palmer and George Joseph Smith. I was surprised to find that it closed in 2016 and has been replaced with the Sherlock Holmes Experience.
The telephone’s in the area are all automatic, which implies that some still went through manual switchboards.
Poirot refers to “Deirdre of the Sorrows”. She is, apparently, the foremost tragic heroine in Irish legend and her story is part of the Ulster Cycle.
References to previous works
Poirot refers to his own previous retirement and attempts to grow vegetable marrows from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Poirot refers to the resemblance between a financier and a soap boiler from Liège, a reference to “The Nemean Lion” from The Labours of Hercules.
Mrs Oliver talks to Poirot about “our murder” which was their previous meeting in Cards on the Table.
The assumption regarding the gender of the killer makes much more sense here – we have it in black and white in the newspaper cutting – than in a previous Christie that tried to do the same thing but where there was no basis for the assumption at all.
There is a neat nod to Robin’s being the killer when Mrs Upward says that he “is as good as a daughter to me”.