Poirot’s most efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, who never makes mistakes has just made three in the same letter. She explains that this must be because she is worried about her sister, Mrs Hubbard, who is the warden of a student hostel. A number of thefts have taken place over the last few months but there seems to be no link between them – the items taken range from a ring and a bracelet to electric lightbulbs and boracic powder.
Poirot meets the students in the guise of giving them a lecture on crime but suggests that there is nothing he can do and that the matter should be turned over to the police. This triggers off a series of events that lead to murder.
This is one of the few Christie’s that I saw on TV before reading the book and in this case the TV adaptation is superior. There are too many students in the hostel in the book and only the primary suspects are retained for the Suchet version. The nursery rhyme title has very little to do with the plot but the adaptation used the mouse motif to good effect, creating some interesting camera angles from a ground-level mouse eye’s level perspective. In addition some key information which is just dumped at the end of the book is woven more closely into the main narrative.
There is a nice piece of deduction as Poirot determines which of the thefts are really important, but overall there is too much going on here, including one connection between two characters revealed at the end that seems to come from nowhere.
What is most interesting is some of the attitudes about race, some of which are highlighted by this exchange:
“Really, dear,” said Nigel, “you’re not suggesting that she’s below the age of consent or anything like that, are you? She’s free, white, and twenty-one.”
“That,” said Mr Chandra Lal, “is a most offensive remark.”
“No, no, Mr Chandra Lal, ” said Patricia. “It’s just a – a kind of idiom. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I do not understand,” said Mr Akibombo. “If a thing does not mean anything, why should it be said?”
We are unlikely to use the phrase that Nigel uses above any more, but there are probably phrases that are common currency which some groups may find offensive, but that the majority group have given no thought to. If someone tells me that they find something I have said is offensive which was unintended, then I shouldn’t need to feel defensive (although I may well) but I should be ready to listen and understand. Being more careful with language as someone from the dominant group costs me very little but could make someone else’s day a little better or a little less worse.
Recurring character development
Now that he can get square crumpets he has nothing to complain about, although I’ve never come across a square crumpet.
Won a memory game called the Three Horned Lady at a Christmas party.
Has met Inspector Sharpe before in the unrecorded “business down at Crays Hill”.
Her first name, Felicity, is revealed for the first time.
She is perfecting a new filing system which will be patented and bear her name.
Signs of the Times
Miss Lemon is said to have no imagination and therefore to be unlike “Cortez’s men upon the peak of Darien” a reference to Keats’ poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” which compares his sensations when reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s epics, among other things, to the feelings of Hernan Cortez and his men when they first saw the Pacific Ocean. Keats was actually guilty of misremembering his history as it was actually Vasco Nunez de Balboa who was the first European to see the Pacific.
Reflecting on the triviality of Miss Lemon’s sister’s problem, Poirot thinks of “the parsley sinking into the butter on a hot day” which is how Sherlock Holmes was drawn into “the dreadful business of the Abernetty family” an unrecorded case mentioned in “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”.
Sally Finch is studying in England on a Fulbright scholarship. In 1945 US Senator J. William Fulbright proposed a bill to create an international student exchange programme to be funded from selling surplus war property and equipment. President Harry Truman signed it into law in 1946.
Mrs Nicoletis wants to keep her house attractive to Americans by getting rid of any black tenants as she believes the “colour bar” is important to them, but Mrs Hubbard strongly opposes this.
Celia danced with Nigel at Cambridge in May Week. This celebrates the end of the university’s exam period and, as the Fourth Doctor observed whilst punting in The Five Doctors, now takes place in June.
Poirot says that the shoe was taken as your poet says “to annoy, because he knows it teases”. This is part of a lullaby sung by the duchess to the baby in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll.
The day after Poirot’s first visit, the Oxford Group is mentioned at breakfast by Jean. This was a Christian movement founded in 1921 by Frank Buchman as First Century Christian Fellowship, becoming the Oxford Group by the end of the 1920s. In 1938 it became Moral Re-Armament and in 2001 Initiatives of Change.
Politics is then added to religion when Chandra Lal mentions the Mau Mau. The derivation of the name is unclear, with the group’s official name being the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. The KLFA rebelled against British colonial rule in 1952 but were defeated in 1956. However their activities paved the way for eventual independence in 1963.
Inspector Sharpe quotes “I know two things about the horse and one of them is rather coarse” which is by the writer Naomi Royde-Smith (1875-1964).
Valerie works at the shop “Sabrina Fair”. DC McCrae considers the name blasphemous as it is from Milton – specifically the 1634 masque “Comus”. It had been used as the title of a 1953 play by Samuel A. Taylor.
References to previous works
One of the students remembers Poirot from reading about the events of “Mrs McGinty’s Dead”.
During his lecture Poirot refers to the soap manufacturer in Liège, an old case which he first mentioned in “The Nemean Lion” in “The Labours of Hercules”.
Poirot turns for information to Mr Endicott who refers to “the nasty Abernethy (sic) business” from “After the Funeral”.