Jack Argyle was convicted of the murder of his adoptive mother, Rachel, and died in prison shortly afterwards. He had claimed to have an alibi for the time of the killing but no one had come forward to support it. Until now that is…
Due to not one, but two, twists of fate Dr Arthur Calgary had been prevented from testifying at the time but now he arrives at Sunny Point, the family home, to confirm that he had given Jack a lift on the night of the crime and that therefore it was impossible for him to have committed it.
Whilst his testimony is believed, it is not as welcome as he expected it be as it turns out that Jacko was the black sheep of the family and the perfect scapegoat. If it wasn’t Jacko, then which of the family was it? They all must suffer as the case is reopened and not all will survive from a killer who had thought themselves to be safe.
Motives seem thin on the ground and yet we discover that whilst outwardly Rachel Argyle had created a happy family, the reality for those within it was very different.
This book deals with the impact of suspicion falling upon the innocent, for all but one (or perhaps two) of the Argyle are not guilty, and yet a taint now hangs over them all, one that may never go away because the police aren’t confident of catching the murderer given the two years that have passed and that a number of family were in the house at the time and had the opportunity.
This is summed up in Hester’s words: “It’s not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent” which is almost word for word what Miss Marple says in the “Four Suspects” in “The Thirteen Problems” which deals with a similar scenario. “As you say, one mustn’t waste thoughts on the guilty – it’s the innocent who matter”.
Sometimes we are told that killers are likely to kill again, but here it seems that if Calgary hadn’t appeared then no more murders would have occurred. His quest for truth has serious unintended consequences, similar to the events that Lord Peter Wimsey unleashes when he tries to satisfy his curiosity in “Unnatural Death”.
I was not impressed by this as a teenager on first reading but over time I have to appreciate it more and this, my first re-read, was a pleasure as I recognised that the clues were there and that actually this is classic Christie, just in a very different guise from the standard Poirot or Marple template. If you’ve only ever seen the recent BBC adaptation, don’t be put off: the book itself is a different and superior animal and unlike the later standalones such as “They Came to Baghdad” and “Destination Unknown” I definitely recommend it.
Finally, I like a quote about a library and here is one on Leo Argyle’s:
“The room was a library, and Calgary raised his head with a sense of pleasure. The atmosphere of this room was quite different from the rest of the house. This was a room where a man lived, where he both worked and took his ease. The walls were lined with books, the chairs were large, rather shabby, but easeful. There was a pleasant disorder of books on the desks, of books lying about on tables.”
Signs of the Times
Calgary had a geophysicist on the Hayes-Bentley Expedition in the Antarctic. The International Geophysical Year (July 1957 – December 1958) was a scientific project which brought West and East (with the exception of China) together and included exploration of Antarctica.
Before Calgary drops his bombshell Leo says ” The boy was mentally unstable , though unfortunately not in the legal sense of the term. The McNaughten rules are narrow and unsatisfactory.” These rules relating to the mental state of the accused both before and during an illegal act were developed as a response to the 1843 case of Daniel M’Naghhten who was acquitted on the charge of murdering Edward Drummond, MP, who he mistook for Prime Minister Robert Peel.
Philip Durrant had suffered from polio which had left him paralysed. Polio vaccines had started to be developed in the early 1950s but polio was not eradicated in Europe until 2002.
Jacko described the driver who picked him up as “middle-aged” although Calgary was only 36 at the time (although Micky takes him for 45 when by then he is 38). In earlier GAD fiction anything over 35 is sometime described as middle-aged.
Dr MacMaster says the modern label for Jacko would be “crazy mixed-up kid”. This may date back to as early as 1940, although was apparently popularised by J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (1945-46). It sounded to me like something from a James Dean movie – not that I’ve ever seen one – but funnily enough the only example the internet provides is from one of my favourite films “The Great Escape” where Hendley (James Garner) says of the “ferret” Werner “He’s a crazy mixed-up kid, but I like him”.
MacMaster is reminded of the Bravo Case “All quite plausible theories – but no one now can ever know the truth…someone was guilty – and got away with it. But the others were innocent – and didn’t get away with anything.” Charles Bravo (1845-76) was poisoned with antimony and took three days to die but never gave any indication as to who might have done it. No one was ever charged with his murder and it has never been solved.
Micky remembers wartime London. “Expecting German bombers – abortive sirens. Moaning Minnies.” I’d only heard of Moaning Minnies as a a nickname for a type of German mortar, the Nebelwerfer, and thought that this must be an error, as they wouldn’t have been used in the Blitz, but the term had originally been used for the air raid sirens, first cited in Robert Greenwood’s 1941 novel “Mr Bunting in Peace and War”: ‘”One up now,” said Chris , listening to the drone of an engine. “Hope Moaning Minnie doesn’t sound, and bring mother downstairs.”‘
On the night of the murder, Hester went to see an amateur production of “Waiting for Godot”. Samuel Beckett’s play premiered in its original French version in 1953 and then in English in 1955 so it would have been very new in 1956 (assuming the events of the present are set in 1958, the year of publication).
The song “O Fair Dove, O Fond Dove” that Kirsten used to sing to the children has words by Jean Ingelow (1820-97) and music by Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900).
The French verse that comes to Calgary’s mind translates as “Venus herself fastened to her pray” from Racine’s “Phèdre” (1677).
Rachel’s grave has the inscription “Her children shall rise up and call her blessed” which is from Proverbs 31:28.
Philip likes Ovaltine last thing at night. This flavouring powder, to be added to warm milk, was created in Switzerland in 1904 under the name Ovomaltine (which is still used there). It is known as Ovaltine in English speaking countries due to a misspelling on a trademark application form.
The solution is classic Christie: a twist on the least likely suspect. If the investigation was taking place at the time of the murder we might be more suspicious of Jacko’s alibi – he’s the only member of the family who actually has one – but because this is now a cold case and we are presented that it is a tragedy that he was wrongfully arrested and died in prison, we rule him out – and then it turns out that he was morally guilty all along. This is just one reason why the change of murderer in the recent BBC adaptation makes no sense at all – it removes the ironic twist that actually it would have been better if Calgary had never come forward and that justice was not really served by his actions. The scenario that the BBC came up with was not original by any means and does not improve upon the original.
Sarah Phelps talks about the “secret, subversive Agatha Christie” but you don’t have to look far for it in this book. Jacko is a serial seducer of older women and ultimately enters into a relationship with a surrogate mother figure and persuades her to murder his adopted mother! If you want to show something dark and sordid, this time you wouldn’t even have to make it up – for once it’s on the page!
I love how Dr MacMaster is surprised that Jacko should have committed the type of murder that everyone believes it to have been and then describes the type of murder by incitement that he thinks he might have done, which exactly fits what actually happened.