“Did her mother kill her father or was it the father who killed the mother?”
This is the most inappropriate question that Ariadne Oliver is asked at a literary luncheon about her god-daughter’s parents. The questioner, Mrs Burton-Cox, is concerned about the heredity of her son’s intended, Celia Ravenscroft. Fourteen years ago, General and Lady Ravenscroft died in what the police could only conclude, despite a lack of motive, was a double-suicide or a murder-suicide but which of them actually pulled the trigger was unclear.
So with the help of Hercule Poirot she probes the memories of old friends and acquaintances to gather sufficient information that the wheat may be sifted from the chaff and the truth might appear.
The premise is a good one as is the solution and it would make a good Miss Marple short story – I can just imagine her saying the key phrase – but as a novel the rest is just padding as conversations are had and recalled, some meetings aren’t described, with Mrs Oliver pouring forth more mixed recollections. One chapter is titled “Poirot Announces Departure” which doesn’t make any sense. Towards the end he meets Maddy and Zélie when there is no need for Maddy at all.
This was the final Poirot book to be written, and unlike “Nemesis” which gave Miss Marple a good send-off, this is not a satisfactory end to his career but (fortunately?) we still have “Curtain” to come.
Recurring Character Development
Miss Lemon is still his secretary.
Has tried many hairstyles and owns four hats to suit different occasions.
Has false teeth.
Was planning to write a story about a golden retriever but as it wasn’t going well decided to look into this cold case instead.
Miss Livingstone has replaced the previously unmentioned Miss Sedgwick as her assistant.
Once lived at Sealy House.
Her husband died years ago.
Signs of the Times
The story is set in 1972 (as 1971’s address book is last year’s) but Poirot says they’ve known each other for about twenty years which makes no sense given they met in “Cards on the Table” which was set in 1937 (or maybe 1936).
Mrs Oliver takes Nanny Matcham a tin of her favourite Tophole Thathams tea which sounds a plausible brand but I can find no record of it online.
Poirot says “I am like the animal or the child in one of your stories by Mr Kipling. I Suffer from Insatiable Curiosity.” This is appropriate as it was the Elephant’s Child who suffered from this complaint in the Just So Stories and was the reason it got its trunk.
References to previous works
Poirot investigated a definite historical murder in “Five Little Pigs” and and the vague possibility of a cold case in “Hallowe’en Party” and these are mentioned here with spoilers of varying degrees. Mention is also made of “Mrs McGinty’s Dead”. In all three instances, the case alluded to is named in a footnote, which does not occur in any of the earlier books where no allusions are clarified, except sometimes in the text itself.