Unlike my normal spoiler posts, this includes spoilers the whole way through. You have been warned.
Poirot invites Hastings to come to Styles Court to go hunting with him for one last time. He has identified five cases of murder, where the obvious suspect was arrested and often found guilty, sometimes even confessing to the deed, and yet he insists that they were in fact all carried out by a mysterious X who is one of their fellow guests. Poirot believes X is planning to kill again and hopes to forestall him but this time he may have met his match.
My somewhat negative thoughts about this book are perhaps rooted in the fact that I foolishly read the end of it for the first time in a secondhand bookshop as it was one that we didn’t have at home. I still have no idea why I did it and I really wish I hadn’t as I never appreciated its undoubted cleverness properly but psychologically I just don’t think things would have happened to these characters as they do.
Poirot is so adamantly against murder (although he has on occasion let a killer go free or take an easier way out than the hangman’s rope) that I feel he should have been able to find another way. I do however enjoy the fact that Hastings becomes an unwitting killer by turning the revolving bookcase thus switching the poisoned cup back to Mrs Franklin.
All in all though, as Poirot’s final case, it is a must read, and a great improvement on some of his later cases.
Recurring Character Development
His health has been deteriorating for some time. He is now crippled by arthritis and has to use a wheelchair.
His wife has died.
He has four previously unmentioned children. One boy in the Navy, the other married and running the family ranch in the Argentine. Grace has married a soldier and is living in India. Judith is staying at Styles with her employer and his wife.
Signs of the Times
Written in the early 1940s, although deliberately held back from publication until the 1970s, the story is set maybe at most five years’ after the end of WWII, which causes a problem given that Poirot continued his career well into the 1960s. Maybe this is what happened in a parallel universe?
References to previous works
As on his first visit to Styles, Hastings sees a woman gardening as he enters the grounds, not Evelyn Howard this time, but Mrs Luttrell.
There is a slight spoiler for “The ABC Murders” and slightly more for “Sad Cypress” although Hastings refers to Evelyn Carlisle when he means Elinor Carlisle.
Poirot refers to an Iago type killer in “Peril at End House”:
“Such a jealousy as drove the Iago of your great Shakespeare to one of the cleverest crimes (speaking from the professional point of view) that has ever been committed.”
“Why was it so clever?” I (Hastings) asked, momentarily diverted.
“Parbleu – because he got others to execute it. Imagine a criminal nowadays on whom one was unable to put the handcuffs because he had never done anything himself.”
It is interesting that Poirot uses “when” rather than “if” in “Death in the Clouds” when replying to Inspector Japp who jokes that he is the murderer because the blowpipe was found down the back of his seat: “When I commit a murder it will not be with the arrow poison of the South American Indians.” Later Japp says ” Well, detectives do turn out to be criminals sometimes – in story books.”
They banter again in “Murder in the Mews” which leads Poirot to say: “My dear Japp, if I committed a murder you would not have the least chance of seeing how I set about it! You would not even be aware, probably, that a murder had been committed.”
The short story “The Dream” collected in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” ends thus:
“I wonder of you’ll ever commit a crime, Poirot” said Stillingfleet.” I bet you could get away with it al right. As a matter of fact, it would be too easy for you – I mean the whole thing would be off as definitely too unsporting.”
“That,” said Poirot, “is a typical English idea.”
“The ABC Murders” includes the following prophetic exchange:
“I shouldn’t wonder if you ended by detecting your own death,” said Japp, laughing heartily. “That’s an idea, that is. Ought to be put in a book.”
“It will be Hastings who will have to do that,” said Poirot, twinkling at me.
“Ha, ha! That would be a joke, that would,” laughed Japp.