Cat Among the Pigeons is the last Christie work of the 1950’s and a novel I have a particular fondness for due to the girls’ school setting. I was a sucker for mysteries set in the world of education long before I myself became a teacher, and I feel I have only cracked the number of mysteries set in that world. (Haven’t read any Morse novels, for example!) It’s intriguing to wander through the halls of academe, watching the effect of murder on students and staff alike and seeing what sensitivity sleuths need to have when dealing with children. I cannot imagine solving a murder at the high school where I work, although I have, with alarming frequency, imagined committing one.
I have always held that the last great Poirot novel is After the Funeral (1953), on which I will someday lavish all the attention here to which it is due. After this, for me, the quality falls way off. Hickory Dickory Dock (1955) meanders, Dead Man’s Folly (1956) starts off pretty well and then quickly devolves into a lot of tricks that Christie had used before and to much better effect. The Clocks is just awfulThe last few have their charms but these are almost buried in confusion. (I don’t count Curtain here because it was actually written during WWII.)
Great Christie…….. Ungreat Christie…………
Anyway, Cat Among the Pigeons is great fun, but it hardly counts as a Poirot novel. Really, it’s an odd hybrid of boarding school whodunit and one of those godawful spy thrillers that Christie was so fond of writing.
The book begins at the start of summer term at the prestigious Meadowbanks School for Girls, run by the formidably perfect headmistress, Miss Bulstrode. It’s a charming look at the confusions of a first day of school as the teachers and students return from their holidays and the new charges arrive to begin their careers being educated and finished. Several major strands of plot are introduced here: first, Miss Bulstrode plans on retiring after the current year or so and needs to name a replacement. Second, a new student arrives: she is Princess Shaista from the imaginary Middle Eastern principality of Ramat which has just undergone a major political revolution. And finally, Miss Bulstrode has an interview with Mrs. Upjohn, the mother of a remarkably level-headed little girl named Julia and a former member of British Intelligence. Miss Bulstrode’s attention is diverted when she looks out the window and spots a wealthy mother teetering in a state of inebriation toward the brand new Sports Pavilion, and so she misses Mrs. Upjohn’s exclamation as she looks out the opposite window and sees someone who she used to work with in her espionage days . . . somebody dangerous! And then Mrs. Upjohn departs for a vacation in Anatolia, where it will be almost impossible to reach her if things get dicey . . . which they do!
How I wish Christie had stuck with the school at this point! The various staff members, with their petty jealousies and clashing personalities, and all those schoolgirls rendered with delightful humor by the author would have been enough for me. But Christie moves us back a couple of months to Ramat itself, on the eve of the revolution, in order to set up some international intrigue that will spill over into the summer term at Meadowbanks and cause three murders and a kidnapping.
Still, there’s enough great stuff at the school to entertain us. The first victim is a P.E. teacher, and I say hoorah to that! My dad will tell you that P.E. was, to put it mildly, not my thing, and this P.E. teacher, like several of mine, is pretty odious. But why she got killed is part of the mystery. Is it linked to the revolution in Ramat? Or did this nasty young woman, who has established herself a great big snoopy nose, ferret out some dirt that somebody at the school wants to keep hidden? Christie has set up the plot in such a way that the reader is way ahead of the characters in terms of the significance of Ramat to the story. The fun is in how the characters stumble onto this information. The scene where Julia starts to put things together and comes up with the truth is delightful.
Which brings up that point I made at the beginning about Poirot’s involvement in this story. Julia would have made a great and innovative detective here, especially in her interactions with her lackadaisical friend, Jennifer Sutcliffe. Then there’s the perfectly sharp Police Inspector named Kelsey who is put in charge of the case. And there’s Adam Goodman, the gardener’s assistant and a major hunk, who also happens to be an undercover spy (are you still with me?) placed at Meadowbanks to sniff out news about Ramat. Any one of these would have made the perfect detective for what cries out to be a standalone novel. However, two thirds of the way through, Hercule Poirot is called in to consult. Frankly, as much as I love Poirot, his participation in this case rings false almost from the beginning.
Since this is a later Christie novel, I’ll grant that it is much looser in terms of clueing and fair play, but Poirot’s deductions might as well be the conjuring tricks of a magician. Out of the blue, without having ever met the person in question, he asks about the appearance of a young girl’s knees. The significance of that question is later made clear, but how on earth did Poirot conceive the need to ask it. No, I can’t help feeling that the Belgian’s presence is all part of Christie’s grudging concession to her fans. She knew their passion for Poirot was as strong as her later antipathy toward him, so she threw him in at the very end to appease them. (She did this again in The Clocks, where Colin Lamb would have been perfectly enough of a sleuth to deal with that mystery, an even more uneasy blend of domestic whodunit and espionage caper.)
There are some lovely scenes that Christie puts in for what you think is flavor but is actually important clue business. There are a number of passing comments that take on extreme significance at the end. All of this makes Cat Among the Pigeons a fun and clever read. But, as a fair play mystery, it suffers from its hybridization with a typical Christie thriller plot. That, plus Poirot’s relatively brief appearance, necessitated some major changes when the novel was adapted to the David Suchet series; the result is rather unfortunate! As a novel, it’s not great Christie, but it’s fun Christie and well worth your time.
I should have waited till January 1st to post this review. Then I could use the cat on the cover as part of Bev Hankins’ 2016 cover scavenger hunt. But at least I can promote her fun game here:
13 thoughts on “CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS Or, Poirot as an Afterthought”
You’ve captured exactly how I feel about this one, Brad – it’s an unusual beast to say the very least, and best taken as fun rather than expecting something classic or one for the ages.
However, saying Hickory Dickory Dock meanders is just beyond me…that’s a bullet of a novel if ever I’ve read one. Ah, well, diff’rent strokes… 😛
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SPOILERS!!! Well, JJ, it starts out with the whole fake kleptomania thing and then it takes freaking forever for them to figure out why Celia was killed, and the whole drug ring thing is unconvincing, and the most interesting stuff we discover about the murderer happens in the last two pages – real Bruno Anthony stuff, but by then it’s too late! I dunno, AND most of the “international” characters are completely stereotypical…..look at poor Mr. Akibombo! I just don’t feel this one, I guess.
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Yeah, see, I don’t disagree with any of your synopsis here (especially Mr Akibombo!) but I still loved it. It’s the little flourishes that stick with me – like the theft of the stethoscope and how subtly that fits in and is resolved. Ah, well, such is the fun of fiction; it’s why we do this, after all…!
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Yeah Poirot’s involvement in this case is a bit like Miss Marple’s in The Moving Finger – rather last minute. You mention that you like educational places as settings for detective novels. I was wondering if you had read Morris Bishops’ The Widening Stain? I imagine you have probably read the applicable ones by Gladys Mitchell or Edmund Crispin.
It does feel like Moving Finger, Kate, in that Jerry and Joanna could have solved this one themselves, although I love Miss Marple any time I can be with her, even for a brief visit. I haven’t read Bishops’ book or much of anything by Mitchell. I read the Crispin book a long time ago and forgot all about it.
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I’ve always believed both Cat Among the Pigeons and Sad Cypress could have been vastly improved by removing Poirot.
The original story is peppered with chauvinism (she looked at the jewels “like a woman” blech!) but a great mystery and lots of fun. I loved Julia and her crazy mother!
Curiously I loved the BBC version despite enlarging Poirot’s role (his inclusion from the start of the story strained credulity but what the hell). Eliminating Van Sittart improved the story (I always thought she was unnecessary as well). Good casting and well acted, though Rich at one point is reading what is obviously a little kid’s story to a class of girls who appear to have outgrown that sort of thing.
But yes I agree that in all cases Poirot is an appendage and not necessary to the story.
Brad, just thought I’d pop in and leave a comment here as I just finished this book and, frankly, had a quite wonderful time with it.
I had been a little worried that the espionage plot, which Christie seemed to like but could rarely do convincingly, would be problematic (as was the case for me in the dire The Clocks) but it blended in nicely and worked fine for me.
Is Poirot necessary here? Well no. I had more or less forgotten this was supposed to be Poirot novel by the time he made an appearance and, while I didn’t begrudge his presence, I also felt the story had been ticking along satisfactorily without him.
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I knew you’d like it, Colin! I told you so on Facebook! This is perhaps Christie’s best “espionage” novel of them all, which is a misleading statement because I’ve always thought the spy stuff was secondary to the wonderful mystery taking place at the school. I am in agreement with you that Poirot isn’t needed; Julia Upjohn and Jennifer Sutcliffe could have been the sleuths, with hunky Adam guiding their moves. Poirot doesn’t hurt things here – he’s just extraneous!
Yes, I liked how the espionage/thriller elements were kept on the periphery of the story, influencing and affecting events but never really displacing the more interesting or more important mystery.
Some very nice character work too, creating a number of people you actually cared about by the end.
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This is one of my favourite later Poirot’s. I liked the Setting, the two students and several of the teachers/staff members (especially Miss Rich and Miss Bulstrode). The only downside for me is that there’s no deduction. Poirot just fetches a witness who identifies the killer.
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