My buddy JJ over at The Invisible Event unfortunately has to go on a short hiatus. I will miss his erudite excursions into mystery fiction, particularly the joy with which he tackles those classic impossible crime stories he so relishes! I thought I would salute JJ with my view on one of Agatha Christie’s rare forays into the locked room murder, 1938’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.
What makes a Christie novel stand out? I love her characters and her depiction of upper middle class British society, but her true strength, I think most will agree, lay in her plotting: an intriguing set-up, the unleashing of clues through conversation and investigation, and the unmasking of a surprise killer. Sometimes, the set-up is so extraordinary, or the characterization is surprisingly complex, or the solution simply dazzles, and you get a classic – And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Five Little Pigs. Rarely do you get all these things. The plot of Ackroyd is fairly mundane, the characters in Orient Express are little more than types (although there is a good reason for this!), and the solution to Five Little Pigs is not surprising (which, perhaps ironically, makes it all the better as a book. Christie is going for something a little different here, and she succeeds.) And Then There Were None, I think, succeeds on all three counts.
I cannot argue that Hercule Poirot’s Christmas qualifies as a classic, and yet it does indeed stand out for a number of reasons. The first is that, from the start, Christie set out to do something different. Her brother-in-law James had complained that her stories lacked the violence of true-life crime. In a brief letter prefacing the novel, Christie offers to remedy the situation:
“You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. You yearned for ‘a good violent murder with lots of blood.’ A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder! so this is your special story – written for you. i hope it may please.”
One of the things I admire about this novel is that, in the course of dreaming up a murder literally drenched in blood, the author comes up with a good solid reason for all the blood. She could have simply written a story about a hatchet killer, but Christie was too clever for that. The presence of blood has a purpose, and that’s all I’m going to say by way of a spoiler. Plus, continuing the idea of writing outside her comfort zone, the author creates a locked room mystery, which makes up for a set-up that is pretty traditional. But what’s wrong with Christie’s take on the traditional, I ask you. You can’t do better there than the gathering of the family at Christmas! And here we are presented with as odious a victim as we found in her previous novel, Appointment With Death: a sadistic tyrant of a parent named Simeon Lee. We are not offered a lot of psychological rationalization for why Simeon is such a monster, but I would hazard a guess: having lived an extremely wild youth in which he cheated partners, bedded and discarded women, and basically turned his life into an egoistic Bacchanal, Simeon is now too old, frail and sickly to indulge in the hedonistic pleasures of his youth. This has turned a basically corrupt individual into an angry one, whose only source of delight is to tempt, tease and torture the members of his family and staff.
But this is just a guess. Christie doesn’t delve into anyone’s psychology much. In fact, after Appointment With Death, this novel is a huge step backward in terms of characterization. Simeon’s large family – too large, to be honest – is a mass collection of types: the dutiful son, the wayward son, the hotheaded Latin beauty, the faithful old butler, the caddish valet, and so on. The richest character is the victim himself – the kinds of horrible things he does and the way he relishes them become crucial to the plot – and, as with Appointment With Death, a certain languor takes over after the murder occurs. With four sons, three wives, two houseguests and a parcel of servants to question, the middle section sags under the weight of all these interviews, especially since once the one or two quirks of each character are introduced, all the answers sound pretty much the same.
The impossible crime elements mingle with the added violence to good effect: just before dinner, the family members, who are scattered about the house enjoying cocktails, flirting with guests or brooding over perceived slights, hear a horrific series of crashes and screams coming from Simeon’s room upstairs. When they gather outside the old man’s door, they discover it is locked and have to break it down. To their horror, they find Lee on the ground with his throat slit, the bedroom a jumble of broken furniture, and blood everywhere – too much blood, in fact, prompting one of the daughters-in-law to quote Macbeth:
“Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”
Fortunately, a local police office, Superintendent Sugden, is around collecting for charity – and looking into the possible theft of Lee’s fortune in uncut diamonds – and he jumps into the investigation. Once he hits a dead end, his boss, the Chief Constable sends for Poirot.
One is struck by the sheer audacity of this crime: a maid could have simply gone upstairs to fetch Simeon for dinner and found the door locked. No, this murderer calls attention to the crime with all that noise. It is assumed that Simeon is the victim of someone filled with rage and who could care less about being caught. The broken furniture, all that blood . . . all lead to the theory of a crime of passion. And yet, how to explain that sealed room?
The explanation is quite ingenious, although I have no idea if it would really work. One of the fascinating things that I have found in reading a variety of locked room mysteries by John Dickson Carr, Paul Halter and others over the past few months is how often the “impossibility” stems from a murder plot that somehow went wrong. Here, everything essentially works (although one tiny clue gets left behind, much to the killer’s regret). Christie pours on the blood and the violence to great purpose, and once again I have to applaud her stepping into new territory but maintaining her own Christie-an personality throughout. This authorial presence includes coming up with yet another dazzling solution, which lifts this novel considerably higher in many fan’s esteem, I am sure. If the dysfunctional family at the heart of this novel is ultimately too colorless to deserve such an intriguing ending, the locked room aspect and some excellent clueing add to the book’s pleasures.
When I teach classic mysteries to my students, I often use a bit from Christmas to illustrate how an expert offers clues to the audience. It occurs during an interview between Poirot and the elderly butler Tressilian:
“As the old man turned away, Poirot said: ‘The date on that wall calendar, has it remained like it is since the murder?’
“Tressilian turned back.
“’Which calendar, sir?’
“’The one on the wall over there.’
“The three men were sitting once more in Alfred Lee’s small sitting-room. The calendar in question was a large one with tear-off leaves, a bold date on each leaf.
“Tressilian peered across the room, then shuffled slowly across till he was a foot or two away.
“He said, ‘Excuse me, sir, it has been torn off. It’s the twenty-sixth today.’”
A great use of misdirection: the police and the reader wonder what the significance of that calendar or that date could be. But, of course, Poirot has learned something completely different here, a fact that will lead him to the murderer. Christie inserts all sorts of clues in a manner that we might remember twelve years later when we read A Murder Is Announced, where the author also makes use of the (correct) assumption that most readers skim over certain aspects of a novel, such as passing descriptions of the way people move or speak. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas turns out to be one of those Christie novels that are fascinating to re-read once you know the solution and can look for the way she plants her clues.
I am rather glad that Agatha Christie employed the locked room puzzle so seldom. Her solutions may not match the ingenuity of Carr or the complexity of a Rupert Penny novel, but for me that aspect of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is pretty darn satisfying and, coupled with her clueing and the surprise finish, make this entry an enjoyable read worth seeking out, no matter what the season.