(Note: while the killer is never mentioned by name, I would urge you to read or have read Mrs. McGinty’s Dead before tackling this post. You have been warned!)
In her biography about Agatha Christie, Laura Thompson writes,
“It is a paradox, although perhaps not a surprise, that Agatha’s popularity should have increased as her powers declined. After 1950s she wrote a handful of brilliant and unusual books – Destination Unknown, Ordeal by Innocence, The Pale Horse, Endless Night and Passenger to Frankfurt – but she produced her best work in the previous 20 years, particularly in that period of intense, sustained creativity around the war which marks the Highpoint of her career. In 1950 she published A Murder Is Announced, and this set the standard for much of what followed: supremely accomplished, utterly readable, but the product of ‘Agatha Christie’ the phenomenon, rather than Agatha the writer.”
Let’s not be distracted by Thompson calling Passenger to Frankfurt “brilliant and unusual,” or by her mild denigration of A Murder Is Announced, one of the best Miss Marple novels. After the complex puzzle plots of the 30’s and the rich characterization and social commentary of her 40’s novels, Christie by and large took a different tack in the 1950’s and beyond. I’m not sure if she was riding the wave of her popularity, as her biographer’s words can’t help but suggest. Still, the tone of her novels was often lighter, the characters more succinctly drawn than before, and while she could still come up with wonderful ideas, sometimes the trappings surrounding a single idea were lacking.
Let’s also not forget that Agatha had turned 60 when she published A Murder Is Announced or that during this decade she also wrote six or seven plays, including the classic The Mousetrap and Witness for the Prosecution. And let’s not forget that post-war Christie was often FUN Christie. with her mysteries taking a lighter tone. Still, as a manufacturer of puzzle plots, the author seemed to relax especially in the Marple mysteries that followed A Murder Is Announced: They Do It With Mirrors provides a charming look into Miss Marple’s schoolgirl past, even if it is far too easy to solve; A Pocketful of Rye and 4:50 from Paddington have marvelous hooks, particularly fine country house settings, and are brimming with humor, but neither are particularly well-clued and their solutions come out of nowhere. (Rye does give us the first glimmerings of Miss Marple as “Nemesis.”)
The 1950’s contain two of my all-time favorite Poirot mysteries: Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952) and After the Funeral (1953). I have always maintained that Funeral is one of Christie’s best, and I had a chance to make my case when I got together with my dear friends Jim and Moira to produce one of Jim’s Spoiler Alert episodes about that novel. And now we’re headed into a new discussion about McGinty, and I am eagerly looking forward to that conversation. In preparing for our conversation, I realize that I have barely mentioned McGinty throughout my tenure as a blogger. And so, while I normally don’t write about a book before I talk about it, here we go with a pre-trial discourse on what might be Christie’s funniest mystery but one that – when you dive into it – contains some murky depths indeed.
This is the first Poirot mystery since 1948’s Taken at the Flood, a complex (perhaps too complex) tale where the sleuth is introduced in the prologue and then disappears for half the novel. In the book proceeding that one, The Hollow, Poirot doesn’t show up until Chapter Eleven. And now four years have passed and bring us to the case of Mrs. McGinty. Poirot appears on page one and, with few exceptions, will remain visible throughout.
Ah, but this is a different Poirot from before. This is a detective whose fame is waning and who has too much time on his hands. Christie has a gift for starting a novel, and it is to her credit that her first chapter fascinates as a chronicle of Poirot’s boredom. Demand for his skills have declined. Mealtime constitutes the three highpoints of his day. Most of all, Poirot misses the presence of Captain Hastings,
“My first friend in this country – and still to me the dearest friend I have. True, often and often did he enrage me. But do I remember that now? No. I remember only his incredulous wonder, his open mouth appreciation of my talents – the ease with which I misled him without uttering an untrue word, his Baphomet, his stupendous astonishment when he at last perceived the truth that had been clear to me all along. Ce cher, cher ami! It is my weakness, it has always been my weakness, to desire to show off. That weakness, Hastings could never understand. But indeed it is very necessary for a man of my abilities to admire himself – and for that one needs stimulation from outside. I cannot, truly I cannot, sit in the chair all day reflecting how truly admirable I am. One needs the human touch. One needs – as they say nowadays – the stooge.”
I include this quote first because it is a charming and hilarious depiction of vanity, the centerpiece of Poirot’s personality, and then because it beautifully sets up the situation to follow. For here is a case that will follow Poirot from start to finish where he must act without the admiring stooge. Indeed, it is a case where he will suffer iniquities, both physical and emotional. The joys of mealtimes will disappear. He will be confronted with the realization that his past acclaim is slowly fading. And still, he will emerge triumphant.
And it’s not like Poirot will have to go it completely alone, for two friends from his past join him in his investigations. First we have Superintendent Spence, with whom Poirot had worked during Taken at the Flood. Spence himself is on the verge of retirement, but first he has been handed a sordid little murder in the village of Broadhinny. A local charwoman had been brutally bashed on the head and the savings she kept under a floorboard in her cottage had been stolen. Whatever evidence there was pointed straight to her lodger, a frankly unpleasant loner named James Bentley. Bentley had recently lost his job and had been unable to find another; he needed the money Mrs. McGinty had stashed away, and, besides, he was an outsider without friends or family.
Spence had assisted in the evidence-gathering and had helped get Bentley arrested, tried, and convicted. But he is unsatisfied, and when a stolid, sensible policeman like a Battle or a Spence feels things are wrong, a genius like Poirot sits up and listens. Out of sympathy – and not a little bored – Poirot agrees to travel to Broadhinny and investigate. His time is limited because Bentley is due to be executed for the murder, and the fast pace of the novel reflects this sense of urgency.
Rarely have we seen Hercule Poirot trod the muddy streets of a village, which is normally Miss Marple’s turf. One of the joys of McGinty is its presentation of a “fish out of water” tale. The only place the detective can stay that is close to the action is a boarding house run by Maureen and Johnny Summerhayes, late of India, and it is both a housekeeping and culinary nightmare. Even more unnerving is the lack of recognition when he reveals his name. Maureen thinks it’s a lovely name (“Greek, isn’t it?”), and Poirot overhears her in exchange with her husband:
“You know, Maureen, I seem to have seen that name somewhere.”
“Home Perm, perhaps. He looks like a hairdresser.”
“N-no. Perhaps it’s pickles . . . Better get the first seven guineas out of him, quick.”
Poirot’s plan is to make his presence known throughout the village in order to discomfit the real murderer, but the task can be daunting when “the younger generation . . . were singularly lacking in knowledge of notable celebrities.” As he roams the village in search of anything the police might have overlooked, Christie introduces her hero and her readers to the grim realities, albeit served with abundant humor, of his life:
“He was the great, the unique Hercule Poirot, but he was also a very old man and his shoes were tight.”
If Poirot had been mourning the loss of ce cher Hastings, the other marvelous thing that Mrs. McGinty’s Dead offers is the reintroduction of mystery writer Ariadne Oliver. This is the first of five cases where Mrs. Oliver will serve as the detective’s Watson, and, personally, I’ll take her over Hastings any day. Mrs. Oliver has come to Broadhinny because one of her mystery novels is going to be adapted into a play, and here Christie gives vent to everything she has ever been said to feel about Poirot himself and the world’s desire that he be adapted for the stage and screen. Mrs. Oliver has a similar love/hate relationship with her Finnish detective Sven Hjerson.
“How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fun you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”
And yet, of course, Mrs. Oliver is fiercely protective of her own creation, and she balks at playwright Robin Upward’s attempts to transform the elderly Finn into a swashbuckling hero of the Finnish Resistance, much like Christie complained when, in 1928, Michael Morton adapted The Murder of Roger Ackroyd into the play Alibi and threatened to turn the detective into a younger version called Beau Poirot! (As it was, she had to settle for the fabulous spinster Caroline Sheppard being transformed into a beautiful girl.)
I know Mrs. Oliver is a fictional creation, but when one witnesses her suffering in collaboration and reads a passage like this –
“She had been lost in a nostalgic dream of home. Walls covered with exotic birds and foliage. A deal table, her typewriter, black coffee, apples everywhere . . . What bliss, what glorious and solitary bliss! What a mistake for an author to emerge from her secret fastness. Authors were shy, unsociable creatures, atoning for their lack of social aptitude by inventing their own companions and conversations.”
-one feels certain that such a description must be autobiographical. Plus, this is one of my favorite “Holmes/Watson” relationships, particularly here where both parties have a healthy sense of self-worth and spend more time complaining to each other than sleuthing together. Poirot, of course, complains about his accommodations, and Mrs. Oliver unloads her frustrations for the way her famous creation is becoming unrecognizable. In a thunderously funny line, she cries, “Collaboration . . . The whole thing’s a nightmare! How would you like to see a big black mustache stuck onto Superintendent Battle and be told it was you.”
Turning to the mystery itself, I understand the point Thompson is trying to make. The case never dull, and the pace is brisk. With great economy, Christie leads Poirot to the heart of the matter: a piece of information that Mrs. McGinty had picked up in a Sunday rag and was intending to use to her economic advantage. The article about “Women Victims of Bygone Tragedies” is a marvelous pastiche, made even more so by the admission by the “journalist” who wrote it that it is mostly bunk. The four women mentioned could just as well have been reduced to two, and thankfully Poirot and Spence quickly accommodate us on that score. This leaves two past “victims” of crime to consider: Eva Kane, a fictional parallel for the mistress in the Crippen murder case, and young Lily Gamboll, whose penchant for chopping up her relatives might remind you of a certain infamous lass from Fall River, Massachusetts.
The questions then arise: which, if any of the women in Broadhinny might be one of these two ladies (or possibly the progeny of one of them), and did Mrs. McGinty’s unmasking lead to her own murder? And that, a bit unfortunately, is pretty much all this case amounts to. The solution hinges on a simple and effective, if a bit timeworn, trick. There’s not much clueing, and most of it serves to unearth the same fact about the killer’s past. The novel contains a similar issue to what is, for me, the only flaw in A Murder Is Announced: it feels oddly coincidental that so many people associated with the “Bygone Victims” would make their way to Broadhinny.
But still, I like this book enormously. The different households that Poirot visits contain assorted inhabitants who by themselves could provide fodder for a Christie novel: the tense marriage of Dr. and Mrs. Rendell, the familial strain between Dierdre Henderson, her mother and her wicked stepfather, the slightly Norman Bates-ish love between Robin Upward and his “Madre,” and the modern marriage of the Carpenters of whom we will see variations in nearly every episode of Midsomer Murders.
And there’s one other issue that features prominently in the mystery and casts a light on a darker aspect of the author. In her biography, Laura Thompson points to this novel and Ordeal by Innocence as points where Christie gives vent to her disdain for adoption. At one point, Maureen Summerhayes, who was adopted, tells Poirot,
“There was a woman writing in the paper the other day . . . A really stupid letter. Asking what was best to do – to let your child to be adopted by someone who could give it every advantage . . . or whether to keep it when you couldn’t give it advantages of any kind. I think that’s stupid – really stupid. If you can just give a child enough to eat – that’s all that matters . . . I ought to know . . . My mother parted with me and I had every advantage, as they call it. And it’s always hurt – always – always – to know that you weren’t really wanted, that your mother could let you go . . . I wouldn’t part with mychildren – not for all the advantages in the world!”
Thompson traces Christie’s feelings back to her own mother, who was given away to an aunt after her father was killed in action and never got over the feeling of being less loved than her brothers, who had remained with their mother. Christie’s relationship to her mother was perhaps the most complex relationship in her life, and her novels reflect her understanding of how this particular “adoption” affected Clara Boehmer Miller. Even though she claimed in her Autobiography an understanding of her grandmother’s actions, throughout her career, Christie put a negative spin on the act and effects of adoption.
I’m looking forward to what Jim and Moira have to say about the book and what other thoughts our conversation reveals. I will be sure and link you to Jim’s post here. Meanwhile, I want you to toss off any negative connotations that Thompson may have elicited by suggesting this novel was written by a “phenomenon” rather than an author. Another author should be so lucky to have written a mystery as charming as Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and for its inclusion of Mrs. Oliver alone, plus its insights into the beginnings of Poirot’s final period, it makes for a delightful read.