THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE: Agatha Christie’s Military Men

Happy Veteran’s Day, everyone! Since the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, when Our Side struck an armistice with the Germans at the end of World War I, we have honored the men and women who served their countries around the world. (Armistice Day had an official name change in 1954 at the urging of the combined armed forces.) If you are performing any sort of military service and happened to stop from your duties to read this blog – well, I owe you a double thank-you. Now get back to work, soldier!

“Brad’s going to talk about his family now!” “Oh, dear God, no!” “You can skip this part if you want to . . .”

My mother, who never stops telling me these days that the world has gone to heck in a handbasket, speaks fondly about her childhood during World War II. Despite the traumatizing events happening across the globe, she tells me that there was a sense of solidarity (at least from her perspective), a feeling that all our war efforts – the fighting overseas and the deprivations at home – had a just cause and were well worth doing. Everyone had or knew a soldier boy in the family. Everyone did their bit for the effort: bought war bonds, used their food stamps without cheating, volunteered where needed. 

In the mid-1940’s my dad’s dad would leave his fur salon every afternoon and go down to Market Street to direct traffic. (So many of the local cops were busy elsewhere fighting the Nazis.) My grandmother would pack a dinner, put her three sons in the car, and then drive downtown to deliver it to my grandfather. Sometimes traffic worked against her, and when she stuck out her arm to hand over the meal to him, they would miss the connection and she would have to circle around again. 

Once there was a terrific ruckus when their Japanese gardener disappeared. They found characters written on the wall in the guest bathroom. My dad and his brothers wondered if their family had harbored an Axis spy. I wondered if in all the nightmare that followed Japanese-Americans in California during the war if something more insidious had happened to him. 

Thinking back on the stories my parents would tell, there’s a naivete that was borne on the winds of national unity. My mom compares that time favorably to our own because she believed that, despite the international conflict and the threat of nuclear war, everyone at home was bound together by patriotism. I grew up in a different time: the conflict in Vietnam was raging, and so were the riots at U.C. Berkeley. I managed to distance myself from the news until my senior year in high school when I received a very low draft number. 

My Uncle Gene had been a sailor in WWII (he claimed his ship was run by the model for Captain Queeg!) My dad and his brothers had all served during the Korean War, but Dad had spent his time in Japan, climbing mountains and getting tattooed, and my Uncle Larry had spent the war stationed in South Carolina. Only Uncle Richard, the baby, saw action, and it nearly killed him, but he spoke of his service with pride for the rest of his life. I ended up not going to Vietnam (the one nice thing President Nixon did was end the draft before I turned 18), and I entered into a world where everyone’s dinner table did not include a boy in uniform on leave. Most of the guys I knew in college died too young – not in battle, though, but from AIDS.

One of the most oft-mentioned reasons for the enormous popularity of the mystery genre during the Golden Age (1920 – 194???) was the soothing effect it had on the nerves of ordinary citizens who went through two world wars. It wasn’t unusual for a crime novel of the time to ignore the war entirely or to relegate it into the deepest background of the plot. And yet, readers were so accustomed to the presence of soldiers in their lives – not just strangers marching on the streets but husbands, brothers and sons eating seated at dinner . . . and then being marked by an empty chair at the table. 

Agatha Christie working in hospital (and learning all about poisons) during World War I

For Agatha Christie, the thirty-five or so military men who populated her novels (and the many who appeared in her short stories as well) were not mere window dressing or a sign of the times; the author rarely went in for that sort of character. Soldiers served the same function as doctors, actors, and socialites: they victims, suspects, or even stone-cold killers. More than once, Christie pointed to the garrulous old bore in the corner, regaling fellow guests or club members with his war stories, and warned us not to run from him but to listen to what he had to say! And while the term “PTSD” never appeared on the pages of a Christie tale, she created many characters whose experiences in war either rendered them ill-suited for the civilian life to follow or, more interestingly, branded them heroes and, in doing so, masked their inner moral turpitude.

It might be safe to say that Agatha Christie had a thing for soldiers. Her older brother Monty became a soldier. He was also a troubled man of dubious moral character. Christie first mentions him on page five of her Autobiography (“My brother was born while (my parents) were in America.”). When you turn the page, Christie – who was extremely reticent about her personal affairs throughout her memoir – gets, er, personal:

“(My mother) had, too, curious flashes of intuition – of knowing suddenly what other people were thinking. When my brother was a young man in the army and had got into monetary difficulties which he did not mean to divulge to his parents, she startled him one evening by looking across at him as he sat frowning and worrying. ‘Why, Monty’, she said, ‘you’ve been to money lenders. Have you been raising money on your grandfather’s well? You shouldn’t do that. It’s better to go to your father and tell him about it.’”

Christie’s brother, Louis Montant ‘Monty’ Miller

What was meant to be a charming story about her mother’s ability to read the minds and/or feelings of other people in the room also serves as a blueprint for a certain type of character who appeared over and over again in the canon: the moral weakling or incipient criminal or budding sociopath who finds a purpose in battle and then comes back home to resume his civilian life and former shady ways, now having been given license to kill. 

There are plenty of noble, good-hearted soldiers as well here. Some of them join the police. Others, who serve at Christie’s whim as suspects of various crimes, often find themselves at loose ends dropped into the regular world after years of military service, but they handle suspicion as bravely as they fought the enemy, and they often emerge with a nice young filly on their arms at the end of the tale, setting off to Africa to resume a more adventurous life than London and its environs can offer. 

Agatha danced with a great many boys like this in her girlhood. One of them captured her heart and had a lasting effect on her, for better and for worse. Archie Christie had been a dashing pilot in the Great War, and one can imagine that was itching for action upon his return. He ended up married to a woman whose star rose as his diminished, seeking various business opportunities, traveling whenever he could, playing endless rounds of golf . . . and ultimately breaking Agatha’s heart. Again, we can only imagine that certain facets of Archie appeared in her books, but I insist that her life with Archie – and with Monty – gave Agatha a sympathetic understanding of the life of a soldier, both before, during and after war, and that this perception found its way into the various military men who populated her books.

The very first character we meet in Christie’s work is a soldier:

I had been invalided home from the front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing convalescent home, was given a month’s sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish.

We all know how much Christie admired Arthur Conan Doyle, and Captain Arthur Hastings was meant to be Watson to her mustachioed version of Holmes. (Dr. Watson himself had been invalided while serving as a surgeon in the British Army.) You can see the parallels most clearly in the short stories. Hastings only appeared in eight of her novels, and I, for one, think that was a good decision. Christie never went so far as to make a buffoon of Hastings, but his stupidity can be grating. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Poirot reminisces fondly over his friendship with Hastings, calling him the “stooge” that all men of Poirot’s great abilities need by their side. 

We should focus instead on Hastings’ other abilities: his courage in dangerous situations and his loyalty to his friends. It was Hastings, after all, who got Poirot involved in the problems that plagued his friend John Cavendish. And while his eye for a pretty girl with auburn hair often got him in trouble – or laughed at by the girl – Hastings found true love in his second adventure, The Murder on the Links, with circus performer Dulcie “Cinderella” Duveen, married her and moved to Argentina. He shows remarkable courage in The Big Four, and it’s telling that while Christie retired him ostensibly for good in 1937 after Dumb Witness (as a consolation prize, he got to keep the dog), she reunited him with Poirot one last time in Curtain. One cannot say that time brought wisdom to Hastings here, a fact that Poirot actually had counted on. But the final portrait of Hastings is both moving and ineffably human, raising his status from “stooge” to suspect, father, and friend. 

Also injured in the war was one Thomas Beresford, but in The Secret Adversary he handles it in lighthearted fashion. He meets up with an old friend, Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley who, like Christie herself, volunteered during the war, working in a hospital where she graduated from mopping up floors to driving a van. Although they start their history together without a sausage, theirs is a wartime success story: out of the frying pan into a life of domestic bliss and professional excitement. 

In Book Four, The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Colonel Johnnie Race, who, like several others in the canon, trades the excitement of battle for another service. Race qualifies as a series detective, but he is clearly more of an adventurer in service to the government. There are whiffs of spies in Death on the Nile and Sparkling Cyanide, while the pure detective story Cards on the Table suits him less, and he bows out early:

“’Where are you going to?’ asked Mrs. Oliver.

“’A little shooting trip – Baluchistan way.’

“Poirot said, smiling ironically, ‘A little trouble, is there not, in that part of the world? You will have to be careful.’

“’I mean to be,’ said Race gravely – but his eyes twinkled.’”

The dashing Archie Christie

We meet three more soldiers of note during the 1920’s, two majors and a colonel. The majors are suspects in two separate Poirot adventures: both are dashing figures and both go after the girl in the case. (SPOILER: only one of them succeeds.) 

The Colonel is on the side of the angels and happens to be, along with his wife, among my favorite characters in the canon. Arthur Bantry was introduced in The Thirteen Problems as the local squire of St. Mary Mead. He lives in Gossington Hall with his wife Dolly, where he hunts and putters while she gardens. He is a woolly-headed old dear, and when he is accused of moral malfeasance, even possibly murder, in The Body in the Library, we see him crumble in a pitiable way. Fortunately, Miss Marple solves the case and saves his reputation; sadly, though, we never see Colonel Bantry again.

I’d like to say a word here about pilots. Both Archie Christie and Max Mallowan served as pilots in respective world wars. Several pilots figure prominently in three classic novels, but I’m not sure if they were all military figures. Colonel Armstrong from Murder on the Orient Express certainly was, but he has died before the novel begins. Indeed, it is his death – and that of his wife, daughter and maid – that inspires the murder plot. Equal inspiration comes from Michael Seton, the renowned pilot whose death comes before the events chronicled in Peril at End House. Like Colonel Armstrong, he seems to be modeled after Charles Lindbergh, but there is nothing to suggest military service except for the fact that he flies a plane. 

Even more ambiguous is Jerry Burton, the hero of The Moving Finger. His injuries in a plane crash send Jerry and his sister to the village of Lymstock, where they come upon a series of mysteries and have their lives changed forever. In the TV adaptation for Agatha Christie’s Marple, Jerry is definitely a soldier and suffers from PTSD. In the novel, however, I get no indication that he was anything other than a commercial pilot; again, though, he had to learn to fly somewhere!

Through the 30’s and 40’s, military figures proliferate the literary landscape. They taper off in the 1950’s, and I can think of only one prominent old bore in a 60’s Christie. Of the thirty names I came up with, sixteen of these are suspects/witnesses, six are victims (although one of these dies by suicide), four are murderers – and two are both victims and murderers. Oh, and five of them are named John!

A few of these characters, like Michael Seton, are dead before the story commences. I have a feeling that the supernatural drama surrounding Captain Trevelyan’s death in The Sittaford Mystery is far more interesting than the man himself. Ditto the question surrounding the death of General Ravenscroft in Elephants Can Remember. (The question of whether it was Ravenscroft or his wife who killed the other and then shot him/herself is far less mysterious than the age difference between them, which shifts from page to page!)

We meet neither Major Kelvin Halliday (Sleeping Murder) nor Captain Ronald Haymes (A Murder Is Announced), but their tragedies stay with us. With Haymes, a red herring whose addition feels almost like an afterthought, Christie comes closest to illustrating the ravages of war on a soldier (who also happens to be a weakling). Although he is alive through most of AMIA, his appearances mostly occur offstage, and his pathetic end frees his unhappy wife to find love anew. The tragedy of Major Halliday, who appears only in memories, is central to Sleeping Murder, although I have to admit that I tend to forget he was as much a victim of the killer’s madness as his wife was. 

Max Mallowan, a volunteer pilot in WWII

The fifteen or so veterans who appear as suspects or witnesses run the gamut from heroic to fishy, with many an old bore thrown in. Frankly, they tend to be the least interesting suspects in the story. Cards on the Table pits four detectives against four murderers, with the object of discovering which of these past killers has, with great audacity, slain the man who held their secrets over them. Of these four suspects, only Major John Despard turns out to be completely innocent of past or present murders. His restlessness with civilian life is affecting, and we are happy for him when he finds his mate and heads off into a happy ending. It seems fairly certain that he reassumed his military position when a new international conflict bloomed because he reappears in The Pale Horse (1961) as a colonel. (He has also been re-christened “Hugh” Despard for no acceptable reason.)

There are many similarly dashing soldiers to follow who, if they did kill anyone, would certainly earn our sympathy for doing so: Kenneth Marshall (Evil Under the Sun), Johnnie Summerhayes (Mrs. McGinty’s Dead), Bryan Eastley (4:50 from Paddington). There are dissolute gamblers or ladies’ men, like Captain Dacres (Three-Act Tragedy), Archie Easterbrook (A Murder Is Announced) and Major Allerton (Curtain). There are henpecked husbands who may or may not have tried to murder their wives: Major Horton (Murder Is Easy) and Colonel Toby Luttrell (Curtain).  And there are the well-meaning sort who often assist the detective while harboring a murderer right under their nose, men like Major Bletchley (N or M), Colonel Derek Luscombe (At Bertram’s Hotel), or Major Philpott (Endless Night). 

One of the great stories about Agatha Christie centers on the controversy surrounding N or M. In that novel, the Beresfords’ daughter Deborah is involved in government work as a code breaker. One of Christie’s friends, Dilwyn Knox, was a cryptanalyst and helped decipher the Enigma Code. This connection, plus the fact that the character of Major Bletchley coincided with the name of a leading secret code-breaking site, Bletchley Park, led to the wholly innocent author being investigated by the British government for potential possession of top-secret information!

A number of old military bores met untimely ends in Christie. The meanest of these was Colonel Protheroe (Murder at the Vicarage) who simply could not let go of whatever sense of entitlement leading soldiers had given him. He exists only a short time in the book, but it is enough time for us to see him on the village streets, bullying and antagonizing everyone who passes his way. Major Porter (Taken at the Flood) represents those army hounds sitting in their clubs who everyone tries to steer clear of. And yet he is not killed for being a bore; in fact, his death and the reason for it is just another convoluted element in one of Christie’s most complex plots. 

My favorite bore is Major Palgrave, who traps Miss Marple with old stories in A Caribbean Mystery. This is mostly a sentimental choice: ACM was the first Miss Marple novel I ever read. I was 13 and thought it quite the cleverest story, with its most important clue literally staring you in the face!

I’ve teased you with solutions throughout, but I’m about to fire a battery of spoilers your way as I talk about five little soldier boys who turned out to be killers. As characters, they are not equally fascinating, but there’s something striking to say about each of them. I offer them to you in chronological order. 

A British soldier, (aka, a Tommy), 1915

“The Good Soldier” The Sittaford Mystery (1931)

The great joy of Sittaford is its dark sprawl, as moody and atmospheric as the land near Dartmoor prison where it is set. It also has one of the most sprawling casts of any Christie novel. There are the inhabitants of Sittaford House and its six neighboring cottages, who start the whole affair out with a séance that actually seems to work!!! There’s the extended family of Captain Trevelyan, each acting more suspicious than the others. There’s even a huge team of sleuths, both professional (Inspector Narracott and his men) and amateur (Emily Trefusis and Charles Enderby). And while we’re trying to figure out which of the relatives dunnit, and wondering how the eleven oddballs in Sittaford Village figure into the murder, there’s this deep supernatural shadow that hangs over all of them and lifts the whole case into the realm of the strange and unnatural. 

Which is why the actual mundane truth of the matter always hits me like a ton of – well, you know. We stand beside Trevelyan’s best friend, Major John Burnaby, and know in our hearts he’s a good soldier, a man we can trust. His shy pleasant ways, his hardy, athletic figure, his practicality when faced with the weird and unknown . . . all of it suggests someone very much like Captain Hastings. 

I first read this when I was very young and was very proud of myself for asking the question: “Why should it take him hours to trudge down the mountain to check on his friend? Why not just ski down?” Nobody on that mammoth detecting team had bothered to ask that question; thus, I felt rather smug when the athletic Major Burnaby was revealed to be the killer. And after all the dazzle and glitter of the red herrings, the very ordinariness of Burnaby’s motive is a triumph.

“The Comrade-in-Arms” Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

As the gossip goes, film producer John Brabourne was having a terrible time gathering together a glittering cast of stars for his proposed adaptation of Orient Express – until Sean Connery agreed to play  Colonel John Arbuthnot (another military John!). This seems fitting, as this murder by committee seems to have two leaders, in the Colonel and in the great Linda Arden in disguise. Whither they goest, so go the rest . . . 

It is Arbuthnot that most nearly gives the game away to Hercule Poirot when he refers to his admiration of the American jury system:

“’In fact, Colonel Arbuthnot, you prefer law and order to private vengeance?’ 

“’Well, you can’t go about having blood feuds and stabbing each other like Corsicans or the Mafia’, said the colonel. ‘Say what you like, trial by jury is a sound system.’”

Outwardly, Arbuthnot is very much a “type,” the stolid, attractive yet stodgy middle-aged man of war. And yet he brims over with feeling. It is his stolen words with Mary Debenham that are overheard by Poirot and set the stage for the sleuth’s seeing all before him as – well, as a stage set in his honor. Arbuthnot also cannot hold in his feelings for his fallen comrade, Colonel Toby Armstrong; it’s not the bright snow that brings a tear to his eye.

“The Fallen Soldier” and “The Soldier-of-Fortune” And Then There Were None (1939)

Christie’s best novel – the first I ever read – has always had a certain controversy around it. Published in the UK in 1939 under a truly objectionable title which appeared on shelves there until 1985. Its first release the following year in the U.S. included the name change to ATTWN, and of course other changes had to be made. Now our guests found themselves headed to Indian Island, and American readers could thrill to a poem and decorative figures that resembled what we had insensitively named the indigenous peoples we met upon settling in the New World. When Christie dramatized her novel, the play’s title on Broadway was Ten Little Indians; when I first read the book in 1965, it was a re-published tie-in with the Shirley Eaton/Hugh O’Brien film of the same name. 

Ultimately, the term “Indian” was replaced with “Soldier,” a fitting tribute to the day we’re celebrating. ATTWN marks a transition into the character-driven, deeply psychological work of Christie during the 1940’s, and each here character is a marvel. What’s more, two of the ten doomed guests actually are soldiers, and their behavior as such is a clear marker for their moral ambivalence.

As the third victim of U.N. Owen, General John MacArthur (yes, yet another soldier named John!) is not in the book for long, but he makes an impact. Respected in the field but not at home, the cuckolded MacArthur (renamed MacKenzie after World War II in deference to the real MacArthur) commits a most insidious murder by sending his wife’s lover off on a suicide mission. The General’s wife dies soon thereafter, and he retires a shell of his former self. He is the only guest to first accept and then actually embrace the fate that awaits him.

Philip Lombard is a different animal. Lacking any sort of moral scruple, he helped wipe out an entire tribe of natives for his own personal gain. This weighs against his courage and attractiveness – and, yes, his brain, for he is the only one to come close to the truth about Owen. The theory propounded in the novel is that Owen chose the order of victims according to the level of guilt they either bore or felt; in other words, let the worst of them suffer the most. Lombard is the next to last to die, but I have to say he doesn’t seem to suffer much at all. He epitomizes a certain type of figure that Christie used several times: the man who revels in the savagery of war, who only feels alive in an atmosphere of extreme danger. One can tell at certain points in the novel that Lombard might have made a great spy or detective. With a finer moral compass, he could have been another Johnny Race. Instead, he is cold-blooded and becomes food for the fish.

A British soldier during World War II

“The Mercenary” Taken at the Flood (1948)

The soldier as primal figure reaches his apotheosis (and subsequently burns out in Christie’s canon) with David Hunter, the perfect murderer for a novel as deeply entrenched in post-war history as this one. In brain and figure, he resembles Lombard, and one can imagine he enjoyed his time at war. Ultimately, though, it’s larceny that David has on his mind: the impersonation of one woman by another in order to get his hands on a dead millionaire’s fortune. 

What is most intriguing about Taken at the Flood, though, is that there are actually two murderers, and while it is at the very least implied that David’s ability to kill a woman who was his lover? friend? confederate?  was rendered all the more easy by his career as a fighter pilot, Rowley Cloade’s impulsive act of violence seems to have been brought about in part by his inability to fight for his country. A patriot who was forced to remain behind and tend to the family farm, Rowley feels unmanned, especially as he watches his fiancée Lynn Marchmont fall in love with David. 

I don’t think Christie is taking any sort of stance here. One must simply admire how well she explores the multiple situations that men faced during and after the war, and how she mines this information for dramatic potential. The conclusion of all this is more problematical, however. While David’s actions are proven to definitely be murderous, Rowley is legally absolved of all responsibility, although he clearly caused the death of Charles Trenton and helped bring about Major Porter’s suicide. What’s worse, while Lynn had all but rejected Rowley as her husband while David was in the picture, she changes her mind when Rowley tries to strangle her! 

I fell for David because he was dangerous and attractive – and, to be honest, because he knows women much too well. But none of that was real. When you caught hold of me by the throat and said if I wasn’t for you, no one should have me – well – I knew them that I was your woman!

It’s the height of ickiness, one of those stuck-in-its-time moments that we all must endure if we love our Christie. On days like this, however, it makes you think about the whole concept of soldiering and of what young men and women are called to action to do. And, believe me, they are young. As a teacher, I had a number of students join the military right after high school. By nineteen or twenty, they had been trained and sent to combat zones in the Middle East or Afghanistan. Some of them came back with terrible PTSD. 

In the end, the dozens of soldiers who populated the stories of Agatha Christie did their duty to God and their country but were no more prepared for the horrors of murder than their civilian counterparts in the closed circle of suspects they inhabited. However, they all leant a color and sense of history to the mysterious proceedings. And on this day, it is fitting to thank them for their service.

3 thoughts on “THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE: Agatha Christie’s Military Men

  1. What a fantastic piece, Brad. Thoroughly enjoyed this round-up of Christie’s millitary men. I’d formed a vague impression (in spite of reading all of her works, some many many times), that all of her military men were stock characters. Old bores or restless young men. But this essay reminded me how much dimension she did give her military men and how they played big, varied roles in the books.


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