Friday, 30 April 2010

The ABC Murders (1936)

Plot: Poirot must hunt down an alphabetical serial killer.

The ABC Murders follows on nicely from "Why Didn't They Ask Evans". While the latter book is a solid-enough romp (oh, that sounds like faint praise, but you know what I mean - it's robust run-around fun), The ABC Murders does some very remarkable things with a similar set up.

It also features a chase across England sparked by mysterious clues found on a body, delights in misdirection and heroic endeavour.... but it's both a more preposterous and yet darker tale.

The preposterous bits are met head-on by Poirot. While Hastings thrills to them (strange clues and taunting letters and all), Poirot is grim about the whole thing - he sees it as an elaborate bit of set dressing, a disguise for something else. Poirot does not like finding himself in a book. It's easy to see why Hastings is recalled as narrator for this - he pretty much has the time of his life, whereas Poirot is furious at what is going on. He realises what Hastings does not - that the killer will claim several pointless lives in order to disguise their true intentions.

Christie backs this grimness up with a remarkable switch in narrative. Several scenes are told from "the killer's" point-of-view, as the worried Alexander Bonaparte Cust begins to worry that he himself is committing the crimes. He's a fascinating character, and it's both touching and disturbing when Poirot meets him - ABC is one of the walking wounded of the First World War, a man so broken and disturbed that he's never been quite right since, and has no idea whether or not he still has a place in society.

Poirot is the very opposite of displaced. "I am like the prima donna who always makes one more appearance" he tells Japp in answer to the question of his retirement. Japp responds "Shouldn't wonder if you ended by detecting your own death. That's an idea that is, ought to be put into a book." Hmmmmn.

Poirot is all about order, and sees the grim game as an excuse to teach Hastings how to pack properly, to be suspicious of fingerprints ("I put that in to please you, my friend.") and a just wariness of inventive journalism. Poirot even uses xenophobia as a smart way to pick out the killer from his "jeer at foreigners" which suggests that some of her unfortunate comments are a good deal cleverer than they often appear, especially when Poirot taunts the murderer with "I consider your crime not an English crime at all - not above-board - not sporting..."

Christie's style is at full blast throughout. As well as the marvellous Cust passages there are some brilliant descriptions, such as a body found by a "fresh-air early morning Colonel".

In hunting down the killer, Poirot forms a merry band of friends to help him. This isn't a unique device - we've seen that same kind of thing in The Secret Of Chimneys and Three Act Tragedy - and, as always, this isn't quite what it seems.

It is smart Megan Barnard who starts to see though this society of friends. She's an interesting, emancipated lower-middle class female character - something of a rarity in Christie, but very good. "What you've been saying. It's just words. It doesn't mean anything," she tells Poirot after a pep talk. Poirot is taken aback, but approving - he's playing a game of his own. As he says at the end of the book "Vive le sport!"


  1. As to the occasional attacks on Christie for anti-semitism and the like... I never find her racist in the slightest, although she writes CHARACTERS that are.

    There is a very loveable young Jewish man who goes off with one of the bright young things in one book- Peril at End House it might be, and of course Mister Robinson in all his glory.

    I think she simply wrote authentically as she "heard" each story so if someone is going to talk the talk- they do. Case in point, Anthony Cade - breezily laying into Dutch Pedro as a dago... When he's half one himself... :)

  2. I really enjoyed this novel. I think that it did have a dark side as the murderer was willing to take pointless lives to remove himself from suspicion. Also, I was sorry for Alexander Bonaparte Cust, who was made to believe he himself was the murderer.