Had I any inkling Agatha Christie was this good—the humor, the characters, the crafty plotting, the...I'll think of more, trust me—I would have started on her gargantuan canon ages ago. Ages ago! Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is only my third Christie—and my second Hercule Poirot, and I’m so so far behind, just thinking about it makes me feel verklempt.
Hercule Poirot. What a character for a detective! [That’s two exclamation points. I’m allowing myself five for this report.] I said in my report on The Orient Express that Peter Lorre would have (and might have) made a terrific Poirot. And what a switch that would be, Poirot slapping Sam Spade around and Spade liking it! [two more] But there’s no Sam Spade in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, alas, but it was fun imagining Spade eavesdropping while Poirot’s saying this to himself:
“It is my weakness, it has always been my weakness, to desire to show off...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 a chair all day reflecting how truly admirable I am. One needs the human touch. One needs—as they say nowadays—the stooge.”
Spade, of course, would have thought Poirot considered him the stooge. Oh, the fun. Who gets slapped versus who deserves to get slapped...but in this instance Poirot is thinking about his friend 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 openmouthed appreciation of my talents— the ease with which I misled him without uttering an untrue word, his bafflement, his stupendous astonishment when he at last perceived the truth that had been clear to me all along.”
As I was reading this I had a sudden urge to slap him myself—Poirot, that is, and then realized he was only a figment of Agatha Christie’s bathtub-conjuring imagination. What fun she must have had with what at least one of her characters describes as a “ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.”
And she turns the unforgiving spotlight on herself! [last one] She appears thinly disguised, one presumes, as Ariadne Oliver, here describing how she loathes one of her characters:
“‘How do I know?’ said Mrs. Oliver crossly. ‘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 fond 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.’” [watch out, Poirot! (exclamation points don’t count in brackets)]
And here’s a confession: “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.”
Yup. An authentic ring, for sure. Poor shy, unsociable Dame Agatha—somehow that doesn’t ring so true. Ah, well, on to the puzzle.
Poirot has just gotten home, having walked from a “dingy little” French restaurant he’d only just discovered, where he’d enjoyed a superb meal—a big deal, in fact, for him: “‘The truth is,’ Poirot reflected as he turned his steps homeward, ‘I am not in tune with the modern world. And I am, in a superior way, a slave as other men are slaves. My work has enslaved me just as their work enslaves them. When the hour of leisure arrives, they have nothing with which to fill their leisure. The retired financier takes up golf, the little merchant puts bulbs in his garden, me, I eat. But there it is, I come round to it again. One can only eat three times a day. And in between are the gaps.’”
Anyway, when he arrives home George, his “manservant,” greets him at the door and informs him he has a visitor. Poirot discovers it’s Superintendent Spence of the Kilchester Police, with whom he’d worked evidently some while in the past. Spence’s conscience is bothering him. He’d investigated a murder that led to the conviction of a man who was now two weeks away from the gallows. Despite fairly obvious circumstantial evidence against the man, Spence has a nagging suspicion he’s innocent of the killing. He wants Poirot to re-open the investigation in the hope that if someone else is guilty it could be proven in time to save the condemned man from hanging.
The victim, of course, was Mrs. McGinty, a cleaning lady, and the man convicted of splitting her skull open was her roomer. But of course Poirot takes the case, and of course… It starts out simply enough. Poirot takes a room in the small community where Mrs. McGinty had lived. He gets to know people there, focusing on those whose homes Mrs. McGinty had cleaned. Remember, he has a two-week deadline to find the real murderer, or at least find new evidence tightening the rope around the roomer’s neck and putting Supt. Spence’s conscience to rest. I needn’t tell you things get complicated. Even more complicated than The Murder on the Orient Express, which I reported on last week (without telling you just how complicated it was—discussing plot details is not my thing, as I’m always afraid I’ll inadvertently tip the author’s hand and spoil the ending—same thing could happen here, despite the complexity of the backgrounds of Poirot’s, and our, suspects). But for those of you drooling over the prospect of one helluva good murder-plot puzzle, trust me, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead won’t let you down. Actually, the plot is so complicated I’d have to read the novel again just to make sure I had everything straight enough to give you a spoiler-free synopsis, were something of that sort even possible.
What I can do, and am quite willing to do, is to reveal Poirot’s strategy in trying to shake loose information from residents of this small community who do not share Supt. Spence’s pang of conscience. They believe the jury that convicted the roomer had no choice based on what was apparently irrefutable evidence. Poirot let it be known to everyone with whom he spoke, that new evidence had come to his attention. The idea was that if the killer was still at large, he or she might get nervous and do something revealing. Poirot counted on his reputation to enhance this effect. Yet, when he introduces himself to his temporary landlady at the guest house where he’s staying, she, Maureen Summerhayes (a redhead—Christie’s had one in all three of her novels I’ve read) is not impressed:
“‘I should, perhaps, madame, tell you a little more about myself. I am Hercule Poirot.’
“The revelation left Mrs. Summerhayes unmoved. ‘What a lovely name,’ she said kindly. ‘Greek, isn’t it?’
“‘I am, as you may know,’ said Poirot, ‘a detective.’ He tapped his chest. ‘Perhaps the most famous detective there is.’
“Mrs. Summerhayes screamed with amusement.”
No longer amused, is she, when Poirot finally gathers all of his suspects (including her) in her guest house to reveal his solution to the puzzle. But first we see him at perhaps his most vulnerable:
“‘I get nowhere— nowhere,’ said Poirot to himself. ‘There is nothing— no little gleam. I can well understand the despair of Superintendent Spence. But it should be different for me. Superintendent Spence, he is a good and painstaking police officer, but me, I am Hercule Poirot. For me, there should be illumination!’ [...]
“He was the great, the unique Hercule Poirot, but he was also a very old man and his shoes were tight."
But now, with the suspects gathered together, Poirot plays his hand: “A new note crept into his voice. He was no longer a ridiculous little man with an absurd mustache and dyed hair, he was a hunter very close to his quarry.”
And so, the murderer of Mrs. McGinty is… Mwaaaahahahahaaa...
[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]