Whistlestop Blog

Why I read Agatha Christie

Recently I listened to Hugh Fraser read the unabridged Peril at End House.  He is the actor who superbly portrayed Col. Hastings in the A&E Poirot series many years ago, and he is a wonderful voice actor.  After years of treating Christie's works as a buffet table to be ranged over as the mood or a theme struck me, I am reading them in chronological order, and here I was at Peril at End House (1932).  It was Christie's seventeenth book, her thirteenth novel, her sixth Poirot novel.  He has retired from the detective business, and here he pushes himself into a case and yet ultimately finds himself manipulated by the murderer from the first chapter to almost the last.

As a mystery it is mediocre, with some information sometimes abruptly introduced to tie things together and with some revelations so obvious that it is embarrassing to have Poirot congratulate himself in revealing them.  Hastings is regularly and cruelly abused by Poirot, and yet he makes observations that lead to the solution, although he claims not to be able to make the leaps of deduction that Poirot enjoys so much.

Therein, I propose, is the key.  This is a novel in which Poirot is in the End House, retirement, the slacking off of mental activity, which for him is death.  Christie may have been considering ending the Poirot series, and she wanted to examine what happens to a workaholic when the work is no longer there.  It is autobiographical in that sense, because Christie herself was a workaholic.  She was 42 when she wrote Peril at End House; she was experienced (13 novels, 3 short story collections, 2 plays, a book of poetry, one mainstream novel among the 13, interest and skill at supernatural subjects); she was ambitious.  She had created Poirot as a aged man (a "grandfather") twelve years ago, and now she was testing herself as to whether he was useful any longer as he was.

The answer is no.  He is a disaster as a detective in this story.  Not only is he adroitly manipulated by the murderer, he recasts his grand theories several times and castigates himself for no longer being able to think straight.  A victim is killed within feet of him when he and Hastings have presented themselves as guardians.  Out of desperation he tries to protect his client by faking her death and hoping that will take her out of harm's way.  He rather cavalierly abets the suicide of a major character.  He mistakes trivial questions for important ones and what are clearly critical unknowns for matters that he already thinks he knows.    At the end, when the mystery is unraveled, he earnestly tries to claim knowledge all along of the intricacies -- yet it is clear that he is only a step ahead of others perfectly capable of drawing the same conclusions.  Christie deliberately has him mutter mysteriously at least three times, "And yet I wonder . . . ."  He wonders, but he does not get it right over and over again.  Only in the final moments does he recover, in a ragged fashion, his previous decade's disinterested professionalism.

That recovery is the key to his survival, his new lease on life extended to him by his creator.  Christie tested Poirot in her thoroughly scientific fashion (think of her work as a pharmacist) and concluded his time was done as retired freelancer.  Something triggered a line of speculation, however, that Poirot may be useful as a traveler, a disinterested tourist (perhaps her dissatisfaction with The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), which in Peril several characters had complimented, an ironic self-scolding that the author was giving herself).  One more Poirot, Lord Edgware Dies (1933), and then Christie sent him on his Grand Tour -- interestingly enough, in a reverse chronology:  Murder on the Orient Express (1934) initiates a series of books in which Poirot travels around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East.  With a few other titles she filled out Poirot's experiences and acquaintances as she pursued her Ancient World thinking, but essentially she had reinvented Poirot.  She had saved him, when he could not save himself, from the End House.

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