Cat Among the Pigeons is the last Christie work of the 1950’s and a novel I have a particular fondness for due to the girls’ school setting. I was a sucker for mysteries set in the world of education long before I myself became a teacher, and I feel I have only cracked the number of mysteries set in that world. (Haven’t read any Morse novels, for example!) It’s intriguing to wander through the halls of academe, watching the effect of murder on students and staff alike and seeing what sensitivity sleuths need to have when dealing with children. I cannot imagine solving a murder at the high school where I work, although I have, with alarming frequency, imagined committing one.
I have always held that the last great Poirot novel is After the Funeral (1953), on which I will someday lavish all the attention here to which it is due. After this, for me, the quality falls way off. Hickory Dickory Dock (1955) meanders, Dead Man’s Folly (1956) starts off pretty well and then quickly devolves into a lot of tricks that Christie had used before and to much better effect. The Clocks is just awfulThe last few have their charms but these are almost buried in confusion. (I don’t count Curtain here because it was actually written during WWII.)
Great Christie…….. Ungreat Christie…………
Anyway, Cat Among the Pigeons is great fun, but it hardly counts as a Poirot novel. Really, it’s an odd hybrid of boarding school whodunit and one of those godawful spy thrillers that Christie was so fond of writing.
The book begins at the start of summer term at the prestigious Meadowbanks School for Girls, run by the formidably perfect headmistress, Miss Bulstrode. It’s a charming look at the confusions of a first day of school as the teachers and students return from their holidays and the new charges arrive to begin their careers being educated and finished. Several major strands of plot are introduced here: first, Miss Bulstrode plans on retiring after the current year or so and needs to name a replacement. Second, a new student arrives: she is Princess Shaista from the imaginary Middle Eastern principality of Ramat which has just undergone a major political revolution. And finally, Miss Bulstrode has an interview with Mrs. Upjohn, the mother of a remarkably level-headed little girl named Julia and a former member of British Intelligence. Miss Bulstrode’s attention is diverted when she looks out the window and spots a wealthy mother teetering in a state of inebriation toward the brand new Sports Pavilion, and so she misses Mrs. Upjohn’s exclamation as she looks out the opposite window and sees someone who she used to work with in her espionage days . . . somebody dangerous! And then Mrs. Upjohn departs for a vacation in Anatolia, where it will be almost impossible to reach her if things get dicey . . . which they do!
How I wish Christie had stuck with the school at this point! The various staff members, with their petty jealousies and clashing personalities, and all those schoolgirls rendered with delightful humor by the author would have been enough for me. But Christie moves us back a couple of months to Ramat itself, on the eve of the revolution, in order to set up some international intrigue that will spill over into the summer term at Meadowbanks and cause three murders and a kidnapping.
Still, there’s enough great stuff at the school to entertain us. The first victim is a P.E. teacher, and I say hoorah to that! My dad will tell you that P.E. was, to put it mildly, not my thing, and this P.E. teacher, like several of mine, is pretty odious. But why she got killed is part of the mystery. Is it linked to the revolution in Ramat? Or did this nasty young woman, who has established herself a great big snoopy nose, ferret out some dirt that somebody at the school wants to keep hidden? Christie has set up the plot in such a way that the reader is way ahead of the characters in terms of the significance of Ramat to the story. The fun is in how the characters stumble onto this information. The scene where Julia starts to put things together and comes up with the truth is delightful.
Which brings up that point I made at the beginning about Poirot’s involvement in this story. Julia would have made a great and innovative detective here, especially in her interactions with her lackadaisical friend, Jennifer Sutcliffe. Then there’s the perfectly sharp Police Inspector named Kelsey who is put in charge of the case. And there’s Adam Goodman, the gardener’s assistant and a major hunk, who also happens to be an undercover spy (are you still with me?) placed at Meadowbanks to sniff out news about Ramat. Any one of these would have made the perfect detective for what cries out to be a standalone novel. However, two thirds of the way through, Hercule Poirot is called in to consult. Frankly, as much as I love Poirot, his participation in this case rings false almost from the beginning.
Since this is a later Christie novel, I’ll grant that it is much looser in terms of clueing and fair play, but Poirot’s deductions might as well be the conjuring tricks of a magician. Out of the blue, without having ever met the person in question, he asks about the appearance of a young girl’s knees. The significance of that question is later made clear, but how on earth did Poirot conceive the need to ask it. No, I can’t help feeling that the Belgian’s presence is all part of Christie’s grudging concession to her fans. She knew their passion for Poirot was as strong as her later antipathy toward him, so she threw him in at the very end to appease them. (She did this again in The Clocks, where Colin Lamb would have been perfectly enough of a sleuth to deal with that mystery, an even more uneasy blend of domestic whodunit and espionage caper.)
There are some lovely scenes that Christie puts in for what you think is flavor but is actually important clue business. There are a number of passing comments that take on extreme significance at the end. All of this makes Cat Among the Pigeons a fun and clever read. But, as a fair play mystery, it suffers from its hybridization with a typical Christie thriller plot. That, plus Poirot’s relatively brief appearance, necessitated some major changes when the novel was adapted to the David Suchet series; the result is rather unfortunate! As a novel, it’s not great Christie, but it’s fun Christie and well worth your time.
I should have waited till January 1st to post this review. Then I could use the cat on the cover as part of Bev Hankins’ 2016 cover scavenger hunt. But at least I can promote her fun game here: