This post is part of the celebration of all mysterious books and movies in 1933 going on here at Rich’s blog, Past Offenses. Ironically, I thought I would take a look at this 1933 novel in context with Hercule Poirot novels form other years, including the one I most recently read:1963’s The Clocks.
It has been observed by others that, for someone as enamored of the theatre as Agatha Christie was – someone who eventually made a name for herself as a dramatist – she never set a story in a theater. The closest she came was to have several of her novels feature an actor or actress in a main role. If one examines these characters – Sir Charles Cartwright in Three Act Tragedy, Marina Gregg in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, or Jane Wilkinson, the actress who is the center of the action in Lord Edgware Dies – one could conclude all sorts of interesting things about how Christie viewed actors, particularly their power over an audience.
We learn about Jane’s allure in an interesting way at the start of the novel: Poirot and his friend, Captain Hastings, are taking in a performance by Carlotta Adams, a young American actress who specializes in impersonations. She closes her show with a dead-on recreation of Miss Wilkinson, and Hastings is awed by its accuracy:
“It was really very clever. Inanities slipped off her tongue, charged with some powerful emotional appeal so that, in spite of yourself, you felt that each word was uttered with some potent and fundamental meaning. Her voice, exquisitely toned, with a deep, husky note in it, was intoxicating. The restrained gestures, each strangely significant, the slightly swaying body, the impression, even, of strong physical beauty – how she did it, I cannot think!”
Just as Hastings is wondering how the subject of this “slightly malicious imitation” might receive it, he spots Jane herself in the audience, laughing uproariously at Carlotta’s performance. Afterwards, Hastings and Poirot meet the beguiling actress who asks them to help her get rid of her odious husband, the sadistic Lord Edgware. She would prefer a divorce so that she can marry the Duke of Merton, but she has considered every possibility, even murder:
“Of course if we were only in Chicago I could get him bumped off quite easily, but you don’t seem to run to gunmen over here.”
Jane is a beautiful, fatuous creature (rather like Jane Helier in The Tuesday Club Murders), vain and amoral, but full of charm and, Hastings insists, true talent. Poirot wants nothing to do with her but reluctantly agrees to talk to Lord Edgware on her behalf. To everyone’s surprise, the unpleasant nobleman professes that he is perfectly willing to divorce his wife. Problem solved, case closed. And yet, one morning soon after, Lord Edgware’s dead body is discovered in his study.
Did Jane Wilkinson kill her husband? If so, what was the motive, since he was no longer an impediment to her future happiness? And then, it turns out that Jane couldn’t have killed her husband! She was at a dinner party and there were witnesses – twelve of them, in fact. (The American title to this novel is Thirteen at Dinner.) So if Jane didn’t kill her husband, who did: his daughter? His nephew and heir to his title? The handsome actor? The devoted housekeeper? And what of the witnesses who insist they saw Jane arrive at Lord Edgware’s home and enter his study? Can Poirot sort things out and solve this puzzle?
You bet he can. What’s more, so can Brad Friedman! For this is one of the few Christie novels that didn’t baffle me at all, I’m sorry to say. (I’m one of those readers who likes to be fooled.) It was clear to me from the start who was masterminding these events and trying to frame Jane Wilkinson, and I am sure it will be an easy ride for many of you as well.
In 1926, Christie proved with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that Hercule Poirot was a sleuth who bore watching. The story was rather prosaic, a village mystery like many others, but Poirot’s sleuthing and unmasking of the criminal made people sit up and take notice. The following two Poirot novels might have made them slump back in their chairs a little. The Big Four (1927) is really a series of short stories cobbled together to form a fairly second rate thriller (one which I must admit I enjoy), and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) was written as Christie’s marriage was falling apart and is admittedly tedious. (It is said to have been one of Christie’s least favorite of her own books.)
Top drawer Poirot vs. Second tier Poirot
Then came Peril at End House (1932), a rather good story, and after Edgware, ten Poirot novels followed between 1933 and 1938, including the classics, Murder on the Orient Express, The A.B.C. Murders and Death on the Nile, as well as some cracking good mysteries like Three-Act Tragedy, Appointment with Death and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. It’s almost unfair to compare Edgware to some of these titles. True, it is a comparatively minor case in the Poirot canon, but it is charmingly written, and it showcases well the sleuth “on the go,” rushing about London to interview witnesses and trying to make sense of the circumstances of the case. If the whole fails to live up as a sum of its parts, those parts are pretty well handled. Lord Edgware Dies, like Dumb Witness (1937), is simply doomed to be overshadowed by the brilliant plotting and devastating surprises of other titles.
This point may loom larger for me, having just completed re-reading The Clocks and reviewing it here. Christie in 1963 was not writing at the height of her powers, and her sufferance of the Belgian’s very existence was at its height. Poirot appears only briefly in The Clocks, and all he really does is sit and talk. I fear Christie underestimated how necessary and welcome his charms could be to the reader – or she might not have cared – for The Clocks could have been improved simply by having Poirot himself take on the neighbors of Wilbraham Crescent, trotting from house to house in his black patent leather shoes. In Lord Edgware Dies, we see Poirot at the height of his powers. The main issue here is that the problem he tackles is comparatively pedestrian. But it is enlivened by Poirot, by his friendship with the clueless Hastings, and by the creation of Jane Wilkinson, another of Christie’s mercurial artists, who brightens up the novel whenever she appears.