Hercule Poirot appears late in 1963’s The Clocks, and the ostensible reason for this (disregarding Christie’s open dislike of the man late in her career) is that he is working on “his magnum opus, an analysis of great writers of fiction.” The first chapter where Poirot appears is mostly taken up with regaling his listener with his views, and the only thing that makes this less insightful an indicator of the author’s own mind than, say, Dr. Fell’s locked room lecture in Carr’s The Three Coffins or Drury Lane’s discussion of the dying message in Queen’s The Tragedy of X is that too many of the authors Poirot discusses are fictional. Still, some of these represent certain true life authors, and the information we get about Poirot’s – and Christie’s tastes – is invaluable.
Hercule Poirot is front and center at the very start of his next case, 1966’s Third Girl. He has finished his breakfast and the writing of his book . . . and he is satisfied:
“He had dared to speak scathingly of Edgar Allan Poe, he had complained of the lack of method or order in the romantic outpourings of Wilkie Collins, had lauded to the skies two American authors who were practically unknown, and had in various other ways given honor where honor was due and sternly withheld it where he considered it was not.”
I’ll bet this would have been a fascinating book to read, and I only wish I could read it instead of re-reading Third Girl. The Agatha Christie group on Goodreads tackles the Christie canon chronologically, and we are now trudging through increasingly dicey waters as we read Dame Agatha’s not-so-Golden Age final works. There are a few pleasures still awaiting us, for the most part, Third Girl is not one of them.
Poirot’s post-breakfast ruminations are interrupted by the arrival of a potential client, ushered in dubiously by the sleuth’s manservant, George. As Poirot’s eyes scan the girl who stands doubtfully before him, we get full blast the author’s disapproval of the Beat generation:
“His visitor was a girl of perhaps twenty-odd. Long straggly hair of indeterminate color strayed over her shoulders. Her eyes, which were large, bore a vacant expression and were of a greenish blue. She wore what were presumably the chosen clothes of her generation – black high leather boots, white open-work woolen stockings of doubtful cleanliness, a skimpy skirt, and a long and sloppy pullover of heavy wool. Anyone of Poirot’s age and generation would have had only one desire – to trop the girl into a bath as soon as possible.”
The girl apparently didn’t bother to find out when Poirot holds his office hours, which strikes me as the truest note about a young person. She blurts out the statement that she believes she might have committed a murder, offering no concrete details to back this up. And then she adds insult to injury by changing her mind and rejecting Poirot’s offer of help, saying, “You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old.”
Well, yes, Poirot is indeed old. If he retired from the Belgian police force in 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he must be well over one hundred by 1966. But since Christie has ignored this for the past forty years, it would have been polite for the girl to ignore it, too. Still, it makes for a tantalizing opening to a Christie novel, something she is usually quite good at supplying, and we should now brace ourselves to watch Poirot try and prove that, as long as the little grey cells are in working order, age is relative.
Unfortunately, Third Girl is one of the novels that demonstrates the waning of Christie’s own grey cells. It isn’t unusual for her to re-use old tricks, but the ones she pulls out of her hat here are reconstituted in shabby fashion. Worst of all, the novel meanders endlessly, stretching a minor tale to nearly interminable length. And, sadly, we can blame some of that on the novel’s best character, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver.
From Mrs. McGinty’s Dead on, Mrs. Oliver has assumed the role of Watson to Poirot, and I could not be more pleased. She is a far more interesting character than Hastings ever was, and her original packaging as a staunch believer in women’s intuition who rarely intuits anything correctly has been tempered to a more realistic level. She actually is a help to Poirot in McGinty and Dead Man’s Folly and the later Halloween Party. But here, she is a hindrance and, worse, she is Christie’s primary tool for stalling the inevitable. Let me give you just three examples:
One. In the beginning, Poirot goes to Mrs. Oliver, his friend, because the girl’s comment has sent him into a depression. Mrs. Oliver wants to cheer her Poirot and get down to whatever business the girl might have been bringing to his attention by first figuring out how the girl got hold of Poirot’s name. After several pages of dialogue, Mrs. Oliver stumbles upon the fact that she herself sent the girl to Poirot. This is helpful because then the writer can fill the detective in on some of the backstory of this girl’s life, her name, family, and so on. But it beggars understanding that she could have forgotten such a recent event. And how many young people ask one for the name of a good private detective?
Two. Much of the novel’s center is comprised of Mrs. Oliver tracking down information, following people, listening in on conversations, even getting coshed for her efforts. It feels like something Tuppence Beresford could have gotten away with in a thriller, but it is hard going watching Mrs. Oliver go about it. Christie tries to make it amusing, and it is easy to smile at anything Mrs. Oliver says or does. When she is caught by a suspect she was following, a person who might be extremely dangerous, she tries to pass it off with a silly lie and a bunch of foolishness:
“Good gracious, what have I been sitting on. A dustbin! Really! Not a very nice dustbin either. What is this place I’ve got to?”
Thank goodness all of Christie’s young people identify all adults as dithering old fools, or Mrs. Oliver might have been a goner.
Three. Most insulting to the intelligence of character and reader, the whole case hinges on Poirot discovering who this girl, Norma Restarick, might have murdered. From the earliest moments of his investigation he states it plainly: “I am looking for a death. Any death.” He repeats this phrase often, and yet it is not until the end of Chapter Fifteen that Mrs. Oliver finally mentions the death Poirot has been looking for all along, a death that took place nearby and that she found out about ages ago. Why did she not mention it before? Mrs. Oliver’s response makes you thing that young people are onto something about dithering old people:
“Well really, Monsieur Poirot, I cannot see that it has anything to do with all this. Well, I suppose it may have – but nobody seems to have said so, or thought of it.”
I ask you, what self-respecting murderer is going to call an investigator’s attention to the act he or she is trying to cover up? When did Mrs. Oliver suddenly become so selective in her dispensing of information? Poirot’s anger here – and our annoyance – is justified for different reasons. Mrs. Oliver may have obstructed Poirot’s case, but she has also is clearly serving Christie’s purpose of stalling the proceedings for too long.
And when you consider the case of the Third Girl, you want it to rush by as quickly as possible. It feels like a hodgepodge of bits and pieces from old novels cobbled together. There are elements of A Murder Is Announced, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, Evil Under the Sun and more present. The only really original idea is that of the “third girl,” and it doesn’t serve much purpose here. A third girl, for those of you who didn’t know, is a member of an apartment rental agreement. The first girl finds the apartment and pays the highest rent for the best room. The second girl pays a little less for the second bedroom, and because rents are high, a third girl is brought in who can live cheaply in a closet or corner somewhere. Norma Restarick is the third girl in such an arrangement, although for the life of me I can’t figure out why. She comes from a wealthy family and has stormed out of her country home due to her hatred of her young stepmother. Surely she could be supplied with the money to find a better situation. But Norma is full of anger and confusion, and as the story proceeds we see there is good reason for both these conditions. At one point, Norma is nearly hit by a car and is rescued by a kindly young doctor. He examines and talks to her and later speaks on the phone to an unknown person:
“Can’t tell you much yet. The girl’s full of drugs. I’d say she’d been taking purple hearts and dream bombs, and probably L.S.D. She’s been all hopped up for some time. “
Purple hearts and dream bombs? It appears to be too late to Google these terms to discover if actual drugs went by these names. Despite my total ignorance about such things, I must assume that a girl “hopped up” on a combination of these three substances would have more of a coherence problem than Norma displays. We’re not talking about Molly Kendall and a bit of belladonna in the cold cream here! We’re talking about powerful hypnotic agents coursing in combination through a young girl’s bloodstream. I’m quite surprised that somebody as historically well-versed in pharmacopeia as Christie always has been would base so much of a character’s state of mind on this ludicrous mis-information. It is part of what contributes to a general criticism of this novel on the basis of the author’s ignorance of the younger generation of the ‘60’s. Perhaps young people other than rock stars did dress like the character whom Mrs. Oliver refers to as “The Peacock” –
“He was a figure familiar enough to Poirot in different conditions, a figure often met in the streets of London or even at parties. A representative of the youth of today. He wore a black coat, an elaborate velvet waistcoat, skin-tight pants, and rich curls of chestnut hair hung down on his neck. He looked exotic and rather beautiful, and it needed a few moments to be certain of his sex.”
Such sexual ambiguity certainly exists, but compounded with all the rest, it feels like a false impression of the whole Carnaby Street scene and more of an old lady’s rant against the younger generation, “the unshaven dirty kind” who all need a good bath. And when you put the atmosphere aside, you are left with a murder plot based on a series of tricks so preposterous that they are unlikely to fool anyone unless they are hopped up on purple dragons, dream bombs and L.S.D.
At a certain point, an author might be so huge that they become edit-proof, but I can’t help wondering what could have been had Christie’s editor taken a good hard look at this book – and many of the titles that followed – and said, “Erm, excuse me, Dame Agatha, but this just won’t do as is.” Perhaps we would have had fewer books, and we would have missed out on the pleasures awaiting us had Christie been discouraged from continuing. But when I think of how interesting it might have been had the author really succeeded in mashing up a classic mystery with the then-modern world, if only she had received some guidance on this, I feel a little sad that Third Girl, along with several other late titles, feels less worthy of a revisit than it might have been.
It is not surprising that the ITV adaptation, one of the last of the Suchet Poirot series, continues in its trend of trying to “improve” Christie by taking Third Girl in a different direction. First, since the series was set in the 1930’s, Third Girl is transported back to the Golden Age. That eliminates the whole drug issue. The first murder is discovered immediately, allowing us to applaud Mrs. Oliver’s efforts rather than shake our fist at her. A second murder is eliminated. In fact, that victim, a thoroughly bad lot in the novel, becomes the film’s hero. And a new subplot is brought in to create an original motive for the crime(s). This eliminates one of the more ludicrous plot elements from the book, but in doing so it removes the entire reason that two people in the novel might know each other and/or work together. What we end up with, while cursorily better thanks to Zoe Wanamaker’s performance as Mrs. Oliver, floats in very muddy waters indeed. And when David Suchet exposes the killer with a voice shaking with rage and eyes brimming with tears, one has to think a bit to figure out what he may be crying about.
Whenever I hear that someone’s first experience with Christie was Third Girl – or At Bertram’s Hotel or Passenger to Frankfurt – I have to shudder. No wonder you think the woman was overrated! Thus, standard warnings apply. Cursory readers of Christie may avoid this one and miss out on nothing. The rest of us are required, as completists, to revisit it every so often and ponder the whys and the what-might-have-beens about it. It’s a dirty job, but we’re happy to take one for the team.