When the Tuesday Night Bloggers selected October’s topic – Costume in Crime – I made straight for Agatha Christie, as is my wont. It only took me a moment to cover an entire page with titles that concern criminals in disguise. Christie’s use of this trick is frequent enough and varied enough that I’m sure other bloggers will tackle her. (I can just hear my buddy Kate at Cross Examining Crime scribbling away furiously!) I wonder if, given the nature of the topic, Kate has struggled with spoilers as much as I have. I’ve tried to be mindful by inserting spoilers into specially marked parenthetical paragraphs, but a newish reader of Christie should still enter this post guardedly.
When you think about it, every murderer in every whodunit is, in effect, “in disguise.” The whole point of the game is to hide the culprit’s true nature from the reader by making them seem either physically, psychologically, or emotionally incapable of murder. In terms of physicality, this often boils down to a question of motive. I’ll admit an aversion to writers like Freeman Wills Crofts who reduce characters to pieces in a puzzle and crimes to timetables of events. The case boils down to motive and a suspect’s availability to commit the crime. Characterization becomes unnecessary, which means that there is no disguise. Yet when there’s a modicum of characterization hovering over the proceedings, and I can ask myself how kindly great-Aunt Josephine really is, or if Mr. Pilkington, the lawyer, is as dry as dust as he seems to be, a mystery is much more fun to read, at least to my taste.
But that’s not the sort of disguise we’re talking about here.
Then there are the wealth of mysteries where people impersonate someone else. Novels like Tey’s Brat Ferrar and Carr’s The Crooked Hinge revolve around the veracity of claimants to a fortune. How many crime novels include visitors from far-off countries or long-lost relatives who may or may not be who they say they are? My favorite Miss Marple mystery has, at its center, not one, not two, but three impersonations, and if other’s have voiced some dubiousness over this arrangement, it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the novel a bit.
But impersonation of this sort is not what we’re talking about either.
Nope, this is October – you know, the month where kids of all ages don a disguise and wander about on Halloween! We’re talking about costumes and make-up! Let’s consider the culprit who physically disguises him/herself in front of people he/she knows in order to directly commit, or abet in, a crime. The short stories are loaded with this device, and over a dozen novels contain an instance where we meet someone in their regular guise, and by the end of the novel, we realize that the crux of the murder plot hangs on the fact that we have also met them in disguise.
The most common reason for a person to put on a costume is to provide themselves (if they are the murderer) or the culprit (in the case of a confederate) with an alibi. This technique appears quite early in Christie’s career and becomes a staple in her bag of tricks. A reader who hopes to pierce through this sort of misdirection would do well to pay attention to the circumstances surrounding the evidence. Did a witness describe a person far too clearly from too far away or on a foggy night? Was the room containing the costumed person dimly lit? Is the eyewitness to a person’s presence a total stranger? Does someone remark casually – never ignore a witness’ casual remark in Christie – that someone did not seem to behave like themselves? Even when we’re given testimony by someone whose honesty is beyond repute – I would say especially when this happens – we need to examine the circumstances to see how that honest person could have been fooled.
(SPOILER EXAMPLE: In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie takes great pains to show that Evelyn Howard has nothing but contempt for her companion’s husband, Alfred Inglethorpe. From the start, she expresses despair that she had introduced Emily Crackenthorpe to her own cousin. This latter fact, plus the description of Evelyn as “about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tone, and . . . a large, sensible square body, with feet to match . . . “ might clue in the observant reader that, by donning a thick beard, Miss Howard could provide an alibi for the first cousin she resembles. Fortunately, it doesn’t escape Poirot’s attention.)
The second main reason for a killer to don a costume is to enable her/him to be present to commit the murder without fear of being detected. These examples are the most outrageous, sometimes to the point of being ludicrous, but the high risk factor lends them an excitement that (usually) makes us willing to suspend our disbelief. The risk extends to the fact that, in order for us to buy this aspect of the solution, we have to understand how the killer would be capable of such a successful disguise. Having previous experience on the stage can help, but it also raises a red flag for the reader. Therefore, when Christie combines theatrical characters with a disguised murderer, the element of disguise is better hidden. Christie’s fanciful notion of what it means to be a spy often means the presence of a disguise. Thus, readers who pay close attention when the author slips in the fact that a character spent some time in the Secret Service or engaged in something vaguely described as “war work” can consider themselves forewarned. The third occupation that can serve as a warning is the presence of a servant. Christie often lets the British preoccupation with class distinctions serve as a clue: evidently high-class people tend not to pay much attention to those who serve them. This leads to the notable fact that, while Christie never made a member of the servant class a murderer in any of her novels (there are a few in the short stories), many of her murderers committed their crimes quite openly by disguising themselves as servants or other members of the working class.
(SPOILER EXAMPLE: In Death on the Clouds, Poirot figures out the identity of the killer on the airliner Prometheus almost from the start by examining the passengers’ luggage. Norman Gale was the only person to carry a small enough receptacle (a matchbox) to hold the wasp that served as a red herring for the true weapon. Poirot figures out that Gale boldly played the part of a flight attendant in order to get close enough to the victim to inject her neck with poison. As Gail is a dentist, he possessed a white coat that he could wear in order to pass himself off as a steward.
I mention this novel because of a very clever ruse Poirot pulls in order to incriminate Gale. He takes the young man into his confidence and asks for his assistance to gain some evidence by putting on a disguise. Gale’s paranoid fear of getting caught prompts him to disguise himself poorly at first, but when Poirot admonishes him, Gale’s natural egoism asserts itself, and his second disguise is expertly applied. The whole episode is written in a comical vein and even endears us to Gale, making his exposure as a killer all the more surprising.)
The third reason for using a costume is the rarest used and, therefore, the most interesting: in this case, the disguise results in a complete misreading of the situation by the investigators. (SPOILER ALERT) Two excellent examples are the story “The Witness for the Prosecution” and the novel After the Funeral, which to my mind contains the greatest use of disguise in all of Christie. In both cases, a person uses a disguise to plant ideas in people’s heads that, once the case unfolds, will lead everyone down a rabbit hole and make them look at things the wrong way up. (END SPOILER)
I alluded above to the contract an author enters into with her readers to try not to stretch the boundaries of literary reality to the point where they will snap. Yet even Christie occasionally takes the trick so far as to lose credibility with her readers. (SPOILER ALERT) It is ridiculous, for example, to believe that a woman could so forget a man she had married, was no doubt intimate with, and then grew so scared of that she felt relief when he died, that she could then re-marry the same man without recognizing him. Then there are the malevolent women who disguise themselves as two distinct people in Dead Man’s Folly and Third Girl and who have to switch roles back and forth with such breakneck precision without anyone around them noticing a similarity between the two portrayals! In one of these examples, Christie even has the gall to plant the “clue” that, due to a childhood illness, a woman has lost her hair in order to prepare us for her rapid exchange of wigs. For someone who worked for many years in the theatre, Christie should have known that such a “fact” was unnecessary. (END SPOILER)
You could argue that disguise is a cheap trick, even in as unreal a situation as a classic murder mystery. And yes, it seems farfetched to believe that nobody would recognize a close friend or family member if he or she were standing before us in disguise. Christie handles most of these instances well, but she often has to work hard to create the circumstances around which one would buy the success of a disguise, and the results are occasionally less than satisfying. Take the case of the woman invited to a dinner party where nobody knows her well, so she sends a surrogate, even though both the woman and the surrogate are distinct celebrities. Christie really tries to get us to look at the potential of a switch-around in one way, but all we have to do is reverse our point of view and the whole plot unravels. That’s what happened to me when I read that particular title. As a result, it feels like lesser Christie to me.
As you can see, it is well nigh impossible to go into this topic in great depth without spoiling things. Even mentioning a title without going into detail can rob a new reader of a whole aspect of discovery. You will also notice that I incorporated almost no covers or illustrations for fear of giving things away. I apologize to those of you who stuck with me but had to skip around. For those of you who are old hands at reading Christie, here’s a little quiz. Leave your answers below, and I’ll post the solution on Friday:
THIRTEEN DISGUISES: A QUIZ
Match the trick of disguise to the correct Christie title.
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles
- “The Witness for the Prosecution”
- The Murder on the Orient Express
- Three-Act Tragedy
- One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
- Evil Under the Sun
- Sparkling Cyanide
- The Mousetrap
- After the Funeral
- “The Dream”
- A Pocket Full of Rye
- Third Girl
- “The Blue Geranium”
a. A psychotic victim of child abuse disguises himself as a policeman to seek out two new victims.
b. A woman disguises herself as her stepdaughter’s roommate – much ado about nothing results!
c. A millionaire’s secretary pulls off a neat impersonation to make it seem that his boss’ murder was actually the result of a premonition.
d. Beware the deep-voiced woman with the manly figure who would look great in a beard!
e. A rich man travels back and forth from Africa to play a poor working stiff, woos his father’s maid, and sets the stage for three murders.
f. An actress pretends to be a scarred Cockney strumpet in order to destroy her own credibility as a witness and set a murderer free.
g. An actress disguises herself as an American housewife to provide a credible, but false theory of who killed her neighbor (Hint: she did!)
h. A husband and wife disguise themselves as a variety of people, including a dentist and a dithery tourist, in order to save the British government (and get away with fraud!)
i. For the one and only time in Christie, the butler did it (except he’s not really a butler!)
j. A woman hires a gypsy to tell her fortune and winds up dead. How odd that the gypsy only turned up on the nurse’s day off!
k. The waiter did it – twice! A year apart! (And, yes, he’s not really a waiter.)
l. A pair of cunning murderers take advantage of the fact that one suntanned body looks much like another.
m. “But he was murdered, wasn’t he?” (I really don’t want to give this title away, so that’s all you get!)