Recently, my friend Kate at Cross Examining Crime re-read and reviewed Five Little Pigs here. I loved many of the things she said and disagreed with others. Mostly, it made me hungry to set down some of my own thoughts about one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels and how it stands apart from the majority of Poirot’s best cases. So that’s what follows, and it’s LOADED WITH SPOILERS, so beware!
Five Little Pigs is an important novel in Christie’s canon and deserves significant attention. First of all, as the final title in a run of sixteen Hercule Poirot mysteries that appeared between 1932 and 1942, it forms the apotheosis of the peak of Poirot’s career. (Between 1942 and 1952, Poirot appeared only three times.) Secondly, it forms a significant departure from the earlier cases, where Poirot bustled about the city, or down to the country, or boarded a train, plane or boat for distant climes. Five Little Pigs presents Poirot at his most cerebral. The detective challenges himself to solve a crime by distilling the testimony he hears through his little grey cells. There is no fresh scene of the crime, to investigate, no physical evidence at hand; there is only contradictory testimony and hearsay. Thus, the whole affair is presented as a purely intellectual exercise . . . which brings us to the third point. Instead of the dry “murder in retrospect” (as the American publishers re-titled the book) we might come to expect given the circumstances, Five Little Pigs turns out to be one of Christie’s most emotionally resonant novels, rich in characterization, and perhaps her most evocative rendition of the effects a tragedy like murder can have on people’s lives. This is not a book where a crime occurs, the case is solved, and everyone returns to the way they were before. Before and after the solution is reached, lives are damaged and/or changed irrevocably.
Past deaths figure in other, earlier Christie novels: the loss of Louise Leidner’s first husband in Murder in Mesopotamia, the four past murders that make a collector of Mr. Shaitana in Cards on the Table, the collection of unverified homicides that bring together the guests to Soldier Island in And Then There Were None. But those fatalities bring about a new set of present circumstances that culminate in murder; in none of these instances does an earlier death form the crux of the story.
In Five Little Pigs, however, a sixteen-year-old murder is at the heart of the matter. Carla Lemarchant comes to Hercule Poirot with a story: when she was a little girl, her father, the famous portrait painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned. Her mother, Caroline, was arrested and convicted of his murder and subsequently died in prison. Now engaged to be married, Carla wants to clean the family slate for her fiancé by hiring Poirot to prove her mother innocent. Carla believes in Caroline’s innocence because she admitted as much to her daughter in a letter. Yet, if that’s the case, why did Caroline do nothing at the time to help her own cause? Why did she actually let herself be convicted?
At the start, Caroline’s guilt or innocence matters less to Poirot than the structure of the problem itself: the intriguing notion of trying to clear up a sixteen-year-old matter without actually being on the scene in the moment. The atmosphere of a brain twister, rather than a tale of flesh and blood people, is nurtured early on as Poirot interviews the members of the legal profession and the police who were involved in the case. He hears many of the same facts presented in slightly different ways, along with divergent opinions about the five people who were also involved in the Crale case. Along the way, Poirot indulges his whimsical nature by assigning each of these five a persona based on one of the pigs of the nursery rhyme. In a way, this de-humanizes our cast of suspects, and I imagine some of the author’s critics see this reduction of human qualities as proof of a shallowness in Christie’s characterization. The nursery rhyme motif, something Christie will employ again and again, certainly applies an artificial layer to the proceedings, but it merely scratches the surface of character, as the reader will discover when Poirot peels back each layer of memory. Along the way, the potential dryness of a pure puzzle gives way to a rich whodunit dealing with thwarted passions and self-sacrifice.
In fact, this novel tends to be “Exhibit A” for the fans battling the accusation of negligible characterization on Christie’s part, and it is a solid piece of evidence in her favor. Even the two dead characters come across as multi-layers and credible, especially since Amyas and Caroline Crale are filtered through the differing (and biased) filter of the five witnesses to their marriage. Amyas possesses the best and worst excesses of an artist’s character: immense talent and appetites, a willingness to go to any length to complete each work of art and an all-around egoism that taints any passion he feels for others. And yet, most of the vitriol in the book is reserved for Caroline who (SPOILER ALERT) turns out to possess a nobility of spirit and a capacity for love unrivaled by any other character. (END SPOILER)
The female characters are especially well-drawn, so let’s get the men out of the way. Philip Blake is perhaps the least satisfactory character in the bunch. His reasons for despising Caroline are not well explored, nor are they particularly germane to the case. It’s telling that in the ITV adaptation of this novel, Philip’s motive is shifted from an unrequited passion for Caroline to deep feelings of love, also unrequited, for Amyas. I can imagine that this more modern take on Philip doesn’t sit well with many fans, since the TV-adaptations tended to throw in homoerotic content throughout the canon (Cards on the Table, The Body in the Library) for no conceivable reason. I think that, if it works at all, it works well here because it deepens the portrait of Philip as a man for whom money has bought everything he wants . . . except that which he wants the most. But it’s a tricky re-reading of the character, and I think it is also significant that the French adaptation of the story drops Philip’s character altogether. (The 5th little pig becomes Caroline herself, who does not die in prison. This trade doesn’t make much sense either, but then nothing much about the French series does.)
Still, Christie does a nice job suggesting the changes that losing his best friend has wrought on Philip. Though he may appear prosperous and content, “a well-fed pig who had gone to market – and fetched the full price,” Christie suggests that Amyas’ death has cost Philip a significant chance at true happiness:
“But once, perhaps, there had been more to Philip Blake. He must have been, when young, a handsome man. Eyes always a shade too small, a fraction too near together, perhaps – but otherwise a well-made, well-set-up young man. How old was he now? At a guess between fifty and sixty. Nearing forty then, at the time of Crale’s death. Less stultified, then, less sunk in the gratifications of the minute. Asking more of life, perhaps, and receiving less.”
Philip’s brother, Meredith Blake, “resembled superficially every other English country gentleman of straitened means and outdoor tastes.” His passions, although more subtly expressed, are no less deep than the other men: his love for Handcross Manor, the family home that lies adjacent to Alderbury, the Crale residence, has relegated him to the status of the “little pig (who) stayed home.” His scientific exploration of the natural world puts him at the center of the forensic evidence that plays a crucial role in the case, but throughout he seems far too gentle to be involved in murder. His romantic feelings are gentle, too, and ineffectual, as his desire for Elsa Greer amounts to little more than a crush.
Elsa Greer is, perhaps, the most intriguing character in the novel. Now Lady Dittisham, the “little pig (who) ate roast beef,” she has undergone the most fascinating transformation over the past sixteen years. She comes to Alderbury as Amyas’ newest model and, by turn, his latest mistress. The artist has a tendency to mix passion with painting, a tiresome addiction that Caroline has come to accept (“You and your women!”) But Elsa’s fortunes may be different from the others, particularly as her painting promises to be Amyas’ masterpiece. In her review of the novel, Kate outlines nicely many of the seemingly contrary qualities attributed to Elsa. Foremost among them is her youth: her tendency to fall hard for older men, her ruthlessness when she decides upon someone or something she longs to possess. Amyas recognizes the fire burning inside Elsa, and the fact that it burns for him feeds his ego. He also recognizes, at the last moment, something darker and dangerous in those eyes; capturing this quality is what raises his work to the status of masterpiece.
I disagree with Kate when she speaks of a duality in Elsa and Caroline’s nature. I don’t see them as equal in their relationship to Amyas. Only one of them is capable of true, unselfish love. Only one is capable of self-sacrifice. Caroline’s love for her sister and her daughter helps her survive the loss of the love of her life. Amyas’ death doesn’t destroy her. She can still feel, as seen when she takes the blame off her sister out of love and a sense of guilt and personal responsibility. Elsa, who embodies the worst excesses of feeling in a young person, replaces love with idolatry and seeks to possess Amyas. Her desire to break up his marriage resembles a game she must win at all costs. The effect on Elsa when Amyas dies is both tragic and horrifying, amounting to a draining of her humanity:
“Youth – there might never have been youth. And yet (Poirot) realized, as he had not realized form Crale’s picture, that Elsa was beautiful. . . . He felt a strange pang. It was, perhaps, the fault of old Mr. Johnathan, speaking of Juliet. No Juliet here – unless perhaps one could imagine Juliet a survivor – living on, deprived of Romeo. Was it not an essential part of Juliet’s make-up that she should die young?
“Elsa Greer had been left alive.”
(SPOILER ALERT) Elsa Greer arguably turns out to be Christie’s finest portrait of a murderer and of how the crime does not leave its perpetrator unscathed. She goes on living and accomplishing things after Amyas’ death. She offers false testimony to help imprison her romantic rival. She marries well above her station – more than once – and amasses great wealth and title along the way. And yet, when Poirot looks into her “big gray eyes” they seem “like dead lakes.” Christie plays some clever tricks with the distribution of the poison here, but rather than being clever in and of itself, Christie uses this information to delve more deeply into the contrasting characters of Elsa and Caroline. The wife sees the poison as a potential escape from a life of pain, while the mistress drops the poison into a glass so that she can watch her faithless lover die in front of her. (END SPOILER)
Miss Williams, the little pig who “had none,” is alternately the epitome of the traditional British nanny and an early feminist. Upon meeting her, Poirot can “easily visualize (her) methodically and efficiently padlocking herself to a railing, and later hunger-striking with resolute endurance.” Her passionate belief in her charge Angela – and for devotion to Angela’s sister Caroline – is matched by her disdain for a man as self-centered as Amyas. She describes him thusly:
“Mr. Crale naturally thought that he should come first and he intended to. . . Like all men, he was a spoiled child – he expected everybody to make a fuss over him. Then he and Angela used to have a real set-to – and very often Mrs. Crale would take Angela’s side.”
Angela Warren is, perhaps, my favorite character in the novel because of the multi-faceted way she fits into the fabric of the mystery. On the one hand, her fiery love-hate relationship with Amyas forms the basis of certain actions on her part that lead Caroline to protect her. This results in some fine misdirection on Christie’s part, as we read certain events in one way because we don’t quite realize how Angela fits into the story yet.
The other reason she is such a fine character is that her accomplishments, despite her disfigurement, while laudatory in and of themselves, provide the reader not only with a clear motivation for Caroline’s subsequent actions, but justify these actions beautifully. Caroline takes the risk that protecting the “true” murderer will pay off, and she turns out to be right as Angela thrives and earns a name for herself, becoming the best of women.
This knowledge directly affects Carla, Caroline’s daughter, and provides a powerful finale. Yes, Carla can now marry comfortably knowing that her children will not inherit some murderous gene from their grandmother. (This faulty application of the “science” of inheritance is one of Christie’s most irritating flaws.) More important, understanding the depths of love her own mother felt for her sister and her daughter allows Carla to heal from the scars she barely knew she had.
As satisfying as the conclusion is for Caroline Crale’s female relations, the final fate of Elsa Greer is even more beautifully rendered. Poirot simply does not have the proof to send Elsa to prison, and Elsa, in a powerful final speech, makes it clear that this does not mean that justice hasn’t been done:
“I didn’t understand that I was killing myself – not him. Afterward, I saw her caught in a trap – and that was no good, either. I couldn’t hurt her – she didn’t care – she escaped from it all – half the time she wasn’t there. She and Amyas both escaped – they went somewhere where I couldn’t get at them. But they didn’t die. I died.”
I would venture to say that this is one of the saddest and most satisfying conclusions to a mystery that Christie- or any Golden Age author – ever wrote. Often criticized for overly focusing on the puzzle, here Christie shows us that after the dead have been laid to rest, after the clues have been processed and explained, what you have left are flesh and blood people facing the terribly difficult task of getting on with their lives.