A BIENTOT, POIROT: Agatha Christie’s Curtain

Every month, Rich Westwood at Past Offenses gathers mystery fans from all over the stratosphere to celebrate the mystery literature and films of a specific year, and for November he has chosen . . . 1975?!?!? After October’s foray into 1907, I thought Rich might take pity on us and choose a nice juicy year from the 40’s or 50’s, but no such luck! It feels like nobody of note wrote anything in 1975, and so, in desperation, I turned to a book that was, if not written, then published that year: Agatha Christie’s “posthumous” novel, Curtain. Christie did not pass away until 1976, and it would be kind to imagine that her family was motivated by more than money, that they wanted Dame Agatha to experience praise for a work that hearkened back to her halcyon days. What they delivered in 1975, though far from Christie’s best, was a vast improvement on her work of the previous decade, and, for various reasons, it must be considered an important novel in the canon.

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Plus, since Curtain connects us to the history of both the author and her sleuth, as well as the history of readers like me, I’m boldly including this as my entry for the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ topic of “Mystery and History.” Call it killing two birds with one stone, even if one of the birds is limping slightly!

In her autobiography, Christie described how during the first years of World War II, while her husband Max was digging away in the Middle East and Agatha herself worked in a hospital dispensary in London, she wrote two books “in anticipation of my being killed in the raids.” One novel, Curtain, was written for her daughter and chronicled the final case of Hercule Poirot. The other, Sleeping Murder, was for Max and was a Miss Marple case, though by no means can it be considered a swan song for the elderly lady sleuth. (And frankly, it seems odd that Christie would write a posthumous novel about a detective who had only appeared in one novel and a book of stories, especially since the author truly believed her chances of surviving the war were slim and therefore no more Marple tales would be forthcoming. Discuss among yourselves!)

As final cases go, I think it’s important to divide an analysis between looking at the puzzle itself and at the historical significance of the work, especially for Poirot’s character. In terms of the latter, Curtain is extraordinary.

Christie’s five books about Tommy and Tuppence Beresford constitute a history or sorts spanning sixty years. Each case corresponds with a significant chapter in the couple’s lives: reconnecting after the war and falling in love (The Secret Adversary), early marriage woes and first pregnancy (Partners in Crime), empty nest syndrome and a return to work (N or M), middle age doldrums (By the Pricking of My Thumbs, and old age (Postern of Fate). With Miss Marple, the author begins to weave a connecting tissue around the old lady’s observations of the changing British landscape around 1950’s A Murder Is Announced; yet, while this part of each book is fascinating, the puzzles remain front and center.

With Poirot, however, Christie didn’t even try to make a connection from novel to novel. Oh, sure, there are enough references to occasional past cases that one would do well to read the books chronologically in order to minimize spoilers. But Poirot himself hardly changes beyond fading in social importance amongst the younger set as the stories hit the 1950’s. Curtain is the only Poirot adventure that departs from that pattern as it links the end of the detective’s career to his beginning.

It does so in two happy ways: by reconnecting Poirot with his old confederate, the brave and rather stupid Captain Arthur Hastings, and by setting the last case at Styles Court, the scene of Poirot’s initial meeting with Hastings and of his first triumph, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). It is the first instance where Christie focuses on the changes wrought by circumstance on both men and uses a duplication of setting to signify the passage of time.

Hastings is now a widower, and reference is made to his second case with Poirot (The Murder on the Links) when Hastings met his Cinderella. He now has four children, scattered throughout the globe and is, once again, a lonely bachelor searching for some purpose in his life. He is offered this when Poirot invites him to return to Styles Court.

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The old home of the Cavendish family has been converted to a guest house of dubious quality run by the Luttrells, a retired Colonel and his shrewish wife. Arriving at the train station, Hastings bears witness to the changes wrought by modernization:

“Styles St. Mary was altered out of all recognition. Petrol stations, a cinema, two more inns and rows of council houses. Presently, we turned in at the gate of Styles. Here we seemed to recede again form modern times. The park was much as I remembered it, but the drive was badly kept and much overgrown with weeds – growing up over the gravel. We turned a corner and came in view of the house. It was unaltered form the outside and badly needed a coat of paint.”

References to Poirot’s debut continue throughout this novel, many quite poignant or clever, such as Hasting’s view on his arrival of a woman digging in the garden, just the same as his entry to Styles back in 1916, although in the figure of Mrs. Luttrell “no greater contrast to the robust Evelyn Howard could have been imagined.”

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Poirot has brought Hastings back for a reunion between old friends and between Hastings and his youngest (and favorite) child, Judith. Hastings’ observation of the change in Poirot is the most heartbreaking part of the novel:

“Crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself about in a wheelchair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now. His face was lined and wrinkled. His moustache and hair, it is true, were still of a jet-black colour, but candidly, though I would not for the world have hurt his feelings by saying so to him, this was a mistake.”

Frail though he may be, Poirot’s mind seems as sharp as ever, and he reveals to his old friend the other reason for his summons: a fervent belief that a cunning serial killer currently dwells at Styles and, having struck at least five times before, will soon strike again. Poirot can identify the culprit but refuses to do so, telling Hastings that he fears the latter will give the game away:

“Because, mon cher, you are still the same old Hastings. You have still the speaking countenance. I do not wish, you see, that you should sit staring at X with your mouth hanging open, your face saying plainly: ‘This – this that I am looking at is a murderer.’”

The basic premise of the case is . . . pretty good. The killer’s motive is a clever idea, representative of Christie’s propensity for borrowing ideas from classical literature. However, only the revelation of this secret makes the ensuing events at Styles Court make any sense. Until then, events occur that seem, well, unlikely in the extreme. Intensifying the slightly unsatisfactory effect is a group of characters that never seem to gel, either as individuals or as a classic group of suspects. Their connection relies, by necessity but still far too much, on coincidence. And too many of the characters’ actions depend on Christie’s rather sketchy assumptions about human psychology. It also doesn’t help that we never knew of Judith’s existence till now or that we never get the chance for emotional buy in to any of the killings, past or present.

Until the end. For it all leads to a powerful ending for longtime readers who have invested their hearts in the exploits of this endearing Belgian for forty or so adventures. Some of Poirot’s actions to catch the killer frankly do not bear close scrutiny, but one cannot deny the novel’s emotional power at the conclusion. One wishes that Christie had only taken more time to craft a better case around this finale. She was almost certainly writing at the height of her powers when she drafted Curtain, (if it was written in the early 1940’s as she claims), but she relies too much on allusions to the past and that hard-hitting ending and takes too little time crafting her characters and story for us to care more deeply.

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One also wishes that, in the thirty-plus years between the writing and the publishing of the book, Christie had occasionally revisited it to spruce it up and align it with Poirot’s continued career. For this book really feels like it must have come after The A.B.C. Murders and doesn’t channel the fine plotting, characterization and writing of later classics like Death on the Nile, Sad Cypress and Five Little Pigs. Curtain has surprisingly little of these books’ emotional heft, at least until the very end. The novel is set at some indeterminate time after World War II, and if it was written before that momentous era, Christie has to be rather vague as to the state of the world. Compare this to her post-war depiction of England in later works like Taken at the Flood and After the Funeral, which beautifully display the effect of world events on British country life and the estates of the upper class. It’s also interesting to see variations on the tricks in Curtain appearing in books that were written afterward but appeared beforehand, books like Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and Dead Man’s Folly.

Christie admits in her autobiography that the change in tax laws made it less attractive for her to write more than one book at a time since an increase in royalties would result in the nation grabbing more of her profits. Hence, she let her output slacken and probably felt little impulse to return to Curtain to update, and in my opinion, improve it.

My experience in 1975 was probably similar to many readers. Although I was not yet twenty-one, I had gobbled down all of Christie’s books over the past ten years or so, right up to the point that, like everyone else, I eagerly anticipated my “Christie for Christmas. ” Since 1970, the books had been extremely disappointing, although the best of them, Nemesis, is Miss Marple’s actual swan song and bears a similar emotional heft to Curtain in that respect. So when the announcement came that 1975’s release would be Poirot’s much-heralded final case, public excitement grew as it hadn’t before. I picked up Curtain really wanting to love it, and I stifled some disappointment in the mystery in the flush of realizing that there would be no more adventures for Poirot. This really hit home when Poirot’s obituary actually appeared in the New York Times and spread throughout the nation’s newspapers, the only time in my memory that a fictional character received such an honor. It was an honor that her true fans must have felt as well, the closing chapter of a communal reverence for Poirot’s life and achievements.

The enduring problem with Curtain for a habitual reader of Christie is that it isn’t much fun to revisit. With a fairly lackluster mystery and an aura of sadness from beginning to end, it’s a hard book to embrace. But then, Christie herself questioned people’s reticence at facing death squarely in the face, and you have to hand it to her that her decision to end Poirot’s life gave a sense of reality to the unreal adventures of a classic sleuth. The proof of this is the real sense of grief we fans felt at Poirot’s death, a feeling that would return only a year later when the great lady herself passed away.

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Final note: the last season of Poirot, featuring David Suchet, was a mixed bag at best, but the adaptation of Curtain was a real return to form. Beautifully filmed, it was also, unlike the two or three films before it, extremely faithful to the text. I have to wonder, however, how Suchet, the staunch Catholic, viewed Poirot’s final actions. I’d love to chat about that with him one of these days.

 

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3 thoughts on “A BIENTOT, POIROT: Agatha Christie’s Curtain

  1. Very nice review, as always. Curtain is actually my favourite Christie, because I think it’s the most ambitious, both in terms of emotional range and audacity of the mystery (and possibly themes, although I’m not sure that my preferred interpretation of it as a last ditch showdown between old-fashioned, carefully constructed Classical Golden Age Puzzle Mysteries and modern, implausible “Psychological” Serial Killer Mysteries is likely to have been on Christie’s mind when she wrote it).

    I don’t disagree that there are lots of ways it could be improved. I really like the sombre tone, but more humour wouldn’t have hurt in certain parts. Setting it at Styles again seems very heavy-handed, given how little it actually affects the plot. Any faded country house would have done.

    The X stuff is always going to be divisive, because it’s out of character for Christie and basically nonsense. My thematic interpretation helps it go down a little easier, but it’s not ideal. I think it would work better if X’s crimes were less impossible.

    The way the solution is presented is one of my favourites (after the conversation at the end of Ackroyd), but I think the surprise could have been kept a little longer rather than blowing it near the start of the letter.

    Worst of all, the “clues” that Poirot gives to Hastings towards the end are utter rubbish: they barely count as clues and they seem completely out of character for Poirot to choose. They almost feel like placeholders that stayed because Christie never managed to think of anything better.

    But beneath all that, I think it’s one of Christie’s most technically accomplished mysteries. There are so many clever touches based on things we already know about Poirot and Hastings, and still more things she slips under the radar by playing on established mystery conventions.

    It also one of her finest success at hiding her killer, which is usually her biggest weakness. Even if the ultimate solution goes to far for some, there are two false solutions which precede it which implicate characters I think few people will have considered. To have three plausible murderers who most people won’t consider and who have reasonable(ish) solutions constructed around them is very impressive.

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  2. I don’t mind the somber tone either, Rich; I think it’s called for here. This is a “special” edition of Christie, and some dark things are going to happen. I also think there are flashes of clueing that are cool because they play upon Hastings’ tendency to state the obvious and not know he’s speaking the truth. At one point, he actually names the killer and the motive quite clearly and then – in true Hastings fashion – dismisses it. One of my favorite clues happens at the beginning when Hastings first meets up with Poirot: (SPOILER) He makes a wry comment about how a person of Poirot’s age and infirmity should not dye his hair and mustache because it makes it look like he’s wearing a wig and the mustache is fake. We readers smile because we all know people of a certain age who dye their hair too black; of course, the real matter is that Poirot IS wearing a wig and fake mustache! (END SPOILER.)

    The problem is that I don’t really buy all these people being together and that, if you DO latch onto the motive, the killer is obvious. (SPOILER) Here are all these dramatic confrontations going on that, if you stand back, all reveal potential murders. And here is Norton with his binoculars, never joining in, always commenting discreetly. Everyone, even Hastings, seems to contemplate murder, but they all have a motive for a SINGLE case. I guess you could suspect Dr. Franklin of being X because he’s always talking about good and evil and in that sense, he could be like the killer in And Then There Were None. The nurse lurks about a good deal, but she’s a blank to me. I like Judith a lot as a character, but she couldn’t be X. Still, the whole story around her and her father, around the Franklins and Boyd Carrington and Allerton (yes, Hastings WOULD think this guy could be X, but that makes Hastings look even dumber) made for some good drama. And I love Colonel Luttrell and that whole subplot with his wife, but again it doesn’t really gel unless you cop onto what Norton is trying to do. And he seems to do it sort of obviously, but that may be me saying so in hindsight. I don’t remember guessing this solution. I do agree with you that it all comes out too early. (END SPOILER)

    At any rate, by no means do I think this was a failure. And while I am less harsh than you on the idea of Christie’s murderers being obvious, I do get that in this instance, there is no character who is totally above suspicion and therefore the killer, so we can play a bit more until the end.

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