Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie (1938)


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ChristmasHercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) by Agatha Christie
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What do you give an evil patriarch for Christmas? Someone thought a cut throat inside a locked room would be appropriate! The entire Lee family had good motive and plenty of opportunity to kill the nasty Simeon Lee, but which one actually ruined the holidays! ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ (1938) by Agatha Christie is a seasonal Golden Age treat, but is it a good mystery or simply all tinsel and glitter? 

This is novel number 24 for Christie (not including two romances, Detection Club ventures, and the 8 short story collections that predate this volume), and outing number 17 for Poirot – 17 years after he made his debut in ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’. It is generally accepted by critics that Christie’s best works are to be found in the pre war novels, with the possible exception of ‘The Blue Train’ and ‘The Big Four’ disaster, but how long did this stretch really last? There can be little doubt that she was still at the top of her game a year earlier when she wrote ‘Murder on The Nile’ (1937), though ‘Dumb Witness’, written the same year, was a rather weak rehash of an old short story. Next came the magnificent ‘Appointment With Death’ (1938), which shares a tyrannical parent with our novel, and ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ was followed by another clear triumph with ‘Murder Is Easy’ (1939), just before she released her biggest seller of all time, which our PC world now calls ‘And Then There Were None’ (1940). Only then did this amazing two decade stretch begin to falter during the later years of the war. All of which suggests that this should be a full five star mystery, but is it really that simple?

After a few short vignettes, our story begins with Simeon Lee’s announcement of his warped Christmas plans. Lee is a self made man who once rustled diamonds in South Africa, then invented a patented mining device, which has kept the funds rolling in ever since. Simeon is getting old and is now rather frail, but his mind is still as sharp and dangerous as a razor. He has never been a nice fellow, he has cheated, lied, stolen, and broken his wife’s heart with his womanizing – some even say he is responsible for her death. He is perhaps best described as “the kind of man you might say had sold his soul to the devil and enjoyed the bargain!” (220), yet he is generous, in a nasty kind of way, and so villainous that it verges on comedy.

Now Simeon is dreaming of a dysfunctional family feud Christmas, with lots of fireworks, and he has all the players lined up for this joyless amusement. None care to attend, yet none dare to refuse the rich old man! Eldest son Alfred, and his wife Lydia, have been the one’s that must deal with Simeon on a daily basis. Alfred is loyal to a fault, yet soon becomes irate when he discovers that his n’er do well brother, Henry, who absconded with illicit funds 20 years earlier and has been in scrapes ever since, is now to be the prodigal, brought home to feast on the fatted calf. Also invited is son, David, an artist and always the mother’s boy, who has also been absent for two decades. He has never forgiven his father for killing dear old mother, and despite many years of loving care by his dotting wife, Hilda, he is not in a good mental state. The third brother, George, is the MP for Westeringham, a bit of a pompous windbag and a Scrooge, who is married to the lovely Magdalene. She is about half his age and loves to spend money – which becomes a problem when Simeon announces that he intends to cut George’s allowance. The only daughter of this peculiar family was Jennifer, who ran away with a Spaniard many years earlier and never returned. Her death two years earlier prevents her from playing a part in Simeon’s cruel yuletide game, but he has located her lost daughter, his only grandchild, Pilar Estravados, and lifted her out of the chaos of civil war Spain. Pilar is now brought to Gorston Hall on a permanent basis, once more upsetting the delicate status quo. Her arrival also heralds the entrance of Stephen Farr, the son of Lee’s one time partner in South Africa, who is visiting England. After an all too coincidental chance encounter with Pilar aboard the train, Stephen is now determined to keep his eye on this lovely señorita, but is that his only reason for stopping by for Christmas? Finally, there is Horbury, Simeon’s ‘valet intendant’, another n’er do well, who skulks about the house like a malicious cat. These nine characters all have two things in common – they all hate Simeon Lee and they all want his money – which makes for a nice list of suspects when murder finally enters these dark festivities.

Simeon has created a perfect season of discontent for his estranged family, and takes full advantage of the familial discomfort by gathering the family together early on Christmas Eve and deliberately provoking each one with barbed insults, innuendo, and the threat of a new will. After the family quarrel, things go from bad to worse, when Lee calls up Superintendent Sugden to report the loss of £10,000 worth of uncut diamonds. Sugden pays a visit to discuss the matter, only to be asked to return an hour later. Simeon has it in his mind that one of two unnamed members of his household are responsible for the theft – and while one (family?) may be pulling a bit of a lark, if it is the other (servant?), this is a clear case of criminal larceny.  Sugden agrees to allow Simeon to interview the suspects, then returns at the appointed hour, just as a mighty crash emanates from Simeon’s room, followed by a high pitched squeal of inhuman terror. The entire household rushes to his door, only to find it firmly locked from within, but when the door is burst open, the only one inside is a very dead Simeon Lee! The corpse lies in the middle of a copious pool of blood with the throat sliced from ear to ear, surrounded by broken vases and ornaments, as well as upturned furniture, all testifying to some form of intense struggle. Initially, the most mystifying problem is that there was no other exit, with only one locked window and another open only a few inches – and securely fixed in place come rain or shine. Sugden is therefore quite certain that no one could have left the crime scene, except through the single locked door. This theory is supported by some fine scratches on the key, which indicate that someone turned the old fashioned key, which was on the inside of the lock, from outside with a pair of pliers. Still, it hardly seems credible that anyone could have escaped, given the extremely short time it took for the family to arrive on scene, but as this is the only logical possibility, it is assumed that the murderer somehow  managed to pull off this remarkable trick. Despite the general shambles found in Simeon’s room, nothing seems to indicate the identity of the murderer, beyond the basic deduction that such a violent struggle, with a frail old man, suggests that the murderer was also not strong – and there is one more quite odd clue, a small wooden peg, like those used on a crib board, attached to a small piece of pink rubber. Pilar had been caught trying to palm this odd object, but Superintendent Sugden had just reached the scene, and retains it as a curious piece of seemingly irrelevant evidence.

Unfortunately, for whoever killed the malicious Simeon Lee on Christmas Eve, Hercule Poirot just happens to be visiting his old friend Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire (See ‘Three Act Tragedy’ review), who invites him along when he is called out by Sugden, to make an appearance at this upper crust murder, complicated by a diamond heist that may or may not be connected. From the very first, Poirot contends that Simeon Lee’s character is at the centre of this puzzle, as “A man does not live and die to himself alone.” No one even pretends to be in mourning, and any last illusion that this is not a family Christmas murder, is soon discarded when the creepy Horbury comes up with a fairly solid alibi. Poirot remarks to Sudden, “I agree with you.  It is here a family affair.  It is a poison that works in the blood – it is intimate – it is deep-seated. There is here, I think, hate and knowledge….” (211) Following his usual methods, the always dapper and fussy Poirot sits in on the official interviews, then hangs about Gorston Hall, where he is free to engage in casual conversations with a family that seem to adopt him as their private confessor. In the end, the most important clues are the ancient butler’s feeling of deja vu, Lydia’s quote from Macbeth over the body (“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”), the destruction at the crime scene, and of course that seemingly inconsequential device made of wood and rubber.

This is really a fairly straightforward Golden Age mystery, which closely follows the Christie formula for Poirot novels, where the solution never lies in shards of forensic evidence, nor in unravelling the mechanics of the crime, but is instead found in the human relationships that surround even the most macabre deaths. Poirot first studies the psychology of the victim, who he is and how he relates to those around him, always with the basic assumption that we usually reap what we sow. He then applies the same character analysis to the narrow list of potential suspects and, in this instance, finally announces that only two of the suspects have the required psychological potential to respond to Simeon’s cruel game with a vicious act of murder. It is always ‘in the psychology’ that Poirot finds his solution, and each time I read one of these novels, I am sincerely impressed that Christie manages to so thoroughly convince her readers that these psychological profiles are more than pure bunkum. Poirot makes the BAU look like a bunch of failed Psych 101 students, though, to be fair, it is always the more down to earth evidence, in this case his knowledge of genetics and his careful observations, that allow him to finally prove these psychologically questionable theories.

The most remarkable thing about ‘Hercules Poirot’s Christmas’ is the absolute lack of Christmas images. This family has arrived at Christmas Eve with all the decorations still in storage! There is no tree, no Christmas pudding, nor a goose – just a big old goose egg! There are not even any gifts, in fact, Simeon the Grinch plans to take away some of the bling! It seems quite incredible that Christie could write a Christmas mystery with so few holiday references! This entire family have been traumatized by Simeon Lee’s constant abuse and their own paltry problems, but this goes much further than simple neglect. The Lees seem quite determined to ignore all the best traditions of an English Christmas, leaving poor Pilar to finally ask for a re-do with all the trimmings – rather than this nasty celebration that never quite happened. I find this just a little too odd to not be suspicious. Assuming Christie wanted to demonstrate that the familial hatred had twisted their souls and destroyed every last vestige of the the Christmas spirit, would it not have been better to litter the plot with empty symbols that contrast the warmth of Christmas with the intolerable chill of the Lee family relations? I am tempted to suggest that Christie’s publisher wanted a Christmas title, so Christie obliged by dusting off one of those famous reserve manuscripts, that she always kept on file after the disaster of ‘The Big Four’, then simply dressed it up with a very thin veneer of Christmas. This seems to be clearly indicated by all the garden scenes and outdoor balloon follies, images that otherwise seem so out of place at this horrifically dysfunctional Christmas reunion.

This is also a novel that has more than it’s fair share of plot problems. I do not want to issue a spoiler alert, but after you finish this tale, ask yourself why the murder would remove the weapon and not provide a potential exit from the crime scene? A locked room murder was not in the killer’s interest, even if a half baked explanation is provided. You don’t need to be a Sherlock, to reject Sugden’s initial locked room solution, despite Christie’s constant attempts to convince us otherwise. Could one really turn a key from outside fast enough to make this great escape? In Georgette Heyer’s ‘Envious Casca’, written three years later, she takes a clear shot at Christie’s plot by making the point, that without some special device, this is no simple task. Unfortunately, this bogus locked room solution is not just a minor plot flaw, as once the reader rejects this foisted theory, Poirot’s solution becomes all too obvious, even if you have missed some of the more subtle clues. There is also a serious issue concerning what all the witnesses thought they heard, and what Poirot eventually reveals. Without spoiling this novel, I can only note that pigs really do fly (maybe this device worked better in the day?) and that if you drop a stack of plates, it does not sound at all like a Greek wedding! There are also several scenes where the characters are too artificial, and the situation too contrived to be even remotely credible – most notably the passage where Farr and Pilar discover balloons in a storage closet, then engage in an extremely childish game, just to provide the proper setting for Poirot’s bolt of inspiration! The second attempt at murder is another absurdity. The motive makes no sense, the device is ridiculous, and the reason for the failure is too silly to be worthy of comment! Then there are all those too amazing coincidences, but that is just a normal part of the Christie formula, which was certainly the recipe followed in this case!

To complete this too long review, despite the glowing praise this Agatha usually excites (see below), I am not going down that path, and the adaptation for the Poirot TV series is only marginally better. This is far from being one of Agatha Christie’s better novels! ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ should probably be a three star mystery, but since it is almost Christmas, I will get in the holiday spirit (unlike Agatha), and award this very unchristmasy novel a very light four stars!
****

Contemporary reviews edited from Wikipedia:

Maurice Percy Ashley in the Times Literary Supplement (17 December 1938) had a complaint to make after summarising the plot: “Mrs Christie’s detective stories tend to follow a pattern. First, there is always a group of suspects each of whom has something to conceal about his or her past; second, there is a generous use of coincidence in the circumstances of the crime; third, there is a concession to sentiment which does not necessarily simplify the solution. Mrs Christie makes one departure here from her recent practice, as she explains in her dedicatory foreword. The complaint had been uttered that her murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. So this is ‘a good violent murder with lots of blood.’ But there is, on the other hand, another departure from Mrs Christie’s earlier stories which must be regretted. M. Poirot in his retirement is becoming too much of a colourless expert. One feels a nostalgic longing for the days when he baited his ‘good friend’ and butt, Hastings, when he spoke malaprop English and astonished strangers by his intellectual arrogance.”

In The New York Times Book Review (12 February 1939), Isaac Anderson concluded, “Poirot has solved some puzzling mysteries in his time, but never has his mighty brain functioned more brilliantly than in Murder for Christmas”.

In The Observer of 18 December 1938, “Torquemada” (Edward Powys Mathers) finished his review by stating defensively, “‘Is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ a major Christie? I think it is, and that in spite of a piece of quite irrelevant tortuosity in the matter of the bewitching Pilar Estravados, and in spite of the fact that the business of the appalling shriek will probably make no mystery for the average reader. The main thing, is, surely that Agatha Christie once more abandonedly dangles the murderer before our eyes and successfully defies us to see him. I am sure that some purists will reverse my decision on the ground that the author to get her effect, has broken what they consider to be one of the major rules of detective writing; but I hold that in a Poirot tale it should be a case of caveat lector, and that the rules were not made for Agatha Christie.”

E.R. Punshon of The Guardian, in his 13 January 1939 review wrote that Poirot, “by careful and acute reasoning is able to show that a convincing case can be made out against all the members of the family till the baffled reader is ready to believe them all guilty in turn and till Poirot in one of his famous confrontation scenes indicates who is, in fact, the culprit. In this kind of detective novel, depending almost entirely for its interest on accuracy of logical deduction from recorded fact and yet with the drama played out by recognisable human beings, Mrs. Christie remains supreme. One may grumble…that she depends a little too much upon coincidence and manufactured effect…but how small are such blemishes compared with the brilliance of the whole conception!”


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