Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie

James Bentley killed his landlady, Mrs McGinty. After coming home late one night, he smashed her over the head and then stole her savings. An open and shut case – her blood was found on his coat. The jury certainly thought so, and he was, despite his protestations, sentenced to death. The only person who is unsure of the verdict is the policeman in charge of the case, Superintendent Spence. He is powerless to re-open the investigation… but he does have a rather clever friend who might be persuaded to help. And so Poirot journeys to the village of Broadhinny to seek the truth. But when there is no apparent motive, how can you catch a clever killer – one who is more than willing to strike again.

Written in 1952, Mrs McGinty’s Dead is Agatha Christie’s twenty fourth novel featuring Poirot (out of, I think, thirty three) and the first for four years. It’s well known that Christie, like Doyle, tired of her greatest creation. Compare the frequency of Poirot books at this point to 1932-6, when she wrote nine books, eight of them featuring the little Belgian. So, is this part of the rot setting in or a late-ish flash of genius?

Well, Christie at this point was down to roughly one book a year, so one would hope that each one would have been worth the wait. And in this case, it certainly was.

In fact, I’m going to state what is probably going to be an unpopular opinion. Of the Poirot novels that I have read recently – i.e. The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Sad Cypress, The Hollow and Taken At The Flood – I think this is the best by some distance. And yes, that was The ABC Murders in that list.

Don’t get me wrong, I love The ABC Murders (and a couple of the others), but what I really like is a well-clued straightforward murder mystery. Dame Agatha has a few tricks that she likes to play – for example the one in Peril At End House that she proceeded to repeat on more than one occasion, and there are the ground-breaking books, such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or, to a lesser extent, ABC, but they are absent here – mostly. In the same way that I prefer She Died A Lady to The Three Coffins – by John Dickson Carr, who any passing Christie-phile really ought to check out – this is Christie showing what she can do with a normal murder mystery. And crikey, she does it well.

The suspects are well-presented and certainly aren’t the cardboard cutouts that Christie is often accused of. The writing sparkles and there’s a nice touch of humour at times, especially Poirot’s misadventures in the run-down guesthouse in which he is staying. The murderer is well-hidden, I think, but the clues are there to be spotted, and the alert reader should spot them. You could make a case that part of the solution mimics some early books, such as a certain Miss Marple book from 1942, but I think that it’s not done so obviously here as there are a number of them, rather than one – don’t try and decipher that mildly cryptic statement, by the way, as it might spoil one of the books. If you’ve read them, then you’ll know what I mean – probably.

There’s also a lovely red-herring character, but I’ll say no more about that one.

Oh, and we get an early appearance of Ariadne Oliver, Agatha’s version of herself, not yet ranting about the need to include her Swedish detective in all of her books, but clearly helping Christie get something off her chest about stage adaptations of her books.

Any niggles? Perhaps the murder of one character could have been prevented by telling her not to be so stupid, but it’s hardly Poirot’s lowest point of stupidity – for that, see an upcoming review.

So, what have we got here? An outstanding mystery novel – one of Dame Agatha’s finest.

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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19 Responses to Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie

  1. richmcd says:

    I don’t think that’s going to be very controversial at all. People love this one!

    It regularly crops up among people’s favourites, but I just find it a bit glum, dull and obvious. I don’t think Christie was good enough at characterisation to pull off a tawdry “realistic” crime like this. I agree that Christie has written characters who are far more cardboard than the ones here, but I wouldn’t say these leap off the page. But I’m happy to be in the grumpy minority, as usual. (And I do love CURTAIN, which must be the glummest of all of them, so I’ve probably got a serious case of double-standards going on!)

    I’d be interested in what you thought of the clue based on English idiom. Christie really was a master of these, and I’ve heard a lot of people say that the one here is one of her best. But I genuinely think it ruins the book here. I don’t see how you could interpret [that particular offhand remark] in any way other than the way Poirot “reveals” during his solution. I know that it stands out to me because I happened to spot it, but I still think it’s a pretty lacklustre clue: I don’t think the reader needs any particular ingenuity to interpret it, he just has to not be skimming past bits of dialogue.

    Also… I don’t much like Poirot’s explanation of how he [narrowed down the list of suspects and solved the murder]. He seems to work it out because he has a gut instinct about what’s going on. That’s all well and good, but it’s a bit Miss Marple-ish, I think. That’s how READERS solve murder mysteries, not detectives.

    • Didn’t think there were any problems with either of these issues to be honest. I missed the clue on first reading – can’t remember if I guessed the murderer anyway. What is a bit iffy is that it could be read as an innocent comment but spoken out loud, I think the emphasis on the last two words should make its meaning clear. As for other examples of the idiom, I think I need to re-read some more before making any informed comments.

      As for the narrowing down of the suspects, I honestly didn’t spot any issues with that. Once Poirot realises that the killer is not SPOILER (which is a reasonable deduction) then the identity is pretty clear and circumstantial evidence corroborates that.

      I honestly didn’t find this one gloomy, despite the subject matter. Curtain, however… That’s going to take some serious willpower to re-read.

      Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone on O2

      • richmcd says:

        I admit I haven’t read this for a while, but I remember thinking that it WASN’T really a reasonable deduction…

        It’s certainly a reasonable INTUITION and once you’ve had it the identity of the murderer follows logically. But Poirot does always bang on about how he “places the facts one on top of the other to construct a house of cards” (or whatever) whereas actually it seems like he’s often just having a bit of an educated guess. But it could be worse. Miss Marple of this period often seems like she’s taken all the stickers off the Rubik’s cube and swapped them round when no-one’s looking!

        Maybe I’ll have to do a post singing the praises of CURTAIN to try and convert everyone :)

  2. Sarah says:

    I don’t think you’re being controversial either. I absolutely love this book and it is one of my favourite Poirot books. I like the fact that Mrs Summerhayes omelette that Poirot teaches her to make reappears in ‘Cat Among the Pigeons’.
    I agree with the comment above about how the case is solved. There is a clear clue given in short piece of dialogue which you would have to miss to remain in the dark. But actually I did miss it the first time I read this book as a teenager although I always spot it now.

    • There’s another clue very early on as well – it might even be in the same scene – when the murderer is caught by surprise by something Poirot says – in fact, come to think of it, Poirot is a bit dim to miss it.

      By the way, I wasn’t being controversial in saying I liked it. I thought saying it was better than ABC might have attracted a few nay-sayers. Still, the post’s still young… Plenty of time for that.

  3. I, also, love this book, one of the first Christies I read over 40 years ago.

    P.S. According to this site, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is the 28th Poirot mystery. http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk

    • Well, I counted from the complete bibliography on Wikipedia. It doesn’t include Murder in the Mews and Labours of Hercules. I suppose Curtain was written before this as well, I suppose. Not important really, though.

  4. I too would agree that this stands out amongst the later Poirot books (always been quite partial to DEAD MAN’S FOLLY too, though perversely that’s partly because I worked out who did it nice and early), though personally, of the titles you mention in the post, I much prefer PERIL AT END HOUSE and ABC MURDERS, but that’s just me.

    • Can’t remember much about Dead Man’s Folly – another for the list – but brace yourself for a mildly scathing Peril At End House review in the next couple of days. One that I solved very early on and, on re-reading it 25 years later, I can see why.

  5. I must make a note to re-read this text. Actually, I first read it in Greece several years ago, a fact that I mention in the blog post that I wrote yesterday (entirely coincidentally):

    http://theliterarycriticaldetective.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/agatha-christie-and-plato-in-sunshine.html

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  7. John says:

    A brilliant book. Her best from her period, IMO. I also think it’s one of the best to show off her sense of humor that is so often overlooked. Glum? It’s a hysterical book. The character of Maureen Summerhayes and her ineptitude in the kitchen – marvelously funny. Cuts her hands and bleed into the bowl of bean. Poirot sees this and says “I shall be having my lunch elsewhere today” or words to that effect. Lots of examples of Poirot mangling English proverbs and adages too. Very funny. Plot wise it employs one of her most ingenuous tricks. Too many people whine about it being unfair. It’s not. Anyone who is paying attention and knows a thing or two about British culture or British literature for that matter can see through the trick and discover the murderer.

    • richmcd says:

      I suppose you’re right. Maybe “glum” was unfair (although it IS a much more upsetting and realistic crime than usual). It’s always possible I was in a terrible mood when I first read this. I’m also biased because I don’t really share Christie’s sense of humour at all. I can’t think of any of her books that have made me laugh out loud. (And I’d rather sit silently in the dark for two hours than sit through Spider’s Web or any of her other “comedy” plays.) But Mrs Oliver is on good form and I guess Poirot is too.

      Do people say it’s unfair? Which part? The newspaper articles, I suppose? I think anyone who’s seen a newspaper or gossip magazine in any country would be churlish to think Christie was cheating there!

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