“Let us see, Mr Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be.”
Poirot’s old compatriot Hastings has returned from Argentina, but when visiting his old friend, a message is delivered, signed ABC, warning of a murder in Andover on the 21st. Needless to say, soon Alice Ascher is found dead. Betty Barnard in Bexhill-on-Sea soon follows. Poirot is the master of deduction when it comes to solving carefully planned crimes – but can he catch a homicidal maniac before he strikes again?
Written in 1936, this is the eleventh book to feature Poirot. It was also the first Agatha Christie book that I ever read – probably the first “adult” mystery novel in fact, so it’s safe to say that it had a positive effect on me – otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog. I picked this one up again as I recently re-read Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen – the joint review of which will be appearing on At The Scene of the Crime and the notion of the serial killer verses the classic detective is an obvious parallel. So, does Hercule’s outing stand the test of time?
Yes, of course it does, it’s a classic.
Tempted as I am to finish the review there, I’d better go into details.
Christie is often accused of two-dimensional characters but even Poirot, a potential caricature if ever there was, has depth here. Granted, it could be argued that he is a little on the thick side at time – there’s one clue in particular that I think pinpoints the killer relatively early, but then I am reading this with the benefit of hindsight. The fact that they are hunting a maniac (the phrase serial killer isn’t used – I guess it wasn’t in use at this time) understandably shifts the focus of the investigation.
I’m not going to compare this with Cat of Many Tails just yet – I’ll save that for a later post – but they are substantially different in almost every way. Christie focuses on the group of characters that are affected by each killing and also gives us access to the thoughts of the mysterious Algernon Bonaparte Cust, but we don’t get much of the national hysteria at the thought of this lunatic killing people by the alphabet.
Christie demonstrates, however, her absolute mastery of the genre at the point where it is revealed that there is a problem with the first solution. The nature of the problem and the fact that she has a large cast of characters who have joined in with the investigation means that at this point, there is still a genuine mystery to be solved – not just who, but what and how much. I won’t expound on that point for fear of spoilers, but this substantially differs from most books with a similar theme. Usually when this point is reached in such a story, the correct solution is obvious – not the case here.
Any niggles? Well, the narrative is a little odd, with a small part of the narrative not narrated by Hastings. Given that it’s speculation to an extent, there’s a lot of internal thoughts which jar with the notion that it’s guesswork, as the rest of the story is “fact”. But other than that, nothing springs to mind.
As I said, the review of Cat of Many Tails is coming soon, but I have to say that I’d pick The ABC Murders ahead of it any day of the week. This is a genuine classic of the genre and still remains one of my favourite puzzles. Highly recommended.