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.