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poirot's early cases

15 november 2019

Poirot's Early Cases showed up free on Kindle during a semester when I was teaching Agatha Christie anyway, and the 13 short stories in the set seemed to me a pleasant way to be put to sleep nights. Evidently this collection was first assembled in the 1970s, including stories that appeared in magazines in the '20s and '30s. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, whose energies tended to flag at novel length, Hercule Poirot always seemed to do best in relatively long and very elaborately-structured mysteries like The ABC Murders or Murder on the Orient Express. In some of the "early cases," one sees Christie's tendencies toward creating large casts and intricate puzzles for Poirot, to the point that some of these stories read like novels manqués. But they're worth reading for Christie completists.

"The Adventure of Johnny Waverly" is one of these elaborate stories, with a complicated kidnapping involving numerous moving parts and an outlandish if unsurprising solution. "The King of Clubs" is another, where a family of apparent bystanders turns out to be the crucial matrix for an elaborately covered-up crime. "The Affair of the Victory Ball" has a pack of six high-society types arrive at a costume party, whereupon two of them become deceased and the other four become suspects. Poirot collars the killer by making some ingenious if very far-fetched deductions concerning the costumes they wore on the fateful night. But heck, if you get a confession it doesn't matter how far-fetched your theory, right?

"The Cornish Mystery" hangs purely on Poirot extorting a confession, and it has the curiously arbitrary feel one often senses in tales by Christie, especially if you're used to reading them across the analyses of Pierre Bayard. In "The Cornish Mystery," Poirot is alerted to a poisoning – by its victim. He arrives too late to save her, but her husband is arraigned for the crime; it's always the husband. Poirot thinks differently, and without assembling any more evidence than a counter-narrative much shakier than the police's conclusion, he gets somebody else to confess. Because we can't have too obvious a solution, you know. Similar is "The Market Basing Mystery," where Poirot reverses an impending, obvious conviction by deciding that the victim must have been left-handed instead of right-handed, something apparently evident only to Poirot and one other person who kept that secret. This makes no sense, but it serves as an algorithm towards solving murders, apparently.

"The Adventure of the Clapham Cook" has more of a Conan-Doyle feel. Poirot is disinclined to investigate some topical terrors like a big embezzlement or a lurid suicide. Instead he takes the case of … a woman whose cook has left on short notice. Naturally, the apparently trivial case turns out to conceal someting more gruesome than any screaming headline. "The Double Clue" is another simpler caper, an entertaining jewel-theft mystery with a trivia element that the reader might guess before our narrator Hastings does. But not before Poirot, never before Poirot. Also in the Sherlock-Holmes vein is "The Veiled Lady," with its disguises, crosses and double-crosses, and improvised shady activity on our heroes' part. And finally, "The Submarine Plans," which seems something of a ripoff of the "Bruce-Partington Plans" that Sherlock Holmes investigated. Though Conan Doyle ripped off the approximate idea from "The Case of the Dixon Torpedo" by Arthur Morrison, published long before either the Doyle or the Christie story.

Others in the collection are more miscellaneous. "The Plymouth Express" hinges, as many a detective story does, on a seemingly innocuous detail … oh, I won't spoil it by saying which one. But the scope of the story itself, just a few pages, may spoil it for you. Unlike a 250-page novel, a 15-page story can't hide a crucial clue in an ornate background. When someone emphasizes a point in a Christie short story, the emphasis alone makes one check one's detective notebook. Poirot himself forgets this injunction in "The Chocolate Box," where he arrives at the wrong solution to a murder, after having dismissed the curious business of a mix-matched lid on the title receptacle.

"The Lemesurier Inheritance" takes a novelistic idea – a generations-long family curse which seems to kill off first-born sons before they can inherit – but spins it out to only a few pages. And actually the central idea would not be that intriguing if elaborated; though the story "held our interest over a period of many years," as Hastings observes, it wouldn't hold a reader's for a period of very many pages.

"The Lost Mine" is not much of a story, featuring some caricatures of Chinese people and a preposterous plot about disguises and opium dens. Christie could be racist and anti-Semitic, but rarely centered a story on her prejudices; "The Lost Mine" isn't really centered on racism but it is thinly plotted and fairly gratuitous.

All in all the book is not much worth reading, perhaps, but read it I did, and I abandon lots of other books. There is something devil-may-care about even the goofier of Christie's detective stories that lets the reader zoom through them without worrying too much whether they're significant, edifying, or even very logical.

Christie, Agatha. Poirot's Early Cases. 1923-35; collected 1974. Blackmore Dennett, 2019. Kindle.