Cat Among the Pigeons (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, November 1959; US: Dodd Mead, March 1960

Easily one of Christie’s strangest plots: a revolution in the Middle East, a fortune in jewels and espionage lead to the murders of three teachers at the most exclusive girls’ school in England. These elements are far-fetched and incongruous, straight out of a thriller, but the book moves at a snail’s pace: easily the first third is a rather talky prologue to a plot that is Christie-by-numbers. Of the three murders, the second two (including a blackmailing Frenchwoman) are apparently sequels to the first. Excessive coincidence and wild improbabilities are required to make the plot function, and the racquet business is dreadfully obvious, but there is a moderately interesting alibi.

Poirot appears very late and does very little – this is probably the most obvious example of his being required by the publishers, and of Christie’s impatience with him.

Blurb (UK)

Meadowbank is one of the most exclusive girls’ schools in England.  Unthinkable that there should be a murder at Meadowbank.  But a train of violence, starting in the Middle East and involving jewels, intrigue and secret agents, did in fact reach its deadly climax within the distinguished precincts of the school itself.  Worse still it became clear that the culprit must actually be among the staff or the pupils.  There was a cat among the pigeons.

It was that intelligent schoolgirl Julia Upjohn who finally went to consult Hercule Poirot.  “It’s very urgent,” she said.  “It’s about some murders and a robbery and things like that.”  Unruffled and retaining every bit of his customary and engaging aplomb, the incomparable Belgian set about unravelling a case which, he was forced to agree, was as devious and complicated as a snarl of tangled wool.  Agatha Christie has once again succeeded brilliantly in blending entertainment, detection and suspense to give her vast number of admirers a book which fully maintains the unique and enviable Christie tradition.

Blurb (US)

A frightened adolescent brings Hercule Poirot one of the most challenging cases of his long and brilliant career.  A killer is terrorizing a famous school for girls; an unsuspecting student has become a magnet for evil and death.

The trouble started in a palace in Ramat when Prince Ali Yusuf gave a packet of jewels to his private pilot, Bob Rawlinson, in the hope that he could smuggle them to England.  Long before the packet reached its destination, Prince Ali and Bob were dead, their attempt to escape a revolutionary coup d’état a failure.  Several groups of people wanted the packet and some of them jumped to the conclusion that Bob had hidden it in the luggage of his sister or of his schoolgirl niece.  To the predators, murder was a small price for jewels worth a million pounds.

In this story of intrigue and multiple murder, Agatha Christie is at her very best.  She cunningly leads the reader down a trail of violence, bypassing the expected, to arrive at a set of stunning surprises when the astute Belgian detective separates the guilty from the innocent and, unmasking the killer ‘cat’, ends a nightmare of horror.

Contemporary reviews

Spectator (Christopher Pym, 6th November 1959, 130w): If Miss Christie believes that the press would play that murder down, she will believe anything.  But it is nothing to what she asks us to believe.  Her girls and mistresses are as true to boring old type as the boys and masters of Greyfriars and St. Jim’s, and the plot calls for mysterious strangers in shrubberies; forgery, kidnapping, and a couple more killings; ‘a small wicked-looking automatic’; a secret-service operator disguised as a gardener; and, at last, on page 183, M. Hercule Poirot…  How did we ever come to take Miss Christie seriously?

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 8th November 1959): Poirot—showing signs of incipient senility—summoned halfway through by young Julia to solve murders of mistresses at smartest possible girls’ school.  Plot turns on three-quarters of a million’s worth of jewels hidden in a tennis racket.  They are not trinkets belonging to one of the girls, but were meant to be a Middle Eastern prince’s nest-egg after revolution.  Some nice school scenes with bogus sheikhs sweeping up in little Cadillacs to deposit highly scented and busted houris for education, and backwoods peers shoving hockey-stick-toting daughters out of battered Austins.  It’s far from vintage Christie, but you’ll want to know who.

Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 18th December 1959): Mrs. Christie comes out strong again with Cat among the Pigeons, another of her blithe detective stories.  It is set principally in an expensive girls’ school, though it begins in the Middle East, a part of the world which Mrs. Christie knows well and depicts in a very likely way, in a small State on the verge of revolution.  A fortune in jewellery is in question—more than enough to start people killing in the hope of laying hands on it—and the girls’ school becomes a sort of sophisticated, up-to-date, female Greyfriars, where dusky princelings were apt to be in residence under the menace of international crooks.  Mrs. Christie’s school characters, of course, are impeccably probable, teachers and girls alike; she is adept at drawing the character of Pope’s “reasonable woman” and her youngsters are always a delight.

It has sometimes been held against this author that she is too liberal with her red herrings.  Cat among the Pigeons may be called in support of this view.  But Mrs. Christie’s public will not be alienated by any such trifle; their customary gratitude will be called forth by the easy, tonic quality of the style and the general ingenuity and resourcefulness of the story-telling.

NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 27th March 1960, 90w): To read Agatha Christie at her best is to experience the rarefied pleasure of watching a faultless technician at work, and she is in top form in Cat Among the Pigeons…  The elaborate yet flawlessly clear interweaving of a number of subplots is a marvel of technique, and the school itself becomes as interesting as the murders which threaten to destroy it.

San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 10th April 1960, 100w): A completely delightful mixture of Prince Ali’s jewels, smuggled from Rabat to England, and the goings-on at an exclusive girls’ school…  This story is a fine specimen from one of our greatest practitioners.

Springfield Republican (H.H., 17th April 1960, 200w): In this book, Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot, faces one of the most challenging cases, concerning a killer who is terrorising a fashionable private school for girls in England…  In her typically well-written, fast-moving style, the author introduces a series of surprising developments, leading to the climax when the astute detective unmasks the killer ‘cat’ among the school-girl ‘pigeons’.

The Saturday Review (Sergeant Cuff, 30th July 1960): Revolution in Near East sparks events that repercuss in murder in swank gal-school in England; Hercule Poirot pops in on page 160.  An honest-to-Betsy Christie twister.

Yorkshire Evening Post: There is only one thing wrong with Miss Christie’s novels; they come to an end whereas they ought to imitate Tennyson’s brook and go on for over.  The setting—this time for Hercule Poirot—is a famous girls’ school.  Another gem.

Sunday Times (Julian Symons): Truly distinguished, deliciously smooth upon the palate.

Daily Express: It is splendid to find the Grande Dame du Crime in such fettle.