Five Little Pigs (Agatha Christie)

  • By Agatha Christie
  • First published: USA: Dodd Mead, May 1942, as Murder in Retrospect; UK: Collins, November 1942 / January 1943

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The first of Christie’s excursions into the past, combined with the nursery rhyme (here extraneous and inappropriate). Poirot is called in by the daughter of painter Amyas Crale, apparently poisoned by his wife Caroline sixteen years before, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment; Caroline Crale the younger believes her mother was innocent, and asks Poirot to find out which of the five other suspects could have committed the crime. Poirot is at his most cerebral, and comes across as a genuine brain; the book is likely to appeal to those of a contemplative nature, who value ratiocination for its own sake rather than those who prefer their detection to verge on the thriller or the romance. The solution is as startling as any Poirot has discovered, and equally startling is the fact that the murderer will not be arrested, as the punishment is self-inflicted; one is reminded of Tiberius’ belief that death is a merciful release, to live is to be punished.

Blurb (UK)

How to find out the truth about a crime that was committed sixteen years ago is indeed a problem.  No wonder Carla Lemarchant sought the best help available, and it was fortunate for her that she found Hercule Poirot, for as he said himself, “Rest assured—I am the best.”  Faced with the question: Did Carla’s mother, Caroline Crale, really commit the murder for which she was sentenced? he began to reconstruct in his mind events long past.  She was an enigmatic character, this Caroline Crale, who had pleaded innocent yet had not fought to prove it.  Her life with Amyas Crale had been difficult, certainly.  He was selfish, quarrelsome, inconsiderate and unfaithful, even though he was a great painter as some said.  Approaching deftly and tactfully the other five people involved in the case, Poirot unravels bit by bit the true story of that summer day sixteen years ago.  It is a fascinating story which leaves the reader to marvel more than ever at Poirot’s performance and to acclaim Mrs. Christie for yet another brilliant landmark in the history of detective fiction.

Blurb (US)

For Hercule Poirot the trail was cold.  Sixteen years previously a woman had been sentenced to life imprisonment for poisoning her husband.  Soon, too soon, after her trial she died.  It was her daughter, armed with new evidence and certain of her mother’s innocence, who sixteen years later convinced M. Poirot that the guilty person had gone unpunished.

Carefully the little Belgian digs into the past, and it’s a difficult job.  Almost everyone concerned – the beautiful Elsa Greer, the amateur chemist whose bottle of poison was used, the sentenced woman’s governess, her half-sister – feels the original verdict had been just.  Yet Poirot has other ideas, and craftily he gets to the bottom of the affair, but not before he almost makes a dangerous mistake.

No detective of fiction enjoys such popularity today as Hercule Poirot, and rightly Agatha Christie is the best-known of living literary criminologists.  Murder in Retrospect is one more to be added to the long list of her undoubted successes.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 16th January 1943): POISON FOR THE PAINTER

No one doubted that the poison taken by the painter with the roving eye was put into his beer by his wife.  If she had been guilty in truth no novel about that murder could be written.  Yet so plausible is Miss Agatha Christie’s account of how it happened that the reader of Five Little Pigs cannot see how in reason the crime could have been committed by anyone else.  Sixteen years have gone by before a daughter, anxious to clear her mother’s name, asks Hercule Poirot to examine the evidence afresh.  The first of five witnesses “plays the markets” and the second is “a stay-at-home sort of chap”, which explains why Poirot quotes the nursery rhyme that inspires the title.  No crime enthusiast will object that the story of how the painter died has to be told many times, for this, even if it creates an interest which is more problem than plot, demonstrates the author’s uncanny skill.  The answer to the riddle is brilliant.

Manchester Guardian (J.D. Beresford, 20th January 1943): Our other three books are all detective stories and, it may be frankly confessed, a relief from the intensive study of human suffering.  Miss Agatha Christie never fails us, and her Five Little Pigs presents a very pretty problem for the ingenious reader, who may possibly, if he has the subtle perspicuity of Hercule Poirot, solve for himself the riddle of who killed Amyas Crale 16 years earlier, a crime for which his wife, now long dead, was sentenced for life.  We know that it must be one of what Poirot thinks of as the “five little pigs”, who were present on the day the crime was committed, and we have all the material that Poirot had for discovering the clue which when it comes is completely satisfying.

Sat R of Lit (20th June 1942, 40w): Grade-B Poirot.

Books (Will Cuppy, 21st June 1942, 300w): The sleuth has dropped a few of his continental trimmings, but he’s himself for all that in this recommended Christie.

New Yorker (27th June 1942, 70w): Beautiful deducting and better writing than you’ll find in the average mystery.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 28th June 1942, 220w): Another triumph for Agatha Christie, perhaps the greatest in her career.

Punch: As usual, Mrs. Christie hoaxes us with a double twist at the dénouement, and provides excellent entertainment.

Observer: Despite only five suspects, Mrs. Christie as usual puts a ring through the reader’s nose, and leads him to one of her smashing last-minute showdowns.

The New Statesman & Nation: Five Little Pigs is concocted of the simplest ingredients, shaken together by the hands of the genius.  No hocus pocus, but straightforward bamboozling from start to finish.

The Daily Telegraph: It is a brilliant piece of detective fiction, in which character plays an important part.