First published: UK, Collins, November 1969; US, Dodd Mead, 1969
Hercule Poirot is spending an unexpectedly lonely evening when he is rung up by his friend, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, who calls upon him in a state of great agitation.
She has been to a Hallowe’en Party given for children and teenagers. The party has a tragic outcome, and she prevails upon Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common to sort out matters. Since Poirot finds that he already has an old friend living there, he accepts, and is plunged into a medley of conflicting statements, some interesting past history, an au pair girl who has mysteriously disappeared, and sundry deaths that are not, perhaps, quite what they seemed.
Woodleigh Common seems a peaceful respectable residential area—but is it really? In the end Poirot’s painstaking gathering of evidence, and careful study of psychological possibilities, enables him to solve one of Mrs. Christie’s most remarkable crimes.
Mrs. Oliver helps by switching from eating apples to dates at a psychological moment. In fact, another dazzling performance by the greatest crime novelist of our time.
A child boasted of having witnessed a murder. Only a few hours later, that child was dead. And Hercule Poirot was faced with one of the most challenging cases of his long and brilliant career.
Joyce was thirteen, a tiresome girl given to extravagant statements. The group of adults and children who were getting the games ready for the Hallowe’en party just laughed unbelievingly when she insisted she had once seen a murder committed. Yet that night someone shoved her head down into the bucket of water with the apples and held her there until she drowned. After the party was over, she was found, kneeling as if she were bobbing for apples.
One of the very respectable guests at the party given in the quiet respectable town of Woodleigh Common must have committed a murder and had got away with it, someone who had received a nasty shock from Joyce’s revelation and had struck back as soon as it was possible. And yet who among the few grown-ups present – the mothers and aunts, the vicar and a local schoolteacher – would have been capable of committing such a brutal crime?
As Poirot searched for the unlikely murderer, however, he uncovered strange and often dangerous secrets. The tension mounts until it explodes in a dazzling denouement, which is as logical as it is unexpected. Here is a novel that bears the unmistakable stamp of a gifted artist – the intricate puzzle, the unfaltering suspense, and the insight into those human passions that lead to murder.
Considering that this was one of the author’s last five books, and bearing in mind that of the other four only Nemesis is reasonable, this is surprisingly competent with a stronger plot and more involved detection than any of the others. Mrs Oliver is at the Hallowe’en party when the teenage Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder. When Joyce is drowned in the bucket used for bobbing for apples, she calls in Hercule Poirot who appears centre-stage – for once, in late Christie, having made only brief appearances since After the Funeral and Dead Man’s Folly fifteen or so years earlier. Poirot is elderly (aet. 100 – 110), but manages to wander about the countryside in his too tight patent leather shoes, interviewing everyone connected with the case and bringing to light several unsuspected or unsolved murders.
The plot is more streamlined than usual for this period, but does wobble a bit. Poirot’s interviews get rather repetitious as everyone he talks to is convinced that it must have been either a modern youth or a sex offender and launches into a jeremiad about the wickedness of 1960s Britain. It is noteworthy that the most probable solution is that the murderer is either a paedophile (something not found in early Christie – when the murderer tried to kill a boy in “The Lemesurier Inheritance”, written in the mid-1920s, it was for entirely different reasons) or a child murderer, someone too young to be responsible for their actions (although one should have an idea of the difference between right and wrong by the time one is eleven or twelve).
As it is, though, the real murderer is obvious from very early on, with little attempt at concealment – the clue of the dropped vase is clumsily handled (Ngaio Marsh did better SPOILER with a certain character “dribbling and drooling all over herself” in Overture to Death). The male murderer’s identity is more surprising – while rather improbable from a psychological standpoint, it makes sense from a symbolical and Christian one: Lucifer in the Garden of Eden, wishing to supplant God and to create at any price.
While hardly one of the best, there is enough in the book to make it worth reading as an example of the development of Christie’s elderly voice, concerned with problems of wickedness and morality.
Times Literary Supplement (11th December 1969):
Clever old Agatha Christie is still plodding sturdily along her well-trodden but ever engaging track, this time in company with Poirot and Ariadne Oliver. Unusually with Mrs. Christie, we can guess who did it, but the detail of the water clue is a good one.
New Statesman (James Fenton, 14th November 1969, 290w):
The fate of [the author’s] writing is inextricably linked with the fate of the upper middle class whose loving chronicler she is; this is why the whole corpus of her work will provide an excellent source-book for social historians… Poirot and the comparatively recent Christie persona, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, are the star performers in an investigation which touches regularly on problems of sex murders and criminal pathology. For the first time I guessed the identity of the villain correctly, but this may have just been luck. At all events, the Agatha Christie message—that the middle class is the real murdering class—remains as acceptable as always.
Best Sell (15th December 1969, 150w):
If you are familiar with Miss Christie’s works and her methods you may suspect the correct criminal half-way through; but even then you will not be sure until the end.
Library J (Terri Hirt, 15th January 1970, 80w):
That grand old lady of mystery is at it again… Suspense mounts and suspicion constantly shifts to various inhabitants of once peaceful Woodleigh Commons to keep readers guessing.