Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, December 1938; USA: Dodd Mead, February 1939, as Murder for Christmas

My review

Yet another highly successful intellectual parody of detective story conventions. Here Christie takes all the clichéd elements upon which she can lay her hands (country-house at Christmas, wealthy invalid surrounded by greedy family, and the crime is “one of those damned cases you get in detective stories where a man is killed in a locked room by some apparently supernatural agency”) — and produces a deliciously rich pudding. The events of the story take place over a period of seven days. The first day introduces the characters and their motives; the murder is committed on second day, and the alibis and circumstances of the crime are established; on the third day, Poirot talks to the characters; on the fourth and fifth days truths begin to be revealed; on the sixth day the murderer’s identity is revealed; and the seventh serves as an optimistic epilogue. The characters (with the extension of the strong yet placid Hilda Lee) are stock, as this is a traditional family crime, where there is “a poison that works in the blood — it is intimate — it is deep-seated … hate and knowledge…”; but Poirot is in fine form—amusing, wise, discerning, jealous of the assisting policeman’s moustache; using the clue of a portrait and of a (continually repeated) family resemblance to unravel a complicated problem of heredity. The solution is brilliant, blame falling upon a character the reader never suspected.


Blurb (UK)

Hercule Poirot spends a busy Christmas on a most amazing case.  Agatha Christie’s book is a seasonable offering, for, as Poirot says, Christmas is a season of good cheer; that means a lot of eating, then comes the over-eating, and then the indigestion, and then the irritability, and then the quarrel…and then the murder.  Poirot is as amusing and yet as logical as ever.

Blurb (US)

Collecting the coffee cups in the drawing room, Trevelyan had a feeling of uneasiness.  Christmas Eve and all that strain and tension…he didn’t like it.  Mr. Alfred, for instance, looked downright ill, and why should Mr. David be playing the Dead March so incessantly on the piano?  He turned to walk wearily back toward his pantry, and it was then he first heard the noise from overhead, a crashing of china, the overthrowing of furniture and finally the horrible high wailing scream that died away in a choke or a gurgle…

Hercule Poirot twirled his incomparable moustaches and reviewed the situation: Christmas Eve, an unearthly scream, two solid oak doors battered down, and old Simeon Lee sprawled on the floor.  As he examined the body of the frail old man, so thin, so shrivelled, so dried up, Poirot could think only of the famous line from Macbeth: ‘Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’  Somehow the strange conviction would not leave him that in these words of Shakespeare lay the key to the crime.

Agatha Christie concocts a murder of such startling ingenuity that even Hercule Poirot is hard pressed to solve it.


Contemporary reviews

Sunday Times (Milward Kennedy): The puzzle is in essence another ‘sealed-room’ mystery, and, to my mind, an extremely good example.  Poirot’s solution is as brilliant as simple.  Characters most effectively presented.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 17th December 1938): POIROT’S CHRISTMAS

In Mrs. Christie’s new novel, to be published on Monday, M. Hercule Poirot is found staying with his friend Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, for Christmas.  To all appearances they are two elderly bachelors with nothing but a log-wood fire and a tantalus of whiskey to pass the time.  Poirot is holding forth on Christmas Eve on the thesis that since the season makes for overeating and irritability, it is a likely occasion for murder.  At this point the telephone bell rings, and, sure enough, there has been a murder.  Poirot leaves the fire without regret—he prefers central heating in any case—and accompanies his host to the neighbouring scene of the crime.

The victim of the murder is an aged, wealthy and malicious millionaire who has gathered his family, including his prodigal son, under his roof with the deliberate purpose of teasing them about the provisions of his will.  The scene revealed to the police indicates that a struggle has taken place, for a chair has been overthrown, a surprisingly vast quantity of blood has been spilt and the old reprobate has had his throat cut.  The door of the room is locked upon the inside and the windows are barred or stuck.

“A GOOD VIOLENT MURDER”

Mrs. Christie’s detective stories tend to follow a pattern.  First, there is always a group of suspects each of whom has something to conceal about his or her past; second, there is a generous use of coincidence in the circumstances of the crime; third, there is a concession to sentiment which does not necessarily simplify the solution.  Mrs. Christie makes one departure here from her recent practice, as she explains in her dedicatory foreword.  The complaint had been uttered that her murders were getting too refined—anaemic, in fact.  So this is “a good violent murder with lots of blood”.  But there is, on the other hand, another departure from Mrs. Christie’s earlier stories which must be regretted.  M. Poirot in his retirement is becoming too much of a colourless expert.  One feels a nostalgic longing for the days when be baited his “good friend” and butt, Hastings, when he spoke malaprop English and astonished strangers by his intellectual arrogance.

Observer (Torquemada, 18th December 1938): CHRISTIE AND CHRISTMAS

Agatha Christie has done a genial and seasonable murder for her admirers, one that may well keep old men from play next Sunday, and children from the chimney corner.  Hercule Poirot’s Christmas was, it seems, produced for the delectation of one who has found the author’s last few books lacking in blood; he will, indeed, be haemophilic if he is unsatisfied with this one.  Simeon Lee, an aged and shrunken but once raffish and broadly philoprogenitive domestic tyrant, has his throat cut, and the furniture of the more or less “sealed” room in which this takes place is found to be unmannerly breecht in gore.  “Who would have thought,” aptly quotes one of his daughters-in-law, “the old man to have had so much blood in him?”  Simeon was not really a nice old man; his calling of his ill-assorted family together for this week was only seemingly a gesture of appeasement and good will; his lonely Christmas game was to consist of enraging his relations and setting them against each other and himself.  And it was one of his own blood, as Poirot was certain all along, who killed him while his game was in progress.  Is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas a major Christie?  I think it is, and that in spite of a piece of quite irrelevant tortuosity in the matter of the bewitching Pilar Estravados, and in spite of the fact that the business of the appalling shriek will probably make no mystery for the average reader.  The main thing is, surely, that Agatha Christie once more abandonedly dangles the murderer before our eyes and successfully defies us to see him.  I am sure that some purists will reverse my decision on the ground that the author, to get her effect, has broken what they consider to be one of the major rules of modern detective writing; but I hold that in a Poirot tale it should be a case of caveat lector, and that rules were not made for Agatha Christie.

The Times (3rd January 1939): “STIFFEN THE SINEWS”

“Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.”  Henry V’s exhortation has been echoed by Miss Agatha Christie’s readers.  “Give us,” one of them has implored her, “a good violent murder with lots of blood.”  There is sound criticism here.  The modern detective story refuses to abandon murder as a theme, but its sudden deaths are often glossed over—indeed, sometimes treated as “a jolly good rag, what?” almost in the Wodehouse vein.  Not thus do the masters regard the sombre theme.  Poe in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Miss Sayers in Whose Body (perhaps there is a thinning of the red corpuscles in her later books)—these authors know that “the blood will follow where the knife is driven” and that murder, though it have no tongue, should speak to some purpose.

In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas Miss Agatha Christie has done her best to satisfy her critics.  Simeon Lee, unpleasant father of an unpleasant family, is murdered in the midst of his Christmas house-party.  He is found sweltering in his blood (there is a clue here) in his locked study; furniture is overturned, a scream is heard, but the murderer has vanished.  Here is a good problem for Poirot to tackle, but its solution, while it brings to light some clever devices on the author’s part, relies almost too much on coincidence and the obtuseness of most of the characters.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 13th January 1939, 280w): In this kind of detective novel, depending almost entirely for its interest on accuracy of logical deduction from recorded fact and yet with the drama played out by recognisable human beings, Mrs. Christie remains supreme.  One may grumble that she depends a little too much upon coincidence and manufactured effect…but how small are such blemishes compared with the brilliance of the whole conception!

Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 11th February 1939, 110w): Hercule Poirot does his usual neat job of unravelling murder.  The perpetrator was a bit of a surprise, but perfectly logical.  And it is a relief to find a crime solution in an English setting which has pace as well as atmosphere.

Sat R of Lit (11th February 1939, 30w): Slow start, interesting middle, rather incredible conclusion add up to entertaining but grade B Christie.

Books (Will Cuppy, 12th February 1939, 200w): This is not the Belgian detective’s best case, but it contains much of the Christie cleverness of plot and action.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 12th February 1939, 150w): Poirot has solved some puzzling mysteries in his time, but never has his mighty brain functioned more brilliantly than in Murder for Christmas.