- First published: UK, Collins, October 1955; US, Dodd Mead, November 1955, as Hickory Dickory Death
This is the one Barzun thought “very dull…substance trivial, skipping irresistible” and Robert Barnard described as “a significant falling-off in standards…a highly perfunctory going-through-the-paces” – in other words, the beginning of the end (although I would date it to either They Do It With Mirrors or Destination Unknown). It is certainly true that Poirot has lost much of his power: while in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and After the Funeral, he had dominated the book and travelled about to chase up leads, here age has very definitely begun to tell. After appearing in the first few chapters he then makes only one appearance until the very end, leaving all the legwork (and detection) to Inspector Sharpe. His deterioration into an armchair detective (c.f. Cat Among the Pigeons, The Clocks, and Elephants Can Remember – in fact, every case henceforward except Hallowe’en Party) has begun.
Christie’s plot is competent but little more – gone are the great days of the 1920s and 1930s when bizarre murders committed by villains with unbreakable alibis were the order of the day. In the more mundane 1950s, Poirot finds himself investigating a series of apparently motiveless thefts in a youth hostel and the “suicide” of the thief, followed by two more murders. The solution rather improbably involves drug and jewel smuggling masterminded by one of the students – workmanlike but humdrum. The suspects themselves are not really worth considering; although the dialogue of the young people is credible, none of them except the murderer and his accomplice have any substance, while most of the foreigners are walking embodiments of English prejudice, although Mr Akibombo is at least sympathetic and Elizabeth Johnston is the most intelligent of the lot. The murderer is the most likely person whom the reader will suspect, despite a cast-iron alibi for one of the crimes (an obvious dodge) – nobody else is really worth considering.
‘Hercule Poirot frowned.
“Miss Lemon,” he said.
“Yes, M Poirot?”
“There are three mistakes in this letter.”
His voice held incredulity. For Miss Lemon, that hideous and efficient woman, never made mistakes.’
And so Hercule Poirot launched into another of his memorable cases to extricate
Miss Lemon’s sister, who ran a students’ hostel in Hickory Road, from her troubles. The series of thefts there which had so upset Miss Lemon intrigued M Poirot because of the complete incongruity of the missing articles; he was fascinated and uneasy. Unfortunately his worst fears were fulfilled.
But by putting first things first and by peeling off layers of irrelevance one by one, Poirot was able to perceive, when it occurred, the inevitable mistake that betrays a murderer. At one point Inspector Sharp was inclined to apply to him his own dictum “No one is as clever as they think they are.” But generalisations do not apply to the master mind, and Hercule Poirot—and Agatha Christie—has achieved another masterpiece of detection.
It all started so harmlessly. Was it a joke or a game? Surely Hercule Poirot was absurd to suggest calling in the police! A boarding house full of students, an odd mixture of races, colors, ideas and idiosyncrasies. You would perhaps expect unusual things to happen but surely they would be quite innocent…
Then came the suicide, or was it suicide? And now the most orderly mind in crime detection began to consider the strangely disorderly sets of facts and events, until the whole fabric of a vast criminal scheme began to be perceptible.
This is Poirot at his most brilliant and Agatha Christie at the height of her powers. The reader will be fooled shamelessly at one turn after another. He will be a bit bewildered at the speed of the plot. He will be charmed by most of the characters (including perhaps the criminal). He will be amused by others and terrified by some. He will expect (from Christie) a brand new stunt (and he will get it).
Is it not sufficient to say that this, like the Blue Train, And Then There Were None, etc., is one of Poirot’s master cases?
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 30th October 1955): Poirot investigates a series of meaningless schizzy thefts in a multi-racial students’ hostel. The crazy mixed-up kid confesses, but then come the murders. Construction a trifle ragged, especially towards the end, when drug-smuggling dressmakers appear, but there is plenty of cosy euphoria. One is pleased, though not in the least surprised, to find her so vociferously sound on the colour problem.
Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 23rd December 1955): Poirot’s return to the happy hunting grounds of detective fiction is something of an event. He is called upon to solve the mystery of a series of apparently trivial thefts at a students’ hostel but soon finds himself partnering the police in investigating murder. Mrs. Christie rapidly establishes her favourite atmosphere by her skilful mixture of cheerfulness and suspense. Poirot, in fact, is at home, courteous, curious and complacent, dealing with a variety of people of all creeds and colours whose modes of existence are uncovered by the crimes. He smokes his little cigarettes and consumes square crumpets and, indeed, does everything that is expected of him, even solving the problem, though not before an excessive amount of damage has been done. Mrs. Christie has certainly made things difficult for him. The amount of mischief going on in the hostel imposes some strain on the reader’s patience as well as on Poirot’s ingenuity; the author has been a little too liberal with the red herrings. Yet the thumb-nail sketches of the characters are as good as ever and in spite of the over-elaborate nature of the puzzle there is plenty of entertainment.
New Yorker (5th November 1955, 100w): Mrs. Christie’s dialogue occasionally seems a bit quaint these days, but she remains among the topnotch plotters of all time.
NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 20th November 1955, 360w): The Christie fan of longest standing, who thinks he knows every one of her tricks, will still be surprised by some of the twists here, including (if this isn’t saying too much in a review) a murderer interestingly patterned after a recent factual original.
NY Herald Tribune (James Sandoe, 27th November 1955, 70w): Admirable jugglery.
The Saturday Review (Sergeant Cuff, 4th February 1956): Hercule Poirot looks into queer goings-on in London student boarding-house; three die before payoff. Inspector Sharpe and other cops also good in this characteristically professional number. Smooth as ever.