Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: US: Dodd Mead, February 1952; UK: Collins, March 1952

James Bentley was condemned to death for the murder of his landlady, elderly charwoman Mrs. McGinty; but Superintendent Spence, who arrested Bentley, does not believe him guilty, and turns to Poirot for help. Poirot, aged and bored, jumps at Spence’s request, and travels to Broadhinny (one of Christie’s few working-class backgrounds) to provoke a reaction in the murderer. Unfortunately, the reaction he provokes is that someone tries to push him under a train. Apart from the physical attempts on his life, there is a great deal of humour arising from the attempts on his digestion Poirot suffers at the ghastly inn at which he stays, and from the attempts on his morale caused by Bentley’s lack of interest in his fate. Poirot survives these calamities, and , with the help of Mrs. Oliver and a bottle of ink, discovers that Mrs. McGinty was killed for recognising one of four “Women Victims of Bygone Tragedies”, any one of whom could still be alive.

This section is almost a procedural.  While the reader could deduce the clue about the ink and the newspapers, we watch Poirot following a trail. The suspects aren’t introduced until a third through the book.

The suspects and dialogue are entertaining, and the management of suspicion superb. The book boasts one of Christie’s best surprise solutions, in which she plays a devilishly ingenious trick with the reader’s assumptions.

Christie also discusses nature vs. nurture, and the idea of heredity vs. breeding.  Christie concludes that, while heredity matters, the individual has free will and moral responsibility.  So her appalling environment isn’t to blame for Lily Gamboll killing her aunt.  The murderer tries to claim their heredity made them a killer, and isn’t believed.

Blurb (UK)

Mrs. McGinty was dead.  She was hit on the back of the head with some sharp, heavy implement and her pitifully small savings were taken.  Her lodger was hard up and had lost his job; his coat sleeve had blood on it.  In due course he was arrested and tried, found guilty and condemned to death.  Yet Superintendent Spence of the Kilchester Police, who had been instrumental in bringing about James Bentley’s conviction, did not believe the man was guilty—for no tangible reason other than that he did not think Bentley to be the type.  Rather shamefacedly he took his problem to his old friend Hercule Poirot, and Poirot did not laugh—instead, he said he would help.

If Mrs. McGinty was not killed by Bentley for her savings, why did she die?  She was, it seemed, just an ordinary charwoman, with no secrets and no coveted possessions; she minded her own business and nobody else’s.  Impossible, one would think, to get a lead; but “somewhere,” said Poirot to himself, indulging in an absolute riot of mixed metaphors, “there is in the hay a needle, and among the sleeping dogs there is one on whom I shall put my foot, and by shooting the arrows into the air, one will come down and hit a glass house!”

The inimitable Poirot, with his slightly comic aspect, his “little grey cells” and his genuinely warm heart, returns in an ingenious detective novel that once again earns for Agatha Christie the justifiable epithet of “incomparable”.

Blurb (US)

“Mrs. McGinty’s dead.

How did she die?

Sticking her neck out.

Just like I.”

It was a variation of the old rhyme children use in their play, but it might have been an epitaph for the real Mrs. McGinty in this new Hercule Poirot mystery.  For Mrs. McGinty was dead, slain, the law had proved, by the man they were holding in prison, awaiting execution.  It was only the little Belgian detective’s quick eye that saw the significance in the case of a bottle of ink and a casual item clipped from a newspaper.  And, once again, in a dramatic reversal of the police verdict, it was Hercule Poirot who kept an innocent man from the gallows and brought the actual murderer to his doom.

Here is Agatha Christie in another of those ingenious and original stories, tense with excitement and unexpected drama, which have identified her name with the best mysteries being written anywhere today.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 23rd March 1952): Poirot, slightly subdued, stays at very post-war guest-house: seven gns. a week and “I do hope you’re not too frightfully uncomfortable”, says delightfully vague proprietress, holding her cut finger over the beans.  Object of visit: to clear seedy, sacked clerk charged with bashing his old landlady, Mrs. McGinty.  Usual plethora of suspects and more murder.  Not one of Agatha Christie’s best-constructed jobs, yet far more readable than most other people’s.

New Yorker (9th February 1952, 120w): The author’s formula hasn’t changed perceptibly since she wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Poirot made his memorable first appearance, but it is still as sound and expert as any that has been invented subsequently.

NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 10th February 1952, 100w): This first Poirot novel in almost four years is the best Poirot since such pre-war classics as Cards on the Table (from which it revives the amusing mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver and her great Finnish detective).  The premise (what becomes of the living people once involved in celebrated murders?) is a fascinating one; a very large cast is deftly sketched and adroitly handled.

Sat R (Sergeant Cuff, 16th February 1952, 30w): Not among her best.

San Francisco Chronicle (L.G. Offord, 17th February 1952, 80w): The plot may not scintillate like some other Christies but it’s perfect—and the characters are wonderful.

NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 24th February 1952, 110w): Except for a three-quarters-time sag this is sound Christie and expert distinction on all scores.

Chicago Sunday Tribune (Drexel Drake, 9th March 1952, 200w): There is a fascination of reality in the story’s people and their multiple troubles.  Nevertheless, readers who rejoiced in the lavish colour and stealthy connivance and tense crisis of last year’s They Came to Baghdad may consider Mrs. McGinty’s Dead a let down to prosaic and patterned detective story craftsmanship.