- First published: UK: Collins, November 1940; USA: Dodd Mead, February 1941, as The Patriotic Murders. Aka An Overdose of Death (Dell, 1953).
“For want of a buckle, the shoe was lost;
for want of a shoe, the game was up”
may well be the refrain of this detective story, for it is from an examination of trivia – shoes, stockings and false teeth, those outward appurtenances which maketh the man (or woman, as the case may be) – that Poirot is able to discover one of the most cold-blooded and elaborate plots which even Agatha Christie has devised, and which the reader can – very dimly – see from the moment that Poirot, attending morning service for the only time in the books, discovers that he has very nearly fallen into a trap. Poirot must have met Reggie Fortune recently, for, in addition to certain mannerisms (“Oh, my Japp”), he suspects a vast conspiracy behind three deaths (the “suicide” of Poirot’s dentist, the poisoning of a Greek blackmailer and the murder of an unknown woman in a fur-chest) despite police incredulity and a desire to see only the obvious; and, at the end, in a remarkable scene which shows Poirot’s conscience, he condemns the murderer with the Old Testament. Poirot is reluctant to have the murderer found guilty and is tempted to let him go, but, inevitably, sees that justice must be done and the innocent not allowed to suffer. On finishing the book, we are reminded of Father Brown’s statement in a similar case:
“The dentist! Six hours in the spiritual abyss, and all because I never thought of the dentist! Such a simple, such a beautiful and peaceful thought! Friends, we have passed a night in hell, but now the sun is risen, the birds are singing, and the radiant form of the dentist consoles the world.”
It has been said that no man is a hero to his valet. To that may be added that few men are heroes to themselves at the moment of visiting their dentist. Hercule Poirot was, says Mrs. Christie, “morbidly conscious of this fact” as he entered his dentist’s room in Queen Charlotte Street. “His morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, that craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair.”
For the reader it is a very pleasant turning of the tables to see the great Poirot at such a disadvantage, his mouth stuffed with cotton wool, hot air puffing down the cavity, unable to speak for himself! At half-past eleven Poirot stepped out, a free man. But before lunch-time sudden death had claimed a victim at the dentist’s. Soon Poirot was probing into the integrity of his fellow patients of that morning. The problem into which he is led provides him with one of his best cases.
The dentist lay on the floor of his office, a gun beside him. Suicide, obviously. Nobody knew why, until it was all comfortably and satisfactorily explained when a Greek, a patient of the dentist’s, died from an overdose of dental drugs. No solution as simple as that, however, would satisfy Hercule Poirot. He had just plunged into the problem when an inconspicuous little woman was murdered. And then the greatest financier in the country had a narrow escape from death. M. Poirot unravels a case that comes to an astounding conclusion and shows Agatha Christie at her very best.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 9th November 1940): MURDER OF A DENTIST
Possibly the reader who wants to be puzzled may be the best judge of a detective story. If so Agatha Christie wins another prize, for her new novel should satisfy his demands. But another type of reader will find it dry and colourless. Hercule Poirot’s personality has to be taken for granted. Here he is a dentist’s patient who takes a persistent interest in the murder of the dentist. Two of the patients who might have done it are also murdered. The facts are stated in a joyless style of impartial investigation; it quickens into life only when a revolting corpse is discovered. This is characteristic of Miss Christie’s school. The “full horrible details” that bring people to death are accounted of more importance than details which bring people to life: the atmosphere is not that of places but of a police report. There is no questioning the cleverness of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe. Its mystery will not easily be solved. But it is as cold and cheerless as a diagram.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 10th November 1940): THE CRIME RATION
The Queen of Crime’s scheming ingenuity has been so much praised that one is sometimes inclined to overlook the lightness of her touch. If Mrs. Christie were to write about the murder of a telephone directory by a time-table the story would still be compellingly readable. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe begins with the murder of a dentist soon after he has filled Poirot’s lower molar. Suspects range from peculiar spinster to high financier. Discovery of second and third victims soon follows. Then come the red herrings, at which Mrs. Christie excels. Plot seems to be taking a thrillerish turn with international conspirators involved, but I can reveal no more except, of course, that nothing and nobody are what they seem, and that murder methods depend on split-second timing. Fiend’s identity is perhaps less obscured than usual; motivation a trifle shaky, but clue details are brilliant. Shadow of the dentist’s chair hangs heavy over Poirot, who is surprisingly and agreeably subdued throughout.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 7th December 1940): MURDER OF A DENTIST
At last a dentist has been murdered! The concatenation of dangerous thoughts and desperate personnel presented by the average dentist’s waiting-room has hitherto been strangely neglected by the detective fraternity. Perhaps the dentist’s profession is too painfully like their own. He sends people daily to The Chair! And dog does not eat dog. Or is the experience of “Open wide” too like being murdered oneself to suggest the opposite? Or can their ingenious minds have been stumped for motive—with that drill hanging over their heads? Well, whatever the reason for neglect, this virgin territory has been left to Mrs. Christie to exploit.
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe opens with Mr. Morley, the dentist, in a bad temper at breakfast. At 11 o’clock he has an appointment with Poirot, stopping three teeth painlessly in half an hour. (Oh! why must such a dentist be killed?) Before lunch he is dead; and before nightfall one of his patients is dead. Mrs. Christie constructs a brilliant problem with these materials, but to do so she allows all verisimilitude to go by the board. You will meet some strange chessmen in that dentist’s waiting-room, masquerading as samples of humanity—a lady missionary from India, a wild-eyed American, a pillar of international finance, a retired civil servant, a Greek gentleman with the ambiguous name of Amberiotis, and even dear Colonel Arrowbumby, related to the Blimps. Readers will be well advised to disregard the make-up and treat these pieces candidly as rooks, bishops, knights and pawns. Furthermore, the problem is to mate in three moves, not two; and I need not hesitate to add that, as usual with Mrs. Christie, the key move has to be made by the knight. Even so the task is difficult, since the identity of the knight is elaborately, even fantastically, disguised; and I must point out in the interests of fair play that there are some moves of which even knights, with all their wayward hops, are incapable, such as that mentioned at the bottom of page 242. As for motive, if anyone is in doubt as to what constitutes a legitimate motive for murdering a dentist (beyond the obvious one of postponing the agony) I would point out in a riddle that the best reason for killing anyone is to prevent him killing you—an unpleasant action, for which in certain circumstances dentists are peculiarly qualified.
Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 22nd November 1940, 200w): [The book] is up to all but Mrs. Christie’s highest standards; but she sails rather near the wind in the matter of holding up vital clues till the dénouement.
Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 13th December 1940, 230w): In to-day’s slang a girl is said to be not pretty but ‘easy to look at’. To adapt the phrase it may be said of Mrs. Agatha Christie that she is ‘easy to read’, and to be ‘easy to read’, if not the greatest of qualities a writer may possess, is one of the most valuable. In her new book…this quality of ‘easy to read’ is well shown.
Sat R of Lit (1st March 1941, 40w): Admirable.
Books (Will Cuppy, 2nd March 1941, 200w): In fine fettle, Poirot is always a jump or two ahead of Inspector Japp, one of those cops with a genius for picking out the wrong motive. He arrives at a hair-raising solution after a third casualty by methods he alone can handle—so you probably won’t guess it. As always, this author provides generous amounts of entertainment over and above the bare bones of a puzzle. This seems to be a major Christie, the best thing currently in sight for all-around mystery merit.
NY Times (Kay Irvin, 2nd March 1941, 320w): It’s a real Agatha Christie thriller: exceedingly complicated in plot, briskly and compactly simple in narrative, with a swift course of unflagging suspense that leads to complete surprise. After closing the book one may murmur, ‘Far-fetched’, or even ‘Impossible’. But any such complaint will be voiced only after the story has been finished; there won’t be a moment to think of such things, before.
Springfield Republican (9th March 1941, 240w): It is no unusual compliment to the adroit work of this author to say that the reader will never suspect the identity of the triple murderer, as she always manages this kind of deception with skill. It may be said, however, that she almost outdoes herself in this fast-moving yarn.
Boston Transcript (Marian Wiggin, 15th March 1941, 40w): Agatha Christie is tops as you probably know, and I think you will agree that her latest, The Patriotic Murders is right at the head of the list.
New Yorker (15th March 1941, 50w): Quite up to Miss Christie’s par.
Sketch: Mrs. Christie’s skill is that of a conjuror: her characters alone would make a book.