Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the reasons that Agatha Christie’s work is so well-regarded is that she was a genius at plot twists and surprises. All of the clues to her mysteries are there for the alert reader, but Christie was a master of leading the reader down the proverbial “garden path.” There’s a real example of her skill at deception in The ABC Murders, so let’s take a closer look at that novel.
The ABC Murders begins with Captain Hastings making a visit to London after his move to Argentina. He’s happily re-united with his old friend Hercule Poirot, and is visiting Poirot when Poirot receives a cryptic note that a crime will take place in Andover. The note is specific about the date, and is signed “ABC.” At first, Hastings passes the note off as an
“..idiotic kind of hoax.”
Poirot isn’t as sure, but he hopes that Hastings is right. The note turns out to be tragically prophetic when the body of Alice Ascher is found in the small sweetshop/news agency she kept. On the shop’s counter is an ABC train schedule. The most likely suspect is her husband Franz Ascher, but he cannot be connected with the note, and he can account for his time. So the police decide to at least consider that the murder was committed by someone else. No real progress is made on the case, though.
Then, Poirot receives another warning note, and another murder occurs, this time in the seaside town of Bexhill. The victim is twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth “Betty” Barnard, a waitress at a local café. She’s found strangled on the beach, and again, an ABC is found near her body. Her boyfriend Donald Fraser is a suspect; he’s the jealous type, and he and Betty had quarreled more than once about her habit of flirting with other men. But he can’t be connected either with the note or the ABC.
Poirot receives a third warning, and then there’s a third murder. Sir Carmichael Clark is killed in Churston one night while he’s on his evening walk. Now it looks very much as though there’s a serial killer at work. The only connections among the victims seem to be the notes Poirot receives and the ABC train schedules. With the deaths now very much in the public eye, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Crome to work with Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp, the local police and Poirot to find out who has committed the murders and why.
Several elements are woven throughout this story. One of them is the dual point of view from which the story is told. Parts of the story are told from the point of view of Captain Hastings. In those parts, we follow the course of the investigation, we meet many of the witnesses, and we watch as Poirot puts the pieces of the puzzle together.
The other point of view is that of Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a sales representative for a stocking manufacturer. He’s described as
“…in reality, quite a tall man. His stoop and his near-sighted peering gave a delusive impression…”
“A sort of middle-aged bloke what’s rather vague and soft – and come down in the world a bit, I should say.”
Those two points of view come together in a very surprising way, and in true Christie fashion, there’s an unexpected twist that even the astute reader could miss.
Another element woven through this novel is the reality of teamwork in police investigation. On one hand, everyone who’s investigating the crimes has the same goal of catching the murderer. However, they’re all quite different and from different agencies, so there’s bound to be a little friction. For instance, Hastings is none too keen on Inspector Crome:
“Crome was a very different type of office from Japp. A much younger man, he was the silent, superior type. Well educated and well read, he was, for my tatse, several shades too pleased with himself. He had lately gained kudos over a series of child murders…He was obviously a suitable person to undertake the present case, but I thought htat he was just a little aware of the fact himself.”
This lends an important touch of realism to the story; different police agencies do have to work together at times, and they don’t always co-operate perfectly. As the story evolves, the different detectives involved in the investigation come to respect each other, and in the end, they work together to solve the mystery. As they learn to do so, their friction adds a layer of tension to the novel.
Stereotypes and prejudices also seem to be woven through The ABC Murders. One of these is the prejudice against foreigners. In fact, Poirot brings up that point as he tries to figure out why the warning notes have been sent to him rather than, say to the police or to a major newspaper. He believes that the killer takes pleasure in “…scoring off a foreigner.” Inspector Crome, too, shows that bias against foreigners. When he first meets Poirot and Hastings, they’ve just begun to investigate the murder of Betty Barnes. Poirot asks for background about her, and Crome gives her age and place of employment. Poirot then asks whether she was pretty:
“’As to that I’ve no information,’ said Inspector Crome with a hint of withdrawal. His manner said: ‘Really – these foreigners! All the same!’”
There’s also the stereotype of what a multiple murderer “should” be like. Once the public’s help is enlisted in trying to find the killer, Scotland Yard begins to receive all sorts of letters describing strange men with furtive expressions, rolling eyes, and other odd behavior. In reality, of course, a multiple murderer can appear perfectly “normal” – a fact that Christie uses quite effectively in this novel.
And then there’s the prejudice against speaking ill of the dead. Once someone has died, many people are reluctant to mention that person’s faults or failings. In fact, Poirot says:
“Death….creates a prejudice. A prejudice in favour of the deceased.”
In Betty Barnard’s case, this prejudice makes it hard at first to find out who killed her. Once Poirot and Hastings get a more unbiased picture of her, they begin to see how she could have been killed.
The dual points of view, the tension of different agencies trying to work together and the misdirection caused by prejudice are all used in this novel to move the story along and keep the reader engaged. But what’s your view? Have you read The ABC Murders? If you have, what elements did you see in it?
Coming Up on In The Spotlight
Monday 18 October/Tuesday 19 October – Gallows View – Peter Robinson
Monday 25 October/Tuesday 26 October – While My Pretty One Sleeps – Mary Higgins Clark
Monday 1 November/Tuesday 2 November – A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle