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  • Daily Mirror
    : ‘A thundering success…a triumph for Hercule Poirot.’
37.
Elephants Can Remember
(1972)

‘The Ravenscrofts didn’t seem that kind of person. They seemed well balanced and placid.’

And yet, twelve years earlier, the husband had shot the wife, and then himself—or perhaps it was the other way around, since sets of both of their fingerprints were on the gun, and the gun had fallen between them. The case haunts Ariadne Oliver, who had been a friend of the couple. The famous mystery novelist desires this real-life mystery solved, and calls upon Hercule Poirot to help her do so.
Old sins have long shadows
, the proverb goes. Poirot is now a very old man, but his mind is as nimble and as sharp as ever and can still penetrate deep into the shadows. But as Poirot and Mrs Oliver and Superintendent Spence reopen the long-closed case, a startling discovery awaits them. And if memory serves Poirot (and it does!), crime—like history—has a tendency to repeat itself.

  • The Times
    : ‘Splendid.’
38.
Poirot’s Early Cases
(1974)

With his career still in its formative years, we learn many things about how Poirot came to exercise those famous ‘grey cells’ so well. Fourteen of the eighteen stories collected herein are narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings—including what would appear to be the earliest Poirot short story, ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball,’ which follows soon on the events of
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
. Two of the stories are narrated by Poirot himself, to Hastings. One, ‘The Chocolate Box,’ concerns Poirot’s early days on the Belgian police force, and the case that was his greatest failure: ‘My grey cells, they functioned not at all,’ Poirot admits. But otherwise, in this most fascinating collection, they function brilliantly, Poirot’s grey cells, challenging the reader to keep pace at every twist and turn.

Collected within: ‘The Affair at the Victory Ball’; ‘The Adventure of the Clapham Cook’; ‘The Cornish Mystery’; ‘The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly’; ‘The Double Clue’; ‘The King of Clubs’; ‘The Lemesurier Inheritance’; ‘The Lost Mine’; ‘The Plymouth Express’; ‘The Chocolate Box’; ‘The Submarine Plans’; ‘The Third-Floor Flat’; ‘Double Sin’; ‘The Market Basing Mystery’; ‘Wasps’ Nest’; ‘The Veiled Lady’; ‘Problem at Sea’; ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’

  • Sunday Express
    : ‘Superb, vintage Christie.’
39.
Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case
(1975)

Captain Arthur Hastings narrates. Poirot investigates. ‘This, Hastings, will be my last case,’ declares the detective who had
entered
the scene as a retiree in
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
, the captain’s, and our, first encounter with the now-legendary Belgian detective. Poirot promises that, ‘It will be, too, my most interesting case—and my most interesting criminal. For in X we have a technique superb, magnificent…X has operated with so much ability that he has defeated me, Hercule Poirot!’ The setting is, appropriately, Styles Court, which has since been converted into a private hotel. And under this same roof is X, a murderer five-times over; a murderer by no means finished murdering. In
Curtain
, Poirot will, at last, retire—death comes as the end. And he will bequeath to his dear friend Hastings an astounding revelation. ‘The ending of
Curtain
is one of the most surprising that Agatha Christie ever devised,’ writes her biographer, Charles Osborne.

Of note: On 6 August 1975, upon the publication of
Curtain
,
The New York Times
ran a front-page obituary of Hercule Poirot, complete with photograph. The passing of no other fictional character had been so acknowledged in America’s ‘paper of record.’ Agatha Christie had always intended
Curtain
to be ‘Poirot’s Last Case’: Having written the novel during the Blitz, she stored it (heavily insured) in a bank vault till the time that she, herself, would retire. Agatha Christie died on 12 January 1976.

  • Time
    : ‘First-rate Christie: fast, complicated, wryly funny.’

Agatha Christie published two books in 1932, one a new Poirot mystery Peril at End House, and the other a volume of stories featuring Miss Marple….

Though it is one of her best murder mysteries, when she came to write her memoirs about thirty years later Mrs Christie had to confess that
Peril at End House
had left so little impression on her mind that she could not even remember having written it. This seems to have led some recent critics to under-value what is, in fact, one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenious puzzle stories with a brilliant plot and some very lively characterization.

 

The action at
Peril at End House
takes place at ‘the Queen of Watering Places’ on the south coast of England, a town called St Loo which reminds Hastings forcibly of the Riviera. Although it is supposed to be in the adjoining county of Cornwall, from the author’s description of its topography St Loo is obviously her home town of Torquay in Devon, and the Majestic Hotel where Poirot and Hastings are holidaying is the famous Imperial Hotel, lightly disguised. Hastings is in England on one of his periodical visits from the Argentine: reference is made to the murder on the Blue Train two or three years earlier, which Poirot had been forced to solve without Hastings’ assistance….

Peril at End House is one of those novels in which Mrs Christie behaves most like the stage conjuror who confuses his audience by compelling them to watch his right hand while he deceives them with his left. It is also one of those novels in which she plays tricks with people’s names.

The particular deception which she practises in
Peril at End House
is one which Mrs Christie liked so much that she resorted to it again in more than one future novel. Some readers might think it as unfair as the infamous trick she played in
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
, though no one appears to have objected to it when the novel first appeared. The characters are an especially lively bunch, most of them friends or relatives of the ultra-modern Miss Buckley….

They include a mysterious Australian couple who, as Poirot observes, are almost too good to be true, with their cries of ‘Cooee’ and their not quite properly employed antipodean slang (‘And now you tell me you’re a bonza detective’). The Australia she had visited some years earlier was perhaps beginning to fade in Mrs Christie’s memory. Hastings has a decidedly odd lapse of memory when, in response to a comment by Poirot on the success which he and his wife have made of their ranch in the Argentine, he says, ‘Bella always goes by my judgment.’ But Hastings’ wife is called Dulcie. Bella, one recalls from
The Murder on the Links
in which Hastings met both girls, is the name of Dulcie’s sister.

About Charles Osborne

This essay was adapted from Charles Osborne’s
The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie: A Biographical Companion to the Works of Agatha Christie
(1982, rev. 1999). Mr. Osborne was born in Brisbane in 1927. He is known internationally as an authority on opera, and has written a number of books on musical and literary subjects, among them
The Complete Operas of Verdi
(1969);
Wagner and His World
(1977); and
W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet
(1980). An addict of crime fiction and the world’s leading authority on Agatha Christie, Charles Osborne adapted the Christie plays
Black Coffee
(Poirot);
Spider’s Web;
and
The Unexpected Guest
into novels. He lives in London.

No seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St Loo. It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera. The Cornish coast is to my mind every bit as fascinating as that of the south of France.

I remarked as much to my friend, Hercule Poirot. ‘So it said on our menu in the restaurant car yesterday,
mon ami
. Your remark is not original.’

‘But don’t you agree?’

He was smiling to himself and did not at once answer my question. I repeated it.

‘A thousand pardons, Hastings. My thoughts were wandering. Wandering indeed to that part of the world you mentioned just now.’

‘The south of France?’

‘Yes. I was thinking of that last winter that I spent there and of the events which occurred.’

I remembered. A murder had been committed on the Blue Train, and the mystery—a complicated and baffling one—had been solved by Poirot with his usual unerring acumen.

‘How I wish I had been with you,’ I said with deep regret.

‘I too,’ said Poirot. ‘Your experience would have been invaluable to me.’

I looked at him sideways. As a result of long habit, I distrust his compliments, but he appeared perfectly serious. And after all, why not? I have a very long experience of the methods he employs.

‘What I particularly missed was your vivid imagination, Hastings,’ he went on dreamily. ‘One needs a certain amount of light relief. My valet, Georges, an admirable man with whom I sometimes permitted myself to discuss a point, has no imagination whatever.’ This remark seemed to me quite irrelevant.

‘Tell me, Poirot,’ I said. ‘Are you never tempted to renew your activities? This passive life—’

‘Suits me admirably, my friend. To sit in the sun—what could be more charming? To step from your pedestal at the zenith of your fame—what could be a grander gesture? They say of me: “
That is Hercule Poirot!—The great—the unique!—There was never any one like him, there never will be!” Eh bien
—I am satisfied. I ask no more. I am modest.’

I should not myself have used the word modest. It seemed to me that my little friend’s egotism had certainly not declined with his years. He leaned back in his chair, caressing his moustache and almost purring with self-satisfaction.

We were sitting on one of the terraces of the Majestic Hotel. It is the biggest hotel in St Loo and stands in its own grounds on a headland overlooking the sea. The gardens of the hotel lay below us freely interspersed with palm trees. The sea was of a deep and lovely blue, the sky clear and the sun shining with all the single-hearted fervour an August sun should (but in England so often does not) have. There was a vigorous humming of bees, a pleasant sound—and altogether nothing could have been more ideal.

We had only arrived last night, and this was the first morning of what we proposed should be a week’s stay. If only these weather conditions continued, we should indeed have a perfect holiday.

I picked up the morning paper which had fallen from my hand and resumed my perusal of the morning’s news. The political situation seemed unsatisfactory, but uninteresting, there was trouble in China, there was a long account of a rumoured City swindle, but on the whole there was no news of a very thrilling order.

‘Curious thing this parrot disease,’ I remarked, as I turned the sheet.

‘Very curious.’

‘Two more deaths at Leeds, I see.’

‘Most regrettable.’

I turned a page.

‘Still no news of that flying fellow, Seton, in his round-the-world flight. Pretty plucky, these fellows. That amphibian machine of his, the
Albatross
, must be a great invention. Too bad if he’s gone west. Not that they’ve given up hope yet. He may have made one of the Pacific islands.’

‘The Solomon islanders are still cannibals, are they not?’ inquired Poirot pleasantly.

‘Must be a fine fellow. That sort of thing makes one feel it’s a good thing to be an Englishman after all.’

‘It consoles for the defeats at Wimbledon,’ said Poirot.

‘I—I didn’t mean,’ I began.

My friend waved my attempted apology aside gracefully.

‘Me,’ he announced. ‘I am not amphibian, like the machine of the poor Captain Seton, but I am cosmopolitan. And for the English I have always had, as you know, a great admiration. The thorough way, for instance, in which they read the daily paper.’

My attention had strayed to political news.

‘They seem to be giving the Home Secretary a pretty bad time of it,’ I remarked with a chuckle.

‘The poor man. He has his troubles, that one. Ah! yes. So much so that he seeks for help in the most improbable quarters.’

I stared at him.

With a slight smile, Poirot drew from his pocket his morning’s correspondence, neatly secured by a rubber band. From this he selected one letter which he tossed across to me.

‘It must have missed us yesterday,’ he said.

I read the letter with a pleasurable feeling of excitement.

‘But, Poirot,’ I cried. ‘This is most flattering!’

‘You think so, my friend?’

‘He speaks in the warmest terms of your ability.’

‘He is right,’ said Poirot, modestly averting his eyes.

‘He begs you to investigate this matter for him—puts it as a personal favour.’

‘Quite so. It is unneccessary to repeat all this to me. You understand, my dear Hastings. I have read the letter myself.’

‘It is too bad,’ I cried. ‘This will put an end to our holiday.’

‘No, no,
calmez vous
—there is no question of that.’

‘But the Home Secretary says the matter is urgent.’

‘He may be right—or again he may not. These politicians, they are easily excited. I have seen myself, in the Chambre des Deputés in Paris—’

‘Yes, yes, but Poirot, surely we ought to be making arrangements? The express to London has gone—it leaves at twelve o’clock. The next—’

‘Calm yourself, Hastings, calm yourself, I pray of you! Always the excitement, the agitation. We are not going to London today—nor yet tomorrow.’

‘But this summons—’

‘Does not concern me. I do not belong to your police force, Hastings. I am asked to undertake a case as a private investigator. I refuse.’

‘You
refuse?

‘Certainly. I write with perfect politeness, tender my regrets, my apologies, explain that I am completely desolated—but what will you? I have retired—I am finished.’

‘You are not finished,’ I exlaimed warmly.

Poirot patted my knee.

‘There speaks the good friend—the faithful dog. And you have reason, too. The grey cells, they still function—the order, the method—it is still there. But when I have retired, my friend, I have retired! It is finished! I am not a stage favourite who gives the world a dozen farewells. In all generosity I say: let the young men have a chance. They may possibly do something creditable. I doubt it, but they may. Anyway they will do well enough for this doubtless tiresome affair of the Home Secretary’s.’

‘But, Poirot, the compliment!’

‘Me, I am above compliments. The Home Secretary, being a man of sense, realizes that if he can only obtain my services all will be successful. What will you? He is unlucky. Hercule Poirot has solved his last case.’

I looked at him. In my heart of hearts I deplored his obstinacy. The solving of such a case as was indicated might add still further lustre to his already world-wide reputation. Nevertheless I could not but admire his unyielding attitude.

Suddenly a thought struck me and I smiled.

‘I wonder,’ I said, ‘that you are not afraid. Such an emphatic pronouncement will surely tempt the gods.’

‘Impossible,’ he replied, ‘that anyone should shake the decision of Hercule Poirot.’


Impossible
, Poirot?’

‘You are right,
mon ami
, one should not use such a word.
Eh, ma foi
, I do not say that if a bullet should strike the wall by my head, I would not investigate the matter! One is human after all!’

I smiled. A little pebble had just struck the terrace beside us, and Poirot’s fanciful analogy from it tickled my fancy. He stooped now and picked up the pebble as he went on.

‘Yes—one is human. One is the sleeping dog—well and good, but the sleeping dog can be roused. There is a proverb in your language that says so.’

‘In fact,’ I said, ‘if you find a dagger planted by your
pillow tomorrow morning—let the criminal who put it there beware!’

He nodded, but rather absently.

Suddenly, to my surprise, he rose and descended the couple of steps that led from the terrace to the garden. As he did so, a girl came into sight hurrying up towards us.

I had just registered the impression that she was a decidedly pretty girl when my attention was drawn to Poirot who, not looking where he was going, had stumbled over a root and fallen heavily. He was just abreast of the girl at the time and she and I between us helped him to his feet. My attention was naturally on my friend, but I was conscious of an impression of dark hair, an impish face and big dark-blue eyes.

‘A thousand pardons,’ stammered Poirot. ‘Mademoiselle, you are most kind. I regret exceedingly—ouch!—my foot he pains me considerably. No, no, it is nothing really—the turned ankle, that is all. In a few minutes all will be well. But if you could help me, Hastings—you and Mademoiselle between you, if she will be so very kind. I am ashamed to ask it of her.’

With me on the one side and the girl on the other we soon got Poirot on to a chair on the terrace. I then suggested fetching a doctor, but this my friend negatived sharply.

‘It is nothing, I tell you. The ankle turned, that is all. Painful for the moment, but soon over.’ He made
a grimace. ‘See, in a little minute I shall have forgotten. Mademoiselle, I thank you a thousand times. You were most kind. Sit down, I beg of you.’

The girl took a chair.

‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘But I wish you would let it be seen to.’

‘Mademoiselle, I assure you, it is a
bagatelle
! In the pleasure of your society the pain passes already.’

The girl laughed.

‘That’s good.’

‘What about a cocktail?’ I suggested. ‘It’s just about the time.’

‘Well—’ She hesitated. ‘Thanks very much.’

‘Martini?’

‘Yes, please—dry Martini.’

I went off. On my return, after having ordered the drinks, I found Poirot and the girl engaged in animated conversation.

‘Imagine, Hastings,’ he said, ‘that house there—the one on the point—that we have admired so much, it belongs to Mademoiselle here.’

‘Indeed?’ I said, though I was unable to recall having expressed any admiration. In fact I had hardly noticed the house. ‘It looks rather eerie and imposing standing there by itself far from anything.’

‘It’s called End House,’ said the girl. ‘I love it—but it’s a tumble-down old place. Going to rack and ruin.’

‘You are the last of an old family, Mademoiselle?’

‘Oh! we’re nothing important. But there have been Buckleys here for two or three hundred years. My brother died three years ago, so I’m the last of the family.’

‘That is sad. You live there alone, Mademoiselle?’

‘Oh! I’m away a good deal and when I’m at home there’s usually a cheery crowd coming and going.’

‘That is so modern. Me, I was picturing you in a dark mysterious mansion, haunted by a family curse.’

‘How marvellous! What a picturesque imagination you must have. No, it’s not haunted. Or if so, the ghost is a beneficent one. I’ve had three escapes from sudden death in as many days, so I must bear a charmed life.’

Poirot sat up alertly.

‘Escapes from death? That sounds interesting, Mademoiselle.’

‘Oh! they weren’t very thrilling. Just accidents you know.’ She jerked her head sharply as a wasp flew past. ‘Curse these wasps. There must be a nest of them round here.’

‘The bees and the wasps—you do not like them, Mademoiselle? You have been stung—yes?’

‘No—but I hate the way they come right past your face.’

‘The bee in the bonnet,’ said Poirot. ‘Your English phrase.’

At that moment the cocktails arrived. We all held up
our glasses and made the usual inane observations.

‘I’m due in the hotel for cocktails, really,’ said Miss Buckley. ‘I expect they’re wondering what has become of me.’

Poirot cleared his throat and set down his glass.

‘Ah! for a cup of good rich chocolate,’ he murmured. ‘But in England they make it not. Still, in England you have some very pleasing customs. The young girls, their hats come on and off—so prettily—so easily—’

The girl stared at him.

‘What do you mean? Why shouldn’t they?’

‘You ask that because you are young—so young, Mademoiselle. But to me the natural thing seems to have a coiffure high and rigid—so—and the hat attached with many hat pins—
là—là—là—et là
.’

He executed four vicious jabs in the air.

‘But how frightfully uncomfortable!’

‘Ah! I should think so,’ said Poirot. No martyred lady could have spoken with more feeling. ‘When the wind blew it was the agony—it gave you the
migraine
.’

Miss Buckley dragged off the simple wide-brimmed felt she was wearing and cast it down beside her.

‘And now we do this,’ she laughed.

‘Which is sensible and charming,’ said Poirot, with a little bow.

I looked at her with interest. Her dark hair was ruffled and gave her an elfin look. There was something
elfin about her altogether. The small, vivid face, pansy shaped, the enormous dark-blue eyes, and something else—something haunting and arresting. Was it a hint of recklessness? There were dark shadows under the eyes.

The terrace on which we were sitting was a little-used one. The main terrace where most people sat was just round the corner at a point where the cliff shelved directly down to the sea.

From round this corner now there appeared a man, a red-faced man with a rolling carriage who carried his hands half clenched by his side. There was something breezy and carefree about him—a typical sailor.

‘I can’t think where the girl’s got to,’ he was saying in tones that easily carried to where we sat. ‘Nick—Nick.’

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