Given the inevitable decline in Agatha Christie’s powers as her career drew to a close, there’s a moderate irony in that fact that she had come off probably the most successful decade in the history of detective fiction writing when she opted to portray Hercule Poirot at his apparent worst.
Hallowe’en Party (1969) and Elephants Can Remember (1972) would have been fairly damning epitaphs for the career of the little Belgian, and for Dame Agatha herself, and yet when reading them it’s clear that Poirot is supposed to still be in his pomp and magnificence. Whatever the true motivation was behind Christie writing Curtain in the 1940s — I’ve seen it claimed both that she wanted to guarantee a strong ending to the character were she to be killed herself in the Blitz, and that she simply loved the idea when it came to her and felt the need to write it while it was fresh — I can’t deny that it’s somewhat wonderful to have author and sleuth both back on their game. Yes, there are all manner of anachronisms (from, er, research purposes elsewhere I know that the practice of hanging criminals was abandoned before the apparent setting of this story) and it exists in a curiously airless, trapped-in-amber milieu that could be anything from 1924 to some sort of 21st century Technology Detox Camp, but I’m happy to allow certain things for the sheer quality of this experience.
The plot is simplicity itself: we begin with Arthur Hastings returning to Styles, now run as a hotel by Colonel and Mrs. Luttrell, at the request of his old (and now elderly) confrere. There, a variety of GAD Types await us: the worldly Sir William Boyd Carrington, a former governor out in India, the reserved spinster Elizabeth Cole, cad and gadabout Major Allerton, keen birdwatcher Stephen Norton, research scientist (and casual vivisectionist, with “hutches of guinea pigs…and mice and rabbits”) Dr John Franklin, his psychosomatic invalid wife Barbara, and Judith Hastings, youngest daughter of our long-suffering narrator and assistant to Dr. Franklin. One of these people, Poirot tells us, is a murderer of the most hateful and pernicious type, a shadowy figure able to remain on the fringes of suspicion in at least five known cases who was, nevertheless, undeniably guilty of each of the deaths that have occurred. Poirot calls this person X, and says — with a straight face and everything — that he needs Hastings’ help in running the guilty party to ground.
Poirot, see, is not the physical force he once was.
Crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself abut in a wheeled chair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now His face was lined and wrinkled. … Only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling…
“I’m as fit as I ever was…”
Hastings, then, shall be the eyes and ears, and Poirot the brains. And so, naturally, Hastings goes about hearing and seeing all the right things but putting entirely the wrong interpretation on them. Perhaps the first meaningful flaw in this, and there aren’t many, is how dense Hastings appears now — did I simply overlook this before, or has the awareness been coaxed out of me in his absence? He’s seemingly eager to stop a murderer, but also unable to see how important it is to do things Poirot’s way even with his own daughter as potentially both a suspect and a possible victim. “In spite of Poirot’s feebleness and ill health,” he tells us, “I had faith in him… I was used, you see, to Poirot’s succeeding” — and yet even Papa Poirot is moved to uncharacteristic frustration with Hastings’ injunctions against basic precautions:
“You can listen to conversations, you have knees that will bend and permit you to kneel and look through keyholes–“
“I will not look through keyholes,” I interrupted hotly.
Poirot closed his eyes. “Very well, then. You will not look through keyholes. You will remain the English gentleman and someone will be killed. It does not matter, that. Honour comes first with an Englishman. Your honour is more important that somebody else’s life.”
We, of course, have faith in Poirot, and it would be a deviation from the norm too far were he to fail in this instance — and that, piled upon all the other deviations this plot brings us, has a Phelpsian air that perhaps even Christie shied away from (writing, it might be said, the sort of book that Sarah Phelps wishes she could dramatise). For all his obstinacy, Hastings goes through a quite phenomenal changes at a key part of this story, and Christie makes the agonies he experiences compelling and believable at the same time; “the morning after”, as it may be termed, is one of the most compelling I think I’ve ever encountered, and, while the man did vex me so, I enthusiastically applaud the acumen Christie exhibited in bringing someone we have such an emotional connection with back to be put through the wringer in such a manner.
The inclusion of Judith, too, is an inspired piece of reflection. Christie isn’t especially good at conveying parent-offspring relationships — it’s too easy here to read great depths into the awkwardness of the Hastings ménage given her own, well-documented difficulties with her daughter Rosalind — but Judith is a great shortcut to Hastings’ many flaws and the pricking of his
thumbs ego. Convinced that he is doing a superb job of dissemblage when examining the suspects over dinner, he’s approached afterwards by Judith who wants to know why he was “staring at everyone at dinner” — this following Hastings having credited himself with “a little dissimulation” over Poirot’s refusal to give up the name of the killer. And the gap in generations is brought about, too, by Judith’s confident avowal that “Unfit lives, useless lives — they should be got out of the way”, while the older, more level-headed Norton reassures her shaken father that “it’s the sort of half-baked idea one has when one is young, but fortunately one doesn’t carry it out. It remains just talk.”
“Ah, but when one is old…”
Throughout all this, Hastings is, naturally, in the thick of all manner of subtle pointers and indicators as to who our killer is, blithely sailing — along with us — past the key incidents to point his moving finger at the most obvious suspect (“It came to me very strongly that [redacted] was almost certainly X. And I had let him see that I suspected the fact.”) and allowing X to work their not-so-merry magic. We get some textbook character descriptions — I unknowingly highlighted perhaps the most significant one because of its sheer banality, only to get to the end and realise how deliberate that banality was — and glorious touches like Boyd Carrington’s quiet reflection that “one feels safer alone” after the death of his first wife, or the effervescent joy of Daisy Luttrell’s here-again-gone-again Irish brogue. It’s a wonderfully joyous time, so light on its feet after the galumphing Elephants, and you can see Christie almost hugging herself with joy at times for how neatly she hides so much under the guise of apparent nothingness.
Inevitably, death comes as the end of this apparent nothingness, and suddenly you know there has to be some relevance to what has been going on. This is, after all, vintage-era Christie.
The deaths herein warrant some discussion, and I shall attempt to do so without spoiling anything. The first is one of those sting-in-the-tail affairs, when the revelation of how it was done is a real kicker that you don’t see coming…and that’s especially true here because I went back to read the relevant passage once the workings were revealed and there’s no way you could link that description with causing the death that happens. It’s a shop-worn Golden Age trick of sorts, and never fails to amuse me, and I’d be no less delighted here but for the fact that it drops out of stark nowhere and thus lacks the kick it might otherwise have. The second death is doubtless why this ended up on the Roland Lacourbe-curated Locked Room Library list, but to read this book for its locked room murder would be a (dead man’s) folly. Indeed, to talk about that as a locked room murder is to take away from the deviation that it represents — the sort of bold and audacious step that characterises why Christie was such a great champion of the detective novel, and why she remains so beloved today.
The final death is, then, perhaps the one everyone will fixate on, especially in light of what follows it — the revelation of X’s identity, and the moral difficulty of how to deal with such sociopathy. It has to be said, I’ve flipped and and forth through this book in the writing of this review, and the sheer depth of X’s modus operandi is somewhat breathtaking; it is nothing short of genre genius to see how those apparently innocuous observations that are so often the bread and butter of the GAD author are dialled up to about 12 here, with X in at every key moment and development displaying the sort of raw cunning that could well make me believe Christie was incredibly excited to conceive of such a frankly evil scheme.
“Of course, she didn’t fool me for a second…”
So where does that leave us, now that Papa Poirot has spoken his last? With the best Christies, one comes away somewhat mute at the ingenious meshing of the gears, and with a creeping feeling that writing about murder is easy when she can make it look so effortless. Whether Curtain is among the best Christies is difficult to call — it’s doubtless the best thing she published in the 1960s and 1970s, and the joy at getting the old girl back facing the peak of her achievements may lead many among us to overstate its qualities. As a scheme I think this might be the best thing she ever came up with — yes, beating even And Then There Were None (1939) — with the problems in declaration (the final chapter, where Poirot explains, requires a lot of withheld information to come to the fore, which is…just annoying, especially as we’re told there are clues to some of it that there simply aren’t) letting the side down somewhat.
If you put this into the company of her 1940s output, since its a contemporary of them, after all, it doesn’t stand out as quite the beacon it may seem from the distance of its publication date. Arguably the 40s saw an increase in Christie’s creativity — Five Little Pigs (1943), Towards Zero (1944), Death Comes As the End (1944), Sparkling Cyanide (1945), The Hollow (1946), and Crooked House (1949) showcasing a multiplicity of approaches that most writers would kill for — and as such Curtain fits in quite neatly, without excelling. However, such judgement is moot, really: for all her well-publicised disdain for the little Belgian as her career progressed, it’s delightful to think that she was still interested in giving him such a strong send-off, and one that will live so long in the memory, too.