A long weekend (probably) awaits, so how better to pass some time than listening to Brad, Moira, and me discuss Five Little Pigs, a.k.a. Murder in Retrospect (1942) by Agatha Christie? Okay, sure, there are countless better ways to pass the time, but here’s that discussion anyway.
Earlier this year, I held a poll for the Christie titles you wanted us to talk about, this one both came out on top and was the chronological first of the three winners. So let’s sidle down memory lane as Poirot tries to unpick a murder from 16 years ago…though not 16 years prior to the publication date, as we discuss early on with due thanks to Countdown John.
Also, prepare yourselves for a shock as one of us doesn’t really like this highly-regarded novel all that much. Spoilers: it’s me, it’s always me. Poor Brad and Moira, the nonsense of mine they have to put up with. Also spoilers: there are spoilers for this book in this discussion. One of these days I won’t feel the need to point that out, but today is not that day.
You can listen to the podcast on iTunes here, on Spotify here, or on Stitcher here, or by using the player below.
It’s always a pleasure to talk Christie — well, anything — with Brad and Moira, but I always like to thank them here so they don’t think I’m taking them for granted. We’re all giving our time for free — no Patreon, no ko.fi, no adverts inserted to inspire you to cough up your hard-earned money — and I’m very fortunate to have such energetic, enthusiastic, knowledgable, understanding, and delightful people to talk through these books with me. And a podcast with no audience is just a tree falling in a forest, so many thanks to you for listening along.
In July, we’re discussing Towards Zero (1944) which I remember loving but finding irritating because of how much I’d been looking forward to spending more time with Superintendent Battle…and then he was hardly bloody in it! Forewarned is fore-armed, however, and I anticipate a very jolly time with that this summer.
Stay safe, stay hydrated, more Christie spoilers next fiscal quarter.
47 thoughts on “Spoiler Warning – Five Little Pigs, a.k.a. Murder in Retrospect (1942) by Agatha Christie”
Much better theme song . . . MUCH better!!!!!!
(Oy . . . )
The other five guys in my barbershop quartet will be delighted.
Thanks for the name check on the dating of the story. In terms of the Suchet adaptations this one is very memorable because of the filmic quality – before rewatching it within the last year or so, I could remember how vivid and bright it was. I would recommend Peril at End House, The ABC Murders, and Death in the Clouds (which having looked them up happen to be the first 3 novels adapted when the initial run was mostly the short stories) because as a purist they stick to the books – none of the nonsensical Ackroyd running around at the end etc.
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Ugh! The gun chase at the end of the Ackroyd film—again, ugh! The adaptation had the potential to be better than what it was but it could have been way worse! And even though the film met the challenge of staying true to the book’s structure (hard to do, perhaps impossible), we deserved a much better ending!
From a filmic point if view, I feel that this is the best and most memorable of the Suchet adaptations.
I also deem it the best overall. The ABC Murders is another one I would recommend enthusiastically.
I hope the Suchet version of ABC has that scene — lifted, you’ll remember, straight from the novel — where the landlady’s hired-out-for-sex daughter steps on the welts on Cust’s back. Crucial stuff, that, changes the entire meaning of the book if it’s not included.
Five Little Pigs has a literary quality that’s rare to see in an Agatha Christie mystery. Today’s mystery writers rave all about having their work seen as “literary” (as though they’re ashamed of their work seen for what they are: “mystery”) and criticize Christie’s books for never reaching that level, deeming her inferior. Well, I say to them, eat your heart out, because here’s a literary mystery! Five Little Pigs is more than your typical whodunnit both in its prose and the characters. Christie’s characters are often looked down upon these days by some of our contemporary mystery writers calling them flat, one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts, etc. I, on the other hand, think what constitutes Christie’s genius is her ability to construct in-depth characters that aren’t perceived that way initially. In other words, some of her characters have a depth that isn’t seen on the surface. And that’s what I think many of today’s critics miss. I’m not saying ALL of her characters are like this because they weren’t. Really, who’s going to say that Daniel Clancy, the detective novelist from Death In The Clouds, is complex and multi-layered? I do love Agatha Christie, but I’m going to call a duck a duck when I see it. But in Five Little Pigs, the deep characterization is evident from the get-go. No need to look beyond what’s merely on the surface here. What also elevates this book on a different level is the “emotional aspect”—emotion arising out of the character’s situations and the very characters themselves. And to create an in-depth story with complex characters, well-written prose, and a good mystery to boot ALL under 300 pages is quite an accomplishment and just goes to show you don’t need 500+ pages (quite the trend these days in the mystery genre) to contain all these elements.
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My impression has always been that truth is revealed in FIVE LITTLE PIGS as consisting of those memories most unanimously held by the consensus of “rememberers.” That is, if the memories could be represented as an image of overlapping translucent colors (like a Venn diagram), truth would be in the center— the dark “intersection” of the various memories. The closer to the center of such a diagram, the more likely a memory would be truth, with contradictions found at the outer edges, where the memories did not overlap. Of course, the idea that Amyas was going to leave Caroline would also belong in the middle, but that reveals the difference between incidents and interpretations: four or five people could not (likely) all misremember the facts of an incident, but all of them could believe a single misinterpretation of the reasons behind it.
Admittedly, “Everything tastes foul today” then belongs closer to the outside of this diagram though, if my (possibly faulty) memory serves, those words are actually remembered by two of the characters, not just one, so it’s not quite on the outer edges.
And again, this all supports my annoying overriding argument— no number of concurring memories could ever constitute an objective threshold of sufficiency, but certainly five people remembering the same thing is more convincing and satisfying to us than just one. Practically nothing is logically proven in this novel, but truth is seen as that which is most psychologically consistent… most “retrospectively inevitable” (I actually think this is true of most “factually precise” “deductive” whodunits, but here it’s more obvious).
I have always thought that the flaw in Caroline not realizing the truth at the trial (that the poison was only in the bottle, and therefore Angela could not have been guilty) could have been effectively covered by some character (probably one of the lawyers, as it is merely an extension of what one of them actually says) saying something to the effect of
“she had escaped in to her own world. She gave the answers her lawyer her had coached her to say, but beyond that, I doubt she heard a single word uttered at that trial.” Such a statement need not be examined later, but might justify the discrepancy in a more vigilant reader’s mind, and I would have included it in an adaptation. I think the Suchet adaptation works beautifully— for all I rant about the hypocrisy of Suchet’s claims of thorough research, he’s a great actor, and I concur with Moira that this is arguably the finest Christie adaptation— but I think the inclusion of such a statement might have smoothed over a potential quibble.
As for other Suchet recommendations, I don’t think mine are either surprising or unconventional. Besides FIVE LITTLE PIGS, I’d recommend THE ABC MURDERS, AFTER THE FUNERAL, and CURTAIN (AFTER THE FUNERAL being a bit less faithful to Christie than the others, but in ways that personally don’t bother me). There are others that are very well done (PERIL AT END HOUSE, MURDER IN THREE ACTS) that are very well done, but don’t work all that well for me because I’m not enamored by the the source novels (usually because I find theirs solutions transparent in all forms).
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I JUST re-read this novel for the podcast, but I also can’t be sure of my accuracy as to who said what or who supported another witness’ evidence. I believe only Miss Williams saw Angela handling the beer bottle when she was walking with Caroline, but then Miss Williams is perhaps the most credible witness. I think Meredith mentions valerian and Angela tosses off the fact that she once used “cat stuff” on Amyas. One supports the other, and it’s credible both that Meredith would best remember the things he was responsible for and Angela, being 15 at the time, would forget exactly WHEN she dosed Amyas. Finally, Caroline’s lawyer DOES say that she wasn’t really there during her trial, and Elsa rants that she couldn’t destroy Caroline because she had “gone away.” I think, taken together, that is sufficient for our purposes to explain away John Goddard’s point.
And just to underscore the near perfection of this novel: we may argue that, all statements taken together, the case is still not proven. Well – Poirot KNOWS that! He SAYS that! Elsa gets up and walks away, and the possibility that she will ever face the music is left up in the air. And in the end none of that matters!!! Elsa will “face the music” for the rest of her days. That’s how Christie does it! 🙂
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Yes, the lawyer does say that she wasn’t really there, and Elsa’s testimony supports it, but I still think that the addition of the more direct (and less subtle) “I doubt that she heard a single word uttered at that trial” (or something to that effect) could have helped, and might have prevented the likes of Robert Barnard and John Goddard even raising that particular objection.
And I agree that Poirot admits that the case isn’t proven… though I’d go further to say that’s true of nearly the entire genre. 2 people testifying to something is more convincing (and satisfying) than 1, and 50 people testifying to something is more convincing than 2. But 50 people testifying to something no more objectively proves something than one person doing so, and even if one could objectively prove a point (certainly a possibility, though one rarely achieved or even attempted in the genre) it wouldn’t necessarily make that point more satisfying. Which is why the solution to Five Little Pigs will likely satisfy more readers than a story with a single, objectively proven point.
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I think your Venn allusion is probably what I had in mind when I was remembering this before rereading — that a few points of agreement coalesce to make the central scheme clear…but that’s also not the case with “Everything tastes foul today” and “I’ll see to her packing”, clearly the two most important statements in the entire enterprise.
I maintain that much more of that sort of conceit would have made this a far superior book, and that it suffers due to a lack of any real planning. Your point about the line that could be repeated at the key moment is a great example: why rely on that as a very important part of your plot if you’re not going to point it out?
The more defences/examinations of these flaws I hear, the more I can’t help but feel that too many plot allowances are being made just because the characters are undeniably affecting. Remember when we used to want the plots of detective novels to be rigorous? Those were the days…
Well, I think it should be noted that “Everything tastes foul today” is not a matter of something possibly misremembered after 16 years. It is something that is quoted to us from Superintendent Hale, reading directly from notes taken at the time of the initial investigation— it is offered among the other “facts of the case.” Admittedly, the original source of this information to the police is not clear but, as the only possible living witnesses to that quote were Caroline Crale and Elsa Greer, I presume that the quote was either offered to the investigating police at the time either by both women, or offered by one, and confirmed by the other (I actually presume it was offered by Caroline, as Elsa— perhaps quite deliberately— does not include the word “everything” in her written account of the conversation). At any rate, though not a “Venn diagram” intersection of memories, the quote was offered into evidence 16 years before Poirot asked anyone to remember.
“I’ll see to her packing” is, on the other hand, a 16-years-later recollection…. and even there, when asked to conform his statement, Meredith qualifies it with “it was something like that… yes.” (and the most Philip can offer is that it was “something about packing”). Personally I think Christie does a fine job of conveying the uncertainty of this memory, and also Poirot’s reason for doubting Amyas would say it. What I have a bit more problem with is that Poirot would so easily fall upon “I’ll send her packing” as the logical alternative.
As for the quote about Caroline’s obliviousness at the trial, I was not suggesting that it need be repeated, but that it include the notion of her extreme in attention to the testimony at the trial, because it would help justify an otherwise rather I credible lack of recognition on her part.
I don’t think that plot is without flaws, but I think it’s much stronger than JJ suggests, and is indeed at least the equal of the characterization. Indeed, I believe it marks the rather ideal point where characterization and plotting meet— indeed, where the characterization becomes the plotting.
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but that it include the notion of her extreme inattention to the testimony at the trial, because it would help justify an otherwise rather incredible lack of recognition on her part.
Great points, Scott, and I like your idea that a single line more would remove that quibble. Yes indeed. And the fact that the role of memory can produce so much philosophical discussion is surely a tribute to the book.
In our house we use the phrase ‘I’ll see to her packing’ (in an ironical manner) all the time, and have done so with great affection for 30 years. The unintended effects of reading Christie!
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Thanks for an hour of enjoyable listening. The three of you complement each other in these podcasts. It wouldn’t be as interesting if you all agreed on every point.
Whilst I love the fair-play aspect of 5LP, I think your criticisms of this book are correct particularly people remembering details from years ago when I cannot remember events from a week ago. For me, this is the only Suchet adaptation that I found enhanced my appreciation of the book. Indeed the flashbacks told the story in a superior way to that of Christie limited to describing past events in written word. The visuals, cinematography and acting are excellent as Moira and Brad say as well.
This book along with The Hollow are two of the best examples of Christie maturing from her wonderful puzzle plots of the 30s to the richly character-driven mysteries of the 40s.
I’d also add Sad Cypress which also has rich characterization as well as Five Little Pigs and The Hollow. Those that heavily criticize that Christie’s mysteries focus only on the puzzle and to the wind with characters need to reconsider the mysteries of the 40s that you refer to.
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I loved the psychology of Sad Cypress. It came through s much more strongly there than here. I’d almost be tempted to call Five Little pigs the practice run and Sad Cypress the far stronger realisation, but SC precedes 5LP by two years, so that rather knocks that theory on the head…
Brian – yes, good point. Brad mentioned in the podcast how Christie excels at variations of the love triangle and Sad Cypress is another strong example of that with Elinor – Roddy – Mary as richly drawn characters.
While I agree that the key thing here is how much more character-driven these books start to become, I’m reluctant to let that expiate the book for its nonsensical plot elements. Christie was more than welcome to spread her wings — and 40 books in she would have yearned for that dearly, I have no doubt — but the one thing the woman really knew from those 40 books was how to plot, and it’s a crushing shame to see that element fall down so badly here.
I’m not sure I have been as upset by a thing said in the podcast as hearing Moira describe the early Suchet Poirots as “pretty dire”. The words I would use are “pretty delightful”. The may not be oscar-worthy material, but barring a few bad ones they are simply fun and enjoyable. I do agree they are quite different from these later ones.
Anyway, on to the actual discussion at hand… I always thought of Five Little Pigs as being, in addition to one of the most emotionally interesting Christies, also one of the most rigorously constructed. Each clue and new development fits perfectly into its place as it is introduced – each new action that is revealed makes perfect emotional sense for the characters and fits in to the accounts.
When I read in Goddard’s book the criticism that Caroline really should have noticed that Angela couldn’t have done it, it was a bit of a blow! The critical thing about that is that it hits at not only the factual events but their emotional core as well. It can only be overcome by diligent excuse-making or ignoring, and I really don’t think Christie can have thought of it at all, and she seems to have thought of everything else in this book.
My other main confusion is the pullover. In the Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, the plot runthrough has both “[Elsa] says she is cold – goes up to house (gets coniine)” and “Elsa is cold – goes to get jersey (gets coniine)” in the same list of events. Christie liked to list out different versions of scenes next to each other but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happened here. I can’t quite make out what’s going on with the pullover but it just about works out.
Really though the only reason things like these seem so important is because everything else is covered with such clarity. Poirot’s going over the accounts in so much detail prompts us to do the same, and we expect much higher standards for actions to make emotional sense.
Take a more regular mystery (say… Sad Cypress) and you can find much more serious plot holes which make less impact because they aren’t looked at in such detail.
Now you’ve got me wanting to read Sad Cypress again — what plot holes can be more serious than the ones we’ve discussed here!?!
The most serious one, iirc, is the killer’s plan involves foreknowledge of other people’s actions in a way they couldn’t really have. It’s a common problem in crime fiction, some people are ok with it but whenever I notice it it throws me out of the story. I didn’t actually notice it myself for Sad Cypress, I am a very innatentive reader who turns the pages too fast, so this is another Goddard special. I think John Curran mentions it too. The main problem with Sad Cypress is that it lacks the impact of a traditional Christie twist, but also lacks the emotional impact of Five Little Pigs. The clueing and the killer’s scheme is clever, but it’s ultimately an “oh it was that then” solution.
I remember being more impressed with Sad Cypress on first reading than I was with 5LP. Sure, memory plays tricks, so I could be wrong, but my recall is that I thoroughly enjoyed the reversal after a similarly watertight setup.
I’ll definitely reread it, whether as part of these spoiler discussions or otherwise, and I’ll be interested, as always, to see how it compares to what I remember. Expect updates in 2027. Ish.
Your comment makes me wonder exactly how we define “reversal.” As we will see in July, Towards Zero has multiple reversals, all not them wonderful. I would suggest that, of the three 40’s novels we have been discussing, only the solution of The Hollow depends on a “reversal.” However, if any changes to one’s understanding of the facts based on clues constitutes a reversal, then so be it. I agree that the murder method in Sad Cypress is quite clever, but once it is made clear, the announcement of the true killer must be made immediately; there are no other possibilities.
Yes, good point; perhaps I should have said “reveal”.
The shortcomings of Sad Cypress, however, I’ll have to refrain from discussing at present, since it’s been far too long since I read it and I recall only the bold strokes that remain a decade-plus after any book. But given that my overall impressions of these novels has largely been borne out in re-reading them for the SW discussions, I’m confident I’ll enjoy it, at the very least.
I hope you have recovered from my wild assertions about the Christie adaptations! I think I was just very disappointed in them as being too far removed from the originals – the stories didn’t contain enough in them to sustain one-hour episodes. However I will handsomely say that I am sure looked at in a different way they are ‘delightful’!
And now after reading this exchange I really want to look at Sad Cypress in detail.
While I disagree with JJ in that I think this is Christie’s best novel (that I’ve read so far), I think he is the one that nails what makes the book stand out: the ending. There are all of those innocent mentions suddenly blooming into profound relevance, and then there is the painting. My god, the painting! One of the ten best passages in GAD (with most of the others being written by Christianna Brand). What kills me about the Suchet adaptation is that the painting doesn’t get its moment, because that’s the most stunning scene in the novel. And man, if some production house wants to go all out on a film adaptation of (let’s be honest and call it) Murder in Retrospect, and they could somehow truly capture the spirit of the painting… the thought raises the hair on my arms.
As for the David Suchet adaptations, I find them to be all about two things:
1. The stunning sets
2. Suchet’s personification of Poirot, and let’s be honest, it’s perfect
It’s the sets though that really get me. This may not resonate as much for you living in England, but as someone who lives in the western US, where 99% of houses were built in the last 70 or so years, the Poirot sets are the stuff of dreams. The woodwork, the marble, the grand estates, the history… Yeah, it drives me crazy when the writers decide to change core plot points (especially involving the ending/solution), but visually these capture an era that is long gone.
As to Suchet’s personification of Poirot being perfection, I’d concur… except that he differs from Christie’s Poirot in height, eye color, mustache size, limp, belief in the alignment of justice and the rule of law, unanguished confidence in his moral judgments, and relationship to his Roman Catholic faith.
As they, “besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?”
For, take away these distinctions in physical attributes, attitudes, and beliefs, and what have you got left? You’ve got a man with a mustache, an accent, a passion for order, and deductive brilliance. And that does describe Suchet’s Poirot. But it also describes Ustinov’s, Finney’s, Branagh’s… even Molina’s!
Another contender for best passage in GAD, from the pen of Brand: the victim’s second wife holding forth on why she shouldn’t be a suspect in the murders because she’s sick of everyone being in the thrall of his deceased first wife…it’s amazing stuff, and has stuck with me for years as one of the great screams of frustration in literature.
I recall that passage for its du Maurier-esque quality. I also remember the last two or three chapters of that Brand as being quite emotionally written (although that could be said of almost all of Brand’s endings.)
I assume you’ll disagree with me, but the final two pages of Brand’s The Rose in Darkness are about as powerful as it gets. Perhaps we need to make a list…
I’ve yet to read Rose in Darkness.
So here’s the thing . . .
I do get a bit grumpy when Scott throws out his terms, but the one I’ve always liked is “sudden retrospective illumination.” Ratner and I may disagree vehemently on the concept of fair play or on GAD mysteries having the challenge of a game about them (whether you want to win or lose the game is beside the point to me; it’s what makes THIS game unique and so beloved of its fans). Whatever . . . the term sudden retrospective illumination is as good as it gets to describe that warm-all-over satisfaction we get when the author supplies a plot that gibes together so well we see the inevitability of it. OF COURSE “X” is the culprit! OF COURSE no other way would work as well! It just feels so right!
Christie has accomplished that for me again and again. Queen and Carr did the same thing. But Brand? Here’s the problem for me with Brand and “sudden retrospective illumination:” Brand is the only one of this quartet to add that powerful jab in the gut, that emotional response that, for want of a better phrase I’ll call “no no no no no, not THAT person!” Thinking about this, I tried to recall any Christie novel where I was deeply upset over the identity of the killer, and by this I mean upset that someone I had truly come to like was the killer, not that I thought that Christie had got it wrong and the book was lacking in sudden retrospective illumination. I haven’t read every Carr, but I can’t remember a case where this happened either. As stunned or surprised as I may have been, I never thought, “Oh, God, all my feelings of admiration and hero worship have been stymied by THIS person turning out to be the killer.” I felt a deep emotional reaction at the end of He Who Whispers that had nothing to do with the killer’s identity. I felt tremendous shock at whodunnit at the end of She Died a Lady, but my emotional reaction was saved for the person most affected by that revelation, someone I had come to like.
Ellery Queen came closer to affecting me in the way I’m describing with Face to Face and, to some extent, There Was an Old Woman. (The emotional devastation was worse in the former, but the basic structure of both solutions is actually the very same.) But nobody punches me in the gut like Christianna Brand. Whether it’s a truly great story like Tour de Force or Green for Danger or a flawed final work like The Rose in Darkness, she really goes for the emotional jugular. Writers nowadays forego puzzle plots for pure emotion – witness Elizabeth George betraying her readers by killing off the nicest character in her stable – but I’m talking about the masters of the puzzle plot, and these four are my favorites. Christie may be my very favorite, but she never made me feel the way Brand did at the end of one of her books.
I REALLY have to get started on my “Re-Branding” reading project!!!
Brad, I’ve heard about Christianna Brand and her work for some time but now you’re pulling me ever so close to pursuing her books! Gee thanks, another writer to add to my already long list! LOL!
Like you said writers nowadays do forego the puzzle for pure emotion in its characters, but of course, you can have both, and no sacrifice or downplaying one for the other is needed. Pondering about it, I find it too easy to kill off a nice character to emote a reaction from the reader. A writer can do this, I have no problem with that, but it’s nice when an author pulls his/her weight and dig deeper to evoke pure emotion from the reader rather than jump to what has become a cliche.
Well no excuses for any of us not to read (or re-read) Brand as British Library Crime Classics is re-printing Green for Danger this month and (as TomCat reported over at his blog) the classic, Death of Jezebel, in August this year. The cover of DoJ looks amazing.
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(Response to Scott’s comment) I had no idea it was getting republished! Honestly I’ve never been happier to have a too-expensive purchase of a poor-quality copy prove to be unnecessary.
Oh, no, the end of Rose in Darkness is a real gut punch. The rest of the book I can take or leave, but it ends majestically.
So agree with you about the picture – I would love to see someone try to recreate it.
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I like Sad Cypress for its character drama, but it doesn’t come close to the brilliance of 5LP as a whole. Yes, there is a romantic triangle, but it doesn’t have the gravity of most of the others in Christie’s oeuvre because only Elinor is a really dynamic character, flawed and difficult but ultimately worth rooting for. (Roddy is a shallow cad, and Mary is, almost literally, a perfect angel.) One point that is often brought out about the really important triangles is the issue of who really loves who in the end and how Christie uses that question to formulate her disguise. (Who’s REALLY in love at the end of Death on the Nile or Evil Under the Sun? Yes, Christie sometimes varies her use of the triangle, as in Taken at the Flood, which really does a number on the “good” person in that story.
Where Jim and I part ways here is that I love the 40’s novels for being that next step in Christie’s evolution as a writer and don’t fault her movement away from the “perfect” puzzle and toward more of a character-driven mystery. I don’t think the puzzle plot of 5LP falls apart based on the concerns that we have expressed, and I think the power of this novel is magnified by being, as Ratner above puts it, “the rather ideal point where characterization and plotting meet— indeed, where the characterization becomes the plotting.”
What I appreciate about Suchet in the Poirot adaptation is that he does not pull the focus away from the crime here and toward Poirot’s reaction to the crime. He is very much an observer, which does NOT happen in Suchet’s journey aboard the Orient Express or even his investigation of the Three-Act Tragedy. Still, I’m like Ben and hold out hope for a big-screen 5LP one of these days, with a brand-new Poirot.
As for the quality of the Poirot series, I confess that I haven’t watched a lot of the short story adaptations from the early seasons. Even though the entire series is set in the mid-late 30’s, the tone shift sort of reflects the change from the puzzle-rich first half of Christie’s career to the character-driven mid-point. (Things are more dicey at the end.) And yet, I say “sort of” because Suchet’s desire to darken the life of Poirot does not occur in the books until the very, very end. That is his own interpretation and must be evaluated on that score. I find it hilarious that many Christie “purists” have no trouble with what Suchet does here while they rail at Branagh for his own take on the character or Malkovich for fulfilling Sarah Phelps’ vision.
In the end, it’s really all about one’s tastes and preferences, and my own cause me to view Jim’s criticisms as his own, rather than any attempt to “prove” 5LP is “lesser” Christie. The flaws may be there, but so are massive amounts of greatness that, for ME, belie those flaws.
Brad, I have heard Mary Gerrard, in Sad Cypress, before spoken of like this “perfect angel”, and it’s funny that you say the exact statement. But I respectively disagree, because while Mary appears perfect and pretty on the surface, she is a sad character and there are undercurrents that reflect that. Mary is not this “Mary Sue” character where she has everything together from the inside out. She struggles internally and there are circumstances in her life, past and present, that reveal her as a tragic figure. While Elinor is a well-rounded character, Mary is too but in a different way. You’re right, that the romantic triangle in Sad Cypress doesn’t carry the same weight as in Five Little Pigs; the latter holds together more cohesively, whereas, in the former, the “so-called” romantic triangle isn’t a TRUE triangle because Mary Gerrard doesn’t give into Roddy’s feelings towards her and rejects him—the triangle falls apart.
I find the central puzzle and solution of Five Little Pigs to be far more compelling than that of Sad Cypress (and certainly far more so than The Hollow). It’s a murder that was committed rather impulsively by a culprit who made little effort to cover tracks, but whose plot was made deceptive by the conscious deceptions of two non-culprit characters, both of whom deceived for very different (and convincing) reasons (artistic single-mindedness, guilt and protection of loved one), but neither of whom are alive to clarify the truth. And the murderer subsequently capitalized on those deceptions and resulting misconceptions for self-protection.
I find it impressive how many of the novel’s clues can both initially seem to support the false believed scenario and ultimately support the truth, allowing for what I consider a particularly strong sense of “sudden retrospective illumination”— strong both in surprise and a retrospective sense of inevitability. I have no problem with the “everything tastes foul today” clue because, although it is not supported by an intersection of testimonies, it was quoted from the record of the initial investigation and/or trial, and thus does not represent the faulty memory of sixteen years (it is presented by an official investigator as among “the facts of the case” [yes, it could still be in error, but there’s only so far I expect Christie to go to prove such points— it was no doubt mentioned and confirmed by someone at the trial, and it’s difficult to see why any one would have reason to add that “everything” unless we are to credit Caroline with a very inconsistent level of cleverness]). “I’ll see to her packing” by contrast is a quote merely remembered 16 years later, and thus more believably the product of vague memory (and is presented as possibly such); both that the subject was Angela’s schooling (supporting the false scenario) and that it was unlikely that Amyas would see to her packing (suggesting the truth) are believable. “It’s too cruel!” is also effectively ambiguous, believable both ( initially) as self-pity and (as ultimately revealed) pity for another.
The fact that Caroline didn’t recognize the truth during the trial is admittedly problematic (it’s a problem that was brought up by Robert Barnard long before John Goddard mentioned it) and though Christie goes some way in rationalizing it with the whole “she wasn’t mentally present at the trial” suggestion, I still think a more blatant and on-point “I doubt she heard a single word spoken at the trial” could have helped (I wouldn’t suggest either be brought up again by Poirot in the denouement, but merely be there to satisfy those who would retrospectively question this touchy point). As for the possible psychological inconsistency of Caroline writing both letters, I must admit I never considered it before, but I suspect there’s a possible psychological explanation that could justify it. But, like Brad, I consider these points minor in light of the strength of the mass of bivalent clues, and I feel both can be “overcome” even if Christie made only slight effort to do so.
I myself never cared much for the structure of the novel (all the interviews and then all of the written accounts— I prefer the simplified way it was handled in the Suchet episode), but that too I consider a minor debit (perhaps because I’m a “destination” reader, and rarely enjoy the journey regardless).
Most of those comments were about plotting, but that’s not to overlook the value of the characterization. But I’d still argue that characterization is not nearly— or even primarily— the novel’s greatest strength.
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Scott, I agree with almost everything you say here. I just offer a couple of points in comment:
“And the murderer subsequently capitalized on those deceptions and resulting misconceptions for self-protection.” I suppose most murderers ARE trying to protect themselves, but I would argue that this is NOT Elsa’s primary motive. She wants to murder Caroline, and she wants to do that even more cold-bloodedly than she did Amyas, which was more in the heat of the moment. Her focus throughout the trial is on making and/or watching Caroline suffer, but all she can manage is to help convict her. While I can never excuse murder, you can almost pity the girl when she overhears Amyas admit to Caroline that his passion has all been about the painting and he’ll dump Elsa forthwith. After all those promises, a young woman like Elsa would be shattered. But what she does to Caroline lasts a long time and is cold-blooded. I think that’s what is on her mind, rather than self-protection.
“I find the central puzzle and solution of Five Little Pigs to be far more compelling than that of Sad Cypress (and certainly far more so than The Hollow).” In terms of the puzzle, I would put them in this order:
There is relatively little clueing in The Hollow. In terms of solution, however, I would switch Sad Cypress and The Hollow, and a lot of that has to do with characterization. All three books are strong in that, but The Hollow is the strongest. It’s interesting: I mentioned in the podcast how Christie moved from a sleuth-centered mystery to a focus on the suspects. This is certainly true of Sad Cypress and least true of Five Little Pigs, which lands in the middle. And funnily enough, Sad Cypress and The Hollow are two books where people grumble about Poirot being in there in the first place. (I will NEVER be one of those people!!)
I do love the characterization of all three novels. And yet, I don’t think characterization saves Sad Cypress from ending up a well-done “B” Christie. And while I think Five Little Pigs has the best puzzle, the characterization ratchets that novel up to greatness. As for The Hollow, well, . . . I love The Hollow exceedingly, despite its puzzle shortcomings. I think it is a clearcut triumph as “a mystery of character.” Since the puzzle element is weak, I can see an argument of it not containing your “sudden retrospective illumination,” because there isn’t enough clueing to support that sense of rightness about the solution. I think, however, that the inevitability does exist based on the characterization. Again, I hope we get to discuss The Hollow one of these days so that I can talk about this more freely.
The form of solution to The Hollow is one of my least favourite gambits ever — I’ve rarely seen it done well, it practically always disappoints, just as it did there. But my memory of the book overall is very positive. So maybe time will tell, eh?
I suppose you’re right about Elsa’s motivation. My major point was that she capitalized on the deception that was not primarily of her own making.
I still think puzzle is the core an essence of Five Little Pigs, and even If badly characterized it would still work pretty well. The strength of characterization certainly helps, though, especially in terms of the justification of intent and action. It recalls to my mind the end of Brief Encounter: clearly Laura’s husband has no way of knowing what has happened, but due to the richness of characterization his (non-explicit) understanding of her situation seems believable. .
As for The Hollow, I still feel generally unqualified to discuss it because I seriously don’t believe it get it. The whole “theatrical” thing about the crime scene goes over my head, as if I didn’t understand the significance of the word “everything” in “everything tastes foul today” even after having it explained to me. In essence, I don’t see much there in terms plot, and I suspect here isn’t much there, but I also suspect there’s more than I see because I literally don’t understand what IS there. But in the event there isn’t any more than I see, then I consider it particularly lame as a mystery with some interesting characters in it— and for me that puts it particularly low on the Christie scale.
Just want to say how hugely I appreciate these podcast episodes. It is always a highlight when the 3 of you get together to talk about Christie. Thank you for your time and insights!
Really appreciate you saying so, Joy. They’re fun to do — so it’s nice to know that people are out there enjoying them, too 🙂