One of the many lovely things about having read the overwhelming majority of Agatha Christie’s criminous novels and short stories before starting this blog is that they’re largely available for rereads, and so with my intended focus for Tuesdays in April proving unreadable I’m able to reach for the four novellas that make up the collection Murder in the Mews (1937).
First up, the title story — well, not if you read this in American English, where the collection was renamed Dead Man’s Mirror, presumably because no-one in that fine country knows what a mews is (neither did I when I first read this…and I’m not entirely sure that I do now, either) — in which young Barbara Allen is found dead in her locked bedroom in the eponymous courtyard of stables and carriage houses with living quarters above them, built behind large city houses before motor vehicles replaced horses in the early twentieth century in what might just be the worst faked suicide on record, worse even than The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by Edmund Crispin:
“She’s got the pistol in her right hand. Now take a look at the wound. The pistol was held close to the head just above the left ear — the left ear, mark you.”
“H’m,” said Japp. “That does seem to settle it. She couldn’t hold a pistol and fire it in that position with her right hand?”
“Plumb impossible, I should say. You might get your arm round but I doubt if you could fire the shot.”
To add to the difficulties Chief Inspector Japp faces, Mrs. Allen was killed on Bonfire Night, when “[n]obody would hear a shot” due to the profusion of bangs and booms made by the fireworks (and surely Bonfire Night is a more alien principle to our American cousins than a mews could ever be…?). Anyway, he summons Hercule Poirot to the scene, and before too long our green-eyed Belgian friend is examining waste-paper baskets, making innocent remarks, an generally vexing the official police who must, by now, know that there’s always a surprising heading your way when M. Poirot is as oblique as he’s being here (“Clearly she suspected him of making conversation. Possibly that was what he was doing.”).
My memories of this story were vague at best, despite it having been — in common with certain others herein — reworked from one of Christie’s other tales, in this case ‘The Market Basing Mystery’ (1923) from Poirot’s Early Cases [ss] (1974). As such, I could appreciate this almost completely pure, and enjoy the little touches of psychology (“To begin with, nobody actually heard the shot. Two or three women say they did because they want to think they did — but that’s all there is to it…”), try to puzzle out the reason behind the reluctance of Barbara’s roommate Jane Plenderleith to open a cupboard (which, as it turns out, isn’t remotely fair play), and marvel at the simple touches by which Poirot manages to see that which we have overlooked. In short, this is a bit of very enjoyable compact Christie, and I had a lovely time revisiting it for the first time in, oh, maybe two decades.
Perhaps most enjoyable touch are the couple of thoroughly unenjoyable men who feature in the story. The most apparently likeable, and so striking me as perhaps the most odious, is Barbara’s fiancée, the MP Charles Laverton-West, staggeringly bland and achingly proper…
“A man has killed the woman he loved before now, mademoiselle.”
Jane shook her head impatiently.
“Charles wouldn’t kill anybody. He’s a very careful man.”
“All the same, mademoiselle, it is the careful men who commit the cleverest murders.”
…who has about him the air of one who will tolerate nothing beyond his own limited allowance (“[Barbara] trusted my judgment implicitly. A man knows other men better than a woman can do.”) and might well have made a very unhappy match for this young woman who had already suffered much and lost plenty. And, sure, I’m reading between the lines, but the guy just comes off like such a prick:
“Mrs. Allen’s mother was a distant relation of my own family. She was fully my equal in birth. But of course, in my position, I have to be especially careful in choosing my friends — and my wife in choosing hers.”
Far more openly odious, and therefore above suspicion in the topsy-turvy world of the Golden Age detective story, is Major Eustace, “a tall man, good-looking in a somewhat coarse fashion [with] was a puffiness round the eyes — small, crafty eyes that belied the good-humoured geniality of his manner”. Eustace is not only a pleasingly-hoisted ne’er-do-well who must surely stand as one of Christie’s great pieces of economic realisation, he’s also the subject of perhaps the finest sentence in this entire endeavour:
The collapse of the bully and the appearance of the craven was not a pretty sight.
It’s also difficult not to enjoy Poirot not knowing what to make of Jane describing Eustace as “hairy at the heel” — a new one on me — and “not out of the top drawer”, just as one must surely delight at the too-brief appearance of Master Frederick Hogg, “an impish-faced, bright-eyed lad, considerably swollen with self-importance” whose testimony might just crack the whole case open. Indeed, it’s in these little moments — see also Mrs. Hogg, who admits to having buried three children with an equanimity which feels quite remarkably British — where Christie gives you so much to marvel at with such tiny strokes, all of them pointless and therefore so much more telling for their inclusion, that you start to appreciate the genius of the woman’s craft. Yes, we love her for her plots, but her minor characters really do feel part of a universe which is so much more than just Poirot, Japp, and a baffling murder. I’m not going to claim that they all breathe with independent life, but I won’t have anyone saying that Christie never paid attention to character; that would be patently false.
The scheme here is nice, too, with that classic device of all the oddnesses adding up, and not only a clever piece of negative evidence in the — duly acknowledged — Sherlock Holmes vein, but also a good piece of misdirected importance in an object thrown away for no discernable reason. So, yes, not exactly a classic for the ages, but as a piece of murder in miniature this brings much of Christie’s qualities to the fore in am impressively short amount of time (plus, is it me, or could one exchange in this now be seen as giving us a hint at what might happen years later…?). And it was a far, far better read than what I put down before it, so I shall consider that a win.
Stories in Murder in the Mews, a.k.a. Dead Man’s Mirror [ss] (1937) by Agatha Christie
- ‘Murder in the Mews’ (1936)
- ‘The Incredible Theft’ (1937)
- ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, a.k.a. ‘Hercule Poirot and the Broken Mirror’ (1937)
- ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, a.k.a. ‘Before It’s Too Late’ (1936)
11 thoughts on “#1045: Murder in the Mews, a.k.a. Dead Man’s Mirror [ss] (1937) by Agatha Christie – ‘Murder in the Mews’ (1936)”
Murder in the Mews was my first GAD experience as a child when I watched the tv Episode of this. I found it to be a very good story. I have lots to thank for this story, and its nice that you enjoyed it!
This collection was, I’m pretty sure, an early Christie for me, so I came to it with pretty positive impressions, since it certainly informed my impression of her work going forward. Lovely when something stands up to scrutiny after so many years; here’s hoping the other stories follow suit,
The common perception is that “The Incredible Theft” is a bit so-so, while the other two are among Christie’s better plots. I tend to agree with that assessment – will be interested to see whether you too agree over this coming month.
Overall, Christie’s novellas are better than her short stories, though there are examples of the former that are less successful, just like some of her shorter works are quite satisfying indeed. The short stories are probably generally better enjoyed in smaller batches – reading all of Poirot Investigates or Poirot’s Early Cases in one go can be a bit much.
reading all of Poirot Investigates or Poirot’s Early Cases in one go can be a bit much.
I wonder if this is why I have such poor recall of the earlier short story collections — I’m pretty sure I treated them like novels and just ripped through them at the same sort of speed, so don’t really have any impression of them as individual stories.
I’m one of those weirdos who actually thinks Christie’s short stories are fantastic. Especially the Poirot ones. I don’t understand what the animosity is for Christie’s shorts in the GAD community, I guess it’s just expecting Novel-Sized Complexity from something that is Very Not a Novel. She’s just as on-form in her short stories as she is in her novels, in my worthless opinion.
Her short stories certainly enable other aspects of her writing — like the pin-sharp tiny portraits of her characters — to shine through. I’m looking forward to getting into more of these, because my memory for short stories, especially Christie’s (many of which I read far too quickly early on), is pretty unreliable.
My only experience with Christie shorts are the early ones collected in Poirot Investigates. While they were brief amusing reads, they felt thin when it came to the mystery, and were somewhat throw away stories that barely linger in my mind. I’ve been curious as to whether the later Christie stories are like that, but I like to think they became a bit more rounded.
I’m interested to go back to Christie’s early stories if only because they’ll no doubt make fascinating reading when she was still something of an ingenue in the genre, very much beholden to those who had gone before her rather than carving her own distinct, and hugely influential, swathe.
One of these days…
Short stories are interesting . . . the genre basically sprang from them, what with Poe and Doyle and all those pre-GAD authors that folks love. While dozens of works of literature included murders – and Bleak House has a full-fledged whodunit in the middle, quite a good one, too – I think the idea that a full-length novel could center completely around a crime, its investigation and solution, was not taken seriously for a long time. I think that’s one of the major contributions of the Golden Age, the flooding of novels about murder that changed the way publishing and its audience approached the genre.
But short stories remained hugely popular for a long time. I don’t think they are anymore; the mystery novel has usurped them. And I’m not saying the great mystery novelists simply “dashed off” stories for extra money and exposure in the glossy magazines, but it DID serve that purpose more for the Christies and the Queens and the Carrs and Brands than it had the Freemans and the Chestertons and the Orczys. Christie was certainly inspired by Doyle, but I think he had the short story format down cold (not succeeding nearly as much when he attempted novels) while she quite often had to present her talents in truncated form.
That’s not to say that her short stories aren’t highly enjoyable or that she didn’t write some corkers. I think her depiction of the world of her characters in the stories is usually delightful (St. Mary Mead shines in the Marple tales), and there are some great twists to be found as well. I think “Murder in the Mews” succeeds better than, say, “Dead Man’s Mirror,” because it fits better into the shorter format. There are a few fine ideas in “Mews,” whereas “Mirror” feels more like a truncated Christie novel. My favorite in the collection by far is “Triangle at Rhodes.” And then there’s the one about the submarine plans, which we didn’t get in our American edition. I’m assuming that you will get to all of these, Jim.
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This is really well-worded, Brad. It perfectly captures Christie’s relationship with and utilization of the short story. I think thegreencapsule touches upon it too: Christie was such a master of the fully-fledged mystery novel that to read her shorter work simply feels slighter than what she did elsewhere. I don’t feel that Christie is at her peak in these stories – like Murder on the Links, the stories in Poirot Investigates feels really indebted to Doyle – but they are an interesting pallet cleanser oftentimes in the same way that her thrillers are.
I think that’s one of the major contributions of the Golden Age, the flooding of novels about murder that changed the way publishing and its audience approached the genre.
I’d go even further and say that this was the contribution of the Golden Age — finding a way to tell what is essentially the same story in such a rich cornucopia of ways, so full of new tics, tricks, misdirection, befuddlement, and ingenuity, so that each one could be at once comfortingly familiar and yet hold such potential to completely up-end the way one saw the genre.
It was a golden age for a reason, after all.