Another week, another reworked tale from Dame Agatha Christie, and another borderline impossibility.
I consider ‘The Incredible Theft’ (1937) to be something of a misleading title — original version ‘The Submarine Plans’ (1923), found in Poirot’s Early Cases (1974), feels less sensational and hence more appropriate — because, despite Poirot being able to suggest no fewer than three possible solutions to the vanishing here of plans for a new bomber plane, the story itself is fairly bland.
At the home of Lord Mayfield, the new Minister of Armaments, the theft of the plans of a new bomber plane which will give Britain “supremacy of the air” is complicated (or perhaps simplified) by the presence of Mrs. Vanderlyn, who is suspected of sympathies with countries that might broadly be termed ‘our enemies’. Mayfield and Air Marshal Sir George Carrington were indulging in some post-dinner ambulation on the terrace while Mayfield’s factotum Carlile got certain papers out of the safe for the two gentlemen to review, but when Mayfield looked through the papers only a few minutes later the plans had disappeared. Could their disappearance be related to the shadowy figure Mayfield thought he saw creeping out of the house moments before? And how does the sighting of a ghost by Mrs. Vanderlyn’s maid factor into things?
Look, this whole thing is a bit of a mess.
For one thing, without that ghost sighting, which takes Carlile from the room for a key period, there’s no way that the essential plan for the theft would have worked…yet the thief would have absolutely no forewarning that the “sighting” was going to happen at all, never mind precisely when. If Carlile doesn’t leave the room, and since the evidence of the fleeing figure is so easily and summarily dismissed by a roused-from-his-slumber Hercule Poirot, there’s no scope for the plan to come off as it does. Carp on all your like about a figure potentially flitting from room to room, Carlile’s absence is key, and is never guaranteed by the thief’s plan, such as it is.
And yet, and yet…when you know the solution to this, you realise what a fabulous job Christie has done in writing descriptions and dialogue which have so much more meaning second time around (“Well, I hope your plan comes off, Charles.”). I mean, look minor spoilers, but touches like…
Something in the way [Poirot] uttered the last phrase seemed to attract Lord Mayfield’s attention. He sat up a little straighter, his monocle dropped. It was as though a new alertness came to him.
“Whatever M. Poirot thinks about it, I don’t agree with him. I am convinced of your innocence, my dear Carlile. In fact, I’m willing to guarantee it.”
…really do exemplify the art of writing this style of detective story, where the author is arguably at pains to provide an experience which bears a second, third, and fourth look and must stand up under the new understanding this additional scrutiny will bring. It’s a shame that the one piece of potentially subtle misdirection — “Julia’s a damned sight too fond of her bridge… She can’t afford to play as high as she does, and I’ve told her so.” — is then hammered home at least twice more in order to prove once and for all how completely it has nothing to do with the central scheme, because there’s a good ruse at the heart of that which would allow for a far more interesting false solution, and we’re robbed of that by technical gerrymandering to allow the interpretation of the crime to be a bit looser and so less satisfyingly resolved.
However, there are also some wonderful character touches, like Mrs. Macatta…
…a great authority on Housing and Infant Welfare [who] barked out short sentences rather than spoke them, and was generally of somewhat alarming aspect. It was perhaps natural that the Air Marshal would find his right-hand neighbour the pleasanter to talk to.
…or the subtle way much is suspected of Mrs. Vanderlyn’s activities without anything actually being known.
“I know that she’s had three husbands, one Italian, one German and one Russian, and that in consequence she has made useful what I think are called ‘contacts’ in three countries. I know that she manages to buy very expensive clothes and live in a very luxurious manner, and that there is some slight uncertainty as to where the income comes from which permits her to do so.”
It must be said, too, that the, er, conditions under which the plans are stolen are shown-while-hidden very well, and there’s a pleasing subtlety to the thief’s actions which just about rescues their reputation in the reader’s eyes. And the negative evidence which almost proves that Mrs. Vanderlyn can’t have been — at least directly — involved in the theft is another charming touch, even if it is just a repurposing of the same negative evidence from last week’s ‘Murder in the Mews’ (1936). You have to admire, too, the innocence with which a politician’s role in society is parsed, showing just how far we’ve sunk since these innocent days.
It’s appropriate, then, that this mess of a story has motivated in this mess of a review. The sheer volume of work Christie put out should probably allow the infelicities which have crept in here, but the fact that she has repurposed an earlier story and still left some fairly glaring and key problems behind her does raise the question of why she rewrote it to begin with — surely the point of reworking something is to remove problems, not add them, hein? Thankfully this has been rewritten during a decade in which she barely put a foot wrong, and so plenty of class remains for us to enjoy, but all told this is a bit of a damp squib that does very little to enhance the standing of the Queen of Crime.
Better luck next week, eh?
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)
6 thoughts on “#1048: Murder in the Mews, a.k.a. Dead Man’s Mirror [ss] (1937) by Agatha Christie – ‘The Incredible Theft’ (1937)”
I’ve only seen the adaptation but it’s a lot of fun. Mrs Vanderlyn in a dress seemingly made of space blankets, Hastings being put-upon, a car chase through the bucolic countryside… in other words, all the elements the TV series liked to include to punch up the limited material of a short story. That this punching up is included in an episode based on a novella does suggest a few things about how strong that novella’s contents are, though…
Yeah, part of me applauds the decision to film all the Poirot stories, but also surely the amount of padding required would have seen them reconsider the shorts. But, then, brand recognition equals money, I suppose, and we know the Christie estate is fond of any form of licensing they can authorise.
Incidentally, I see you’ve started a blog — welcome to the gang!
Thanks JJ! I didn’t think the blog was public yet, still trying to get a backlog of posts written first. 😀
I absolutely love the early Suchet Poirot episodes, which are mostly short stories. There may be plenty of padding, but it’s excellent padding. Christie’s characters are good enough that I will gladly spend more time in their company even when they’re not solely focused on solving crimes. Some of it may be quite silly but it’s nearly always good fun; in fact I often prefer the lighter tone to the dour style of the later ones. It works as a series with established character relationships, as opposed to the more “event TV” style of a book adaptation. The relationships don’t develop as they would in serialized TV, but instead get shown from different angles.
I’m not a big one for watching TV and movies, so I’m unlikely to ever see the Suchet Poirots in any quantity, but I’m glad you enjoyed them — maybe I’ll find the interest to sit down with them years from now (it’s not like they won’t be available…!) and can come to see what they do well and bemoan what I see as their flaws 😁
In the meantime, good luck building up that backlog — a sensible approach, as I find myself living very had to mouth where blogging is concerned and it’s not always fun 🤣 Maybe I should take a break and build up some slack, but since I have to create at the same rate anyway just to stay ahead of myself I don’t think there’s be any benefit. Anyway, I look forward to reading your thoughts on a variety of topics in due course.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here regarding this story. It’s a minor work in Christie’s oeuvre, yet it’s still a good enough read – mainly because, as you say, this was (re-)written during a time when Christie hardly put a foot wrong. There are a few holes in this one, but it’s still an engaging read.
I think (hope!) you’ll enjoy next week’s offering quite a bit more. Will you do a comparison with the earlier version “The Second Gong”? They’re different enough that it might be warranted, just to see how Christie had developed her craft between the two stories.
I don’t think I’ll do a comparison next week, no, as I quite like posts to stand on their own — that is to say, people to be able to read the post just about the one story. But that’s not to say I won’t do a comparison somewhere down the road…always on the lookout for blogging ideas, after all 😄