This is a cracking Christie, enthralling from the first page.
Death in the Clouds is the 12th Poirot novel to be published, coming just before The ABC Murders*. It appeared in 1935 and in America was stupidly retitled Death in the Air, which is somehow much less evocative and resonant.
The reason Death in the Clouds grabbed me so immediately is the setting. It begins on an airplane making a scheduled flight from Paris to Croydon, a town outside London where I once worked. (In my day it had an excellent record store but no longer any aerodrome.)
The aircraft location is inherently interesting and exciting, and we also have the old but irresistible trick of bringing together a group of diverse and distinctive characters and exposing them to some serious trauma.
Since this is Agatha Christie, that trauma consists of a murder taking place right there in the airplane, effectively in the full view of all the passengers, without anyone seeing what happened or who did it.
By now I've pretty much given up on trying to guess who the killer is in any Agatha Christie story. Which is just as well, because here once again she fooled me completely.
And I am by now finding Poirot quite a compelling figure. When I follow his adventures what I register is not the cartoonish appearance or the perfunctory foreignness or the rote mannerisms — I see his methodical, patient nature, always analysing but always withholding judgement until the big reveal at the end.
One of the characters in Death in the Clouds reflects, "What an odd little man he was — hopping from subject to subject like a bird from one branch to another."
But the best observations about Poirot come from the man himself, "I am eccentric, possibly, but mad, no." And he has a charming arrogance — "practically speaking, I know everything."
He also displays a neat line in aphorisms such as, "Nothing can be so misleading as observation." Very true in an Agatha Christie mystery.
The other characters in this novel include a coke-snorting countess ("a woman who's got the cocaine habit hasn't got much moral restraint"); a hack mystery writer who has some cherishable observations about the genre — regarding Watson-style sidekicks he says "interesting... how the technique of the idiot friend has hung on."
And a charming young couple who begin by discussing how lovely and fragrant the pine trees are in the south of France but are soon agreeing about how they dislike "Negroes."
admire Christie so much that it's really dismaying for me to encounter the
casually racist attitudes of some of her characters. Is it sufficient
excuse to say that this book was written in 1934?
Oh well, at least it's not Poirot displaying these attitudes. His little grey cells have yet to show any colour prejudice.
Death in the Clouds is a compact little classic, and the wasp that features on some of the covers is an important clue.
(*I've also posted about these other Poirot novels: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Cards on the Table.)
credits: The main picture, with the beautiful painting of the wasp, the
plane and the clouds by Tom Adams, is a scan of my own copy from my own
library. The other covers are from Good Reads.)