Sunday 21 April 2019

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

This is the 25th Poirot novel, published in 1942 and the sixth one to come my way* — and it's fabulously good. Easily the best I've read so far. 

To start with, it is also the basis of a really superb 1960 stage play by Christie called Go Back for Murder, which is a much better title than Five Little Pigs (so is Murder in Retrospect, a rare example of me preferring an American title for a Christie novel).

I loved that play, which I also just finished read, so it's certainly predisposed me in favour of this novel. 

For another thing, Five Little Pigs is a cold-case story, dealing with a killing which took place 16 years earlier. And these are always fascinating, with their need to dig into the past and reinterpret situations, and of course their hints of a terrible miscarriage of justice...

Or, as Poirot puts it, "That was my task — to put myself in reverse gear, as it were, and go back through the years and discover what really happened."

This is a bit of a departure for Poirot, which is one of the wonderful things about Christie. Although she wrote dozens of novels about her detective, she didn't allow them to fall into a standard pattern. 

She'd constantly vary the kind of plot — locked room, serial killer, cold case — and also the narrative style — it's often first person narration by one of Poirot's 'Watson' surrogates, but here it's more like an omniscient narrator or what we'd call a close third person.

(But, crucially, we are never allowed to know what Poirot is thinking. Because that would reveal the truth too soon, and spoil the fun.)

Christie was always willing to experiment, and that keeps her work fresh.

This book is also marked by some wonderful dialogue as when a distinguished lawyer talks of someone having "joined the great majority" (i.e. died).

And the characters are genuinely memorable.

Five Little Pigs (I hate that title) tells the story of Amyas Crale — great name — a hugely talented but relentlessly womanising painter who was allegedly poisoned by his wife during a memorable summer when he brought his mistress into his home to paint her.

The painter, the wife, the mistress, all are impressively real and vivid.

The novel is set in motion by Crale's daughter, Carla, who was rushed out of the country as a child after her father's killing, and raised in Canada. But her mother arranged for Carla to receive a letter when she turned 21, declaring her innocence. 

And Carla believes her. So she goes back to England (goes back for murder) and hires Hercule Poirot.

And Poirot begins to probe into the past.

This is a book which will linger in your memory long after you finish it. The arrogance — and genius — of Amyas the painter...

The determination of his sensual young mistress, Elsa, to steal him out from under the very nose of his wife — and the way she is "insolent with triumph" when she thinks she has succeeded...

Then her "frantic unrestrained grief" after the poisoning. And how she dies inside because of the death of her lover. "Big grey eyes — like dead lakes," says Poirot.

And here is how Elsa describes her love affair with Amyas: "happiness isn't quite the word. It was something deeper and more frightening than that." Christie really is a good writer.

You won't forget this book — the hot summer day, the brilliant painting coming to life on the canvas, the vicious sexual tension in the household, the glass of beer, poisoned with the extract of hemlock...

Poirot pieces together what happened all those years ago by interviewing everyone present, including the governess, Mrs Williams who is a lucid feminist and coldly intelligent, saying "I admire self control."

As each of the witnesses give their statements, their characters are beautifully delineated. Christie's characterisation is of a very high order here.

The very ending of the book — and I don't just mean the revelation of the culprit — is stunningly good. The last couple of sentences are absolutely brilliant. This is a first class piece of writing.

If you've never read an Agatha Christie, I'd recommend starting with this one. I have many, many of her novels yet to go... but it wouldn't surprise me if this was her best.

(*You can also read my discussion of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder in Mesopotamia, The ABC Murders, Cards on the Table and Death in the Clouds.)

(Image credits: The main image, another ravishing Tom Adams cover painting for a Fontana edition, is my own copy which I scanned myself. The remaining covers are all from Good Reads, including another of the Indonesian series, of which I'm increasingly fond — white covers with a bold splash of red — and the lovely vintage Portuguese Coleccao Vampiro edition.)

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