Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - Hickory Dickory Death by Agatha Christie

We’re now in the eighth week of the alphabet in crime fiction community meme so ably led by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise; that means the letter “H.” My contribution for this letter is Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death, published in the U.S. in 1955, and published in the U.K. in the same year as Hickory Dickory Dock.

The novel begins with an almost unimaginable event: Miss Lemon, Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, has made three typing mistakes in a letter she’s written. When Poirot taxes her with her errors, Miss Lemon explains that she’s distracted because she’s concerned about her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, matron of a hostel for students. It seems that things have been disappearing, and no-one seems to have an explanation. Poirot, who’s between cases, offers to talk to Mrs. Hubbard about what’s been happening. The next day at tea, Mrs. Hubbard tells Poirot that some unusual and unrelated objects have been disappearing; they include lightbulbs, a powder compact, a pair of old flannel trousers and a diamond ring. Poirot arranges with Mrs. Hubbard to pay a visit to the hostel, meet the students, and discreetly look into the matter.

That night, he has dinner with the students and then gives a talk about several of his cases. After the talk, one of the students asks Poirot to tell the group why he’s really there. It turns out that several of the students have guessed that Poirot is there to investigate the thefts. Poirot surprises everyone by saying that in his opinion the police should called in immediately. Then, he and Mrs. Hubbard go to her private rooms for coffee. Shortly afterwards, they’re interrupted by Celia Austin, a young hostel resident who’s a dispenser at a local hospital. She begs Mrs. Hubbard not to call the police and then admits to the thefts. Colin Mcnabb, a fellow resident who’s studying psychiatry, defends Celia vociferously and promises to make himself responsible for her; he also says that he will guarantee that the thefts will stop. It turns out that this is exactly what Celia hoped would happen, as she’s admired Colin from afar for quite a while. With the problem of the thefts apparently solved, Poirot takes his leave. Two mornings later, Celia is found dead in her bed, apparently of suicide by poisoning. When Mrs. Hubbard realizes that Celia couldn’t have written the suicide note she supposedly left, Poirot and the police realize they’re dealing with murder.

At first, there seems to be little motive to kill Celia. She’s not particularly clever, she’s doesn’t seem to have any guilty secrets, and she hasn’t been on bad terms with anyone in the hostel. However, as Poirot and the police look into the background of the other residents of the hostel, they soon find that most of them are keeping secrets, and that Celia found out at least one of those secrets. There’s Valerie Hobhouse, elegant and sophisticated co-owner of a cosmetics and beauty parlor, who’s got several side businesses. There’s Len Bateson, a medical student with a fiery temper, who’s keeping a family secret. Nigel Chapman, a history student, has a malicious streak and a childish delight in annoying others. Patricia Lane, studying archeology, is fiercely devoted to Nigel and will do anything to protect him. Even Mrs. Nicoletis, who owns the hostel, has more than one secret. The more Poirot and police learn, the more they realize that there’s much more going on at the hostel than anyone realized. As Poirot gets closer to the truth, Celia’s killer gets increasingly desperate, and two more murders occur before the murderer is stopped.

More than anything else in Hickory Dickory Death, it’s the characters that add to the suspense. Even the more minor characters have personalities, viewpoints and, in some cases, secrets. They add helpful perspectives and sometimes give Poirot important clues. For instance, Mr. Akibombo, a West African student, does a lot of reflecting about Celia’s murder, and has a flash of intuition about how the murderer got into Celia’s room to leave the so-called suicide note. Elzabeth Johnston, a Jamaican law student and a fascinating character in her own right, tells about an important conversation she had with Celia. Christie took great pains to make all of the characters in the hostel interesting, and almost all of them are worth careful attention. The inter-relationships among the characters are just as interesting, and they’re quite realistic, since the murder takes place at a hostel, where the residents are bound to interact and get involved with each other.

Another interesting aspect of Hickory Dickory Death is that there are several discussions of issues that were pressing in Christie’s day (in some cases, they still are). One of them is race. The students at the hostel are of different races and backgrounds, and at a few points in the novel, the question of racial tolerance is brought up. It was a major social issue of the mid-1950’s in the U.K. and in the U.S., and Christie addresses it head-on. Another issue discussed in the novel is Communism and the Red Scare of the 1950s. At the time, fear of Communism had risen to near-hysteria, and that fear’s referred to more than once in the novel. Christie also refers to the political tensions in the Middle East in Hickory Dickory Death. One of the students in the hostel, Mr. Chandra Lal, is an Egyptian who’s a political radical and takes every opportunity to protest what he sees as England’s oppression of his country.

Hickory Dickory Death has an absorbing plot, a strong sense of atmosphere and Christie’s trademark surprises and twists. The suspense is built slowly, but stays strong, and I found myself really interested in the characters. The dialogue and prose in the novel are less formal than they are in Christie’s earlier work, and that suits the intimate atmosphere of a student hostel very well. I recommend the novel highly, especially for Poirot fans. As you can see by looking at the photo, I’ve had this one for a long time, and have read it often.

A few interesting tidbits about Hickory Dickory Death:

We learn a few things about Miss Lemon in this novel. In most of the other novels in which she appears, the only things we learn about Miss Lemon are that she’s extremely efficient and that she’s developing a filing system that she wants to patent. In this novel, we find out that her given name is Felicity; we also learn a bit about her family.

There are references in Hickory Dickory Death to two earlier Christie works. Early in the story, two residents of the hostel are discussing Poirot’s impending visit. One asks the other who Poirot is; the other mentions that there was a man who was convicted of killing a charwoman, and Poirot cleared him at the last moment. That’s the plot of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, which was released three years before Hickory Dickory Death. Also, at one point in the novel, Poirot pays a visit to a Mr. Endicott, lawyer for the family of one of the students in the hostel. Endicott mentions his gratitude to Poirot for “clearing up that Abernethy business.” That seems to be a reference to the plot of After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), in which Poirot investigates the deaths of Richard Abernethie, wealthy owner of a successful family business, and his sister Cora Lansquenet. The family attorney’s name in After the Funeral is Entwhistle, not Endicott, but the reference seems clear.


  1. Thanks for this one Margot. We must add it to the next Agatha Christie Blog carnival too. - will you do that?

  2. Lots of secrets with this book--and I *love* secrets in mysteries. If everyone is busily covering things up, it makes it so much fun.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  3. Kerrie - Thanks for the reminder about the blog carnival; I'd be honored to add this post to it.

    Elizabeth - No doubt about it - when people are keeping lots of secrets, the mystery is that much more interesting. Not only does the sleuth have to solve the murder, but s/he has to uncover all of those secrets. Fun and suspenseful : )

  4. This book serves wonderfully as a snapshot of the attitudes back in the early '50s in Britain as well as a good mystery. Stories can't exist in a vacuum. Passing comments help cement any story into its place in time. This is one of the reasons I reread so many Christies; they are marvelous source material for current (when written) commonly-held social attitudes.

    Another great post, Margot!


  5. Elspeth - That's one of the things I love about Christie's work, too! I learn so much about the mindset, attitudes, etc. of her time when I read those novels. I also admire the way they serve as such a useful context for the plots.

  6. Margot: Once again, a beautifully written blog! It's been a few years since I read any Poirot and I'd forgotten how much I loved Miss Lemon. I work with at least three people who exhibit many of her finer qualities. :-)
    You're right, the characters in that book are very well delineated with believable motivations. Thanks for reminding me of a great story and why I liked it.

  7. Bobbi - I agree with you - Miss Lemon is a great character, even though we don't really ever learn very much about her or her life. I think Christie did that on purpose; Miss Lemon is exactly the kind of secretary that Poirot would hire. She's as efficient as a well-oiled machine and as organized as Poirot is - perhaps more so. Thanks for your perspective : )

  8. I read all the Agatha Christies far too long ago for me to remember them so I very much enjoy this blog as a way to relive the novels (given that one's lifespan is too short to read such a prolific author too many times over!)

  9. I like how you are highlighting Agatha Christie novels.

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: H post!

  10. Maxine - Thanks : ). And sorry that I'm so late responding. I have to say how much I enjoy rereading my favorite Christies. They've been a really important part of my life for longer than it's probably wise of me to say : ). I'm glad you enjoy the posts about them.

    Gautami - Thank you; Agatha Christie is my favorite author and has been for a very long time. I'm grateful for the opportunity that Kerrie has given us with this meme so that I can focus on her work.