Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - Thirteen at Dinner by Agatha Christie

The alphabet in crime fiction community meme is continuing its dangerous but exciting journey through the world of murder and mystery novels. As always, I am grateful to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for showing us such deliciously criminal sights ; ). This week, we’re stopping for “T,” ; ) and I’ve chosen Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner, published in 1933 as my contribution for this stop.

Also published as Lord Edgware Dies, Thirteen at Dinner is the story of the murder of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. The novel begins with an odd request by his wife, the famous actress Jane Wilkinson. Hercule Poirot and his friend, Captain Hastings, are having a late supper at the Savoy Hotel after attending a very popular one-woman show by the up-and-coming American actress, Carlotta Adams. While Poirot and Hastings are having dinner, Jane Wilkinson, who is also dining at the Savoy, comes up to their table and asks them up to her suite. She wants to talk to Poirot privately. When everyone gets to the suite, Jane asks Poirot to help her get rid of her husband.

Jane explains that she’s fallen for the Duke of Merton, a wealthy and eligible bachelor with a redoubtable mother. He won’t even consider a relationship with her if she’s married, so she wants a divorce. However, she says, her husband refuses to grant her a divorce. At first, Poirot is reluctant to take on this kind of case, but Jane is single-minded and persists. In fact, she says that if Poirot doesn’t help her, she’ll have to “go round in a taxi and bump him off myself.” So he agrees to at least speak to Lord Edgware on Jane Wilkinson’s behalf. Just then, Poirot, Jane and Hastings are joined by Bryan Martin, a Hollywood film star; Carlotta Adams, and her escort, along with another couple, the wealthy Widburns. During the supper that follows, Hastings and Poirot get a “close-up” look at Carlotta Adams. Her stock in trade is a series of very effective impersonations, including one of Jane Wilkinson that Jane has said is “heaps better than I thought she’d be.” The supper is a pleasant one, and everyone seems to enjoy the meal and the company.

A few days later, Poirot and Hastings get an appointment to meet Lord Edgware. When they arrive, they immediately get a disagreeable impression of him. He’s a cold, unpleasant man who is just shy of rude to them. Despite their chilly reception, Edgware does go so far as to say that he knows Jane wants a divorce, and he has no objection to it. In fact, he says he’s already written to her saying that he is willing to give her a divorce. Poriot and Hastings are shocked by this, but they finish their conversation and soon after, they leave. When they deliver the news to Jane Wilkinson, she seems delighted and thanks them profusely for their help. It seems that the matter is now settled, although Poirot still wonders what happened to the letter that Lord Edgware said he sent.

The next morning, Poirot gets a visit from Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp. Japp tells Poirot that Lord Edgware’s been murdered – stabbed in the back of the neck. At first, it seems very clear that Jane Wilkinson has killed her husband. Someone looking exactly like her and giving her name came to the house and was the last person known to see Edgware alive. She’d been heard to threaten her husband, too; Poirot and Hastings were not the only ones to hear her say she was planning to “bump him off.” Very soon, though, the matter becomes much more complicated.

On the night of Lord Edgware’s death, Jane Wilkinson was seen by twelve other people at a dinner given by Sir Montagu Corner, a patron of actors and other artists. Everyone at the dinner is prepared to swear that Jane Wilkinson was there, which means she couldn’t have killed her husband. Besides, since Lord Edgware was willing to grant her a divorce, she has no motive. So it seems that someone is trying to frame Jane for the murder. Now Japp has to look into the other people in Lord Edgware’s life to see who else had a motive to kill him and frame his wife. There are plenty of suspects, too. There’s his daughter, Geraldine, who hates her abusive father and is glad he’s dead. There’s also Captain Ronald Marsh, Edgware’s nephew and heir to the title and his uncle’s fortune. There’s also Carlotta Adams, who already has shown her ability to impersonate Jane Wilkinson. She’s actually been seeing Captain Marsh, although not seriously, and is not happy at what she considers his uncle’s unfair treatment of him.

Things get even more complex when Carlotta Adams is found dead, apparently of an overdose of Veronal. Now Poirot has to find out who would have wanted to kill Lord Edgware and Carlotta Adams. After a series of proverbial “blind alleys,” Poirot discovers what really happened. However, he still considers this case one of his failures, because it takes a chance remark that he overhears to put him on the right path. In the end, though (and after another death), Poirot is able to figure out who killed Lord Edgware and why.

Thirteen at Dinner is a very interesting intellectual puzzle. While it’s not a traditional “locked room” mystery, it does present an absorbing challenge. Another challenge in the story is that many of the characters aren’t telling everything they know. So Poirot has to peel away the layers of what the characters say to him to figure out what they’re keeping from him.

The novel also presents some very well-drawn secondary characters. For instance, Jane Wilkinson’s maid, Ellis, provides Poirot with some very valuable information – and a clue. Carlotta Adams’s friend, Jenny Driver, is also an interesting character, although she’s neither a suspect nor a victim. She’s a milliner who’s eager to help solve the mystery of her friend’s death. Then there’s Donald Ross, an up-and-coming actor, who was at the dinner that serves as Jane Wilkinson’s alibi, and at a luncheon party later in the novel. He makes a realization that provides an important clue to the murderer. All of these characters play important roles in the story, even though none is what you would call a main character.

The most compelling aspect of Thirteen at Dinner, though, is the personality of the killer. Poirot himself admits that he’s almost beaten by this person, who is one of the most unusual murderers he’s ever met. At the end of the novel, Poirot receives a letter from the murderer. Among other things, the letter says the murderer is “…sure there’s never been a murderer like me.” It’s quite a compelling character study, actually.

I recommend Thirteen at Dinner for those who enjoy intellectual puzzles, and especially for Poirot fans. Those who enjoy the relationship between Poirot and Hastings will also enjoy this novel, as we get to see quite a bit of their interaction. However, those who haven’t read any of the Poirot novels might want to start with The Murder on the Links, as it provides a little more backstory on Hastings. Even for those without that background, though, Thirteen at Dinner is an engaging intellectual puzzler.

14 comments:

  1. I always look forward to the alphabet in crime fiction post. They are interesting and you introduce me to a new book I've never read. This one sounds intriguing. I enjoy puzzles.

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  2. Mason - Thank you! :). And this one is an interesting puzzle. I admit that Christie had me stumped...

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  3. I haven't read this one for a while...it's definitely time for a reread! Thanks for reminding me about the book.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  4. I shall be visiting Agatha Christie's wonderful home at Greenway again later in the year, and feel I may come staggering out of the bookshop weighed down with books.

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  5. Elizabeth - This really is a good puzzler, with an interesting twist and an equally interesting murderer. I like the way Christie doles info out in this one, too. Must learn....



    Norman - I know what you mean. I'm happy for you (albeit slightly envious) that you'll be visiting Greenway. I would love to make that trip and I hope that, someday, I will. The only problem will be that if I do, my return luggage will require its own transport with all of the books I'll buy...

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  6. Time for me to re-read this! Thanks for reminding me about this classic, Margot. I've been reading The Secret Notebooks and it's making me hunger to re-read all of her books!

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  7. Elspeth - I know what you mean! There's more than one Christie book that I haven't read in a while and really feel the urge to savor again : ).

    And....congratulations to you and your countryfolk for such a fine showing in the Winter Olympics. Well-done!!! *Extends hand for a shake*

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  8. Margot, I share your enthusiasm for this mystery - not perhaps one of Christie's top ten, in my opinion, but in the top twenty. Very clever.

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  9. Martin - I agree with you. It may not be Christie's finest work, but is among the good ones. And in my opinion, even at her weakest, Christie was better than many at their best.

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  10. This is one of my favourite books. Maybe not the best mystery of all, but definitely one of her better written works.
    Thank you for reminding me the book is long overdue for a re-read.

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  11. Rayna - You're right; it is a very well-written mystery, and, although I know I've already said it, I find the character of the murderer fascinating. Glad you liked it, too : ).

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  12. Nice post, Margot. As you say, danger looms inexorably nearer, with U, V, Y, Z and the worst of all, X.

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  13. Maxine - You are so right! : ). I think I'll be ready for the next few letters, but X? That's going to require some creativity, or a forgiving tour guide ; ).

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  14. I read this one under the title Lord Edware Dies and I loved it! One of her better ones I think

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