Sunday, January 23, 2011
The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Agatha Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons
The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme is continuing to make its perilous way through the alphabet. Many thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us from harm thus far. This week, we break our journey at the letter "C." My choice for this rest stop is Agatha Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons, published in 1959.
As this novel begins, the summer term has just started at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls' school with a world-class reputation. The pupils are settling in, the mistresses are exchanging news from their holidays, and everyone's getting acquainted and re-acquainted. At first, it seems as though this term will go well enough, but everything changes one night not long after the term starts. Games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the brand-new Sports Pavilion. Inspector Kelsey is sent to the school to investigate and at first, it seems that Miss Springer may have been shot by a burglar. But nothing's been stolen and it soon becomes clear that someone at Meadowbank may have been responsible.
There's more than one person who might have a motive, too. First, Grace Springer had an abrasive personality and was not well-liked. She'd rubbed several people up the wrong way. What's more, she had a knack of finding out people's secrets. As she herself says,
"More than once I've unearthed a nasty scandal - brought it into the open. I've got a good nose - once I'm on the trail, I don't leave it - not till I've pinned down my quarry."
And as it turns out, several people at the school have secrets to hide and were not eager for Miss Springer to discover them. Just as Inspector Kelsey and his team are beginning to learn a few of those secrets, another mistress is murdered. Then, Princess Shaista, a new student originally from the Middle Eastern state of Ramat, is kidnapped. Now, Honoria Bulstrode, the impressive headmistress of the school, has a public relations disaster on her hands as well as the pressure of an ongoing murder investigation.
Julia Upjohn, a student at the school, makes a discovery that gives her some important clues as to what's going on at the school. When she begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, she also realises that she's in danger. So she slips out of the school and goes to visit Hercule Poirot, whom she's heard of from a friend of her mother's. Poirot is impressed with Julia and wants to keep her safe. So he travels with her back to Meadowbank and investigates the case. He discovers that the events at Meadowbank are connected to international espionage, a cache of valuable jewels and political upheaval.
One of the important elements in this novel is character development. While many of Christie's novels don't focus on rich characters, this one has several. One of the central characters is Headmistress Honoria Bulstrode. She's a strong leader with a fierce determination to protect the students and staff at her school. She's devoted her whole adult life to Meadowbank, and she's proud of what the school has become. She's got well-reasoned ideas about what an excellent school can and should be and she's got a keen insight into character. She's not afraid to make difficult decisions, but she's also compassionate. She's wise, too, without being insufferable.
And then there's Eileen Rich, one of the younger mistresses. Passionate about teaching, she's an unusual but appealing character. She's excited about what she does, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Here's what Julia Upjohn thinks of Miss Rich:
"She's got a queer but rather exciting face and when she reads bits of Shakespeare it seems all different and real…Miss Rich teaches us geography too. I always thought it was such a dull subject, but it isn't with Miss Rich."
Miss Rich is also very attuned. In fact, after Grace Springer's death, she gets a strong sense that
"…there's someone here who's - somehow - wrong! There's someone here - I don't know who - who makes me uncomfortable."
It turns out that she's quite right.
The character of Julia Upjohn is also interesting. She's bright without being a "know-all," and she's got courage. And yet, she's not socially mature or particularly sophisticated. Her character walks that very delicate tightrope between the naïveté and dependence of childhood and the emotional, social and intellectual maturity of adulthood. She's friendly and appealing without being cloying. It's easy for the reader to cheer her on as she slowly puts together some important pieces of this puzzle.
The timeline of this novel is also an important element. While many of Christie's novels have a more or less linear timeline, this one doesn't. The novel begins with the opening of the summer term, but then moves in flashback fashion to an upheaval in Ramat a few months earlier and its consequences for several characters. Then, slowly, the reader is returned to the present at Meadowbank. It turns out that what happened in Ramat has everything to do with what happens at Meadowbank, and Christie uses this timeline to tell the story of what happened there without confusing the reader or burdening the reader with too much detail.
Cat Among the Pigeons takes place in an academic setting, so there are several sub-plots that give readers a look inside a girls' school. For example, one important sub-plot is Miss Bulstrode's dilemma about whether or not to retire and name someone else as Headmistress. There are two likely candidates. One is Eleanor Vansittart, Miss Bulstrode's "second in command." She wants to keep everything at the school exactly as it is now, as she's a great admirer of Miss Bulstrode and believes that her boss has created the ideal school. This concerns Miss Bulstrode, since she believes that great schools must evolve to meet students' changing needs. The other candidate is Eileen Rich, who has exciting ideas and is truly passionate about teaching and education. Miss Bulstrode's concern about her is that Miss Rich is too young and inexperienced for the school's leading role. As Miss Bulstrode hovers between her two options, there are some fascinating discussions about what education should be like, what role a school should play, and what a school's values ought to be.
There are also the routines of classes, the inter-relationships among students (especially the friendship between Julia Upjohn and Jennifer Sutcliffe), and the ways in which the mistresses interact with each other and the students. Those networks form a backdrop for the events that take place at the school, and give the reader a look at the "inner workings" of a school. But what's your view? Have you read Cat Among the Pigeons? What did you think of it?