Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Agatha Christie's Mrs. McGinty's Dead

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction community meme, so skillfully led by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, has safely reached the letter “M.” So far, there haven’t been any mishaps – no-one’s even lost any luggage ;-). My contribution for this week’s stop is Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, published in 1952. I’ve a rather sentimental reason for having chosen this book; it was the first Agatha Christie novel I owned, and this was the novel that hooked me on Christie’s work. The edition you see is the copy I got for a birthday when I was a teenager.

As the novel begins, Hercule Poirot is returning home after dinner. When he gets there, his valet George tells him he has a guest. Superintendent Spence has come to ask Poirot for a favour. Spence was in charge of the investigation six months earlier of the death of Mrs. McGinty, a charwoman who lived in the village of Broadhinny. All of the evidence he and his team found pointed to Mrs. McGinty’s unpleasant lodger James Bentley. The evidence was so strong, in fact, that Bentley was arrested, tried and convicted, and is scheduled to be executed. The only thing is, Spence doesn’t believe that Bentley is guilty. Since Spence is now assigned to another case, he asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and goes to Broadhinny.

When he gets there, Poirot meets the residents of Broadhinny and begins to get to know them. All of them seem to be nice, respectable people. And just about all of them have things to hide. There’s the wealthy Wetherbys and Mrs. Wetherby’s daughter Deirdre Henderson; their money and status can’t cover up the spite in the family. There’s also Guy Carpenter, who’d like to represent the area as its next MP. He and his wife Eve are very anxious to preserve their public “face.” Dr. Rendell and his wife Shelagh are also “very nice people” without any scandal attached to them, so it’s odd that Shelagh Rendell is so afraid when Poirot comes to town. And then there’s Laura Upward, a wealthy widow whose adopted son Robin is a talented up-and-coming playwright. Respectability is more important to Laura Upward than just about anything else so she, too, is anxious to preserve her public persona. Poirot stays at Long Meadows, a Guest House owned and run by Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. Johnnie Summerhayes’ family has lived in the village for many generations, and the other villagers look to him as a leader; his family name matters a great deal to Johnnie.

Poirot begins to ask questions and soon learns that Mrs. McGinty was a bit of a snoop. She made a connection between an article she read in The Sunday Companion and one of Broadhinny’s “very nice” residents, and let that resident know what she’d deduced. That connection cost Mrs. McGinty her life. When Poirot reads the article (which is about four women connected with famous murder cases), he realises that someone in Broanhinny will do anything – including murder – to keep a dark secret from the past from coming out. When someone else makes that connection, too, that person is also murdered, and now Poirot’s got two murder investigations on his hands.

While Poirot is investigating the murder of Mrs. McGinty and the other murder, Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective novelist, has a drama of her own. She’s in Broadhinny collaborating with Robin Upward on an adaptation for the stage of one of her novels. To put it mildly, she and Upward have different ideas of how the story should be staged. Her frustration with the way the play is shaping up makes Oliver eager to take breaks from the work and interest herself in the real-life investigation going on. She doesn’t solve Mrs. McGinty’s murder, but she does provide interesting insights and a few clues.

This is, in many ways, a classic “English village” murder. There’s a small community of people, almost all of whom are hiding something, and one of whom is a killer. Because the list of suspects is relatively small, these characters have a little more depth than we see in some of Christie’s other novels. We see their distinct personalities, we learn about their pasts and what brought them to Broadhinny, and we see how they interact with each other. Those personal interactions make for an interesting set of sub-plots. It’s also interesting to see how all of the villagers are prejudiced against James Bentley and assume that he’s guilty.

Christie experimented with the “cold case” kind of murder investigation in this novel, so we don’t get to meet Mrs. McGinty before she is killed. Like other “cold case” stories, we learn about the victim bit by bit as Poirot does. He finds out that,

“Mrs. McGinty knitted, and scrubbed floors and polished brass, she liked cats and didn’t like dogs. She liked children, but not very much. She kept herself to herself.

She attended church on Sunday, but didn’t take part in any church activities. Sometimes, but rarely, she went to the Pictures. She didn’t hold with goings on…She didn’t read books, but she enjoyed the Sunday papers…Never spent much on clothes, but got quite a lot given her from her ladies, and was of a saving disposition.

Mrs. McGinty was, in fact, very much the Mrs. McGinty that Poirot had imagined she would be.”

In fact, Mrs. McGinty was a perfectly normal (if there is such a thing) and unremarkable person. That in itself makes her an interesting victim.

There’s also a nice dash of humour in this novel, mostly provided by Ariadne Oliver. She tries desperately to keep the spirit of her novel, if not each detail, intact as it gets adapted for the stage, but finds every effort blocked by Robin Upward, who’s completely oblivious to her growing aggravation with the whole project. For instance, at one point, the two are discussing the character of Sven Hjerson, Oliver’s fictional sleuth:

“‘So you see, he must be thirty-five,’ said Robin triumphantly.

‘Then he can’t be Sven Hjerson. Just make him a Norwegian young man who’s in the Resistance movement.’

‘But darling Ariadne, the whole point of the play is Sven Hjerson…he’s box office, darling!’

‘But people who read my books know what he’s like. You can’t invent an entirely new young man in the Norwegian Resistance movement and just call him Sven Hjerson.’

‘…It’s not a book, darling, it’s a play. And we’ve just got to have glamour!’…

‘I think I’m going out,’ said Mrs. Oliver abruptly. ‘I need air. I need air badly.’…

‘Just as you like, darling…The whole thing is coming really wonderfully well. It’s going to be the most tremendous success. I know it is.’”

There’s also humour as Poirot tries to adjust to life at Long Meadows, which is poorly run and badly managed. Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes are pleasant, friendly people, but have no idea how to run a Guest House, and no money to do so. So Poirot, who is accustomed to creature comforts and good food, has to put up with a lot. Here’s how he describes his experience to Ariadne Oliver:

“The cooking of Madame Summerhayes, it is beyond description. It is not cooking at all. And the draughts, the cold winds, the upset stomachs of the cats, the long hairs of the dogs, the broken legs of the chairs, the terrible, terrible bed in which I sleep…the tepid water in the bathroom, the holes in the stair carpet, and the coffee – words cannot describe to you the fluid which they serve to you as coffee. It is an affront to the stomach.”

In fact, the only thing about Long Meadows that Poirot does like is his hostess, who’s good natured and well intentioned.

Of course, this story also includes Christie’s trademark plot twists and “red herrings” and although all of the clues are there, the reader has to be alert to guess the killer. It might not be classed as one of Christie’s finest works, but it’s got a solid reputation and after all, Christie’s weakest work is better than many other people’s best. But I’m biased; this is, as I mentioned, a sentimental favourite of mine.

But what do you think? Have you read Mrs. McGinty’s Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Some interesting factoids….

Christie refers to this novel in Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death) and in Hallowe’en Party. Neither of those novels contains a spoiler, though.

We meet both Ariadne Oliver and Superintendent Spence for the first time in Cards on the Table.


  1. No lost luggage? - perhaps not, but I ´lost´ my L-post because I´d gone missing ;)

    A thorough and very interesting post as usual.
    Ariadne Oliver? Hm, I´ll have to think about reading this one though I am not as fond of Poirot as you are.

  2. Dorte - LOL! Well, everyone needs to go AWOL sometimes :-). And hey, AWOL has an "L" in it ;-).

    Thanks for the kind remarks about my post. I actually think you'd like this one, as much for the village setting, and Ariadne Oliver, as for anything else. I know you're not the Poirot fan I am, but in my opinion, the interesting characters and the setting might make this work for you.

  3. In spite of all the Christie novels I've read, I still haven't met Ariadne Oliver. I fear that's a serious lapse in my education.

  4. Pat - LOL! I really do think you'd like Ariadne. She's said to have been Christie's way of poking fun at herself, but although she's somewhat eccentric, she's not ridiculous. She's a really interesting character, actually. I hope you do meet her.

  5. I just re-read this awhile ago, I laughed at Poirot's misery while he lived with the Summerhayes's and Ariadne Oliver with her apples and hairstyles are hilarious!
    Great mystery as usual, I couldn't guess who's the real culprit on this one.

  6. Lynossa - You're so right; Ariadne Oliver gives such great comic moments with her apples and changes of hairstyle. I think it's so funny, too, when one of her hairstyles actually makes Robin Upward uncomfortable. And yes, Poirot's misery at Long Meadows is really funny.

    And you're right: this was a challenging mystery. I didn't know whodunit, either, the first time I read it.

  7. What an excellent choice Margot - can you submit it to the Agatha Christie Blog Carnival too please?
    This was also the base for Murder Most Foul with Margaret Rutherford wasn't it? - very confusingly not a Marple mystery at all

  8. Kerrie - Thank you :-). I'd be honoured to submit it to the carnival. And right you are about Murder Most Foul. It was based on this novle, but the actual novel isn't even a Miss Marple novel Yet the film features her. The film is different to the book in a lot of other ways, too, so I'm very glad they didn't call it by the same name!

  9. I've never read an Agatha Christie book. The other day they had them on sale at B&N and I almost snagged a few. I really need to take the leap of faith. This evening when I visit the library I'll stop in and borrow one :) Any suggestions?

  10. Jen - I know what you mean about needing to take a leap of faith; I need to do that, too with some authors I haven't read.

    May I suggest The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, one of crime fiction's really fine whodunits with a twist to the plot that few readers see coming. Two others are The Body in the Library, a Miss Marple adventure and The Secret Adversary, which is Tommy and Tuppence Beresford's first adventure. There are lots of others I could recommend, too, and I'm sure other readers could. But those should give you a taste of what Christie was like as a writer.

  11. I loved that book as well. I don't think it was my first (I think Ten Little Indians was) but it's one of my favorite. For the longest time--and basically because Google hadn't been invented--I didn't know how to pronounce Ariadne's name. Now, I love the name. I love how it's pronounced. Thanks for the in-depth review.

  12. I well remember those covers-had many of them myself. I gave my entire collection to a woman laid up--who then moved without returning them. Thanks for reminding me.

  13. Clarissa - Oh, And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians is a wonderful book! It was said to be Christie's own favourite. I'm glad you liked this one, too, as much as you did. I like the name Ariadne, too :-). It's a really interesting name, but not so "out there" that one can't imagine someone with that name.

    Patti - I'm sorry to hear you never got your collection back. I've had that kind of thing happen to me, too. I've actually got several other Christies in that particular edition/collection, and even though I've replaced some of them, I haven't been able to bring myself to part with them...

  14. I haven't read this one yet. I like Adriane very much and I wonder if Agatha Christie used her to express her own views - I know she wasn't always happy about the way her novels were adapted for the stage, for instance. I think there is humour in all of Agatha Christie's books.

  15. Margaret - I think you're quite right that Christie used Ariadne Oliver's character to express herself. Certainly it's been said that she got quite fed up with her own Hercule Poirot, and used Oliver's frustration with her Sven Hjerson to vent her own feelings.

  16. I LOVE this book! It's always interesting to meet the victim after they're dead since every character has a different perspective. Ariadne Oliver always makes me giggle and I'm sure Dame Agatha did use her as a way of expressing her own frustrations about being a writer. And Poirot? A continuous joy.

  17. Elspeth - I just love the character of Ariadne Oliver, too. She's terrific, isn't she? And I think you're completely right about the way Christie used her. Now, I admit to being a Poirot fan, as you are; I know that not everyone is. But he is great in this book, I think. Glad you like this one so much :-)

  18. I'm sorry to say I haven't read any of Agatha Christie's books even though I've seen several movies based on them. I really need to pick up one of her books. The ones you've featured all sounds interesting. Knowing me, I'll want her entire collection. LOL Enjoyed your M selection.

    Thoughts in Progress

  19. Mason - I know what you mean about authors one's heard of for a long time but has never read. That's happened to me, too. There's just so much time to read, and there are so many fine authors out there..... I do hope you get a chance to read some Agatha Christie novels; they are truly classics...