16.12.12

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas

For mystery novel enthusiasts, the holiday season is not complete without a good Christmas detective novel (see my posts on A Christmas Secret, Visions of Sugar Plums, and Jerusalem Inn). When we think of Christmas, we love to imagine traditional family feasts and cozy fireside scenes. Agatha Christie’s classic British mystery, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, satisfies our romantic vision of the season.

Christie herself has become a legendary figure, providing a benchmark for detective writers. In 1955 she won the inaugural Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement. Christie was selected as one of The Times's 50 Greatest Crime Writers in 2008 and one of their 100 Masters of Mystery in 1998. She is also the author of the best-selling mystery novel of all time (And Then There Were None).

The story of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas takes place in a typical English country house. The patriarch of the family, Simeon Lee, decides to invite his four sons for the Christmas holidays. Two of the four sons have been estranged from the family for years. The siblings are surprised by the arrival of other guests: Simeon’s granddaughter from Spain and a stranger from South Africa who introduces himself as the son of Simeon’s former partner.

Family tensions mount as old rivalries are rekindled. When Simeon calls his lawyer on Christmas Eve to change his will, speculations are rife. Later that evening, an ear-piercing scream is heard and Simeon is found murdered. Colonel Johnson is called in to solve the mystery, and Poirot (his holiday guest) decides to accompany him.

Simeon is discovered in a locked room (see my other posts on locked-room mysteries), and no one can figure out how the murderer escaped from it. The plot is one of Christie’s most clever creations and the conclusion of the novel is simply remarkable. As Knight observes: “The intricate plotting of the early Christie novels could rise to spectacular conclusions.” Christie had, in fact, “the art of making the reader acknowledge, in admiring bafflement, that the final coup was the only possible outcome of her cunning plot” (2003, 82). P. D. James points out that Christie’s “prime skill as a storyteller is the talent to deceive” (2009, 99).

The ironic use of the Christmas theme enriches the novel. Before Poirot and Johnson hear about the murder, Colonel Johnson assumes they will have a quiet, relaxing visit with one another. “‘Christmas time,’ he said. ‘Peace, good will – and all that kind of thing. Good will all around’” (85). But Poirot points out that Christmas is a likely time for crime:
Families who have been separated throughout the year assemble once more together. Now under these conditions there will occur a great amount of strain. People who do not feel amiable are putting great pressure on themselves to appear amiable. There is at Christmas time a great deal of hypocrisy. (86-87)
Not only do pressures mount in the Lee household but the misanthrope father deliberately stirs up old wounds and rivalries. W. H. Auden has observed that the placement of a murder in a country house has a profound impact on the reader because it is so shockingly out of place. Murder at Christmas has the same effect. The discrepancy between the joyful feast and the gruesome crime creates powerful dramatic tensions. Indeed some of the best mystery novels are set during this season (click here for a list of recommended novels and stories).

Simeon’s daughter-in-law, Lydia Lee, notes that once Poirot solved the mystery, all the unexplained circumstances of the case make sense: “Like when you finish a jig-saw puzzle and all the queer shaped bits you swear won’t fit in anywhere find their places quite naturally” (270). The clue-puzzle mystery is, in fact, Christie’s legacy. This type of mystery provides comfort and reassurance for readers – an antidote to the horror of murder. In novel after novel, Christie convinces us that evil can be exorcised, mysteries solved, and order restored.

According to Christie’s official website, her novels have outsold all books except the Bible and Shakespeare. P. D. James argues that
what she consistently provided is a strong and exciting narrative, the challenge of a puzzle, an accommodating and accessible style and original detectives in Poirot and Miss Marple, whom readers can encounter in book after book with the comfortable assurance that they are meeting old friends. (2009, 101-102)
Christie’s writing talent is at its peak in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.

Christie, Agatha. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1938.

James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Knight, Stephen. “The Golden Age.” The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, edited by Martin Priestman, 77-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.