“Nothing whets the intelligence more than a passionate suspicion, nothing develops all the faculties of an immature mind more than a trail running away into the dark.”
― Stefan Zweig
This is my first experience of Agatha Christie, courtesy of my good friends Prudence and the Crow. I will read just about anything, but and while I love a bit of mystery, murder mysteries don’t often cross my radar. Of course, I am familiar with Christie’s work – you can’t very easily go through life without hearing a thing or two – and have seen the odd film or TV adaptation of the famous Hercule Poirot, but that’s about it. In fact, it never even really occurred to me that I hadn’t read any of her work until I received this book. In signing up to PATC I wanted to widen my readership and force myself to discover new books, and this is exactly what I got.
Amyas Crale was murdered, poisoned in fact, of that there is no doubt. But who placed the poison in his cup? This is the question Hercule Poirot is hired to answer, some sixteen years after Amyas’ wife, Caroline, was found guilty of the murder. The couple’s daughter, Carla Lemarchant, approaches Poirot to investigate after receiving a letter from her mother, written just before she passed away, protesting her innocence. Poirot willingly accepts the case, but soon fears that it may be just as clear cut at it originally appeared. All leads seem to point Caroline, but something’s not quite right. It’s up to Poirot to revisit the past, and solve a murder, in retrospect.
Murder in Retrospect was published under the name of Five little Pigs in the US, whether or not this changes your understanding of the novel I cannot say, but for me, at least, it was a bit of a dead end. The ‘five little pigs’, alluded to in the American title, are the five suspects in the murder case – Amyas’ good friend, Philip Blake; Philip’s brother, Meredith Blake; Amyas’ mistress, Elsa Greer; Caroline’s younger half sister, Angela Warren; and Angela’s governess, Cecilia Warren. Each suspect is represented by a different little piggy from the well-loved nursery rhyme I’m sure you are all familiar with – and they vaguely fit into these roles, Elsa Greer, the greedy little swine with whom Amyas is said to be madly in love, is the piggy with the ‘roast beef’, for example. “This little pig went to market, this little pig stayed at home…” Poirot mutters to himself, briefly profiling the different suspects, as Carla explains the background of the murder case. Really, this is as far as the Five Little Pigs analogy goes – it doesn’t really add much to the story, it’s more just comes across as an odd little mannerism of Poirot’s. There is, of course, no evil, murderous pig in the nursery rhyme.
When reading a mystery novel, half of the thrill is in trying to work out the answer for yourself, and generally speaking, it’s quite easy to spot the different motives characters might have for wanting knock off the murder victim. This book, though, is a bit different. From the very beginning it’s difficult to comprehend exactly how Caroline Crale could possibly be innocent – she was furious with Amyas, she threatened to kill him, she served him the beer which dealt the fatal blow, and, no one else really has a motive. The only thing which doesn’t add up is why, if she was guilty, Caroline would suddenly attempt to reclaim her innocence on her death bed. Why would she write a letter to her daughter asking for her to find the truth, if indeed she was guilty? It is almost infuriating to read, because it seems so obvious for Caroline to be the one who poisoned Amyas, but of course, no mystery novel is complete without a mystery, and so it must be one of the other five – but how?
The book follows the classic structure of a mystery, but with one key difference – Poirot never actually visits the scene of the crime, and relies instead on just the testimony of the suspects. As an inspector Poirot is perhaps best known for this. So, in this case, Christie chooses to exaggerate Poirot’s main character trait, by having him to solve a crime completely in retrospect, sixteen years after it took place, with only the, somewhat blurry, statements of those involved. This requires revisiting the day of the murder through the minds of the five suspects, and as such, the reader must reread the same story over and over again. I normally hate it when authors choose to write a book from two different points of view, with alternating chapter retelling exactly the same scenes – get on with it already! – but in the case of a crime scene I think it works really well. With each retelling of the story, another piece of the puzzle is added, creating a richer image of the scene, and leading the reader, as always, to the wrong conclusion, before the true murderer is finally revealed.
My overall opinions having finished the book are definitely positive; Murder in Retrospect is a creative twist on a traditional murder mystery novel which is sure to be a hit with fans of the genre. It took me right until the end to solve the puzzle, and I was lead of a marvellous goose chase throughout, falling into each and every trap that Christie set – what more could you ask for? I’m sure I don’t need to recommend Agatha Christie to anyone, if you are a fan of murder mysteries then you will undoubtedly like this one – but you already knew that, didn’t you?
I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy reading the book, but I’m not sure whether I will delve further into Christie’s vast repertoire. It is easy to see why there has always been such a strong following of murder mysteries and of Christie in particular – there is certain thrill in trying to solve a puzzle before the detective which can be somewhat addictive – but I’ve never really been particularly taken by the genre as a whole. On the whole, it was interesting to experience Christie’s work for the first time, but I think, for now at least, the case is closed for me.