Peril at End House is the book Agatha Christie claims she can’t even remember writing. At least, that’s a rumor I’ve heard repeated a number of places. It rings a bit true: the machinery is a little more visible in this book than most. You’re rarely presented with a clue unaccompanied by instructions on how to take it. What seems more plausible to me than that she was phoning it in, though, is that it’s a kind of reluctant transition novel. In her early days, Christie experimented with a number of genres, and seemed most keen on writing the kind of children’s spy novels you don’t see around much anymore. Mystery novels don’t seem to have been her first choice. But the kind of deception peculiar to them was her only real talent, so it was ultimately either write detective stories or be obscure. Peril at End House is a solid detective novel with just a few too many spy adveture elements. It reads like something written by someone who had accepted she wouldn’t be writing spy adventures but hadn’t quite let go yet. It’s not a full hybrid, as its predecessor The Blue Train Mystery arguably was. Rather, it feels slighly impure. Also, two of Christie’s better ideas actually get their debut here, but they’re both overplayed. She would use them to greater effect (in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and Curtain) once she’d learned how to sell them.
Poirot and Hastings are on vacation in Cornwall – as they always seem to be – when they meet a strange girl who may have just been shot at. At any rate, there’s bullet-like damage to her hat, and a bullet drops near Poirot. She herself thinks it was more likely a wasp, but she allows Poirot to convince her. Later, she mentions to Hastings several other strange incidents that have occurred around her. For example, that the heavy painting over her bed fell off the wall, and that a boulder rolled down a path and nearly killed her, and that the brakes in her car gave out. In isolation, none of these things are suspicious (well, except the gunshot), but taken in concert it does start to seem like someone might be trying to kill her.
She, by the way, is Magdala "Nick" Buckley, last in a long line of Buckleys who own a creepy old manor house by the sea, where she now lives alone. She claims she would like to get rid of the house, but that it is hard to sell because it’s so heavily mortgaged and in bad repair. As Poirot sneaks in to investigate the painting – to see whether in fact the wire had been shaved down – he notices that the local paper is open to a page announcing, as I guess local papers did in 1932, that he and Hastings are vacationing in town. As Nick says she only checks the paper for information on the tides, it’s a bit of a mystery who would’ve been interested in Poirot’s arrival. There really aren’t many other people on the grounds – a strange somewhat elderly Australian couple renting a cottage on the property and a couple of house staff, only one of whom we ever know by name. The suggestion is that it might have been one of Nick’s friends. She has a few, though her relationship with each is oddly strained. Her best friend "Freddie" (also a girl – Christie packs this one with more androgynous nicknames than usual) interestingly describes her to Poirot as a "little liar" – something she implausibly claims is "not a criticism!" – and openly contradicts her story that her brakes failed. For 1932, she’s also shockingly immoral – openly carrying on an affair with another man while still married to an estranged husband. Jim Lazarus (Christie thinks "Lazarus" is a Jewish name. And maybe it is?), the paramour, is an art dealer but has an implausibly expensive and flashy car. There’s also Commander Challenger, who seems to be in love with Nick, and whom Poirot instantly dislikes. He strikes Poirot as something of a fraud, but no real evidence is given for this. Poirot merely notes that Hastings is too impressed by his title and the school he went to; as a foreigner, Poirot claims to be immune to English class prejudices, but we wonder if maybe Poirot’s prejudices are simply opposite.
In any case, Poirot is concerned that Nick will be murdered, and so he accepts an invitation to a fireworks party at her house and advises her to invite a companion so that she is less likely to be alone. She invites her cousin Maggie. But Maggie doesn’t outlive the party: the weather is cold, and various people go inside to get their coats, and Maggie is one of them, and someone shoots her, ostensibly in a case of mistaken identity because she was wearing Nick’s shawl. Poirot orders Nick to take up residence at a sanatorium (called a "nursing home" in the slang of the time) for her protection while he investigates what has now become an honest murder case.
This is a book that’s more "interesting" than "good." The solution is clever and unexpected. Christie pulls off her signature trick of warning you that the answer is obvious, entreating you to take things at face value more than you’d be inclined to, but then presenting everything in a way that what seems to be its face value isn’t. Most frequently, this is pulled off with detective commentary, and it’s this part of the book that’s most interesting to me: the frequency with which Poirot is wrong. In fact, he’s consistently wrong about everything, even the things he’s dead sure he’s right about, right up until the end.
For example, while he often tells Hastings not to get too imaginative and just to see things as they actually are, he never seems to offer this advice just when we need it. When Freddie tells us that Nick’s brakes never failed, for example, Poirot spends several lines wondering why she would say that. Well, to stick to the principle, the obvious reason to say it would be because it’s true? As indeed it turns out to be – the only reason we don’t think to take her at her word is simply that Poirot doesn’t. While the text doesn’t ever commit itself to the position that Poirot thinks she’s lying, its certainly gives that impression after he spends as much time as he does wondering why she would say it. Generally speaking, we don’t question people’s motives for saying what they believe to be true.
There’s a similar bit of subterfuge going on with respect to the boulder. Hastings keeps insisting that the boulder "attack" means our assailant must be a man. Poirot always responds that levers can accomplish a lot, so we don’t necessarily need to make that assumption. What he never enteratins on page is the possiblity that the boulder simply fell, as boulders sometimes will. In fact, that’s what happened, and by the end of the story we realize that Nick might not have been anywhere near it when it happened.
That’s of course, why this trick always works – because it’s still impossible to write a detective novel in which you take everything at face value. Someone has to be lying some of the time, or there’s no crime and no twist. What Christie always exploits is the fact that someone reading a detective novel is in a mindset to second-guess everything, when in fact almost everything can be exactly as it seems. All you have to do to mislead someone is take things that are as they seem and present them as though they might not be what they seem, when actually they are what they seem. That’s 90% of the work. You get a pass on the remainder because it’s the minimum that’s necessary to set up a crime. The whiff of unfairness remains, though: how are we to know to take Freddie at her word about the brakes and not Nick about the boulder? And in fact, Christie nudges us in just the opposite direction by telling us how to take things at all the wrong times.
And yet she’s not technically unfair. If you really paid attention to the point you were aware what the (two main) coherent, competing narratives are, there’s ample evidence of which one’s right. It’s just that a lot of it is so unlikely you discount it.
And that’s exactly where I think the fundamental weakness in this book is. A lot of the things that’re so unlikely you discount them are unlikely only because you’re reading a detective story and don’t expect things like that. They’re all things that are fairly common in the spy adventure novels of the time, though. For example, the hollow watches used to smuggle cocaine. We’re given no prior indication that there are watches with secret compartments in them until the very end, when Poirot tells us after the fact that they will probably find Nick dead of suicide owing to a cocaine overdose that she got from the watch she borrowed from Freddie. Had we known about the watches earlier, we might have been wiser to the idea that Nick could’ve spiked the chocolates herself. We’re technically given the clue we need for that in the form of the fact that it’s so clumsily done (i.e. is the kind of thing that could’ve been done with instruments Nick had access to in the sanatorium – like a nail file), but we don’t really think of it because there’s no obvious way Nick could’ve gotten cocaine into the sanatorium. Of course, if you happen to know that there are watches with secret compartments about, that would be different. And if you knew you were reading a spy adventure novel, you might think of something like that. Bu t for all you know, you’re reading a detective novel, and in detective novels, that kind of thing is less common. Ditto the central trick with the names. In real life, it’s hugely unlikely that two cousins both share the name "Magdala Buckley," so we tend not to think of things like that. Indeed, it strikes us as cheating, frankly. But in the kind of inter-war spy adventure novel that Christie started off writing, those sorts of coincidences and cases of mistaken identity are common to the point of cliche. And indeed, all of Christie’s own adventure novels pull similar, if not exactly identical, tricks. If we knew we were reading a spy adventure novel, we might stop to wonder whether two people happened to have the same name. But since no one told us we were, we never think of it, and so it feels cheap when it happens.
The main twist is a good one, though, and Christie is able to put it to better use in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side about 30 years later. Granted, there are some important differences, but the fundamentals are the same. The trick being played on us is one of who the intended victim is. We’re led to assume that someone is a target, but the supposed target turns out to be the murderer. The killing that we’re led to believe was a mistake was intentional all along. By the time we get to Mirror, though, Christie’s learned how to sell this trick. She’s come up with an organic situation in which we might naturally make the wrong assumption about whether a murder were intentional. In this book, it’s forced. It’s only because of an elaborate and implausible setup that we’re mistaken about who the intended victim is, and we’re only involved in the case in the first place because the murderer decides, on what amounts to a lark, to try to pull one over on the famous Hercule Poirot.
The other idea from this novel that we see later is pretty much the theme of Christie’s career. Othello seems to have made a big impression on her, and Poirot’s frequent references to Iago from that play are only slightly misplaced. Our murderer isn’t actually manipulating anyone into doing her dirty work for her, but she does have a way of casting suspicion on people by preying on the prejudices and hidden assumptions of others. Poirot is ironically a victim of this as much as anyone. But again, it’s a good idea that’s here still under development. Christie will learn how to sell this later, and about ten years from the publication of this one she’ll write it into Poirot’s final case to stunning effect. Curtain won’t, of course, be published until the 1970s, though everyone assumes she actually wrote it in the 1940s1, and it’s neat to see the ideas for it germinating here.
But mostly what I take away from this book is just how conspicuously mistaken Poirot is most of the way through it. To what degree Poirot’s excessive vanity is unjustified is a common theme in these novels, of course, but it seems laid on particularly thick here. Poirot "shakes things up" at the end with an elaborate trap involving a faked death and a seance, and yet we can’t help but notice that the sidestory with the will he’s exposing was a bit of a red herring. He justifies the deception by saying it will force the killer to out himself, but he actually learns nothing about the real killer from this exercise. When DID he start to suspect Nick, then? It almost seems like it didn’t come to him until just there at the end. Likewise, he makes a big point throughout the book about there being an outsider involved, but when we finally meet this outsider – again, serendipitously in the final chapter as the book needs to wrap up – it’s clear he actually has nothing to do with anything. He didn’t kill anyone, or motivate anyone to kill anyone, or even cause any of the main events of the novel. The price of the painting is another one. Poirot keeps coming back to it as though it will be significant, but it isn’t. It was just a minor scam that Larazus (those money-grubbing Jews!) was pulling on Nick, to cheat her out of much more expensive painting by establishing a pattern of overappraising and overpaying for other ones. And of course there’s the fact that Poirot buys the whole setup in the first place. It doesn’t even occur to him that if they didn’t hear a shot then, as Hastings points out to him, there might not have been a shot. And this after all these lectures to Hastings to start with the obvious! Christie the author seems to have it in for Poirot more than usual.
That, of course, is in keeping with my overall impression. Detective novels weren’t Christie’s first choice of genre, and she certainly doesn’t seem to enjoy writing about Poirot. And yet, she’s good at it, and so she’ll do it if it means she’s going to be wealthy from writing stories. This is the book where she chose to make peace with that.
I’m fuzzy on how solid the evidence for that is, but I’m not aware of anyone seriously making the case that it was written just ahead of publication.↩