Lots about Lord Edgeware Dies feels like a do-over for Peril at End House (reviewed here). While it’s not unusual for Christie to recycle ideas between books, the fact that these two are separated in publication by only a year and a half means the similarities must’ve been striking even to contemporary readers.
Poirot and Hastings are attending a show by Carlotta Adams, a famous (American) impersonator. She’s doing a shockingly good, if somewhat mean-spirited, impersonation of Jane Wilkinson, a beautiful American actress currently married to Lord Edgeware. Hastings wonders how Wilkinson would take the performance if she were in the audience only to look around and notice that she is in fact in the audience and seems to be taking it rather well. Afterward Poirot and Hastings are approached by her – Lady Edgeware, that is, not Miss Adams – because she wants Poirot’s help. She wants a divorce from her husband, but he will not grant it, and she wants Poirot to convince him. If Poirot cannot, she casually mentions, why she’ll have to take a taxi some night and murder him herself!
Poirot politely tells her that engineering divorces is not really what he does, but he will at least go and talk to Lord Edgeware on her behalf, which he does within a few days. At Lord Edgeware’s house the door is opened by a butler who seems very unlike a butler. He’s more like a body builder but with, Hastings notices, an effeminate air. Additionally, we see on Lord Edgware’s shelves lots of notorious classics of pornography – 120 Days of Sodom, for example. Edgeware himself is highly unpleasant – something we’ve been prepared for by the fact that everyone who’s met him seems to dislike him. It’s more restrained than usual for Agatha Christie, but we get the picture without her having to tell us: Lord Edgeware is a homosexual sadist.
He’s also not, as it turns out, opposed to granting his wife a divorce. Poirot is positively stunned, but indeed, Lord Edgeware claims to have told is wife as much in a letter sent six months prior when she was in Hollywood. Poirot returns to tell Jane Wilkinson the good news, and she’s positively ecstatic. You see, she’s been wanting to marry the Duke of Merton – a "catch" thought unattainable in London circles because he is a man of such stuffy principles and a bit of a mama’s boy – and now she’ll be able to! She thanks Poirot effusively, but Poirot insists he did nothing. Lord Edgeware was always willing to grant her a divorce, and it’s curious that she apparently never received his letter. She insists that this is a change of heart on his part and speculates the letter was lost in the post. Poirot considers this unlikely and speculates a little on what may have happened to it.
Shortly thereafter, Lord Edgeware is murdered in his study with a knife blow at the base of the skull. Several witnesses saw Lady Edgeware leave a taxi and go into the house. So, it seems she may have murdered her husband after all. Except … well, for one thing, she was at a dinner party at the time the murder happened, observed by several witnesses. For another, she seems to lack any motive. Since she and her husband were estranged, it’s logical to assume she would’ve been written out of his will (as she was), and more to the point, he was going to grant her her divorce, so she doesn’t need to kill him to get out of the marriage. Most of all, though, is that it would be really stupid to go and kill Lord Edgeware in exactly the way she had described in public so soon after doing so!
So, who really killed Lord Edgeware, and how do we explain the fact that witnesses can place Jane Wilkinson in two places at once?
A lot of critics seem to credit this one as one of Christie’s triumphs, citing the clever resolution – but I think it’s ability to trick us has faded with the years. I certainly saw the solution very early on, and that seems to be true of a lot of mystery bloggers as well. So, don’t read this one for the famed cleverness: it’s really not all that clever.
Read it instead for the characteriztion, which is some of Christie’s best, in my opinion. I noted in my reivew of Peril at End House that it suffered a bit from taking on too many elements of the interwar spy adventures that seem to have been Christie’s first choice of genres. Those elements are mostly gone here: it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think of this is a recasting of Peril at End House as a pure detective novel. Well, 95% pure, anyway. There are a couple of lingering traces … for example, the fact that "Paris" is the name of a city and also the name of a hero from Greek mythology plays a role in the story, as do cases of mistaken identity (obviously). But basically, this is a straightforward detective novel, and as a result a lot less annoying. Christie’s hatred for Poirot is on full display, but it takes a much more disciplined form here than in End House. Hastings frequently chides Poirot for his vanity, and rather than have Poirot be egregiously wrong at every turn, casting about wildly for solutions (as in End House), here his near failure is chalked up to a central and psychologically plausible failing: he is taken with a character and so a bit blind to that character’s machinations. Otherwise, he actually is rather brilliant (as the reader surely prefers).
Hastings, for his part, isn’t treated as cruelly as usual. One thing I strongly dislike about the Poirot novels is the way in which Christie takes Hastings’ obtuseness a shade too far. Poirot is so brazenly insulting to him for his stupidity in many of these outings. That’s true here too, of course, but it’s toned down. The point, of course, is to spoof Holmes and Watson, but it’s a case of spoofing something that was always a bit self-ironic – i.e. something that never needed a spoof. Watson was never as stupid as he was sometimes made to seem – a point Christie may have missed? In any case, in this book, for once, you can almost say the same about Hastings. Almost.
The various secondary characters are also better-sketched than usual. The main complain about Christie is that her characters are weak – wooden, underdeveloped, and often inconsistent. That is also less the case here than usual. For once, we actually stop to really talk to people and get an idea what they’re like, and no one is suddenly very different than they were before.
The pacing and descriptions are also very well done. Technically speaking – in terms of the writing and construction of the story – this is one of Christie’s best.
It’s the plot that’s the snag. The mystery is simply too easy to solve. Again, I have to note that it doesn’t seem to have been at the time it was released: contemporary reviews were apparently positive and universally praised the cleverness of the solution. But to modern readers it feels almost telegraphed. There is an impersonator, and then a "perfect" alibi in which the most obvious suspect was seen by 12 other people at a dinner party at the moment she was also seen entering the house to murder her husband. It surely occurs to the reader immediately that one of the two was the impersonator? Christie isn’t this pedestrian, of course: she allows that possibility very quickly and then, in the most intelligent part of the setup, gives you several convincing reasons why it was the impersonator who must’ve been the one seen entering thehouse where Lord Edgeware died that evening. The case proceeds under the assumption that the impersonator was hired to cast suspicion on Lady Edgeware, who, as we’re constantly reminded, doesn’t really have a motive since her husband was going to grant her her divorce anyway. And indeed, Carlotta Adams is found dead by overdose the next day as well. It seems plausible someone killed her to silence her, though it could’ve simply been an accident.
Modern readers see through this very easily, though. If people can mistake Carlotta Adams for Lady Edgeware outside her house, couldn’t it just as easily have been Carlotta Adams at the dinner party? In which case, can’t Lady Edgeware have actually been the woman seen going into her house, and can’t she actually have murdered Lord Edgeware? It’s true, there are problems with all the witnesses who saw "her" going into the house. They’re all unreliable in one way or another. But we all instantly recognize Christie’s signature trick here. "Unreliable" isn’t the same thing as "wrong." They may be unreliable witnesses who all happen to be telling the truth – and if Carlotta Adams can impersonate Lady Edgeware at the house, she can surely also do it at the dinner party. After all, we’re told the dinner party is candlelit, so it’s an atmosphere where such a thing is likely to succeed. The fact that Jane Wilkinson’s total lack of moral scruples is so telegraphed just makes it that much more obvious.
Of course, in real life it’s virtually impossible, but we’re all aware we’re reading a detective novel. And so of course it turns out to be so: Carlotta Adams was at the dinner party, and Jane Wilkinson/Lady Edgeware really did murder her husband. Her motive is a bit obscure, but we trust Poirot to supply it, and he does: The Duke of Merton was a staunch catholic and so cannot marry a divorcee. He can, however, marry a widow.
As noted, we’re also struck by the similarity to End House. Here again, we have a story in which Poirot – altough he constantly and ironically chides Hastings for this failing – is a bit too credulous of a female character he seems a bit taken with, probably because she flatters his vanity. That female character is completely amoral. Poirot is only involved in the case because she involved him, hoping to use him as part of her alibi. In both books, there is a case of mistaken identity about this girl, and the wrong one of the two is murdered. In both cases, this turns out to be part of the murderer’s plan. Also in both cases, the murderer seems to be a target of some kind (Lady Edgeware of a frame-up, Nick of a failed but ongoing murder plot) but actually isn’t. In actuality, she has painted herself as a target to throw off suspicion. I could go on, but the point is made: the resemblances are uncanny to the point where Lord Edgeware Dies reads almot like a second, much more refined, stab at writing Peril at End House.
It’s both an improvement and a decline in quality. Lord Edgeware Dies reads more like a novel. The writing is better, the characters are better developed, it sticks to its own genre, and the machine, so to speak, is less visible. You’re better able to suspend your disbelief here. But in Peril at End House the trick was better sold. It just seemed a lot less obvious there what the twist was going to be. Here, any savvy reader had figured it out fifty pages in, even if we didn’t quite know how it would be accomplished.
So, in the final analysis, this is a more-competent version of Peril at End House that’s nevertheless less interesting.
One thing that was kind of cool about this one was reflected in the original American title – Thriteen at Dinner (the title it had at my local library growing up) – which refers to a superstition by which if thriteen people sit down to dinner, misfortune will befall one of them before the end of the year. Christie takes liberties with the legend here to present it instead as "the first one to leave the table will die shortly thereafter." This is both fulfilled and subverted, but it provides a very clever impetus to set Poirot on the right track. Donald Ross – the third murder victim – reflects, just before being killed, that he was the first one to leave the table at that dinner. In fact, it occurs to Poirot (and the reader) that this is not true – in fact "Lady Edgeware" left to take a telephone call. Of course, "Lady Edgeware" was here actually Carlotta Adams, who is indeed found murdered the next morning. But then, Donald Ross was also murdered by the same person, so it’s a trope interestingly both fulfilled and subverted.
Incidentally, that telephone call was, to my mind, the closest thing to a real cheat in this book. The explanation we’re given for it is that it was Lady Edgeware calling to confirm that their deception had played out. That much makes sense: she won’t want to go through with her murder if someone at the party has recognized that Carlotta Adams is impersonating Lady Edgeware, since that would mean her alibi is shot. It’s the fact that they draw attention to the mysterious nature of this call that’s deliberately deceptive. Carlotta Adams, playing Lady Edgeware, sits back down to tell everyone that the counterparty simply hung up. That seems an unlikely way to play it. A better way would be to simply pretend it was a call of no real importance. But I concede this may be my modern sensibility intruding. In 1933, there were still switchboard operators, and so there was always the possibility that one was listening in on the call who could later tell the police how it went.
In any case, it’s a book worth reading. It just might not be as good as its reputation.