Murder in Retrospect – Agatha Christie (1942)

Five Little Pigs

MurderInRetrospectI was dead set on reading this book under it’s original title – Five Little Pigs.  It’s an odd enough title that it always caught my interest.  But I’m a creature of some convenience and thrift, and so when I realized that I already had access to the story under its US release as Murder in Retrospect, I had to succumb to practicality.

What a dry title though – Murder in Retrospect.  At least, that’s what I thought as I initially started to turn the pages.  I’ll tell you this though – upon completing this 1942 Poirot novel, I can see no name more fitting.

That’s what it is after all – a murder in retrospect.  Poirot is approached by a young woman with the request that he investigate a murder that occurred 16 years in the past.  Her mother, Caroline Crale, was convicted of the murder of her father Amyas, a well renowned painter.  Although Caroline died in prison, she left a note to her daughter proclaiming her innocence.  Poirot is intrigued enough by the case to take it up, drawn in by the prospect of solving a mystery without ever being able to glimpse the crime scene.

“The tangible things are gone – the cigarette end and the footprints and the bent blades of grass.  You can’t look for those anymore.  But you can go over all of the facts of the case, and perhaps talk to all the people who were there at the time – and then… you can lie back in your chair and think.”

Although the case against Caroline Crale seems to be open and shut, there were five other people present at the time of the crime who could conceivably be considered suspects.  The crime in question is a straight forward poisoning, delivered in a glass of beer that Caroline handed to her husband.  Sufficient evidence and testimony points towards Caroline being the culprit -in fact all of the evidence leads to that conclusion.

Christie tells an interesting tale of perspectives – I’ll pretentiously call it her Rashomon (ignoring that the film came eight years after the book).  Poirot begins by interviewing the police and the lawyers involved in the case, providing us with an initial overview of the facts of the murder.  Subsequent chapters lead to interviews with the five other suspects, in which we get five additional perspectives on those facts.  Then, at Poirot’s request, each of the five witnesses provides a written account of their recollection of the circumstances surrounding the murder.

In all, we’re treated to twelve separate accounts of the events surrounding the poisoning.  Poirot finishes with a thirteenth, which shockingly shows that the scene that we’ve observed so many times is far different than what was actually occurring.

I’m happy to proclaim that Christie thoroughly shocked me with this one.  With such a small circle of suspects, I had plenty of time to consider the potential for each to be the murderer.  And, inevitably, I saw clearly who that guilty party must be.  In fact, I would say that I was almost bored by how obvious the conclusion was.

Yeah, she got me.  With one chapter left, I saw nothing but the one killer that I had my eye on.  Plus, even if that wasn’t that correct culprit, I had already considered scenarios for the remaining four, and none of them were that interesting.

The true solution was a mile away from what I was suspecting and caught me unprepared – a particularly satisfying conclusion when entering a final chapter thinking “I don’t see any way that this could surprise me”.  To be fair to myself, I had detected some aspects of the misdirection but cast them in the wrong direction.  But this isn’t just about misdirection – it’s about emotion.  The ending to Murder in Retrospect is absolutely devastating.  Like, Christianna Brand devastating.  This is one that I like to think will stay with me always.

There is a beautiful line delivered by Poirot in the last two pages of the book – a line that I would give anything to quote if not for spoilers.  That one line transforms an already excellent read into somewhat of a masterpiece.  And this ending has transformed the way that I’ll look forward to  my next encounter with Christie.


I look forward to viewing the David Sutton movie version of this book – and when I do, I’ll be keeping my eye out for one specific thing that ties back to that line delivered by Poirot.  I can’t wait to see how it’s pulled off.

The series was recently available in the US via Netflix, but to my horror last night, it appears to have been pulled.  Thankfully it is available via Amazon Prime for the time being.

Update

I watched the David Sutton movie and loved it – but for some reason they left the key detail that I wanted to see out of the movie.  I provided some comments over at Ah Sweet Mystery where Brad already has a suitable post discussing Christie in film.


And now for a few comments that verge on spoilers.  Please be sensitive with any comments that you leave below.  Murder in Retrospect was such a powerful experience for me that I’d hate to see it ruined for anyone else.

Spoilers

I entertained a number of theories on this one, including the utterly ridiculous idea that the five year old daughter was the actual killer.  That was really the only “shocking” ending that I could dream up – the daughter who hires Poirot to track down the killer ends up discovering that she herself committed the crime.  I’m sure that’s been done somewhere… and if it has, don’t tell me!

I ultimately got tricked into the false solution that is discussed right before the true solution.  I imagine most readers clue into it as well.

End Spoilers

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14 thoughts on “Murder in Retrospect – Agatha Christie (1942)”

  1. Re spoilers — it has been done (although with a little bit of a twist to what you said), and no, I won’t tell you enough to let you figure out which book. But it was published during WWII and is by a famous mystery writer whose name you would recognize. Anyone who wants to know can contact me privately 😉

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  2. I was also going to hint cleverly about that novel, but Noah beat me to it! I imagine if you persevere, Ben, that you will come upon it yourself!

    Meanwhile, I’m thrilled that you like this one! I’m writing about Crooked House now, and it seems to me that it is in the ‘40s that Christie achieves real emotional resonance with her writing. Towards Zero, Sad Cypress, The Hollow . . . all the way to A Murder Is Announced – these stories all pack an emotional punch!

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  3. Put me down as another one who was completely fooled. I enjoyed this book so much in part because of its structure — I actually found myself wishing there were more put together this way, although that would be no guarantee of an ingenious plot! There’s a Carter Dickson novel where H.M. talks about how most mysteries are put together – in the first half you have the murder and the questioning of the suspects, and then in the second you have “the fight in the dentist’s office” and other exciting stuff to encourage the reader to keep going till the end. Here it’s basically all statements by the suspects, and yet the whole thing is riveting.

    And I also know what book Noah and Brad are talking about, which is all I’m going to say about that!

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  4. I very much agree … that it is Rashomon-like, that its denouement is emotionally wrenching, that it can stay with the reader for a very long time, and that it is a genre masterpiece. So is the BBC film version featuring David Suchet, because it has all these features as well as splendid photography.
    For me, Caroline Crale is one of the most beautiful and memorable characters Christie has created.

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  5. The way Christie works effortless out of the apparently insoluble problem here is wonderful, but I maintain that this is a novella padded up to novel length by the first and second sections simply being the same information repeated and with a single point added. It’s almost justified on account of how she’s carefully building that edifice before blithely knocking it over, but I remember my main response to this being frustration by the midway stage.

    I’ll reread it at some point and may have a better time, who knows? But, yeah, for emotional resonance this is hard to beat. Anyone who dismisses the Golden Age detective novel as characterless and without emotion can be shown faulty in their thinking by this one.

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  6. A favorite of mine as well, though I occasionally get it mixed up with ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE which also has an innocent person convicted of a murder and dying in prison. But this time out it’s not a daughter who asks for the truth, it’s a missing witness who shows up too late and solves the crime – no Poirot or Miss Marple this time. This was a 1958 book so well beyond the 40’s and definitely not as good as MURDER IN RETROSPECT, but good enough.

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  7. I was utterly fooled as well – well, I usually am – and enjoyed the structure, thugh I agree with JJ that it lags in places. Really glad you’re finding Christies that surprise and involve you as well as entertain.

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  8. I really am blown away that you identified the killers in both DOTN and Crooked House. It’s impossible for me to be objective about DOTN because it was my first Christie. I read it somewhere around 3rd grade (I was a precocious reader) and I think it was also the first “grown up” book I ever read. So, it holds a special place in my heart. But I still don’t think even now, when I have read about 75% of her stuff that I would get the ending. I am sure I would KNOW the identity, because I know her work well enough to know certain things she does with characters, but I would be at a loss to explain how it was done. And Crooked House I read in my 30s, with lots of her stuff under my belt, and it still blew me away. So mad respect to you.

    All that to say, I’m glad Christie finally pulled one over on you with Five Little Pigs. That one actually I did guess, but trying not to make this too spoilerish…if you know anything about Christie’s life, you might figure out that a certain character is the one she is most likely to despise. I do think that it is outstanding though, with some of the best characters she ever created. My only (slight) complaint was the nursery rhyme trope. It works so well in ATTWN, and is SO overused in most of her other stuff, and this book more than any other, makes me scream “Give it a rest with the Mother Goose shit, Agatha!”

    For your next ones, I’d grab After the Funeral (aka Funerals are Fatal) and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (aka A Holiday for Murder). If you can pick out the killer in both of those, I’ll eat my hat.

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    1. The nursery rhyme part of Five Little Pigs was completely forced – which is in part why I prefer the title of Murder in Retrospect.

      Thanks for the two book recommendations. They’ll go into my near-term Christie pile, although I have a few lined up ahead of them already. Plus, that will give you time to buy an edible hat…

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  9. I think it’s important to point out that all copies of the book with the Murder in Retrospect title are actually abridged copies of Five Little Pigs— and abridged in an annoying way. At least one clue mentioned in the denouement (the “cat stuff” detail) is not “planted” earlier in the book, so that it is mentioned for the very first time in the denouement. Still, a great book in any form.

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