As my next step for reading Agatha Christie’s first decade in order, I decided to scoop up Poirot Investigates – a collection of her short stories first published in The Sketch magazine. I could have gone straight on to her next novel, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), but it seemed worthwhile to understand what Christie was putting out in the year leading up to it. The stories of Poirot Investigates were released between March and October of 1923, unless you factor in the three stories included in the US edition, in which case they stretch on an additional month to November. In that way, this overlaps nicely with my recent reading of The Murder on the Links (1923).
Poirot Investigates doesn’t include all of the short stories that Christie published in The Sketch throughout 1923. For that, you’d need to factor in Poirot’s Early Cases, which wasn’t released until 1974 (although the stories had already been released in various other collections – The Regatta Mystery, Three Blind Mice, The Under Dog, and Double Sin). Nor are the stories in order of release; rather, they’re somewhat randomly scattered.
I always enjoy reading reviews of a short story compilation, as you get these little morsels of each story, summarizing the plot and giving you a relative ranking. You won’t find that here. I would have loved to do it, but I just don’t really have anything to say about the individual stories. It’s not that they’re bad, they simply aren’t in any way memorable.
You’d summarize any of the stories as follows: Hastings and Poirot are approached with some interesting problem – a murder, a theft, or even the strange case of a flat in a prime location being leased for a surprisingly low price. The pair investigate, with Hastings baffled by Poirot’s seemingly irrelevant observations until the detective explains all in the end. The crime typically involves two or three candidate suspects, so even though the solution is always a bit unexpected, the identity of the culprit is rarely surprising due to the limited field. Each story has a twist (as you’d expect from Christie), but they’re fairly minor, or tucked into a brief enough short that you don’t experience the impact of the revelation.
As such, the collection is more an interesting window into Christie’s progression at the time, which makes me glad that I inserted the collection into my reading order. Approached alone, this might have been a bit of a disappointment. In context though, we see Christie fleshing out both Poirot and Hastings. The short form isn’t her forte at this point; her strength is in drawing out a mix of cast, character, and mystery and letting them sparkle, as seen in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Secret Adversary, and The Murder on the Links.
There were interesting bits. The disguise of the murder method in The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor provides insight into the state of autopsies at the time, or at least Christie’s understanding of them. That’s offset by the murder victim undertaking an act so brain dead that it makes the victim of a certain oft-maligned John Dickson Carr book look like Albert Einstein in comparison. The Mystery at Hunter’s Lodge has a clever little twist – the type you want to see in a short story – but I don’t see how Poirot could have armchair detectived it all with information provided solely by telegram. I mean, people were purposely brief in telegrams (as I understand it), and so if some details don’t get mentioned, it would be because you aren’t being chatty.
Anyway – it’s a not that great of a collection of short stories, but it’s not like they’re bad. Each story is extremely short, and if you have twenty spare minutes to wolf one of these down, it will be time enjoyed. It is strange that there isn’t really a stand out story, as you tend to get one or two in any collection. I’d be surprised to learn that anyone really feels that any one of these stories is that much better than another. As such, I’d recommend pecking at this collection while you read other books. The lack of highlights would make this a bit of a bland read all in one go.
The stories included in Poirot Investigates vary depending on edition. As stated on wikipedia, the core difference is that US editions feature three additional stories – The Veiled Lady, The Lost Mine, and The Chocolate Box. I found that there are even variations between the two US editions that I own. My 1956 Avon (pictured at the top) didn’t include The Adventure of the “Western Star”. Fortunately I had a 1973 Bantam edition on hand and noticed the difference. It’s a bit odd – my understanding is that The Adventure of the “Western Star” was included in the original edition of Poirot Investigates, so I’m curious why it was dropped from my Avon edition.
Another minor difference between the editions was the title of one story – A Million Dollar Bond Robbery vs The Million Dollar Bond Robbery. I’m tempted to pass that off as a mistake, although that would suggest as prominent an editing error as any.