“When planning a murder never depend upon a woman doing what she says she’ll do.”
As a famous actress, Jane Wilkinson is used to being the center of attention. But this time, she’s the one seeking an audience with a celebrity, master detective Hercule Poirot. Her request is simple: “M. Poirot, somehow or other I’ve just got to get rid of my husband!”
To Poirot’s surprise, her spouse Lord Edgware easily agrees to a divorce. Strange, then, that Jane should visit her husband the next day, immediately before he is found murdered. Stranger still, a dozen witnesses swear that she was the thirteenth guest at a dinner party at exactly the same time. Poirot soon has his hands full, dealing with the affairs of actors, dukes, and one very merry widow.
The 1930s was Agatha Christie’s miracle decade, as she cranked out one stone-cold classic after another: Murder on the Orient Express, The ABC Murders, Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None, not to mention introducing Miss Marple in Murder at the Vicarage. It’s interesting that Lord Edgware Dies is often included among this elite company, as it is a puzzle mystery without much of a puzzle. Yet the sheer pleasure of reading Christie at her peak easily overcomes any objections.
One of Dame Agatha’s gifts as a novelist is her ability to present enormous amounts of information to the reader in a way that seems utterly natural. She rarely resorts to the endless rounds of interviews that cause so many mysteries to drag in the middle, preferring instead to let the suspects circulate freely among themselves, dropping clues and misdirection as they go. Here, Poirot makes a few key visits early on before deciding that it “suits” him better to stay at home and let the clues come to him. “It doesn’t suit me at all,” his sidekick Hastings grumbles. “I want you to be doing things.” So does the reader, and yet it is remarkable how seamlessly the story flows even as very little actually happens.
It helps that aspiring widow Jane Wilkinson is a standout in the Christie pantheon. A star in all she does, Jane floats through life on a pink cloud of her own self-regard. She is eager to marry the devout and unworldly Duke of Merton and doesn’t much care how she accomplishes it. Jane worries Poirot. “A woman like that sees only one thing—herself. Such women see nothing of the dangers and hazards that surround them—the million conflicting interests and relationships of life. No, they see only their own forward path. And so—sooner or later—disaster.” When disaster does strike, Poirot is befuddled in his attempts to question the bereaved Lady Edgware, who is hilarious and even charming in her obliviousness.
“M. Poirot.” She clasped her hands, her husky voice dropped. She looked like an angel about to give vent to thoughts of exquisite holiness. “I’ve been thinking. It all seems so miraculous, if you know what I mean. Here I am—all my troubles over. No tiresome business of divorce. No bothers. Just my path cleared and all plain sailing. It makes me feel almost religious—if you know what I mean.”
“Has it not occurred to you to ask yourself who killed your husband?”
“No.” She seemed quite surprised by the idea. We could see her thinking about it.
“Does it not interest you to know?” asked Poirot.
“Not very much, I’m afraid,” she admitted.
The image of Jane in black, unable to tear her eyes away from her own reflection even as her husband lies dead, is indelible.
Most of the other characters are neatly introduced at a party in Jane’s hotel suite. Her old flame, film star Bryan Martin, is present, along with monologist/impressionist Carlotta Adams, and Lord Edgware’s heir Ronald Marsh. (Marsh is meant as a sympathetic character, but he is introduced roaring drunk and rambling a series of racial slurs. Then again, this is shortly after Poirot identifies Carlotta as a money-loving “Jewess” based solely on her appearance, so no one’s hands are very clean here.) The sadistic Lord Edgware also has enemies closer to home, especially his mistreated daughter Geraldine. Poirot’s greatest challenge is that none of these people seem capable of organizing a picnic, let alone a murder.
The existence of Carlotta Adams should instantly suggest one reasonable scenario for the murder and it’s typical of Lord Edgware Dies that Poirot takes so long to bring up that possibility. Several other simple points are not considered at all until the end. Poirot often holds back his ideas, but in this case he claims to have been sincerely baffled throughout. In my experience as a mystery reader, if an obvious option is not even mentioned, it’s because that’s really the answer and the author is hoping that if they don’t bring it up, it won’t occur to the reader. Here, the final solution, though presented with great panache by Poirot, is bound to be a letdown. One must agree with the justice of Japp’s observation about the little Belgian:
He’s always been fond of having things difficult. A straightforward case is never good enough for him. No, it’s got to be torturous. He’s got away from real life. He plays a game of his own. It’s like an old lady playing at patience. If it doesn’t come out, she cheats. Well, it’s the other way round with him. If it’s coming out too easily, he cheats to make it more difficult.
It’s tempting to imagine that Poirot solved the case immediately, then spent the rest of the book tying himself in knots because it surely couldn’t be that simple. Then again, if he hadn’t, we would miss out on any number of joys. Professionally, this is not his finest hour, but from a personal standpoint, Poirot’s full, glorious plumage is on display here, and who could ask for more than that?
The mystery… Right, obviously I’m not going to spoil it, but if you’re smarter than the average bear, I think you might put two and two together […] In the meantime, it’s a good early Poirot although not the best. Pretty median, to be honest. Well Worth A Look.
In Lord Edgware Dies, we see Poirot at the height of his powers. The main issue here is that the problem he tackles is comparatively pedestrian. But it is enlivened by Poirot, by his friendship with the clueless Hastings, and by the creation of Jane Wilkinson, another of Christie’s mercurial artists, who brightens up the novel whenever she appears.
I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, an excellent example of what has been termed the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. The argument is intricate but highly ingenious, and the story is well told. It’s able to keep the reader’s attention trying to guessing what will be the final outcome and provides the reader plenty of clues to be correctly interpreted. In this regard, the entertainment is fully achieved. It has been criticized that it has some aspects that nowadays are politically incorrect, but we should not forget they were perfectly acceptable at the time in which the novel was written. If it had not been for this, I wonder if, Lord Edgware Dies, would not have had a greater recognition today. For the time being, I’ll include this book on my list of Poirot’s favourite.
Lord Edgware Dies (also published as Thirteen at Dinner) is available as a paperback, ebook, or audiobook from HarperCollins