“It is like the mirror smashed on the wall. The dead man’s mirror. Every new fact we come across shows us some different angle of the dead man. He is reflected from every conceivable point of view. We shall have soon a complete picture. . . .”
Murder in the Mews contains three excellent short works by Agatha Christie (including one of her very best stories, Triangle at Rhodes) and a middling one, The Incredible Theft.
Murder in the Mews (7/10)
As fireworks light up the sky for Guy Fawkes Day, Hercule Poirot’s thoughts turn to murder. How easy it would be to kill with so much noise in the streets. The next morning, he’s proven right, as young widow Barbara Allen is found dead in her chic Chelsea flat. Poirot’s instincts tell him this is not a suicide, but a locked-room murder.
This one is a lot of fun due to the setting—I’m sure I’m not the only reader who first encountered a mews by way of this novella (nor the only one who was still left a little confused as to what one actually was. It’s a street of stables/garages with servants’ housing above). Mrs. Allen’s flat in a converted stable is the height of 1930s fashion, with silver walls, emerald green ceilings, and chromium chairs for corpses to loll about on. The mews is still home to many servants who work for the mansions nearby, and it has retained its close-knit character, with artists, chauffeurs, and charladies alike chatting cheerfully in the street as they gawk at the crime scene.
Poirot’s banter with Inspector Japp is quite enjoyable, as they spar good-naturedly over the case. Their nicely honed double act gets quite a workout on this investigation, as the victim’s roommate, Jane Plenderleith, is a clever young woman who seems to know more than she’s telling. There are also a few mysteries in the victim’s past and some puzzling physical evidence, leading to a solution that is as poignant as it is unusual.
The Incredible Theft (4/10)
What seems like a pleasant dinner party at the home of Lord Mayfield becomes an occasion for espionage when a classified document goes missing after dinner. Even stranger, not one, but two supernatural figures were seen at the time of the robbery. Of course the document could not have been stolen by a ghost, but some of the other suspects seem equally unlikely. The possible culprits include an American adventuress, a member of Parliament, a family of hard-up aristocrats, and a man who might be the next Prime Minister.
Poirot is dragged out of bed to deal with the situation, with less than satisfying results. Too much of the “evidence” simply involves someone saying, “Well, so-and-so is above suspicion!” The physical clues aren’t any better. Poirot insists, for example, that footprints always show on wet grass—not on any wet grass I’ve ever seen. This was written early in Christie’s career, and it shows.
Dead Man’s Mirror (8/10)
Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is known as much for his daring as for his family pride. A man like the “mad baron” would not easily ask for help, yet he has reached out to Hercule Poirot, who instantly grasps the seriousness of the situation.
Such a one is encased, is he not, in an armor—such an armor! The armor of the crusaders was nothing to it—an armor of arrogance, of pride, of complete self-esteem. This armor, it is in some ways a protection, the arrows, the everyday arrows of life glance off it. But there is this danger; Sometimes a man in armor might not even know he was being attacked. He will be slow to see, slow to hear—slower still to feel.
But Sir Gervase won’t be feeling anything for long. No sooner does Poirot arrive at the Chevenix-Gore estate than his host is found dead in his locked study. The only clue is a broken mirror.
Dead Man’s Mirror is a splendid country-house mystery that could easily have made a full-length novel. It’s already fairly long as is, which gives plenty of room for the investigation to unfold. Some of the characters are shortchanged in the process, however—there are a few suspects Poirot never even speaks to, and I would have loved more time with the dotty Lady Chevenix-Gore.
“You knew I was coming, madame?”
“Oh—oh, yes . . .” Her manner was not convincing. “I think—I mean I suppose so, but I am so terribly impractical, M. Poirot. I forget everything.” Her tone held a melancholy pleasure in the fact. “I am told things. I appear to take them in—but they just pass through my brain and are gone! Vanished! As though they had never been.”
Then, with a slight air of performing a duty long overdue, she glanced round her vaguely and murmured: “I expect you know everybody.”
Though this was patently not the case, the phrase was clearly a well-worn formula by means of which Lady Chevenix-Gore spared herself the trouble of introduction and the strain of remembering people’s right names.
Poirot is all too familiar with the crimes of the upper classes, but the Chevenix-Gores are on another level. The older a family is, however, the more secrets it has. This particular crime seems intimately bound up with Sir Gervase’s family pride, an egoism which in recent years may have crossed the line into actual insanity. Such a man might take his own life rather than allow his name to be tarnished. Then again, his famously high standards for his family might provide a motive for murder.
Within the limits of its novella length, Dead Man’s Mirror manages to say a lot about family pride, family love, and family responsibility. The mystery is ingenious (though one of the clues, while clever in itself, would require remarkable foolhardiness on the part of the killer). I only wish there had been more of it.
Triangle at Rhodes (10/10)
Death takes no holiday, as a love triangle plays out beneath the Aegean sun. Poirot and other hotel guests can only watch as Douglas Gold and the seductive Valentine Chantry seem to be carrying on an affair in plain sight of their long-suffering spouses. Despite Poirot’s attempt to intervene, the situation seems destined for tragedy.
“Couldn’t you go to someone—to the police—?”
“And say what? What is there to say—before the event? That someone has murder in their heart? I tell you, mon enfant, if one human being is determined to kill another human being—”
“You could warn the victim,” insisted Pamela.
“Sometimes,” said Hercule Poirot, “warnings are useless.”
This setup is so good Christie repurposed it for one of her best novels, but even those who have read that work will still find surprises here. Though the crime is simple, it is no less effective for that and the atmosphere of a beachfront resort out of season is perfectly evoked. Nothing is wasted here, and nothing more is wanted. “Triangle at Rhodes” is a perfect little gem sparkling beside the sea.
Christie in a Year (please note, review includes spoilers at the end)
What I like most from those four short stories are their remarkable sub-plots, much as they mean to deviate readers from guessing the murderers. Christie’s dropping of red herring is fantastic and it seems to be an easy thing when she does it.
Murder in the Mews (also published as Dead Man’s Mirror) is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook editions from HarperCollins.