Book Review: Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

I’d picked up and put down this one a few times before, not sure it would hold my interest. Contemporary crime fiction is written in a more pacy style than this old Poirot novel, first published in 1942. But I put my reservations aside and once I got going I was soon absorbed.

Five Little Pigs begins with a new client calling on Poirot, a well-turned-out young woman asking him to review the case of her mother murdering her father, sixteen years before. Carla Lemarchant has only recently learned about the deaths of her parents – she’d been brought up in Canada by relatives and had a happy upbringing. Only now she wants to get married, but before she can plan her wedding, she needs to know what really happened. And then there’s the troubling letter from her dying mother, declaring her innocence.

The novel is divided into three parts as the great detective slowly pieces together the events of that fateful summer. In the first part he interviews the lawyers for the defence and prosecution as well as a policeman to find out why it was so easy to find Caroline Crayle guilty of the murder of her husband, the celebrated artist, Amyas Crale. Everyone agreed she’d put poison into his glass of beer while he was painting a beautiful young woman at their country home. In court, Caroline had just sat there, doing nothing to fight back, immobile but looking lovely just the same.

Along with Elsa Greer, the artist’s model, four others were present when Amyas died – all possible suspects – making the five little pigs of the title. Somehow Poirot can’t quite get the nursery rhyme out of his head. One by one, he visits the five and asks them to write a description of events leading up to and including the murder.

The first (little piggie who went to market) is Amyas’s great friend, the investor Philip Blake; the second (little piggie who stayed home) is Philip’s brother Meredith who had a bit of crush on Caroline, and immersed himself in amateur pharmacology. Elsa is the third little piggie who had roast beef – well, a succession of wealthy husbands, while the little piggie who had none is governess Cecelia Williams who adored Caroline while seeing to the education of Caroline’s precocious young sister, Angela Warren. Angela, now a respected archaeologist, is the little piggie who cried wee, wee, wee all the way home.

The second part of the novel is made up of the written narratives of each ‘piggie’ and the same threads run through each of them: the theft of some coniine from Meredith’s laboratory; the overheard arguments, the simmering jealousies. Of course, we don’t know who might be lying or making unsubstantiated assumptions. The third part is the coming together of all the witnesses so that Poirot can explain all and unmask the killer.

So unlike a modern murder mystery, there is no second murder, or ramping up of tension through imminent danger. And while Christie linked nursery rhymes from time to time to her plots (One, Two Buckle My Shoe; Hickory Dickory Dock; And Then There Were None), perhaps we are too sophisticated to be amused by such a contrivance today.

And yet, this such a good story. The characters are interesting – all of them have emotional ups and downs to do with the lovely, long suffering Caroline or enfant-terrible Amyas, the couple vividly brought to life even though they are both long dead. And then there’s the beautiful mansion with its battlements and coastal setting, the languorous summer weather, the simmering tension of people behaving badly.

The story slowly builds and the reader is swept in to make connections and deductions, pick up the red herrings, and examine motives – Christie’s novels work very much with the reader playing detective alongside her sleuth. And the finale is so well done, the vivid reconstruction of Amyas’s death revealed with Poirot’s wonderful delight in the dramatic. I loved it. It just goes to show that a book doesn’t have to have the expected plot-points to work and this one works just fine. It’s not quite a classic but still a four out of five read from me.

Lockdown Reading 1: A House of Ghosts by W C Ryan

We’re well into several weeks of lockdown and reading has been one way to escape when there’s really nowhere else to go. And you can’t get more escapist than this – a story concerning stolen plans for an aerial torpedo (this is WWI) set in an ancient abbey, complete with mediums and yes, inevitably, ghosts.

A House of Ghosts begins in the offices of Whitehall where a spymaster named C has a new mission for Captain Robert Donovan. It involves spending a weekend on a remote, storm-lashed island at the evocatively named Blackwater Abbey. The Abbey is home to Lord Highmount, a munitions manufacturer – hence the secret plans – which, because of its age and atmosphere, is haunted by multiple ghosts collected over the centuries.

So it’s also an ideal place for a séance. Highmount and his Austrian wife have lost two sons to the carnage of the trenches, and like many grieving families of the time, turn to spiritualism. Enter Count Olav and Madame Feda, two mediums who have become friendly with the Highmounts, as well as Kate Cartwright who is the character that bridges both worlds. Kate also works in Whitehall, but is an old family friend of the Highmounts, ideally placed to give Donovan a hand to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

Kate is very intelligent, carries a pistol and has a talent that has got her into trouble in more genteel settings before – she can see ghosts. Donovan will act as valet to Capt. Rolleston Miller-White, invited as Kate’s fiancé. But along with the two mediums, suspicious because they have inveigled their way into the circle of the Highmounts, Rolleston, with his gambling debts, is also on the suspects list.

As the weather closes the island off from the mainland and the phone-lines are cut, the scene is set for a weekend of suspense, danger and mysterious goings-on. I was reminded of Agatha Christie and John Buchan, but the novel is witty and complex enough to suit a modern reading audience. The characters are quirky and interesting and I loved the way Kate and Donovan bounce off each other – Donovan, the stony-faced man of action; Kate with her matter-of-fact way of dealing with the supernatural.

A House of Ghosts was the perfect book for lockdown, reminding us that things could be a whole lot worse when you’re sequestered somewhere without choice. The plot is nicely paced and the writing intelligent and lively. I shall be looking out for more fiction by W C Ryan. Four out of five from me.