“I’m her daughter. I want the truth!” – Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

April 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

The following information comes from John Curran’s site:

For many years he edited the official Agatha Christie Newsletter and acted as a consultant to the National Trust during the restoration of Greenway House, Dame Agatha’s Devon home. John has been working with her grandson, Mathew Prichard, to establish the Agatha Christie Archive, and is currently writing a doctoral thesis on Agatha Christie at Trinity College, Dublin.

John Curran

In September 2009 Curran, author of Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks,  provided the Guardian with s list of his top ten favorite Christie novels. Among them was Five Little Pigs, which he describes as “sublime.” This recommendation made me decide to read the novel.  A young woman named Carla Lemarchant comes to Poirot with an unusual request. Sixteen years ago, her mother had stood accused of murdering her father, the famed painter Amyas Crale. Caroline Crale had been convicted of the crime and had narrowly escaped hanging.  Even so, she had sickened in prison and died a year later.

Carla was only five years of age when the crime that destroyed her family occurred. In its aftermath, she’d been sent to Canada to be raised by relatives living there. Now a grown young woman, she has returned to England in the guise of an avenging angel. She has found the man she wants to marry and have children with. And she wants to set the record of her personal life straight. My mother was innocent, she declares to Poirot. And I want you to prove it.

Poirot is only too aware of the effect that a lapse of so many years is likely to have had in regard to available evidence and the recollection of witnesses. Reluctant to accept the commission, he warns Carla of the formidable obstacles such an undertaking would present. But she, clever girl, knows how to get around the famous Belgian detective with the prodigious “leetle gray cells”:

“Oh! Of course it’s going to be difficult! Nobody but you could do it!”

And so she reels in her catch….

David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Poirot knows that his first task is to speak to those who were most closely connected to this crime. He begins with the lawyers, both the prosecutor and the counsels for the defense. All still alive, as luck would have it, save one. Then ex-Superintendent Hale, who headed up the police investigation. Poirot’s conversations with these gentlemen are enlightening and suggestive. (Also humorous in Hale’s case. The Superintendent had no great opinion of the modernist style in which the murder victim worked: “You should have seen that picture Crale was painting. All lopsided. He’d made the girl look as though she’d got toothache….” Poirot does eventually see the painting, and has quite a different reaction to it.)

Even more intriguing are Poirot’s interviews with the individuals who were present at Alderbury, the country  house of Amyas and Caroline Crale, on the day of Amyas’s death. Not counting Carla and her parents, they numbered five:

Philip Blake, a prosperous stockbroker and close friend of Amyas Crale;
Meredith Blake, Philip’s older brother who lives in Handcross Manor, the neighboring estate;
Angela Warren, Caroline’s younger sister – actually, her step-sister. Their close relationship has a shocking back story;
Cecilia Williams, Angela’s governess;
Elsa Greer, Amyas’s model, and also his lover.

These are the eponymous five little pigs.  When Poirot confronts each of them with his questions, a complex skein of emotional entanglements gradually comes to light. There is some inconsistency in the accounts of what happened at Alderbury on that fateful day, but nearly everyone agrees on one point: Caroline Crale deliberately poisoned her husband.

Indeed, one of the singular qualities of this story is the way in which the fate of this woman, dead these fifteen years, hovers over everything and everyone. Her demeanor in court had only added to the certainty of her guilt. Quentin Fogg K.C., who prosecuted the case against Caroline Crale, confided a grudging admiration of her to Poirot:

‘She wasn’t very young–tired looking–circles under her eyes. But it all centered round her. The interest–the drama. And yet, half the time, she wasn’t there. She’d gone away somewhere, quite far away–just left her body there, quiescent, attentive, with the little polite smile on her lips. She was all half tones, you know, lights and shades. And yet, with it all, she was more alive than the other–that girl with the perfect body, and the beautiful face, and the crude young strength.’

In that last sentence, Fogg is speaking of Elsa Greer. Of all the five, she has changed most radically over the years since the trial – been married multiple times and had her name appear in the scandal sheets on numerous occasions. When Poirot goes to see her, he finds her transformed into Lady Dittisham, married to an earnest, dull aristocrat, surrounded by luxury, spitting out arch, ironic comments about everyone and everything – and beneath it all, desperately unhappy. Poirot notes that her brittle smile was ‘…a little frightening. It was so far removed from any real feeling.’

The governess Cecilia Williams is another story altogether. This is the kind of person that sometimes fades to invisibility when the rich and powerful are about the place. When Poirot asks Mr. Fogg to enumerate those present on the day in question, that gentlemn only recalls Cecilia Williams when Poirot prods him to do so: “Wretched people, governesses, one never does remember them,” mumbles the aging barrister.

Later in the novel, after he has met with Cecilia Williams in her small, cramped flat, Poirot offers some provocative insights on her situation in life:

Cecilia Williams, to outward appearances, had no assets of which to boast. Nevertheless, to Poirot’s eye, there was no despondency there and no sense of failure. Miss Williams’s life had been interesting to her–she was still interested in people and events. She had the enormous mental and moral advantage of a strict Victorian upbringing denied to us in these days–she had done her duty in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call her, and that assurance encased her in an armour impregnable to the slings and darts of envy, discontent and regret. She had her memories, her small pleasures, made possible by stringent economies, and sufficient health and vigour to enable her still to be interested in life.

I’ve quoted this entire passage because I find it fascinating and  because it seems to come so directly from Christie herself. One the one hand, it seems a defense of the class system that was still dominant at the time; on the other hand, it is also a recognition of the courage, dignity, and accomplishments of persons such as Miss Williams.

It should also be mentioned that  the governess had good reason to feel fulfilled with regard to her pupil at Alderbury: Angela Warren had gone on to conquer the world of academia, becoming a distinguished scholar who lectures at such venues as the Royal Geographical Society. (For me, the highlight of the recent film version of Five Little Pigs was the extremely affecting portrayal of Miss Williams by veteran actress Gemma Jones.  The quiet integrity conveyed by her performance caused this supposedly minor household functionary to all but steal the entire show.)

Once Poirot has spoken to all five principals in the drama, he asks that each of them write down their account of the events at Alderbury on that fateful day sixteen years distant. Having had their memories reinvigorated by his questioning, they do so. It is an astute strategy: more is revealed in these written statements than had come to light in the oral interviews. Along with Poirot, we sense that we are approaching the truth, circling it warily, closing in on it. But before we get there, we are sent down many a false path by Christie, the master of misdirection. I kept thinking I knew who the real killer was, yet I always doubted my belief, as it turned out, with good reason, right up to end, when Christie stages yet another of the climactic ensemble piece for which she is so famous. There they all are, gathered together at Handcross Manor at Poirot’s behest: the Blake brothers, Cecilia Williams, Lady Dittisham aka Elsa Greer,  Angela Warren, and Carla Lemarchant. Poirot has much explaining to do, but he does it, relentlessly and with clarity and precision. In the end, there can be no doubt as to who murdered Amyas Crale.

In Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran informs us that Christie used the grounds of her own home, Greenway, as the model for the fictional Alderbury.

I took this picture of Greenway in 2006 as we sailed past the house on the River Dart. At the time it was not yet open to the public. It is now, and we hope to go there next month.

In the opinion of John Curran, Five Little Pigs represents “the apex of Christie’s career as a detective novelist:”

The characters  are carefully drawn and the tangle of relationships more seriously realised than in any other Christie title. It is a cunning and scrupulously clued formal detective novel, an elegiac love story and a masterly example of story-telling technique with five individual accounts of one devastating event.

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Last year, HarperCollins became the exclusive publisher worldwide of Agatha Christie’s works in the English language. They are issuing attractive trade paperback editions, like the one above. (They also have the rights to the e-book versions. One cannot help wondering what Dame Agatha would have made of this technological innovation. Would she have embraced it gladly? Or would she have shaken her head in disbelief and in Miss Marple-like fashion anxiously exclaimed, “Oh, deah!”  ) Click here for a complete list of the books.

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Agatha Christie

5 Comments

  1. Carol said,

    Greenway’s “the Battery” is right on the river and is a wonderful setting for murder. John told us that “they” want to make a new film of FIVE LITTLE PIGS and actually film it there. You will love it.

    However, the path is very steep and quite long, so be sure you wear appropriate footgear. A woman in our group made it in heels, but I felt much more secure in my LL Bean hiking shoes. (had to get a plug in!) :0)

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Carol – Thanks so much for this excellent “inside info!”

  2. Yvette said,

    This is a book that I’ve read several times and enjoyed, but differently than I did some of the other Christie books which, perhaps, are a bit ‘easier’ going.. If anyone ever tells me that Christie was a ‘static’ writer I point out this book and several others in which I felt she took a chance by developing the story in a different way. In my view, she was a person writing in a ‘genre’ but still managed to take chances.
    The more I read about Christie, the more I see how she was viewed by others, the more i develop an ever better understanding of her work, the more I realize what an underrated writer she really was.

  3. Dave M. Brady said,

    I first came to this AC novel sideways. I was in a quaint Maine town for the summer and I went to a production of A Murder Remembered (or something like that.) And the play was in fact Five Little Pigs.

    I later read the novel and it’s not one of my favorites. I just got tired of the structure and the different perspectives. Although, I’ll have to give it another chance someday. I certainly didn’t find it sublime. But checking out Curran’s Top 10 list I found that there are a few novels we don’t really agree on. Including Peril at End House. Since it’s summertime though, I’ll be taking that to the beach and having another go.

    Carol–LL Bean! That’s funny, I live right near there. So did you tour Greenway? I’d like to check it out someday.

  4. Haarausfall stoppen said,

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