My Rating: 7.5/10
Setting: Mostly in the vicinity of Merlinville, France, at the estate of expatriate English millionaire Mr. Renauld.
Detection by: HERCULE POIROT with continual accompaniment and occasional assistance by CAPTAIN HASTINGS. A fellow detective, MONSIEUR GIRAUD of the Paris Sûreté, is in official charge of the case; he and Poirot despise each other instantly.
Final Body Count: 2
Method(s) of Death: STABBING – both times with a paper knife made from airplane wire. (But all may be not as it as first seems.)
100 Word Plot Summary:
Hercule Poirot receives a panicked letter from an English millionaire living in France: “For God’s sake, come!” Poirot and Hasting hasten to France, but arrive mere hours after Mr. Renauld’s stabbed corpse is found, in a half-dug grave on the unfinished golf course next to his estate. Mrs. Renauld is found bound and gagged in her bedroom; two bearded thugs are the suspects. But why can’t they be tracked? Why was the dead man’s son secretly in the neighbourhood that night? And what is the connection with a number of beautiful women who continually pop up, including Hastings’ latest crush?
The author hits her stride with this excellent murder mystery, packed as full of red herrings as a 1920s’ millionaire’s wall safe is of banknotes. (Or secret documents.) And yes, this time we are dallying with a millionaire, albeit a very dead one, with a suitably convoluted past.
Captain Hastings and Hercule Poirot, after forging a friendship while jointly dealing with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, are now sharing a London flat. Hastings is acting as a private secretary to a M.P., while Poirot employs himself as a private detective, chasing down lost lap dogs and stolen pearls for the wealthy dowager classes. Neither is particularly content with the status quo, so when a letter comes from a certain wealthy financier, Mr Renauld, formerly of England, Canada and Chile, now residing in France, referring to his life being in danger and a secret that he possesses, and begging for Poirot’s immediate aid, the bait is taken.
Across the Channel they go, only to find that they are mere hours too late. Mr. Renault is already dead, stabbed and left to die in a partially dug grave on the golf course under construction next to his country estate. (And, or the record, the site of the murder is the only connection this story has to golf in any way, shape or form. Please ignore all of the lurid paperback covers one will find with the body dressed in plus fours, or with a golf club or golf balls or any such nonsense. No one has played on the course yet! It is under construction! The title picks up on the most minor element of the story; careless illustrators assume something which isn’t in the story.)
Where was I? Oh, yes. The plot.
So: Mr Renauld is dead; his wife has been found tied and gagged in their bedroom. She claims that two bearded men tied her up and abducted her husband, and at first the story seems plausible, especially after Mrs. Renault faints in an excess of emotion after viewing her husband’s body. But there are just a few loose ends. Where did the bearded men come from, and where have they vanished to? What is the “secret” referred to in the letter to Poirot, and by the abductors? What part did the Renauld’s son Jack play in the events of the day leading up to the murder? Why is the elegantly mysterious neighbour’s beautiful daughter so anxious? Who was really dallying with the lovely young acrobat whom Hastings has already met back in England, and who shows up most unexpectedly at the site of the murder? And what’s all this about a SECOND body???!
The characters in general are not particularly sympathetic or memorable; the victim(s) and the criminal(s) appear as stereotyped set pieces, included merely to move the puzzle along. The egotistical French detective, Monsieur Giraud, pops in and out to sneer at Poirot and muddle the clues, but I could not even bring myself to dislike or scorn him; he just “was”, as manufactured a plot element as the murdered man, himself merely a lay figure labelled “the body”. The person I liked the most here was Poirot himself; I came away from this story with an increased appreciation both for his intelligence and his sense of humour. Hastings appears even more of a buffoon in this novel than he did in the Styles case; his actions in several cases act in direct opposition to the true murderer being discovered, at least in the short term. His romantic impulses were in full bloom throughout; only Poirot’s continual gentle mockery kept them in perspective to the reader, if not to Hastings himself.
Agatha Christie in this, only her third mystery novel, creates a most convoluted plot. She provides all of the needed clues, holding nothing back, but it will be a clever reader who guesses the true solution before the big reveal at the end. I had read this novel several times in the past, but even then could not quite get it sorted out until the final events, when my memory revived and I said to myself, “Of course!” Click, click, click, and it all makes a completed picture.
Final analysis: a strong puzzle mystery, well thought out, and an enjoyable light read ninety years after its first appearance.