I picked “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” as part of a read-my-way-into-the-Christmas-spirit effort but this book is definitely not a cosy Christmas read. It was though, thoroughly entertaining, at least up until the denouement which was clumsily presented, incredibly contrived and more than a little disappointing.
The title of the book, which I understand was changed from “Murder At Christmas” is a little misleading. Poirot doesn’t appear until more than halfway through the book and, for the most part, speaks only to advance the plot or to feed the reader wild and usually false theories about who the murder is.
Christmas plays an even smaller part in the book than Poirot does. It provides a reason for gathering a strife-torn family in a country house for a few days so that a suspect-rich locked-room murder can take place but blood flows before the festivities begin, so this could just have easily have been “Hercule Poirot’s Long Weekend Family Murder”, although that title probably wouldn’t have sold as well. The only extended reference to Christmas is a fire-side speech in which Poirot explains why the “benign hypocrisy” of pretending, for many days over Christmas, to like people for whom we do not care and who we may even detest, but with whom we are forced to eat and drink and carry out rituals that feign fun, may build up a pressure to act more like ourselves that may seek to find its outlet in violence.
Although “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” is the detectives twentieth outing, this is first of the novels I’ve read. My expectations of Poirot were set by David Suchet in LWT’s long-running TV series “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”. The TV series was very much centred on Poirot and his little grey cells. I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” didn’t follow this pattern until almost the end. Instead, the story starts by showing how each of the brothers invited to the family Christmas at which the murder will occur, interacts with his wife and reacts to the invitation itself. I enjoyed these vignettes, which mostly gave me strong or intriguing woman and weak or boring men. The time invested in the characters moved to book from a rather dry-locked room puzzle to a family struggle filled with suppressed anger and resentment and long-standing feuds.
We are also introduced, by way of a chance meeting on a train, to two foreigners who do not know that they will both be guests at the murder-plagued country house Christmas part. I was intrigued and horrified in equal parts by how Agatha Christie described and uses these foreigners. There is a Spanish woman, inevitably described as a dark beauty. Her mother was English and related to the family hosting the weekend and yet it is clear to everyone that this one is in no way English. There is a South African man who described himself as “British, of course” but who knows very well that this will never make him English.
The two foreigners are the jokers in the suspect deck, unpredictable, wild and exotic and obviously not to be trusted. The Spanish woman is described as if she comes from some semi-savage place of violent passions and inappropriate manners. The men treat her as if she were an exhibit in a zoo, something wild that might be dangerous but which they’d enjoy trying to tame. The South African man does a better job of passing for civilized but his energy and aggression and used to show how the very old man who heads this unhappy family might have been in his unscrupulous youth when he was making his fortune. Both foreigners are used to show London as dirty and overcrowded and the English as dull and repressed. I suspect Agatha Christie was using them and Poirot to take shots at a society that she found stifling.
Once the death occurs and Poirot gets involved, everything becomes more predictable, except that the police were more educated and confident than they ever where in the TV series and the process of trudging through the evidence is far more protracted than any TV audience would have patience with.
I was kept amused and engaged until the very end when the great reveal occurred. It took too long and, while technically possible, was so improbable as to be insulting.
Then the book fizzled out with a lot of happily ever after exchanges that seemed unlikely and inauthentic.
I listened to the audiobook version, which was enlivened by the narration of Hugh Fraser who played Hastings in the TV series and made a good fist of the whole thing. You can hear a sample of his work on the SoundCloud link below.