‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’ – Hercule Poirot #20 by Agatha Christie

A dentist lies murdered at his Queen Charlotte Street practice…

The dentist was found with a blackened hole below his right temple. A pistol lay on the floor near his outflung right hand. Later, one of his patients was found dead from a lethal dose of local anaesthetic. A clear case of murder and suicide. But why would a dentist commit a crime in the middle of a busy day of appointments?

A shoe buckle holds the key to the mystery. Now – in the words of the rhyme – can Poirot pick up the sticks and lay them straight?

I have mixed feelings about ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe’. It has a lot of strengths but when it was over, I felt slightly distant from the outcome.

I’m sure this is an Agatha Christie book that many of her readers will thoroughly enjoy.

The plot is very clever. It has more than one unexpected twist. The exposition is skilfully done, with the evidence being presented calmly over a period of some months and with each piece of the puzzle adding to the possible solutions to the death of a dentist but shedding little light on the inner workings of Poirot’s mind.

Hastings’ absence from this mystery added some things that I liked: Poirot’s interactions with Jaffe took on a more peer-to-peer character that seemed appropriate and made the exposition easier and more credible and Poirot didn’t seem as smug as he sometimes does, perhaps because he had no Hastings to patronise.

I liked the ending. The Poirot-explains-it-all scene was relatively low-key and served to do more than flourish the solution to the puzzle like a stage magician at the finale of his best trick. This time, Poirot’s explanation also served to place him on the horns of a dilemma. Given his actions in previous books, I was surprised and pleased by the decision he made.

So why aren’t I placing ‘One, Two, Buckle My Shoe‘ up with ‘The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd’ as one of Christie’s best books?

Mostly it is because it felt too mechanical to me. The plot was elaborate but clever and just about plausible but the storytelling had all the emotional depth of a science thought experiment. Most of us are more interested in the cleverness of Schroedinger’s box than whether or not his cat lived. The use of the nursery rhyme verses to structure the chapters was clever but added to the emotional distance of the book. The characterisation of the people in the book, especially the young men, was paper-thin or trope-heavy if you prefer. They were well enough described to serve their purpose as plot devices – a distraction here, an annoyance there – but, with two exceptions, there was no one in the book that I cared about.

It’s the two exceptions that kept me engaged with the book. The first is Mr Morely, the dentist who dies. He is not an important, exotic or charismatic man. He’s an ordinary man who is a competent dentist. He appears only briefly before his demise and yet Christie managed to make him a real. A man whose sister loved him and whose staff respected him. A man prone to irritability and tied to habit. A man who worried about his secretary having a relationship with someone he judges to be untrustworthy. A man with a life that should not have been taken from him. The second exception is Poirot. For once, I saw Poirot as more than a slightly vain outsider with a compulsion to solve puzzles. This time I saw him as a man affronted by the death of someone he knew, albeit only in a professional capacity and who was determined that that death should not go unpunished.

I recommend the audiobook version, narrated by Hugh Fraser. I think his performance this time was particularly strong. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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