‘Five Little Pigs’ – Hercule Poirot #25 by Agatha Christie – a fascinating ‘Cold Case’ story

Most writers who make it to the twenty-fifth book in their detective series have established a formula for their books: a backstory for the detective, an ensemble cast to keep things interesting, a recurring baddy to give the detective someone to worry about, and a well-worn storytelling style that their readers can settle into like an old pair of slippers. None of those things is true of Agatha Christie’s twenty-fifth Poirot book. Instead of churning the handle on another Country House murder that Poirot can use his little grey cells to solve while patronising Hastings and pushing at the assembled suspect pool to see how they react, we have something quite different in terms of content, form and the role played by Poirot.

The content of ‘Five Little Pigs’ is distinctive because it’s about a cold case. The death Poirot is investigating occurred sixteen years earlier. The murderer has been tried, convicted, imprisoned and has since died. There is no new evidence and no obvious alternative candidate for the role of murderer excepting that, if the convicted person was innocent, then only five other people had the opportunity to carry out the killing.

When ‘Five Little Pigs’ was published in 1942, the Cold Case sub-genre that we’re now all so familiar with didn’t exist. It appears that Agatha Christie invented many of the ways of dramatising a Cold Case story that have become common practice.

Poirot starts by meeting with the Police and the lawyers involved in the case, who brief him on the details and explain how clear it is that justice has already been done. He then meets with each of the ‘five little pigs’ who were present at the time of the killing. These interviews generate strong, clear pictures of who these five, very different, people are and how they feel about the crime and the trial that followed.

The next step is quite innovative. Poirot persuades each of the five to submit a written account of their memories of the death and the days leading up to it. Reading those accounts in full gives five recollections that differ from one another in tone and detail and perspective. Because these are recollections and not flashbacks, they say something about who the person is now as well as giving a picture of what the people around them were like sixteen years earlier. They may also, of course, have been written with an agenda and may be unreliable either because of the selective nature of memory or because the person writing the account has something to hide. I found this approach fascinating to read and I loved that it removed Poirot and his gnomic questions from the picture and let me form my own impressions.

Taken as a whole, the five accounts do not appear to offer a new version of events. Poirot allows his client to reach this conclusion and then gathers everyone together for the big reveal. As usual, this is full of surprises but there is no trickery involved and I liked that Poirot was not taking his usual adversarial Socrates-the-magician approach to disclosing the answer.

I’m not a fan of Poirot as a person. I find his grandstanding annoying. He’s egotistical and sometimes ruthless and not an easy person to trust. Yet I much preferred the version of Poirot who I met in ‘Five Little Pigs’. He is still himself. He still treats other people and their emotions and memories as raw material to feed his curiosity and solve his puzzles. He still lies easily to people and resorts to the truth only when he feels a lie would not help, while at the same time repeating, with no sense of irony, that he is interested only in the truth.

What was different was that he seemed more aware of his behaviour. He acknowledges his dissemblances to himself, how he dissembles, how he plays the strange foreigner with some and the good chap with others to worm his way into their trust. With no Hastings beside him, Poirot makes himself into whatever will work best for his interlocutor and in doing so, becomes almost invisible and thus much less annoying than usual. He also does seem to have a strong need to dig into this problem until he finds the truth. This is one of the compulsions that Christie seems to have gifted to subsequent fictional Cold Case investigators. Poirot is also much less triumphant than usual. Which I think is a consequence of the deeply sad nature of this tale.

There is more to recommend ‘Five Little Pigs’ than being innovative and helping to create a sub-genre. The book is very well written. It feels quite contemporary. The Cold Case is well-crafted. My perception was altered as each surviving person present on the day of the killing shared their recollections and reactions with Poirot. Christie managed not just to repaint the mystery with each telling but to present the teller in three dimensions. 

The plot is as twisty as you would expect. I entered the big reveal scene fairly confident that I had worked out what had really happened. I wasn’t completely wrong but, as usual, I wasn’t right.

I think the strength of the story comes from how sad it is. At the centre of the story is a selfish, entitled, charismatic, serial adulterer who justifies his addiction to infidelity and his objectification of women as by-products of his artistic temperament. He inflicts pain on almost all the women in his life, even after his death. The relationships between the women, their attitudes to each other and to him are complex and emotionally charged. This is a story in which guilt and shame and rage play a huge part. The truth, when it was finally revealed, was painful to many of the people involved. I thought Poirot’s final conversation, after the big reveal, was credible and chilling.

I listened to the audiobook version of ‘Five Little Pigs’ which was narrated as skilfully as ever, by Hugh Fraser. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.

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