At one point, the famed detective is sitting “in a square chair, in front of the square fireplace in the square room of his London flat. In front of him were various objects that were not square; that were instead violently and almost impossibly curved.” Each individually looked to be “improbable, irresponsible, and wholly fortuitous. In actual fact, of course, they were nothing of the sort.”
Yes, Hercule Poirot was home, five weeks after leaving a crime scene without having solved the murder, working on a jigsaw puzzle.
Dead Man’s Folly (1956) by Agatha Christie is a mystery where no one is quite what they seem. The owners of an estate in Devon, Sir George and Lady Stubbs, are hosting a charity fete for the local village. Along with local friends and visitors, they decide to stage a mock murder and ask the famous crime writer, Ariadne Oliver, to organize the hunt. After developing the plot and clues, Mrs. Oliver calls her old friend, the world-renowned, mustachioed Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot, and asks him to join her for the party. Without a full understanding of the request, the self-proclaimed “greatest detective in the world” nonetheless accepts her invitation and arrives by train, where he learns that his friend feels something sinister is afoot.
In fact, her suspicions are confirmed on the day of the party when Poirot and his friend find the young village woman who had been tapped as the victim in the drama actually murdered and lying in the boathouse — just as Mrs. Oliver’s plot had outlined. The grounds are filled with hundreds of villagers and young people from a nearby hostel, Lady Stubbs is mysteriously missing and may be a second victim of the murderer, several of those who knew the plot outlines are acting very strange, and the local police inspector is no closer than Poirot in figuring out what happened and why. And yet, as the detective says to Mrs. Folliat, the resident of the gatehouse whose family once owned the estate before she lost her husband and sons in the war, “Remember that, Madame. I, Hercule Poirot, do not give up.”
As Christie writes, “It was a very typical exit line.”
Events continue to unfold, but the answer seems no closer. An old, local ferryman, who had spoken to Poirot during his visit, falls off his boat and drowns, an occurrence the police determine is an accident after a night of drinking. Poirot is not so certain. Sir George returns to his house in London. Lady Stubbs has not reappeared, and her body has not been found.
Sitting back in his London flat, Poirot is attempting to put together the pieces of the puzzle before him and the one in his mind from the events five weeks earlier. He is an older man in this story, and many of the younger characters do not know of his reputation. Nonetheless, Poirot understands his skill at reading the criminal mind better than any other, and he is determined to solve the mystery. His fingers find an improbable piece of dark gray in the puzzle that fits in the blue sky and all of a sudden, he realizes that it is part of an airplane.
“Yes,” murmured Poirot to himself, “that is what one must do. The unlikely piece here, the improbable piece there, the oh-so-rational piece that is not what it seems; all of these have their appointed place, and once they are fitted in, eh bien! there is an end of the business! All is clear. All is — as they say nowadays — in the picture.”
Speaking to the Inspector in his flat, the detective notes that “Mrs. Folliat knows a great deal that we do not.” When the Inspector and Chief Constable protest that Poirot’s thesis is “impossible” and they know it is impossible, he replies, “Oh no, it is not impossible at all! Listen, and I will tell you.”
Mrs. Folliat and others in Devon are surprised to see Poirot return. It only takes a few key interviews, some on-site sleuthing, and then the detective sits with the key individual who knows what happened and accurately describes the circumstances of the three murders. That individual thanks Poirot for coming to describe what the detective now knows to be true and asks him to leave. The story ends with: “There are some things that one has to face quite alone. . . .”
In reading the backstory for the publication of Dead Man’s Folly, I learned that Christie originally wrote it in 1954 with the intention of donating the proceeds to a fund set up to buy stained glass windows for her local church at Churston Ferrers. She filled the story with references to local places, including her own home of Greenway, but then decided to expand the novella into a full-length novel, Dead Man’s Folly, which was published two years later. Christie donated a Miss Marple story (Greenshaw’s Folly) to the church fund instead.
The country house in Dead Man’s Folly was inspired by Agatha Christie’s own holiday home, Greenway House in Devon, which looks over the River Dart. Now owned and managed by the National Trust, it was also used in the filming of the 2013 TV adaptation of the novel.
So much of life is working to figure out the puzzle. There are many things we do not know and will never know. But unlike in life, the fun of the mystery novel is knowing that in the hands of a wonderful writer and storyteller like Agatha Christie, all will be revealed. Eh bien, mon vieux.
More to come…
NOTE: I am on a mission to read one murder mystery each month during 2023. Click here to read the review of And Then There Were None.
Photo by Gokhan Polat on Unsplash
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