Posted 22 March 2008 in Books by Catriona
For someone who explicitly said they wanted to blog about reading, I really haven’t posted much about reading. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time watching television, recently: I do like good television. (More so than movies, actually—I’m a sucker for serial story-telling, hence my thesis on serial fiction of the mid-Victorian period.)
But lately I’ve been on an Agatha Christie bender. Or a re-bender, I suppose, since I’ve read most of them before. (Oddly, I recently pulled my copy of Crooked House off the shelf and realised, unusually for me, that I couldn’t remember where and when I’d bought it, and that I’d never actually read it. It’s very good, by the way.)
So I’ve just finished Death on the Nile (1937) and moved on to Five Little Pigs (1942); this latter, according to Wikipedia, was also published as Murder in Retrospect, which I have to say is the daftest title for a murder mystery ever.
These two were both adapted in the BBC’s series of Poirot mysteries in 2003-2004, along with Sad Cypress (1940)—a lovely book—and The Hollow (1946)—a strangely disappointing book, I felt, because it turned on the charisma of the murdered man, and I thought he was a prat. The problem’s with the reader there, I feel.
My disappointment in The Hollow aside, I felt this was an exceptional bunch of adaptations. Of course, Poirot adaptations have traditionally been treated more accurately than their Marple cousins; I have no idea why, since there’s no discernible difference, to me, in the quality of Christie’s plotting between the two detectives. But these four were unusually good.
The newspaper reviewers at the time picked Sad Cypress as the best of the bunch, and it was good. But when I mentioned this to my sister, she disagreed in favour of Five Little Pigs. To her, the tragedy of the story—the fact that these two vital, fascinating, clever, creative people were dead sixteen years before the novel even started, so that the solution of the mystery could only benefit the second generation—made it a far more gripping plot.
I would agree with this, to an extent. I still like a happy ending, although I’m not daft enough to think I could get one out of this book. But part of the reason why I gave up watching Cold Case was because I couldn’t deal with the emphasis on the victim; the crimes were significantly harder to deal with in this than in, say, Law and Order. Even though the Wikipedia page says that the actual murder in Cold Case is often omitted “due to the heinousness of the underlying crime which is included with the murder,” when “the crime is usually rape or sexual assault of an innocent child or woman,” I gave up after the racially motivated Depression-Era rape and murder of a young black woman—that episode was so horrific I couldn’t keep watching.
Five Little Pigs works in a similar way, for me. Most of Agatha Christie’s work centres on the idea of protecting the innocent; she emphasises in more than one work that the English judicial system has never hanged an innocent person, as in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, where the conviction is overturned, and in Ordeal by Innocence, in which the convicted man dies in prison but escapes hanging.
Five Little Pigs falls into the latter category, avoiding direct criticism of the English judicial system by having the convicted murderess die of an illness in prison.
The idea that the English judicial system has never hanged an innocent person is one that I can’t entirely support—Derek Bentley? Edith Thompson? Paul Hanratty?—and I’m not sure that, given her emphasis in other books, Christie was actively making a point about the irreversibility of capital punishment. But that’s what the book suggests to me.
I’ve never supported the death penalty in any shape or form, for any crime. It’s such a core belief for me, that I’m not going to set out my arguments here; people will either agree with me or not, and I’m not to be moved on this issue.
For me, it was the story of the execution of Derek Bentley that devastated me—I am, in fact listening to Let Him Dangle as I write this. I could not, and still can not, comprehend how any judicial system that favoured an irreversible method of punishment could carry out that sentence.
But for at least two of the Queens of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it was the execution of Edith Thompson that seems to have caused the most concern. Christie cites Thompson on more than one occasion, and Dorothy L. Sayers’s co-written text The Documents in the Case—with Robert Eustace—also evokes the Thompson/Bywaters affair.
Sayers is a more complicated case. She doesn’t oppose the death penalty; in at least one novel, she advocates suicide over public ignominy and execution—and references the possibility in another novel—but Lord Peter Wimsey struggles with the reality of the death penalty. This is brought home to the reader most effectively in Busman’s Honeymoon, a book that broke my heart when I first read it, many years after reading the other Wimsey novels.
But even there, the objection is less to the execution—the murderer has confessed, and is undoubtedly guilty—as to the fact that Wimsey can’t receive absolution from the man that he, and he alone—the police being stymied—brought to the noose. Wimsey is deeply affected by the fact that he ends people’s lives, but less from a belief in any flaw in the judicial system than out of a realisation that he pursues detection as a hobby, rather than as a profession. Still, the doubt is there, an integral part of Sayers’s detective.
Five Little Pigs is unique, as far as I know, in Christie’s oeuvre, since the presumed-innocent character in Ordeal by Innocence was, in fact, guilty. Like any other murder mystery, Five Little Pigs provides the satisfaction of finding out who the murderer is, but it’s a melancholic book, not simply because the revelation of the murderer is anti-climactic and because the victims are attractive and charming.
For me, the devastating fact of this novel is that an innocent woman—while not hanged—dies for a crime she did not commit. The texts that provide Poirot with such vital information for the revelation of the real murderer—the letters that a dying Caroline Crale writes to her sister and to her daughter—remind me of an incident from several years ago.
As a postgraduate student, my sister worked at a nineteenth-century prison that had become a tourist attraction, and arranged for my mother and me to take a night tour, complete with candlelight.
The only time I’ve ever felt distinctly claustrophobic, including many years as a child spent touring limestone caves, was on that tour, when we were enclosed, in the dark, in the cell occupied by convicts on the night before their execution.
The main story for this tour was a famous bushranger, but a secondary story was that of a nineteenth-century baby farmer, executed for killing her charges, who spent the night before her execution sewing a drawstring into her skirt, so that the executioners couldn’t see her petticoats when the trapdoor was released. To me, the idea that this woman spent her last night thinking of her modesty is devastating.
When I re-read Five Little Pigs, I think of that story.
When our tour guide told this anecdote, the tour group laughed.