Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part Three
Posted 21 November 2008 in Books by Catriona
And yet more puzzles from Agatha Christie novels:
4. Whose son is Colin Lamb? (The Clocks, 1963)
Colin Lamb is the one-off investigator in The Clocks, a murder mystery tied up with espionage. He’s acquainted with Poirot through his father, whom Poirot knows and, perhaps, worked with in earlier years. This is all made clear when he arrives in London to lay the details of a curious murder case in front of Poirot.
But “Lamb” is not his real name; he works for an unspecified MI branch (presumably MI5 or MI6), and Lamb is his current pseudonym. His real name is never mentioned.
So who is his father? Is he someone we’ve already met in an earlier book?
Colin’s father is a police officer: Poirot makes sly comments about Colin following his father’s profession, but Colin points out that he’s following it in a rather tangential fashion. But which police officer?
He may, of course, be someone we’ve never met. But if he’s a character from earlier books, who could it be? The logical choices would be Chief Inspector Japp, Superintendant Spence, or Superintendant Battle, but none of them seem plausible options.
Japp’s personal life we know nothing about, as far as I can recall from my reading. But he’s primarily a character in the earlier books, and seems, perhaps, too senior a man to have a thirty-something son in the mid-1960s. For the same reason, I’m excluding another possible: Colonel Race. I don’t recall Race’s age being specified but he is not, I believe, a young man when he makes Poirot’s acquaintance.
(It’s also less likely that Colin would describe his career as tangentially like his father’s if his father were Race, since Race was involved in espionage work.)
But, then, what we know of the other men doesn’t make them more likely characters, either. Superintendant Battle we know has a daughter, whom we meet briefly and tangentially in Towards Zero (1944), while Superintendant Spence’s home life, as revealed in Hallowe’en Party (1969), centres on a house shared with an elderly sister: there’s no mention of a wife or children. That wouldn’t stop either man from having a son, but it does mean that neither man is explicitly described as having a son.
I can’t isolate who Colin Lamb’s father is and, given the ambiguous treatment of the character in The Clocks, I’m not sure we’re supposed to.
But it annoys me, nonetheless, in a mild fashion.
5. Does Poirot have any family?
Now this is a tricky one, because Poirot clearly lies all the time about his family: in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, he talks of a cousin with developmental delays to induce confidences from a witness, and he does likewise with a relative suffering from jaundice in Dumb Witness (which I addressed in my last set of puzzles).
Similarly, the mysterious Achilles Poirot, the putative brother in The Big Four (1927), is—according to the standard reading, which I think is correct—Poirot himself in disguise. But is it possible that Poirot himself is entirely without family?
Poirot is Catholic: he mentions this on more than one occasion, most notably in Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), when he recognises that the so-called Father Lavigny is like no priest with whom he, as good Catholic, is familiar. And for a Catholic man born in the nineteenth century to have no extended family whatsoever seems unlikely to me. In fact, in Three-Act Tragedy (1935), he mentions to Mr Satterthwaite that “as a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world” (47).
Against that, however, we have to consider the fact that Poirot is also Belgian, and Belgium suffered terribly in both World Wars. It is possible, if not likely, that his entire family may have been killed in one or the other of those conflicts.
But the incident that always strikes me as suggestive is the one in Cards on the Table (1936), where he sets a trap for a young girl he suspects of being an opportunistic thief by leaving her alone with small, luxurious items that he claims are Christmas presents for his nieces and nephews.
Among them are an enormous quantity of gossamer-thin silk stockings, the type of luxurious present that a doting uncle would plausibly buy for nieces, especially if those nieces were in straitened circumstances: the vast expense of the stockings has already given the shop assistant an entirely false impression of Poirot’s morals.
The quantity is ostensibly part of the trap: he believes, quite rightly, that the girl will be more tempted to take a few items from a large pile than from a small one, where their loss is more likely to be noticed.
What, then, is the purpose of these stockings? Are they purely to trap the thief? In which case, what does he do with them afterwards? Return them to the shop? Store expensive stockings against a rainy day?
Or does Poirot actually have nieces? Is he the doting uncle who feels that, with not only Christmas close but also, simultaneously, a man murdered almost under his nose, that this is an opportunity to undertake a small experiment and finish some of his Christmas shopping?
That does not seem an impossible solution to me. Poirot, with his occasional habit of calling himself “Papa Poirot” and his perpetual interest in the happiness of younger people—in Death on the Nile, for example, this interest induces him to allow a murderer to choose their own death—seems to me eminently suited to be the doting uncle who showers a bevy of pretty nieces with small luxuries each Christmas.
(Quote from Three-Act Tragedy from the 1972 Fontana edition.)