Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Lord Edgware Dies

Lord Edgware Dies is a 1933 Hercule Poirot mystery written by Agatha Christie. In this story Poirot becomes involved with the main players before any crime is committed. The celebrated actress Jane Wilkinson is married to the fourth Baron Edgware. Married, but legally separated. Lord Edgware is a man noted for his eccentricities and has a reputation that suggests he would not be an easy man for any wife to live with.

Lady Edgware asks Poirot to see her husband in an attempt to persuade him to give her a divorce, something he has steadfastly refused to do. Poirot is understandably baffled when Lord Edgware not only agrees to a divorce but informs him that he wrote to Lady Edgware some considerable time ago telling her that he was perfectly willing to agree to such a proposal. 

When Lord Edgware is found shot to death not long afterwards the case seems to Chief Inspector Japp to be a very simple one indeed. Apparently reliable witnesses are prepared to swear that they saw Lady Edgware not only enter the house on the night of the murder but also saw her enter the library in which the murder was committed at about the time that has been conclusively proven to be the time of death. The icing on the cake for the Chief Inspector is that Lady Edgware had a powerful motive for murder in her husband’s refusal to divorce her. When Poirot points out the very inconvenient facts that Lady Edgware in fact had no such motive and that she has a cast-iron alibi even Japp is somewhat shaken.

What follows is typical Christie, intricately plotted and offering Poirot the opportunity to use his psychological approach to crime solving. Christie was at times prepared to bend the rules of the golden age detective story but on this occasion she mostly plays fair to the reader even if her plot involves a few elements that stretch credibility just a trifle.

Christie also gives the great Belgian detective the opportunity to make a few disparaging observations about fictional detectives. Poirot makes it clear that he has no interest in crawling about the floor looking for clues such as footprints and cigarette ash.

Initially the reader may think that Poirot’s disdain for physical clues is extreme and willfully eccentric. It isn’t really. As Poirot states explicitly in this book when Captain Hastings berates him for not getting out and about in chasing up leads, there are certain things that the police can do much more effectively. The intelligent course of action is therefore to leave those things to the police.

It’s not that Poirot considers physical clues to be completely unimportant. He simply believes that the official police are far better equipped to find and analyse such evidence. And he assumes that Chief Inspector Japp will pass on to him any important forensic evidence. This is partly because Japp is basically a fair-minded man, but it’s also a kind of unspoken agreement between them - Japp will keep Poirot up to speed on any crucial forensic evidence while Poirot will give the Chief Inspector the benefit of his little grey cells.

As an example of Poirot’s methods and his belief in a division of labour in the detective business, in this novel Poirot makes no attempt to question the medical examiner. He has no need to do so. Japp will do this and Japp is perfectly capable of understanding that sort of evidence and of knowing the right questions to ask of a medical examiner.

As Poirot remarks, if you keep a dog why bother barking yourself?

It’s often been noted that the increasing importance of forensic evidence was one of the factors that eventually doomed the amateur detective of fiction. No amateur could possibly match the resources of the official police in such areas. It’s interesting that as early as the 1930s Agatha Christie was aware of the problem and had come up with the solution in the form of Poirot’s division of labour and his willingness to work very closely with the police.

Poirot also offers some shrewd insights into the vexed problem of the reliability of witnesses, pointing out to Captain Hastings that witnesses who are very sure of their facts are precisely the sorts of witnesses whose testimony should be distrusted.

Apart from being a thoroughly entertaining murder mystery Lord Edgware Dies is a fine example of the methodology of Poirot as a detective and of Christie as a crime writer. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. It's a very good early Poirot this, and the 2002 film with David Suchet and Hugh Fraser is very well-made too.