Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” (1938) stands out because of its holiday setting, making it an ideal book to read while warming your toes by the fire (but darn that draft around your shoulders!). Agatha Christie taps into the holiday theme with a robust family gathering, and reflections among the adult Lee children about their patriarch, Simeon, and what it was like growing up in Gorston Hall. I’m a little disappointed that the novel isn’t replete with a holiday vibe, although Christie does hang a lampshade on this when a character reflects that Christmas is merrier without a murder.
Christie uses all of her major tropes here, and even little things are recycled. At one point, Poirot does his experiment of making a loud noise in the room where the murder took place in order to see if it can be heard from a bedroom on the other side of the house, as a witness claims. He does the exact same trick in a previous book. To be fair, detectives probably would repeat a lot of their methods from case to case.
We get a large household full of suspects, with possible motives being the will (which, of course, Simeon was going to alter, but he’s murdered first), a safe full of uncut diamonds, or anger at Simeon. Christie draws distinctions among the personalities of the four Lee sons, as well as three wives, plus a newly discovered grandchild, plus the son of Simeon’s old friend, plus a pair of household staffers.
There’s a natural obfuscation that comes from a large cast with similar names. I was tripped up when the author calls the spouses by their husband’s names – for example, “Mrs. Alfred” for Alfred Lee’s wife. Everyone gets a full name but Christie doesn’t always use the full name, so by the book’s end, I could not have accurately paired all the spouses. Because the cast is so large, I resorted to mental shorthand to keep the sons straight; “OK, David’s the one who harbors a grudge over the death of his mother,” that sort of thing.
“Christmas” mildly distinguishes itself in that Poirot believes this mystery will be solved by meditating on the personalities and traits of the family members, and even of the victim. He stays at the Lee manor while investigating, and has a portrait of Simeon hung in his room so he can study it.
Christie falls back on her tried and true methods of giving clues to us and the investigators (Poirot is joined by a local police detective, and a police chief oversees the pair). But I can’t deny that “Christmas” becomes completely engrossing as they interview everyone and little inconsistencies pile up. And when Poirot announces that he has figured it out (but of course he needs to run another little experiment first), it’s impossible to not read straight through to the end. Comforting familiarity can still make for a gripping read, it turns out.
Christie pulls the most original element out of her stocking for the solution to this locked-room mystery; I did not guess whodunit, and was impressed by the revelation. I was caught up on the idea that perhaps two of the characters were the same person (Did they ever share a scene?), especially since a near-sighted butler has trouble telling some of the Lees apart. But meanwhile, Christie is playing a different game.
Because of the structural similarity to many previous books, I have to give “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” the tiniest lump of coal for not being something extra-special for the holiday. However, in crafting a fair-playing, page-turning mystery, Christie makes her list and checks it twice, so I can’t complain too much about this present.
Every week, Sleuthing Sunday reviews an Agatha Christie book or adaptation. Click here to visit our Agatha Christie Zone.