No Marple. No Tuppence. No Poirot. Mon Dieu! Yet this short Christie mystery remains one of my favorites, likely due to the interesting characterization and well-crafted plot. It gradually builds tension, with a rather unanticipated but satisfying ending.
An English man and a woman become fast companions as they serve their country in Egypt. Charles is about to ship out and isn’t sure when he’ll get back to England, so at their good-bye dinner, he shares his feelings but refuses to ask Sophia to commit until he returns. All very romantic and old-fashioned. Unfortunately upon his return, Sophia is dealing with serious problems that include the suspicious death of her Greek grandfather, Aristide Leonides. In a situation that likely would never occur today, Charles’ father, Assistant Commissioner of the Yard, encourages him to use his connection with the family and help resolve the case–after all, resolution will clear the remaining family members.
It’s a very interesting household, and one of the great aspects of the story is how well Christie characterizes the eccentricities of its members–while they all are unlikely to have done it, any one of them could have. There’s Brenda, the trophy wife, whom everyone wishes had done it. Then there’s Aristides’ adult children, all living in the same household. Sophia’s mother, Magda, is an actress and is particularly delightful:
“Not see him?” Her voice went up. “But of course I must see him! Darling, darling, you’re so terribly unimaginative! You don’t realise the importance of details. He’ll want to know exactly how and when everything happened–“
“Mother,” said Sophia, coming through the open door, “you’re not to tell the Inspector a lot of lies.”
There’s Sophia’s father, Philip, impassive and removed from the drama of his wife. Then there’s Uncle Roger, an emotional gentle giant: “He collided with a screen, said ‘I beg your pardon’ to it in a flustered manner, and went out of the room. It was rather like the exit of a bumble bee and left a noticeable silence behind it.”
Roger is married to Clemency, a scientist, who Charles feels is “rather an alarming woman….I think because I judged that the standards by which she lived might not be those of an ordinary woman.” Other household members include Aunt Edith; the children’s tutor, Laurence, who may or may not be having an affair with Brenda; and the two children, Eustace and Josephine, who have a gory fascination with the case despite their Nannie trying to keep them in check. Charles wakes to Josephine’s examination of him: “‘Eustace and I are very interested. We like detective stories. I’ve always wanted to be a detective. I’m being one now. I’m collecting clues.’ She was, I felt, rather a ghoulish child.”
As in all Christie’s best mysteries, tension builds slowly, as first one suspect is presented, than another, and then eliminated. The additional emotional connection of the relationship between Charles and Sophia adds a delicate layer to the investigation–is he there as a prospective in-law, or a police official? The struggle to solve the murder is also a struggle to resolve their relationship. Family secrets will be brought into the open. Aristide’s will reveals a surprising bequest. Failures will need to be faced. Before all is over, there will be another attempt at murder and arrest or two.
Enjoyable as a period piece, as a mystery and a character study. As always, characterization shines. There’s some brief reading uncomfortableness as Christie delves into Aristide’s canny business practices, which may or may not have to do with him being Greek. I wasn’t terribly offended, but it was definitely one of those things that make the modern reader say ‘hmm.’ Otherwise, well worth the time.
Three and a half crooked stars.