The Occasional Christie, Vol. 2

Title: Lord Edgeware Dies
No Thinking Please, We’re American: Thirteen at Dinner
Publication Date: 1933
Detective:
Poirot.
Hastings?
Yes
Milestones: None to speak of.
Trickiness level: Medium-high

This is Lord Edgeware. And in a very few moments, he will die.
Poirot (David Suchet), A&E TV promo

Right, so conformity or tidiness or something compelled me to start off with the first Poirot novel, but no way I’m going to keep that up for the duration. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd may be one of the most brilliant mystery novels ever, but it’s almost exclusively for reasons that it would not at all be cricket to discuss open forum. Besides that, we get into stuff like the justly-obscure Murder on the Links, and there are French maidens with heaving bosoms and Hastings falling in love (that these two concepts aren’t simoultaneous should give you some idea of the level of unintentional camp we’re dealing with here), and just…no.

So, on to the fun stuff. I adoreĀ Lord Edgeware Dies, I really do. It’s urbane and fast-paced and just generally packed full of all the deliciously over-the-top possibilities of a Roaring-Twenties-themed mystery story, wherein both author and reader can crib directly from Entertainment Weekly – or I suppose it would’ve been The Tatler back then – without guilt.

It also has Hastings, but that’s OK. He’s in his natural element here, all banal urbanity, and Christie is by now sophisticated enough to make him work for his supper – as ‘the perfectly normal mind’ that Poirot uses as a sort of mine canary in the crossfire of flaring theatrical and aristocratic egos. When the good Captain is impressed by what’s onstage, it’s time to start looking behind the curtain.
(Besides, there’s the one moment in which Christie almost makes up for his entire existence by having Poirot invite him to discuss the case: “I have many questions I ask myself. No doubt you do also, mon ami?” Whereupon Hastings nods, leans back, narrows his eyes, and declaims: “Who killed Lord Edgeware?”)

As it happens, the plot plays happily right into the dichotomy between the glittering celebrity image and reality; where playacting ends and the real drama begins. Christie, no stranger to the theatrical mileu herself, was apparently inspired in the first place by a real-life celebrity of the day – impressionist Ruth Draper, a description of whose act is more or less lifted wholesale into the first chapter. (Basically, it’s a more genteel version of Saturday Night Live; sketch takeoffs on the people and events of the day. The more things change…)

So there is some thoughtfulness going on here…but not enough to distract from the fun, thank goodness. The Lord’s American lady, ex-screen diva Jane Wilkinson – who makes Lorelei Lee look like a sweet country bumpkin – is out to ditch him for a much more promising Duke. And as her friend, matinee idol Bryan Winter, warns Poirot: what Jane wants, Jane gets.
Thing is, Edgeware, who evidently has something new and ghoulish in mean streaks himself, is denying poor little Jane her happiness; how mean can you get? Why, if Poirot can’t help persuade him to a divorce, Jane tells the detective, she’ll “just have to go round in a taxi and bump him off myself!”

Poirot duly goes and persuades, only to discover that Lord E. had already written granting his wife’s freedom months ago. So…why did Lady Jane call round in a taxi after all? When his Lordship is discovered slumped over his desk the next morning, the case seems simple to Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard. Until Jane turns out to have a cast-iron alibi in the form of twelve other pillars attending the same Society dinner party right at the moment the deed was done.

Soon after that, the young star Carlotta Adams, darling of that year’s theatre scene in part for her impersonation of Jane, is found dead in her bed of an apparent overdose. Now, just who put Carlotta up to her final role? The new Lord Edgeware, late Captain Ronald Marsh, who happened to be paying her some interest? Did his Lordship’s vengeful daughter, Geraldine, help her cousin plan the scheme?

…When a mustachioed Belgian detective with a comic-opera accent is the most understated performer in the piece, you know you’ve hit a particularly rich vein of Classic Mystery. Poirot and his orderly grey cells actually show off really well here, beginning with a setpiece demonstrating the regretful but relentless Christie code: you can’t escape the consequences of human imperfection, regardless of beauty or wealth. There’s a nice irony in the fact that Lord Edgeware has to have his hyper-dramatic death scene, in a sense, because he was all-too vivid a reminder of that truth (and almost too vivd a reminder for the reader, given what’s implied about his private life).

This lends a gentleness in Poirot’s treatment of these celebrity crazies; instead of going for easy contempt or cynicism, he’s equal parts amused and concerned, understanding ‘the psychology’ too well to be angry but aware of it enough to be wary.
In this vein he finds a worthy – if completely unintentional, at least on her part – sparring partner in the supremely self-absorbed Jane Wilkinson, who seriously doesn’t care who ‘bumped off’ her husband except inasmuch as it proves once again that the universe surely loves her. Christie had a rather obvious squiff about powerful professional women; Lady Edgeware is that hangup having a jolly holiday.

Along the way we get heavy doses of that most delightfully inept of literary phenomena, the British Popular Novelist Trying to Write Americans, Pre-WWII. The typical ‘American’ of these novels is depicted as taking things ‘more free and easy’ (translation: ruddy uneducated colonial boobs anyway), thus speaks in a sort of stylised gangland slang. You know, heavy on the ‘guy’s and ‘see’s.
But it’s still composed according to distinctly British grammar rules (“I shouldn’t imagine those guys will try that again, see?”).The net result can be a little jarring to say the least, especially if the character actually is a gangster, or supposed to be similarly menacing.

There are very few actual gangsters in Christie (thank God, and I mean that quite sincerely) but here there is the aforementioned ‘bump him off’ and several ‘casual’ references to how easy it would be, back in Chicago, to find somebody to do it. There’s also Bryan Winter, evidently sort of a period Brad Pitt, who has a tendency to sound like he’s reading a hack script even when he’s not supposed to be.

By the time we’re done the plot has doubled back on itself a couple more times…only to wrap up so neatly and completely that the reader is forced to concede that yes, she’s done it again. Smoke and mirrors and theatrical paint – and one priceless scene in which Poirot, struck with final inspiration, stops dead in the middle of traffic. Wait, no no no no, he’s not dead, it’s just that there were these people coming behind quoting from the movie they’d just seen, and…

…It’s enough to make one seriously nostalgic, for possibilities.

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