Throughout my 20s, I read a lot of Agatha Christie mysteries, nearly all of them, I suspect. So I’m sure I read Curtain, published in 1975 when I was in the midst of all that reading.
It was the last novel published by Christie during her long life, but it had been written in the early 1940s during World War II when she, like many Britons, wasn’t sure she’d survive.
Subtitled Poirot’s Last Case, the novel ends with the curtain coming down on the little Belgian detective. Yet, even in death, he solves the mystery, with a particularly unexpected turn.
Back at the beginning
Curtain was published four months before Christie’s death. It was followed a year later by Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple’s Last Case, also written in the early 1940s — but, by contrast, not involving Miss Marple’s death.
In drafting Curtain, Christie playfully locates Poirot’s last case in the same setting as her first Poirot novel — her first published mystery — The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916 and published in 1920.
In that first book, the matriarch of Styles, a country manor in Essex, was murdered with strychnine. In Curtain, set many years later, Styles has become a guest hotel, and Poirot is there on the trail of a serial killer, responsible for five earlier murders for which other people were suspected or arrested.
Because it was four decades ago when I would have originally encountered Curtain, I was never sure while reading the book in 2018 if my suspicions of the characters were influenced by some deeply but vaguely remembered knowledge of the denouement.
Let the record reflect that whatever fancies I had about the particular character who turned out to be the killer, I never committed myself to them. And, Hastings-like, I bounced from suspecting this one to that one to a third and fourth and fifth and so on.
I say “Hastings-like” because that was something that came through to me very directly this time. Hastings, with his denseness and gullibility and distractibility, is a stand-in for the reader. Throughout the book, Poirot pokes gentle but pointed fun at his friend’s shortcomings — as if Christie were poking gentle but pointed fun at me (and all other readers).
Which she was.
Solving the case?
Curtain is an example of Christie’s great skill at creating a popular novel that engages the reader enough that the reader is pulled along. Yet, the plot is so complex that few readers, I suspect, really try to solve the case. They’re willing to bump from this revelation to that act of violence to this clue to that odd bit of conversation, recognizing that, like Hastings, they’re just not smart enough to run alongside Poirot.
Indeed, I doubt that anyone could run with Poirot. Christie isn’t fair to the reader in the sense that Poirot is often holding onto information that influences how he deals with clues — but this information isn’t shared with the reader until later on.
In addition, the story is ridiculously convoluted. It involves the five earlier murders, a non-fatal shooting, the contemplation of a murder by a surprising character, the execution of a murder by an even more surprising character, the actual murder of the whiny wife of a scientist whose assistant is none other than Hastings’ assertive 21-year-old daughter.
We’re not talking about a fill-in-the-blanks crossword here. Curtain, like most genre mysteries, is like a table-top puzzle with large, important pieces missing. Pieces, in this case, that Poirot is carrying in his pocket and will share out when he decides it’s appropriate.
I don’t think people read mysteries to solve them — not really. At least, I don’t.
I read them to be carried along and to admire the cleverness of Christie’s plotting and Poirot’s sleuthing.
They are distractions, entertainments. And, as a break from a lot of life’s seriousness, I’m thankful for them.
Patrick T. Reardon