Even success can be boring, it seems. That’s a good explanation for Agatha Christie’s 1942 murder mystery Five Little Pigs.
At this point, in the middle of the 20th century, Christie was the undisputed Queen of Mystery, having already published 34 bestselling novels, most of which featured her idiosyncratic Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
The general pattern of these books was fairly straight-forward: Someone is murdered in baffling circumstances, a half dozen people are involved as witnesses or suspects, and Poirot investigates. As he asks questions and noses around in his distinctly “foreign” way, other events take place, often another murder. He sums up at the end and fingers the guilty party.
In the previous two decades, Christie diverted from that formula at times. In one case, the narrator was the bad guy. In another, there were multiple killers. In a third, the killer dies before the last murder. (I’m not mentioning titles here so as not to ruin the surprise for anyone who hasn’t read these.)
Five Little Pigs is such a diversion.
Poirot has a visitor named Carla Lemarchant, a wealthy 21-year-old Canadian woman who is distinctively attractive.
She looked very much alive. It was her aliveness, more than her beauty, that struck the predominate note.
Before her entrance, Hercule Poirot had been feeling old — now he felt rejuvenated, alive — keen!
She wants Poirot to investigate a murder; that’s not extraordinary at all. But the murder she wants investigated occurred sixteen years earlier.
Indeed, it is a murder for which her mother Caroline Crale was convicted. The victim was her father, the famous and highly praised painter Amyas Crale. Carla, who was five when the killing took place, was spirited off to Canada by an uncle and aunt. When she turned 21, she learned of her connection to the long-ago case.
“Just — look — at me”
She has done what homework she could and found out that all the evidence pointed to her mother and that her mother did little as a suspect to defend herself. But, at 21, she was also given a letter from her mother in which Caroline, shortly before her death from illness, asserted her innocence.
Carla has been preparing to marry John Rattery, but now the two young people are worried about what this old crime says about Carla’s personality and tendencies. Could she be a killer like her mother? If her mother actually was a killer?
And — sometimes — I’ve seen John just — look — at me. Such a quick glance — just a flash. Supposing we were married and we’d quarreled — and I saw him look at me and — wonder?
In essence, in setting up this story, Christie is daring herself to find a way to write a mystery without many of the benefits that a writer relies on.
She can’t tell the story chronologically as she would if, say, Poirot were spending a weekend at someone’s country home and the host was suddenly found with a knife in his back. Then, the story would unfold in time even as the participants were describing what they’d done before the crime and what they were doing at the time of the killing.
And she can’t give the reader an objective view into the story as it unfolds as she can do when Poirot is there watching it unfold. He is, in a way, the reader’s eyes and ears in the midst of the story. He may know more than the reader and be more adept than the reader at spotting lies, but the reader knows pretty much that what Poirot sees and hears is what is happening as it is happening.
And, at this point, sixteen years after the fact, Christie can’t provide Caroline Crale or her husband as characters. Both are long dead. Poirot can’t observe them, not before the crime, not after the crime, not at all.
Several layers of stories
Instead, Christie gives the reader several layers of stories. This is not a tale of documents, but of eyewitness accounts of people who were present the day that the murder took place and of the police and lawyers who were involved in the case.
Poirot’s first step is to talk to those officers of the law and the courts, and they are uniformly agreed that Caroline Crale was the killer, even though they acknowledge that her womanizing husband was a mitigating factor.
And his next step is to interview the five people who were there when the poisoning of Amyas Crale took place — the “five little pigs” of the title:
- Philip Blake, a successful stockbroker.
- His brother Meredith, an amateur chemist.
- Angela Warren, Caroline’s half-sister, a 15-year-old at the time.
- Cecilia Williams, Angela’s governess.
- Elsa Greer, who was modeling for Amyas at the time of the murder and who had bragged that he was going to dump Caroline to marry her.
All five either tell Poirot that they believe Caroline was guilty or can think of no other person who could have or would have killed the artist.
Aside from that, there is great variation in the accounts that each of these gives to Poirot as is usual with eyewitnesses.
The results of those interviews are then expanded when each of the five writes an account of the weekend for the detective. And then expanded again when Poirot visits each person to ask a single question, a different one for each.
This is ingenious storytelling, and it demands the reader pay close attention in a way that a novel that unfolds in real time doesn’t.
It is for this reason, I think, that Five Little Pigs is often classed among Christie’s best stories.
That, and the fact that it has two solutions.
There is a meeting at the end of the five eyewitnesses plus Carla and her fiancé, and Poirot does do his stuff. He does spell out one explanation, and then another. And the reader leaves the novel knowing why people acted the way they did, and who dunit.
For all that, I found Christie’s multi-layered narrative to be a bit too heavy on literary infrastructure than I’d have liked.
There was an element of too-muchness — five interviews, five written accounts, five single questions to each person.
Despite that, I enjoyed Five Little Pigs, and I enjoyed watching Christie walk her self-imposed tightrope.
Patrick T. Reardon