A toothsome if uneven mix of espionage, Middle Eastern politics, kidnapping and the ever-fertile setting of an exclusive girls’ school makes Cat Among The Pigeons (1959) by Agatha Christie a rattling good read.
The plot hinges on a cache of jewels, worth about three quarters of a million pounds, which Ali Yusuf, Sheik of Ramat, wants to smuggle out of his country before he is captured or killed by revolutionary forces. He entrusts the jewels to his good friend Bob Rawlinson, who secrets them in the luggage of his sister and niece, Joan and Jennifer Sutcliffe.
Please note there are spoilers in this article if you haven’t read Cat Among The Pigeons.
The Sutcliffes have been on holiday in Ramat, and are about to head back to England for the start of term at Jennifer’s new school, the internationally renowned Meadowbank.
Unknown to Jennifer, the precious stones accompany her to school, hidden in the handle of her tennis racket. Cue the interest of various parties, resulting in murder, of course…
There are three murders, in fact, two in the Sports Pavilion and one in a schoolmistress’s room. Two of them are motivated by greed, and one is occasioned by jealousy, a theme which is rather clunkily represented by half-hearted references to Othello.
The mystery is intriguing, but the school scenes and characters are at least equally enjoyable.
Meadowbank School is a highly successful, traditional finishing school for young ladies with a few nods to an education which goes beyond turning out ‘agreeable, well groomed’ girls who are socially confident and can hold intelligent conversations. Not many nods, though. The pupils are mostly royalty, ‘often foreign royalty’, and English girls from good or wealthy families.
This elite bunch does include all ages, those who have not flourished in a conventional school, those in whom the head Miss Bulstrode sees a prospect of development, and those whose parents she likes.
The clientèle is entertainingly captured, with snapshots of the Middle Eastern princess arriving in a pink and blue Cadillac, another family in an ancient battered Austin, and tipsy aristo Lady Veronica teetering up the drive with her large black velvet hat at a rakish angle.
The school is Miss Bulstrode’s creation, and she is a powerful leader. Autocratic doesn’t begin to cover it. She isn’t afraid to upset people, to bully and cajole to put her plans into action. We’re told that her style is to experiment and take chances, and that she hates dullness and predictability. There isn’t much evidence of this, but her ability to pull strings and harness support is well illustrated — it seems that she has the ear of two Press Barons, the Home Secretary and the Minister of Education, to name but a few.
Apart from Christie’s well-documented toe-curling presentation of ‘foreigners’, Cat Among The Pigeons has some dubious representations of women which rather jar with its focus on female education. All females, even young teenagers it seems, turn to jelly at the sight of precious stones: ‘She became a woman. A woman looking at jewels…She sat and gloated and dreamed…’ To be fair, the novel’s contemporary readers were yet to experience the similar reaction of teens and pre-teens to Claire’s and other purveyors of cheapo bling.
More insidious, because you hardly notice it, is the comment that to the inspiring teacher Eileen Rich, her profession means more than ‘any normal woman’s life with a husband and children.’ And it’s not the inspector who says this, it’s the inestimable Miss Bulstrode. Hey ho.
Hercule Poirot appears about a third of the way through the book, when Julia Upjohn, Jennifer’s friend and classmate, seeks his help.
Young Julia is smart. She works out that the strange goings-on at Meadowbank are somehow connected to Jennifer and her mother, and knowing that in books there’s always a second murder, she tells Jennifer to be careful.
Julia thinks the Sutcliffes may have been used to smuggle something out of Ramat, for example, a formula for a new atomic bomb. She works out that the answer has something to do with Jennifer’s tennis racket. Julia investigates said racket, and prises out the jewels from the handle.
With the stones concealed in time-honoured fashion in her knicker leg, she leaves a note for Miss Bulstrode (responsible), and makes her way to 228 Whitehouse Mansions (intrepid), to enlist the aid of Poirot, who she has never met, but whose expertise in a case of murder has helped a close family friend (fearless). Smart enough to run her own detective agency, we say.
Julia has a touch of Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous. She tells her globe-trotting mother not to forget her passport, to remember her first-aid kit, and to be careful lighting the gas heater. But the mother and daughter have an easy relationship, and Mrs Upjohn is an appealing pre-hippie type. She travels to Ankara on a bus, enduring floods and delays, communicating with her fellow passengers in a mixture of French, Turkish and sign language. You can see where Julia gets her resourceful nature.
The police inspector investigating the murders at Meadowlands is baffled by Mrs Upjohn’s preference for this mode of travel over a ‘proper coach tour, running to schedule, and a party all booked together’ – a nice hint of the following decade’s culture clash between free spirits and the establishment.
Indications of the importance of the tennis racket are liberally sprinkled throughout the narrative. In letters home to their mothers, Julia’s description of her first impressions of Meadowbank begins with a reference to Jennifer’s smashing serve and her warped racket, and the Senior Prefect’s missive informs her mama about Jennifer’s weak backhand. Perhaps their mothers don’t find this odd…
In the first few pages of the novel, there’s a neat, incidental (probably unintended) hint about the place of tennis rackets in the plot. Miss Bulstrode is seen dealing politely but very firmly with a parent who is claiming special treatment for her sensitive child. How does the mother describe her daughter?
‘Very highly strung. Very highly strung indeed.’
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