So you dread the quarrels and arguments which will inevitably occur at your family Christmas gathering?
No matter what the tensions, your party will be an oasis of calm in comparison to what goes on at Gorston Hall, the mansion of mega-rich patriarch Simeon Lee, the setting for Agatha Christie’s novel, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (which, in the USA, was titled Murder for Christmas and then retitled A Holiday For Murder).
Simeon Lee, an elderly widower who is now an invalid, arranges a festive family reunion, bringing together his sons and their wives.
One son and his missus live with Simeon and have had to trade the financial security of this arrangement for any independent life of their own.
We have an MP and his (significant nod) much younger wife.
Then there’s not one but two returning sons — one a sensitive arty type who hasn’t been near the Hall since his beloved, long-suffering mother died, and the other a bit of a ne’er-do-well scrounger, a bachelor, who everyone thought (hoped) was dead.
Pilar of the community
Simeon also had a daughter who ‘went off with a foreigner’, never to be seen again. The daughter has recently died, leaving a child, who Simeon has invited for Christmas. Enter the beautiful raven-haired Pilar, with her ‘creamy exotic pallor’ and her vivacious manner.
And the final plum in this pudding is the stranger from South Africa, the son of Simeon’s old friend and partner from his diamond-mining days.
What a bunch, eh? It’s only a matter of time before something kicks off, and sure enough, before you can say ’tis the season to be jolly, there’s a deafening crash of furniture, an eerie high-pitched shriek, and Simeon is found in his room with his throat cut, lying in a pool of blood.
The plot of this splendid example of the ‘locked room mystery’ is engagingly developed. The dialogue races along as we are gradually introduced to the characters. The familiar sequence of set-up, murder, interviews both formal and informal and final exposition of the truth by Poirot, is strewn with twists and turns and booby traps.
Clues are in the character
The clues are all there, but we allow ourselves to be misdirected, and fail to see the significance of the little oddities which strike us as we read.
But, as so often with Christie and other vintage crime writers, much of the pleasure is in the insights into characters and society.
In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, our Belgian detective indicates that the character of the victim has always something to do with his or her murder.
This is so true of Simeon Lee, whose character elicits mixed feelings from the reader.
On one level he is a pantomime villain, chuckling and rubbing his hands together, gloating over the diamonds in his safe which he calls ‘my beauties’. He is gleefully manipulative, and sees his machinations as fun. He relishes the fact that he has been a wicked man, and he doesn’t repent of ‘all the good old sins’.
That’s all fine, but there are some aspects of Simeon’s character which a modern-day response might feel go comparatively unchallenged.
We are invited to admire this powerful, significant figure, whose ‘fire and life and vigour’ bely his age. But he was awful to his wife Adelaide when she was alive, humiliating her and boasting of his love affairs, and after her death, complaining she had no guts and never stood up to him. ‘It rouses the devil in a man when his wife is always crying’.
Well, we know what we think about that. But one of his daughters-in-law also finds excuses for him, saying there’s a certain kind of meekness and submission which brings out the worst in a man. Got that, Adelaide? You were to blame.
Simeon is well-known locally for his womanising, but is spoken of with a kind of respect for always paying up handsomely and, like as not, getting the girl married off. Well, that’s all right then.
He tells Pilar he admires an ‘Arab chief’ who has a bodyguard of 40 sons, all roughly the same age, and says he could have a similar cohort if he rounded up all his illegitimate ‘brats’. Pilar’s not shocked — that’s just how men are, says this girl we are directed to like. But she’s half-Spanish, which accounts for her views. She has ‘the lovely warmth of the South — and its cruelty’.
Was 1938, the year of the book’s publication, really such an alternative universe, we ask ourselves?
Last days of the butler
Maybe it was, for the multi-millionaire classes. Simeon Lee made his money through industry, and heads a household not dissimilar to that of the aristos of shows like Downton Abbey, set several decades earlier.
Eight servants run the house: a butler, a footman, a cook, a kitchen maid, the head housemaid, the second housemaid, the third housemaid, the between maid (‘rather a silly little thing’) and, in addition, Simeon’s personal valet/attendant.
And all this in the year before the outbreak of WW2 — the year which saw the birth of David Bailey, Terence Stamp and Diana Rigg, emblems of the 1960s social and cultural revolution.
That Christmas déjà vu feeling
The passing cultural references add colour and depth to the novel.
Poirot draws on Shakespeare’s Othello to make his point about character, citing Desdemona and Iago, and alludes to French revolutionary Marat, whose habit of bathing for his skin condition gave his killer an opportunity to stab him.
In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s volatile temper contributes to his death. One of Simeon’s sons is able to forgive his father as,in Puccini’s opera, Tosca forgives Scarpia.
My favourite is an oblique reference the butler makes to a play on in London, which explores the idea that the past isn’t the past, and you feel as if you’ve done everything before. Tressilian may be talking about J B Priestley’s Time and the Conways, one of his series of Time Plays, first staged at London’s Duchess Theatre from 1936-37.
Christie was an avid theatregoer, who would certainly be aware of the play. Perhaps she couldn’t resist citing it through the unlikely character of Tressilian, the faithful old retainer who has been with the family for 40 years but who knows, may like to keep up with cultural events, perhaps as he sips a nightcap after a hard day….
These delights are incidental to the story. They are like the objects traditionally put inside a Christmas pudding, which could include a silver sixpence, a thimble, a ring.
Families may have their own variations on these customs. Reading Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is like unexpectedly biting into, say, a threepenny bit, leading to the standard exchange:
‘Ooh, my tooth.’
‘Never mind, it’s Christmas.’