Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Collins, 1952) is one of my favorite mysteries from Agatha Christie (1890-1976). Not forgotten exactly, more like overlooked in the prodigious output from this peerless author, it is the 28th volume in which Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian policeman turned private investigator, appears. By this time Christie had grown quite tired of Poirot, about whom she’d been writing for 30 years, and she let her annoyance show clearly in the story, one of the reasons I love it so much.
Soon-to-retire Superintendent Spence, whose path had crossed Poirot’s in their long careers, approaches him with a request to investigate a crime that everyone thinks has been solved. Spence led the police work that resulted in a conviction for the murder of a charwoman in a village outside London. Despite the evidence Spence believes the accused did not commit the murder and does not want to retire with a wrongful execution on his conscience. Working against the clock Poirot takes up residence in the village and interviews everyone who knew Mrs. McGinty. He learns that just before she was killed Mrs. McGinty was excited about one of the more dramatic Sunday papers which featured women in famous murder cases. She was convinced one of the women described in the article was living in the village.
This discovery opened a completely new line of inquiry, and Spence and Poirot were busy for awhile tracking down the women in question. The war of course had destroyed records everywhere, something Christie used to good effect in her plots many times and used here. Again here, as Christie pointed out in A Murder Is Announced (1950), is the mention that anyone could show up in a village after the war and claim to be a war widow. It could be proven otherwise only through a good deal of official effort and maybe not even then. As usual, red herrings and misdirection are cleverly deployed to result in Poirot’s standard drawing room denouement.
One of the best parts of this book is the cast of characters, which are ingeniously conceived. The keeper of the village post office and general store who functions as gossip central is right on target. Maureen Summerhayes, the delightful but inept hostess of the house where Poirot is staying, crops up again peripherally in Cat Among the Pigeons (1959). The descriptions of household chaos, seen through the eyes of the precise and finicky Poirot, are hilarious.
Of course the star of the supporting cast is Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s apple-eating alter ego, who is in the village to collaborate with a local playwright on the dramatization of one of her books about Sven Hjerson, Oliver’s Finnish detective. These are fabulous scenes. Hjerson is clearly meant to be Poirot and Christie in the persona of Oliver goes on at great length about how much she dislikes her creation. Christie also takes the opportunity to stick a knife into filmmakers who insist on making her characters something completely different for the screen. It is not often an author inserts herself into her own story, much less complains about her own brainchild. Christie clearly felt secure enough to rant at length and she did.
I cannot believe that any fan of Christie’s work has not read this gem. However, it is a fine re-read, as I know from experience. Highly, highly recommended.