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Agatha Christie is the world's third best-selling author of all time, her books sales only trailing those of the Bible and of Shakespeare. With books as cleverly crafted as Hercule Poirot's Christmas, it is not particularly difficult to see why.
Our favourite Belgian dectective Hercule Poirot returns (without the accompaniment of Hastings) to business in order to unmask the killer of Simeon Lee, the unpleasant and malicious patriarch of the Lee family. While the brutal nature of the murder leaves no question as to the cause of death, the universally unsavoury character of Simeon Lee means that virtually all of his family are suspects.
One interesting point about this particular Poirot novel is that Christie forwards the book with a note to her brother-in-law to assure him that the murders in her novel would no longer be 'anaemic' i.e. that neither the police nor Poirot would consider the possibility of suicide. Indeed, that was the case as Simeon Lee is found to have his throat slit on the eve of Christmas day.
After having determined that the killer was someone present within the Lee household at the time of murder...
Was it Harry Lee, the prodigal son who returns to the Lee household upon Simeon's invitation? Despite Simeon's indication that he would now include Harry in his will, the two shared an acrimonious relationship in the past and perhaps his return was not for monetary reasons...
Was it Simeon's Spanish grand-daughter Pilar? Having only met the Lee household two days prior to the murder, her reluctance to reveal her passport to Poirot and the police raise doubts as to her identity? Is she a professional thief who, when caught handling the diamonds, panicked and killed Simeon Lee in cold blood?
Was it Alfred Lee, Simeon's only devoted son? With Harry and Pilar now in the picture, he had most to lose from an amendment to the will. His loving wife Lydia Lee is often described by Christie as a cool and collected character but when Simeon's Lee diamonds are soon found in her possession, her motives are up for questioning.
Was it David Lee, Simeon's third son? Having resented his father his infidelities, David blamed his mother's nervous breakdowns and death solely upon Simeon and maintained a distance from his father for many years. Upon the encouragement of his wife Hilda, he accepts Simeon's invitation to return to the Lee household for Christmas but perhaps seeing his father in the flesh once more ignited his hatred.
Was it George Lee, Simeon's final son? A pompous but miserly M.P., he was faced with the prospect of having his allowance cut by Simeon Lee, part of his share of the will being allocated to Harry and Pilar and financing the expensive tastes of his wife, perhaps George Lee stood most to gain from Simeon's death.
If it was not a family affair, could it have been Horbury, Simeon's cat-like valet? A man who had a history of blackmail and a habit of eavesdropping perhaps couldn't resist the draw of Simeon's valuable South African diamonds and constructed an elaborate plan to kill Lee at a time when he had a concrete alibi.
Hercule Poirot's Christmas is without doubt a riveting read and is guaranteed to 'exercise your little grey cells'!
Proud, unrepentant of former ill deeds and with a truly wicked sense of humour, elderly Simeon Lee saw no reason to suspect that this Christmas would not be enjoyable - for himself at any rate. His invitation to his sons to gather at his house over the Christmas period had been accepted and it was of no consequence to Lee that the reasons had not all been borne out of a sense of loyalty or love towards him. Instead he took a twisted pleasure in observing how the diametrically opposite characters of Alfred and his brother Harry were set against each other, the former weak but dependable, the latter untrustworthy but charismatic. A younger brother named David made no secret of the fact he bitterly resented what he considered to be his father's indirect cause of the sons' mother's demise and a fourth son, George, was bound to his father's control via the allowance which Simeon gave him. Relationships between many of the family were thus strained before their patriarch had even had a chance to present the cutting delivery he was to place before them all. In a highly contrived meeting he set about admonishing every one of them for their natures, declaring them all to be unworthy of him and expressing only a preference for his granddaughter, Pilar . His harsh trick pleased him immensely, yet he was playing a dangerous game, as Hilda Lee, the wife of David, was swift to warn him about, stating that she was now afraid for him. That this supposition was to prove to be correct could hardly be in doubt, since the reactions of the sons and their wives had been ones of shock and anger. Little surprise, therefore, when only a short while later a terrible scream was heard to come from Simeon Lee's room accompanied by a tremendous crashing. When his door was finally broken down, there the man lay, his throat slashed, pools of blood surrounded him and splashed over the furniture. This was, undoubtedly, a truly violent murder, one which seemed almost overabundant in its qualities. For Hercule Poirot, called upon to assist with the investigation by chance since he was staying with the Chief Constable, one quote uttered by Lydia Lee was to have a significant impact upon the investigation:
"Who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?"
"Hercule Poirot's Christmas" was written in response to a complaint by Christie's brother in law, James, that her stories of late had become almost too staid and that, in his opinion, what was needed was a "good violent murder with lots of blood." It is evident, upon reading it, that this was accomplished to deliberately hyperbolic levels by the writer and it is this theme of blood which resonates strongly throughout the plot, particularly in connection to the theme of the family. Christie has returned to what many view as her stereotypical work, that of a family united under the roof of the patriarch or matriarch and the resulting effect of not only the murder, but also the gathering of different personalities placed in a confined enviromment with often only the ties of genetics to connect them. Strong parallels can thus be drawn between this narrative and other works, most noticeably "A Pocketful of Rye" which bears what must surely be a deliberate resemblance in many parts. Comparisons can also be made between "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" and "The 4.50 from Paddington", though here the similarities are weaker. Nevertheless, throughout these novels several recurring themes occur. Alfred and Harry Lee might be Perceval and Lance Fortescue. The control which Simeon exerts over his offspring might be compared to Luther Crackenthorpe and the past life in Africa which enabled Simeon to obtain some of his wealth can be also observed in the former life of Rex Fortescue. It is, however, in "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" that we may observe the strongest control of the father over his sons. Simeon exerts a hold over them that extends over continents and personal feelings, they agree to his request to visit because they need to know what the reasons might be and because they feel obliged to do so. There is no suggestion that he is even fond of any of them, though he confesses to a grudging admiration for Harry. However, this sense of duty is not only confined to the sons, for despite his reprimands and delight in riling them, Simeon has considered the majority of his relatives in a will. We may surmise, therefore, that the sense of responsibility to his offspring is as strong in Simeon as that felt by his sons towards him. It is noticeable, moreover, that this impression of duty and control is felt most strongly by the sons, with at least two daughters in law being less constrained by him.
A further theme which may be noted in the story is that of the concept of deception and hidden identities. A number of characters (whose names I shall not reveal in order to not spoil the plot) are there under false pretences, their reasons to do so having a significant impact upon the narrative and it is the concept of illusion which runs throughout the plot. There is, in the narrative, an impression of unreality regarding several of the characters and also the primary events. It is as though we are witness, at times, to a play, a matter which Christie may have hinted at when Superintendant Sugden, the officer assigned to investigate the case with Poirot, makes a brief reference to the death of Sir Bartholomew Strange in "Three Act Tragedy". Furthermore, the placing of the family in the setting of the country house could again be a deliberate contrivance, a forced return to the shilling shockers of the Edwardian era or even to some of Christie's earlier works, such as "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" or "The Secret of Chimneys".
When reading "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" one noticeable aspect of it is the very structured way in which the investigation at least is set out. Order and method are Poirot's watchwords and he employs these to his utmost, questioning the suspects in their turn and consulting with Superintendant Sugden as he does so. The style of Christie's writing is very sequential in this respect, a form of almost lineal description which contrasts powerfully with the description of the actual murder and the highly strained emotions prevalent within the household. It is this noticeable difference, the regulation of the actual writing and Poirot's means of discovering the murderer against the almost chaotic occurrences and emotions, that adds to our enjoyment of the plot. By providing us with this juxtaposition Christie has ensured a truly memorable piece of work.
The characters in this narrative are, as has been already mentioned, as varied as we have come to expect from Christie's stories, though unfortunately it is sometimes difficult to tell one from another in terms of their personalities. George and Alfred Lee, for example, almost seem to merge into one another, both being concerned with a sense of loyalty and a desire to maintain the status quo at nearly all costs. Certaintly there are some differences, George is at times more closer to the character of George Lomax in "The Seven Dials Mystery" than to his brother Alfred, yet throughout the plot there is a pervasive aspect of the two men's natures merging. Speculation may be made that the two brothers could have been amalgamated into one personality without causing any detriment to the story. The same could be said of the wives of Alfred and David. Lydia and Hilda are both strong natured, devoted to their husbands and possessed of an ability to stand up to their father in law whilst at the same time ensuring he does not anger against them. It may be wondered whether Christie felt as though she needed to keep the numbers of the suspects reasonably high, yet did not have the inclination to consider the requisite amount of differing natures. Fortunately there are sufficient quantities of other personalities to maintain our interest. Harry Lee's personality is strongly removed from all his brothers, neither conservative like George and Alfred, nor sensitive and confined to the past like David. Instead he is imposing, charismatic and utterly untrustworthy. Reminiscent of many of Christie's other "black sheep", such as Alfred Crackenthorpe or Lance Fortescue, Harry Lee provides us with a different character to balance against that of Alfred and George.
David Lee is perhaps the weakest individual member of the family, noted primarily for his attachment to his memories and his devoted feelings towards his late mother. He is useful as a means of seeing how opposite in character Simeon Lee was to his wife and how this had a strong influence on the outcome of the story, yet as a personality in his own right David does not stand very tall. More promising is that of the persona of Stephen Farr, the son of Simeon's former business partner in South Africa. In many ways Farr might be taken as the "everyman" or perhaps as someone with whom the readers might identify more strongly with. Present throughout most of the novel, yet occupying almost a purely observant role at times, Farr stands out partly because he is not one of the Lees and partly because he is immune to the family disagreements and resentments which affect the majority of the other men in the story. Pilar Estravados, regrettably, comes across as too much of a caricature throughout most of the story, her temperament and presence practically exaggerated. She is there, to some degree, to provide us with another strong contrast, this time not only between her and Hilda and Lydia, but also between the spoilt but ineffectual character of Magdalen, George's wife. Magdalen herself might be compared with Adele Fortescue or Jennifer Fortescue. Poirot is as predictably egoistical and yet brilliant in his deductions as ever, his ability to work up a pattern of identity drawn from the most minor of details being especially apparent. In contrast to him is the stolid figure of Superintendant Sugden, a man who, in some aspects, might have provided the inspiration for the later character of Superintendant Spence. Finally, the personality of Simeon Lee himself is one which plays a pivotal role within the plot and the motive for the murder. Without the character of that man there is no reason for his death to occur and it is thus that the question does not become "who could have killed him" but rather "who could not have killed him". Simeon delights in controlling others, whether that be through finances or through more subtle means and his murder reveals an acknowledgment of his influence by the killer with their hint that "blood will out".
In conclusion "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" is one of Christie's more stronger works, combining Poirot's usual methods of order and psychological analysis with a near haphazard and intentionally over the top murder. This is a narrative in which the vast majority of the characters must stand back and allow the actual killing to take centre stage, to dominate the proceedings with the highly visual scenes depicted. As ever Poirot reaches the truth with his usual abilities and the reader is presented with a conclusion that is as unexpected as it is interesting.
Agatha Christie's seasonal mystery thriller, reissued with a striking new cover designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers. It is Christmas Eve. The Lee family reunion is shattered by a deafening crash of furniture, followed by a high-pitched wailing scream. Upstairs, the tyrannical Simeon Lee lies dead in a pool of blood, his throat slashed. But when Hercule Poirot, who is staying in the village with a friend for Christmas, offers to assist, he finds an atmosphere not of mourning but of mutual suspicion. It seems everyone had their own reason to hate the old man!