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Third Girl - Agatha Christie

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Author: Agatha Christie / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      23.05.2009 00:51
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      An enjoyable read.

      Confused, vague and unable or unwilling to give any real details, the young woman who appeared at Poirot's flat one morning declaring she may have committed a murder, was not prepared to accept any help from him. Stating that he was too old and that therefore she had made a mistake in approaching him, she left rapidly, leaving the detective feeling rather aggrieved and concerned for the woman in question. It was not until later that day, when a chance phone call from his old friend, the detective writer Ariadne Oliver led to a meeting with that novelist and a discovery that she vaguely knew who the mysterious visitor had been. Investigations revealed her to be Norma Restarick, daughter of a business tycoon named Andrew who had returned to the family home after an absence of 15 years along with his second wife, Mary. Norma harboured feelings of resentment towards her stepmother and the evidence pointed to her attempting to kill Mary. Yet this was not the supposed killing that Norma had referred to. Preliminary enquiries at the Restarick household did not get Poirot very far and so attention turned towards the main residence of Norma, a flat she shared in London with two other girls. To Claudia Reece - Holland, the main tenant of the building and Frances Cary, the other inhabitant, Norma was rather vague, not quite right and someone they knew little about. Consequently, when it was discovered that Norma had gone missing shortly after trying to speak to Poirot, neither of her two flatmates initially had any great concern and when she was discovered shortly afterwards it appeared there was nothing untoward going on, particularly since no one had any idea of any killings that had occurred in the vicinity. Yet Poirot was not convinced. A murder had been spoken of and yet there was not evidence of this. It was possible, of course, that the words might be put down to lies or fantasies, but the investigator could not be certain of this. Assisted by Ariadne Oliver and his old acquaintance Mr Goby, a man with an almost infinite amount of information at his fingertips, Poirot set about to solve two mysteries. First, to ascertain whether a killing had taken place and secondly, to determine whether Norma really was the guilty party. As the case progressed it was to become increasingly evident that they were to deal with an extremely dangerous situation.

      First published in 1966, "Third Girl" appears, on the surface to be firmly entrenched within the "swinging sixties". Christie makes frequent references to remind us that the narrative takes place at the time of writing, noting such aspects as fashions, music and supposed new styles of behaviour that set the scene quite clearly. Comparable in a number of ways to "The Pale Horse", which was published at roughly the same time, much of the plot appears to focus on the new generation of baby boomers, the twenty some things who - in this story - reside in the heart of a London that has changed drastically since the Second World War. However, whilst the plot does make it evident that the time in which it occurs is integral to it, a deeper analysis reveals this does not necessarily need to be the case. Here, Christie seems to be saying, is a thoroughly modern mystery and it could only have occurred in these modern times. However, a deeper analysis reveals that it is erroneous to presume this must be the case, that the plot must remain so fixed in one point in time. One of the central aspects of the story is one which has already been used before by Christie, in one of the "Labours of Hercules" and in one of "The Thirteen Problems", published in the 1940's and 1930's. Moreover, the concept of a group of young women sharing a flat together and the somewhat wild night life that some characters participate in, has already been noted in part in such early Christie works as "The Third Floor Flat" and "The Seven Dials Mystery", both of which were published in the 1920's. Far from being unoriginal, however, this serves to enhance the appeal of "Third Girl". Since it is a narrative which could either be placed in the time it initially appears very clearly to be, or at any other point in time from about the 1920's to the present day (for a few minor adjustments would quite easily establish the plot in the twenty-first century) it is something which is, therefore, relatively timeless.

      Throughout the narrative we are witness to a variety of characters which, whilst sometimes being comparable to previous personalities, nevertheless are original enough to prompt our interest. The hesitant and seemingly frightened Norma Restarick is presented as being deliberately rather enigmatic. As the story is pieced together her character seems to be become increasingly obtuse, her personality never quite established until the final conclusion. Whilst this can be somewhat infuriating, it is an essential aspect of the story and so this must be borne in mind when reading the passages in which she appears. She resembles, to some extent, Rosaleen Cloade from "Taken at the Flood", her uncertain and somewhat passive nature being similar to this earlier person. In sharp contrast to her is the efficient secretary Claudia Reece -Holland, the main tenant of the apartment and, due to her ability to plan and co-ordinate, one of the prime suspects of the tale. As Ariadne Oliver remarks "if I was having a go at thinking of a murderer, a good capable murderer, I'd choose someone very much like her". Since it is a point of humour that Ms Oliver's intuition frequently fails her, we are unsure at this point whether the same thing will occur within this story or whether she will prove to be correct in her surmises. At any rate the constantly professional nature of Claudia serves to increase the contrast between her and Norma and thus to make it clearer to the reader the extent of Norma's nature. Set somewhat in the middle of these two personalities is the other woman who shares the flat, Frances Cary. Bearing a passing resemblance to Freddie Rice from "Peril at End House" or Thomasina Tuckerton from "The Pale Horse", a character whose life is very much embroiled with the modern night life of her time. Frances is neither as apparently immature as Norma, nor as sensible as Claudia is taken to be. She is, in many ways, the modern woman that Christie is so keen to portray in the plot, her casual drug taking and striking appearance placing her as a focal point of the story's setting. Aligned with her in terms of superficial personality is David Baker, the boyfriend of Norma and a man whose personality is never quite fully established. He is different aspects to different characters, ranging from the sneering and vain "Peacock" - as Ariadne describes him - through to the apparently compassionate young man who has at least some genuine cares for Norma. He is, in many ways, a kaleidoscope of natures, we can never be quite sure of whether he is as genuine or as false as others declare him to be. Which display of him many be said to be the real one and which is merely a façade is one which remains an enigma for most - if not all - of the story. He might, in some ways, be noted with Derek Kettering from "The Mystery of the Blue Train", since both men initially at least have comparable temperaments. The nature of Andrew Restarick, Norma's father, is witnessed more through his concerns about his daughter, than establishing strongly his own nature, at least for most of the story. One of the many tycoons that Christie wrote about, his personality is perhaps more closely aligned in many ways to Rufus Van Aldin from "The Mystery of the Blue Train", since he is of the opinion that money can be used to prevent any unpleasantness or to deter what seem to be unsuitable boyfriends from his daughter. Little more is also learned of Mary Restarick until the novel is almost complete, we see her through her role as the stepmother only, she is either criticising Norma or Norma is criticising her. Potentially hypochondriacal, Mary is somewhat of a two dimensional personality and somewhat staid in her manner.

      In "Third Girl" we are introduced once more to Ariadne Oliver, the fictional detective writer who was so clearly associated with Christie herself that, through this character, the novelist was able to bring forth the various frustrations and other emotions she experienced in her career. This is made particularly clear in the following quite, which serves to remind us of the dislike Christie held towards her most famous creation:
      "They say how much they love my awful detective Sven Hjerson. If they only knew how much I hated him!"
      Oliver is, as in the rest of the works in which she appears, as self effacing and as scatterbrained as ever, reassuringly normal and agreeable, her ability to spot details that others might have missed and to come to somewhat rambling conclusions about matters ensuring she is a valuable ally to Poirot. She may not be compared in any significant way to Hastings, yet her ability to integrate into a number of scenes, despite her apparent reserve, is something which proves beneficial to the solving of the case. Furthermore, though it is made very clear that Poirot is now very old and it is insinuated that he has retired from his practise, his investigative capabilities are as sharp as ever and it is very difficult - if not impossible - to notice any difference between him in this novel and in earlier works. It is probable that this is intentional, since at the start of the story Norma rejects his help declaring he is too old. Although an exact age is impossible to determine, we might estimate a rough age of 90, since that would tie in with his earlier career with the Belgian Police Force prior to "The Mysterious Affair at Styles". Through "Third Girl", Christie is assuring the reader that Poirot's age is irrelevant, that his faculties remain acute and that, whilst his body may be limited in its capabilities it is his renowned mind that ensures he is guaranteed success in his endeavours. Christie makes a brief mention of the French inspector Giraud, who appeared in the 1924 story "Murder on the Links" and it is difficult to imagine that character being able to continue with his detective work with the ease he employed earlier, since he was more prone to physical examinations. The psychological analysis that Poirot has used throughout his career thus pays dividends in this later novel.

      When reading "Third Girl", we may note a strong theme of, if not quite illusion, then nevertheless subterfuge running throughout it. For a significant portion of the story we are never really certain as to what is happening, what direction the story is going in. It moves rapidly from scene to scene, many of which appearing to be half finished, only presenting us with a fraction of the plot. As with the puzzles that Poirot is so fond of envisaging, each piece of the narrative must be pieced together and it is only when the full story is laid before us that many of the occurrences can be made sense of. This mirrors one of the key elements of the tale and thus might be said to hint strongly at one of the main aspects of it. The perceptions placed before us veer between the actual and the imaginary, our thoughts concerning various situations and characters are played with in a way that is familiar to many of Christie's works. Much of the narrative twists before us and no main character beyond Poirot, Oliver and the psychiatric doctor John Stilingfleet (who has been mentioned at least in "The Dream" and "Sad Cypress") can be said to be above suspicion or for it to be evident that they are who they appear to be. Although much of the plot appears to be vague and to hence take its time with establishing just where it is going, this does tie in with a major plot.

      An examination of the actual crimes that are either committed, or referred to in "Third Girl" reveals the strongest negative criticism of the story. Whereas the majority of malignant incidents bear some logic to them, one of the pivotal crimes, the one which is closely associated with Norma, does not. Naturally we must expect a certain degree of unrealism when reading a fictional work and yet, in this case, there appears to be no sensible motive for it. Without pitching into too many details and therefore spoiling the story, one of the crimes need not have been committed and, moreover, by it being perpetrated this places the instigator at greater risk of being caught. Had this crime not been undertaken then the other crimes were, in all probability, to have gone undetected. We may surmise, then, that Christie had a concept, a series of images that she wished to bring forth in to a plot and, upon doing so, was obliged to find a fairly plausible explanation. The irony of the situation is, however, that unless this rather shaky motive is employed, and then there will be no motive for Poirot to examine the other cases and find a solution for all of them. It is thus essential to the story and, if the logistics of it are conveniently ignored, it need not pose a problem. It is possible that there was to be no reasoning behind it that - as Poirot himself notes, we are to accept it as an aspect of pure evil. However, this is a rather weak motive and one which does not live up to Christie's usual standards.

      In conclusion, "Third Girl", whilst not comparable with Christie's greatest works, is nonetheless an interesting and entertaining novel. If we are to ignore some of the plot holes which are evident within it and accept it at face value, we are presented with a narrative that is relatively timeless and which, as a consequence, increases its appeal. Poirot's abilities are as noticeable as ever and, whilst this almost fifty years since his first appearance, his character is synonymous with his earlier appearances. Christie has provided us with a narrative that serves as light reading and which has the advantage of barely revealing anything until its conclusion.

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    • Product Details

      The new-look series of Hercule Poirot books for the 21st century. Three single girls shared the same London flat. The first worked as a secretary; the second was an artist; the third who came to Poirot for help, disappeared convinced she was a murderer. Now there were rumours of revolvers, flick-knives and blood stains. But, without hard evidence, it would take all Poirot's tenacity to establish whether the third girl was guilty innocent or insane.