2. Five Little Pigs  (1942)

Hercule Poirot #23

Poirot reads five different accounts of the same long-forgotten murder, uncovering an intricate crime, and the devastating effect it had on the lives of those involved.

It’s hard work discerning between entrants at the very top of my Christie rankings. Every novel in the Top Ten could conceivably be someone’s favourite. But Five Little Pigs is – for my money – Hercule Poirot’s best outing, and Christie’s most mature novel. (Yes, I know it’s only number two, but we’ll get to that…)

Between 1935 and 1942, Christie wrote eighteen novels, thirteen of which featured Poirot. To compare, she would only write thirteen more Poirot books – and in the space of three-and-a-half decades. Coming off her most prolific period, it’s perhaps no surprise that Five Little Pigs is such an accomplished work, even if it lacks much of the standard formula that defines the genre.

Poirot is hired by the daughter of Caroline Crale, a woman charged with the death of her husband – the painter Amyas Crale – and who died in prison shortly thereafter. However, in her final letter, Caroline protested her innocence to her daughter (although intriguingly never did this to the police), and now Poirot is compelled to seek out the truth, by contacting each of the five witnesses in the case, and asking for their versions of the story. While none of them has an obvious motive, it is clear that the killer – unless, indeed, it was Caroline – must be one of them: Caroline’s half-sister Angela, her governess Miss Williams, Caroline’s friends – the brothers Meredith and Phillip Blake, or Amyas’ model and mistress Elsa. The novel is structured quite simply: first, Poirot has quiet conversations with each of the five; second, he reads accounts they have prepared of the incidents on the day of the murder; third, he pieces together the puzzle and announces the truth.

What distinguishes Five Little Pigs from the 37 other Poirot books? (And indeed from the 76 previous Christie novels?) Well, to start with, there are the compelling characterisations of all seven figures in the murder mystery. Meeting the suspects sixteen years after the fact means that we witness the changes – generally for the worse – in their lives, even as they recall the halcyon days leading up to Amyas’ death. The silent pain suffered by many of them (and by Caroline) is palpable, as is the complexity of their coping mechanisms: Elsa, particularly, is a fascinating case study, having risen in social status and wealth, and using this to forget about the events of that fatal summer. Even more so, the artist and his wife – seen only through the fractured accounts provided to Poirot – come across as some of the most layered characters Christie ever produced. I’ve been reading one of Christie’s Mary Westmacott novels – Giant’s Bread – recently, and it’s interesting to see how, when freed of the murder mystery strictures, Christie still was drawn toward crumbling marriages, and the ways in which humans so often remain deliberately blind to the truths around them. While the five accounts don’t differ to ridiculous extremes – this isn’t Rashomon – they combine to give us a nuanced view of seven lives, one murder, and one noble but tragic sacrifice.

Beyond this, the crime is intricately planned and executed, leaving no doubts as to Christie’s mastery of the form. Later in life, Christie would often fail at telling the tale of ‘cold cases’, of murders from the past. Without any sense of urgency, these tales can fall apart without a skillful hand, but the larger problem is that many such novels – the later Tommy and Tuppence excursions, particularly – don’t give a clear view of who the victim is until the closing reels, let alone the murderer! Here, thankfully, everything is shaded in quite handsomely.

As Poirot unravels the haze of time present and time past, he himself remains on the outskirts of the case. This would be a trademark of his post-war novels, which seem to rebel against his very presence (to the point where Christie wrote him out of the stage adaptation of The Hollow). She’d relent at the end of his career, once she realised that Poirot’s age could make him as disconnected from the ‘modern’ world as her closer companion Miss Marple was, but Five Little Pigs – unlike The Hollow – still feels as if it requires Poirot. His decades of experience, his growing insight into the human nature, and his strong sense of right and wrong, are all on display here. Indeed, the strongest emotional strain of the novel may be Poirot’s growing fear that Caroline is indeed guilty.

Ultimately, Five Little Pigs may well be Agatha Christie’s most accomplished novel. It may not be her most viscerally enjoyable – the cleverness of the plotting doesn’t stand out as well as in the rigid formula of Murder on the Orient Express – nor does it have her delight in the sadistic nature of human beings, as exemplified in Crooked House. No, this is a horse of a different colour: a murder mystery in which we’re asked to absorb the clues, the props, the alibis, sure… but more importantly to read between the lines of the characters themselves and, in knowing the human heart, perhaps come to understand the answer to something far greater than simply whodunnit.

(The novel has also been published as Murder in Retrospect. And – as I just learned – I have to eat my poetic words about Poirot’s place in the narrative. When Christie adapted this as a stage play, under the title Go Back For Murder, she edited Poirot out, in favour of a young lawyer. However, I’d argue this may have been to make the play easier to stage rather than for any feelings of style: playing a keen-eyed young lawyer is a lot easier than playing a punctilious Belgian, let me tell you!)

Rating: 10/10

Poirot ranking: 1st of 38

Next time: we wrap up the Top Ten by visiting my all-time favourite Christie novel: her most-filmed work and perhaps her most well-known.