“Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?”
This Poirot novel was written as Christie’s response to her brother-in-law James, who had complained that her murders were getting too refined and anaemic. You’d hope that James’ craving for a ‘good violent murder’ was satisfied with this locked room murder mystery: its chief victim, a cantankerous wealthy patriarch, is found in a pool of his own blood, his throat cut, after making a noise described by witnesses as “a soul in hell” or “a stuck pig”.
Before expiring horribly, Simeon Lee gathers his estranged grown-up children for a family Christmas, but if any of them were hoping for a heartwarming reunion they’re in for a disappointment. Tyrannical and domineering, Simeon instead insults and humiliates his sons and their wives, before announcing that he’s about to change his will. When the old man ends up dead and his precious uncut diamonds go missing, there’s no shortage of suspects.
Simeon’s sons are a typical Christie dysfunctional bunch: a dutiful son, a prodigal son, a sensitive son and a successful son. The three wives are just as different from each other, and in many ways stronger than the men they married. The two foreigners in the house are the son of Simeon’s old business partner from South Africa, and his half-Spanish granddaughter, who is a fun character despite ticking off every possible Latin cliché imaginable. Completing the scene is a smattering of servants, police, and of course Poirot who gets involved at the request of his friend the chief constable. Naturally, just about everyone has a motive and is lying about something or other, and old Simeon himself is hiding some skeletons in the closet.
Though it’s not one of my favourite Poirot’s mysteries, Christmas has some of Christie’s most enjoyable tropes – dysfunctional family, locked room mystery, mansion setting – executed very well. Plus, the bloody over-the-top murder scene is one of Christie’s most memorable ones, and a seasonal crime is always fun, though one can’t say that the book is particularly Christmassy.
I also have to take my hat off for the clever and unexpected murderer reveal. Re-reading the book I really appreciated the careful balancing act Christie had to pull off throughout: too much detail and it would have been too obvious, too little and the reveal would have felt too random and unsatisfying.