During her prolific career, Agatha Christie penned a few spy thrillers, or at least novels with strong elements of international intrigue and espionage, which for me were never on the same level with her best work (I keep putting off re-reading any of the Tommy and Tuppence novels, easily my least favourite Christie series). This book is not a fully fledged espionage novel, more like a strange hybrid of spy thriller and boarding school murder mystery, with Hercule Poirot cameo thrown in the last third for reasons that, one suspects, have nothing to do with story needs. Though flawed and uneven, it’s still quite enjoyable.
Like any setting that has a bunch of strangers artificially cooped up in one place, an all-girl boarding school is actually a damn great setting for murder. The prologue does a good job describing the opening day of the summer term at the prestigious Meadowbank school, introducing the teachers (referred to as mistresses) and formidable Miss Bulstrode, the founder of Meadowbank. A couple of important things happen: one is the arrival of a new student, Princess Shaista, who hails from a fictional Middle Eastern state of Ramat. Secondly, one of the parents has a peculiar reaction to something or someone she sees while gazing out of the window during the interview with Miss Bulstrode.
After that, the book switches gears and whizzes across the globe to the aforementioned Ramat two months before the prologue, where a revolution is about to break out. There’s an international intrigue involving priceless jewels belonging to the soon-to-be-deposed ruler, Prince Ali Yusuf, who asks his private pilot and friend, an Englishman, to get them out of the country. The jewels end up hidden among the belongings of the pilot’s sister and her daughter Jennifer who – of course – is a student at Meadowbank. Thus begins the chain of events that disrupt the peace and order of that most respectable establishment. The exact hiding place, by the way, is so bleeding obvious that I couldn’t work out if Christie actually intended the viewer to know where the jewels were all along and be a step ahead of the characters.
The first victim is the unpopular and snoopy sports teacher, who is found at the sports pavilion one night shot through the heart (physical education was hands down my most loathed subject back at school, so I won’t lie, this murder felt weirdly appropriate). Was she targeted deliberately, or was she simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Who is the tiitular cat among the pigeons?
To be honest, the whole jewels-and-murders intrigue isn’t particularly interesting and the resolution depends less on clever detective work and more on the testimony of a character who just happens to be conveniently unavailable until the very end of the novel. Also, as much as I love the guy, Poirot has no business being in this book, when there are more than enough characters who could have potentially solved the mystery instead: the rather capable inspector in charge of the case, the handsome secret service man working undercover as the gardener, or even the schoolgirl who finds herself in danger and contacts Poirot. His late appearance smacks of pure fanservice and was most likely due to Christie feeling an obligation to write in her most popular character. Even his deductions here feel lazy, something that Poirot just magically “knows” rather than anything you can track.
The book still manages to be great fun thanks to the lively and at times humorous characterisations of the teachers and students and all the different interpersonal dynamics you’re likely to find at a boarding school. Miss Bulstrode in particular stands out as a strong, well-drawn character, who, in addition to all the murder drama, faces the challenge of securing the future of her beloved school after she retires. Should she pass on the reins to a steady, reliable successor with no vision of her own, or risk it with a younger inexperienced one who has real fire in her belly? I really wish this book had less of the spy thriller nonsense and kept it all in the school.