Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie – Book Review

This enjoyable Poirot novel is one of those Christie books that, despite having a good solid murder mystery at its core, is mostly enjoyable for the aspects other than the actual crime investigation. It’s unusually playful and self-referential at times, with Dame Agatha taking the opportunity to poke fun at her most popular creation.

Christie had a fondness for referencing children’s nursery rhymes in her book titles, and Mrs McGinty’s Dead is a nod to an old children’s game. The novel’s real Mrs McGinty is a rather unremarkable old woman who cleans other people’s houses and one day is killed by a blow to her head. Her lodger, a young man named James Bentley, is promptly arrested and now faces the death penalty. It seems like a simple, crude kind of murder that normally wouldn’t warrant any interest from Poirot, but then he gets an unexpected visit from Inspector Spence, who investigated the case. Despite the overwhelming evidence, his policeman’s sixth sense insists that an innocent man is about to be hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. Could Poirot possibly offer a new perspective and uncover clues everybody missed?

As far as the wrongfully accused go, colourless and passive James Bentley is hardly appealing, but of course everyone deserves justice, and Poirot likes a challenge. So he takes up residence in the tiny English village where the crime took place, in a shabby guest house where he’s forced to suffer horrible furniture, even more horrible food, dogs running all over the place and the most terrible draughts. Christie clearly enjoyed putting her prissy, order-obsessed character through this torment. Another running joke is that Poirot’s esteemed name seems to have little effect on the younger generation in the village. ‘What a lovely name,’ she said kindly. ‘Greek, isn’t it?’

Mrs Ariadne Oliver, the apple-chomping mystery writer who is basically Christie’s alter-ego, also makes an appearance, for reasons that have less to do with the plot and feel more like an excuse for Christie to comment on the writer’s relationships with their fictional characters and the chore of watching them being twisted for commercial purposes by the producers. Mrs Oliver’s mixed feelings about her fictional detective, a vegetarian Finn called Sven Hjerson, are clearly meant to mirror Christie’s own feelings about her Belgian sleuth:

“‘How do I know?’ said Mrs. Oliver crossly. ‘How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad!… Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life.”

This kind of village mystery is usually reserved for Mrs Marple, but it works just as well for Poirot, who gets to meet some usual types populating Christie’s post-war villages, familiar maybe but still well-done. As I’ve said before, the crime itself may not be the most engaging thing about the book, and after reading a few Christie novels details like the second murder of a character who knows something but won’t speak up begin to get really repetitive. I do however like the fact that the whole unravelling process begins with a tiny insignificant detail that 99 out of 100 people probably would have ignored (but not Poirot of course).

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