Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie – Book Review

A classic locked room mystery from the Queen of Crime, with the murder committed in the ultimate locked room – an aircraft cabin a few thousand feet up in the air.

Hercule Poirot takes a midday flight from Paris to London, but thanks to acute motion sickness, can’t take time to observe the ten fellow passengers in his section of the plane. The diverse bunch includes a crime novel writer, a countess with a secret cocaine habit, father and son archaeologists, a Harley Street doctor, a young hairdresser back from a holiday and an attractive dentist in the opposite seat who she’s crushing on. As the plane nears its destination, the stewards make a shocking discovery: one of the passengers, an elderly French lady, is found slumped and dead in her seat.

At first one of the passengers mentions killing a wasp during the flight so the reaction to a wasp sting seems like a plausible explanation, but then sharp-eyed Poirot spots a poisoned blowpipe dart disguised as a wasp lying at the victim’s feet. Soon, a blowpipe is discovered tucked in behind Poirot’s seat, of all people, and, to the eyes of Inspector Japp, the crime looks absolutely ridiculous and sensationalist. How on earth does someone send a lethal dart flying from the blowpipe without anyone noticing?

And what of the motive? The murdered woman, Madame Giselle, was a famed moneylender whose method of insurance was to dig up the dirt on her clients, with the understanding that the unsavoury facts would be made public if they didn’t pay on time. Naturally, there are plenty of hints early on that some passengers could have found themselves in a sticky situation with Giselle, while others appear to have no obvious motive for murder whatsoever. Christie’s novels rarely delve into aspects like press coverage and publicity, but this novel explores the ways the crime affects the other passengers’ lives, with some finding the publicity a boost and others a curse. I also liked the humorous passages poking fun at the press – the book was published in 1935 but you realise that nothing changes much as far as the media circus goes. For Poirot, who feels rather insulted by the murderer implicating him in a crime with the whole blowpipe thing, finding the culprit is a personal matter.

As an avid Christie reader, this novel sticks out in my memory as my proudest sleuthing moment: for once, I picked up on an important clue at the same time Poirot did. Early in the story, our favourite Belgian detective requests to see the complete list of the passengers’ personal belongings, and proceeds to build the entire case from one telltale item. I spotted the same crucial item on my first read and felt ridiculously pleased with my powers of observation, though of course I remained in the dark as to what the murderer’s motives and methods actually were.

Other than solving the puzzle in his usual brilliant way, Poirot in this book also enjoys considerable success as a matchmaker. His sentimental streak has always been one of his most endearing qualities.

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