This foray into the swinging sixties doesn’t seem to be highly thought of among Agatha Christie fans, but I enjoyed it quite a lot, maybe because the idea of Hercule Poirot among mods and beatniks is just too much fun.
One morning, as he’s enjoying his steaming cup of chocolate with a brioche, Poirot’s gastronomic satisfaction is interrupted by an unexpected visitor, one of the modern young women who deeply offend his old-fashioned views on proper femininity. The purpose of her visit is to consult him about a murder she might have committed – but she never gets to clarify this bizarre phrase, because the girl takes off almost immediately at the sight of the great detective. Poirot, she blurts out, is just too old. Comme c’est humiliant!
Though Poirot’s ego is understandably wounded, he feels a genuine concern for the girl, who doesn’t strike him as capable of taking care of herself. Fortunately, finding out her name turns out to be much easier than anticipated. It seems that Poirot’s old friend, the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, remembers discussing Poirot at a party with some “dreary” girl, and eventually her scatty memory yields a name: Norma Restarick.
It should now be a piece of cake to find Norma and discover what trouble she got herself into, but this is where things get difficult and force Poirot to cast a wide net, because there’s simply no obvious murder in sight. He does discover that Norma’s life is not without trouble and suspicious circumstances. Her father, Andrew Restarick, has recently returned from South Africa after many years of neglecting his daughter, bringing home a younger second wife Norma loathes. There are rumours floating around that Mary Restarick’s recent spell at the hospital was due to a poisoning, with her stepdaughter the likeliest suspect, but that’s not exactly the murder Poirot is looking for.
Like many young women in the 1960s, Norma prefers to live in London on her own, as a “third girl” in a shared flat (in this rental arrangement, the main girl finds a furnished flat and shares rent with a second girl, usually a friend, and a third girl, usually found through an advertisement). Aside from a hated stepmother, another reason to avoid home is Norma’s boyfriend, a flamboyant bohemian type dressed in velvet and satin and dabbling in a variety of drugs. In other words, a father’s worst nightmare.
I can easily see why this novel would frustrate many readers with its meandering story and lack of a clear-cut murder to solve. The story does eventually move forward, but for the majority of time it’s about Poirot not having a clue what’s going on, and gathering facts in an attempt to find a pattern that makes sense. There are however many things that made this book so entertaining to read. I always love an appearance by Mrs Oliver and here she’s her usual wonderful random self, fretting about new cherry-patterned wallpaper in her apartment, scattering hairpieces everywhere she goes and even doing her own bit of sleuthing including a visit to an art studio in Chelsea. It’s also nice to read a Poirot novel that sticks with the vain-but-lovable Belgian’s perspective as much as this book does.
The generational clash is undoubtedly my favourite aspect of Third Girl. Christie must have been aware that the 60s youth culture is not exactly her scene, and so she mainly writes about it from the perplexed perspective of the older generation, who can’t understand all these slovenly androgynous kids with their dirty nails and long hair. While the girls mainly fill Poirot with an urge to throw them in a bathtub, he points out that the effeminate appearance of Norma’s boyfriend David is actually nothing new, if one imagined him in a gold-framed portrait by an old Flemish master. David, nicknamed Peacock by Mrs Oliver for his decorative appearance, is perhaps the novel’s most memorable character. He is full of easy charm as well as being an obvious rogue – but is he dodgy in a relatively harmless way, or is there something much darker hiding inside somewhere?
I wish the novel didn’t end with yet another lame insta-marriage (that I spotted from miles away and rolled my eyes at well in advance), but overall this late-period Christie novel was a very pleasant surprise.