A fun collection of crimes solved by the one and only Hercule Poirot, with a bonus Miss Marple short story. I was slightly disappointed that only one of the stories is actually set at Christmas.
In the foreword, Christie describes the titular short story as an “indulgence of my own” and basically an excuse to reminisce fondly about the very traditional English Christmas she enjoyed as a child with her extended family up north. Hercule Poirot on the other hand is not anywhere near as enthusiastic about old-fashioned Christmas in the English countryside, and only accepts his mission after he’s promised proper oil-fired central heating. He is tasked with recovering a priceless ruby stolen from a royal heir to the throne of an unnamed Eastern country, in order to save the young man from an embarrassing scandal just before his wedding.
Basically whenever there’s some stolen jewels in a Christie story, you can safely assume that you’re in for some light and frothy read, and this short story is no exception. The mystery itself is quite slight and easy to predict, but as warned, Christie obviously wrote it mainly in order to have fun with the Christmas setting.
The following course, The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, is one of my all-time personal favourite Poirot short stories, with a macabre setup reminiscent of Hitchcock’s thriller Rope. Six people are gathered at the party; five of them drinking, eating and dancing in a room with a big Spanish chest against the wall… while the sixth guest lies dead and silent inside the Spanish chest, stabbed in the neck. This is a kind of mystery where psychological insight into the personalities of the victim, the accused, and everyone else present at the party matters just as much if not more than the physical clues. As a nice literary touch, Poirot’s solution is inspired by the parallels with a famous Shakespearean play. It’s just a tightly written little gem of a short story.
The Under Dog, the longest story in the collection, is the least memorable of the lot. A bad-tempered patriarch of a household is murdered and his nephew is accused of the crime, however the wife of the dead man insists that they got it wrong, because her womanly intuition told her so. There are twists and turns in the story, but it’s hardly one of Dame Agatha’s finest moments and I’m already struggling to remember the exact details.
The remaining two stories perhaps suffer next to each other since they both rely on the same kind of reveal, but each one at least has a distinctive and intriguing premise. Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds plays on the fact that people tend to be creatures of habit. Poirot and friend are dining out one day when their friendly waitress mentions a truly shocking incident: an old man who always comes in on Tuesdays and Thursday and orders the same dishes came in on Monday and ordered a meal full of dishes he always avoided. When Poirot finds out a few days later that the old man has died after an accidental fall, he is suspicious and sets out to investigate.
In The Dream, Poirot is summoned by an eccentric old millionaire Benedict Farley, who tells him about a disturbing recurring dream he’s had recently, in which he ends up shooting himself. Poirot may not suffer from excess modesty, but he believes that this problem is best left to a doctor or a psychologist, and is dismissed. However he comes back a week later when Farley is found dead, apparently after shooting himself in the exact manner described to Poirot earlier. The solution here is pretty obvious, especially after reading the previous story, but it’s still fun to see Poirot piece together the mystery that draws on his powers of observation.
I’ve already read Greenshaw’s Folly, a Miss Marple short story, in another compilation, so I left it out. Other than to fatten up the page count, I’m not sure why it was included at all.