Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie – Book Review

This Poirot mystery, set in an international student hostel, starts off as intriguing and ends up as fairly solid but unspectacular.

I could have sworn that I never read this book before, but early on I stumbled on a familiar phrase spoken by a medical student with a macabre sense of humour: I cut up a lovely corpse today. Smashing! This bad taste comment, intended to shock a respectable matron, was literally the only thing I could remember about the story, which I didn’t take as a good sign.

This is the first full-length Christie novel to feature unemotional, uber-efficient Miss Lemon, and it starts off with Poirot making a few shocking discoveries about his perfect secretary. Turns out, Miss Lemon is in fact not a machine and is capable of typing mistakes, her first name is Felicity, and she has actual flesh-and-blood relatives, a sister named Mrs Hubbard who is a warden of a hostel for students. Miss Lemon’s uncharacteristic mistakes are caused by the anxiety over a series of strange thefts happening at the hostel, which trouble her sister a great deal.

Mrs Hubbard is reluctant to call in the police, but luckily for her Poirot is bored in between the cases and would prefer Miss Lemon to return to her best efficient self. His curiosity is piqued further when he sees the full list of the missing and vandalised items that makes absolutely no sense, including a single evening shoe, stethoscope, slashed rucksack, old flannel trousers, and a diamond ring found in plate of soup.

Hickory Dickory Dock is yet another Christie novel that borrows its title from a well-known nursery rhyme, but its only significance in the book is the Hickory Road where the hostel is located. We get an instant introduction to an extensive cast of characters, including the hostel’s high-strung owner and a mix of English and foreign students. The novel was published in the 1950s and the way some of the foreign characters are portrayed are predictably cringey by today’s standards, though Mr Akibombo, my favourite student, is both cartoonish and yet the most likeable and memorable one of the lot.

After Poirot pokes around the hostel, one of the female students confesses to some of the petty thefts, and the matter looks more or less settled… until she’s found dead in her room, with the murderer’s attempt to pass it as a suicide thwarted by a coincidence. Now that the case is way more serious than a mere outbreak of kleptomania, Poirot has to work closely with an old acquaintance, Inspector Sharpe, to solve the murder and potentially uncover some organised criminal activities.

The book started off with a lot of promise. A student hostel is an unexpected and original setting for a Christie novel, and the problem of seemingly unconnected thefts looked like a challenging puzzle for the little Belgian to solve. Later on in the story, Poirot remains convinced that the list of items still holds the key to everything, and his approach to the solution is most satisfying. I also quite liked Mrs Hubbard, who shares a lot of pragmatic and shrewd qualities with her sister, but unlike Miss Lemon is genuinely interested in other people. There are some amusing and humorous exchanges between unflappable Mrs Hubbard and eccentric Mrs Nicoletis, the hostel proprietress with a personal secret.

Once the murder storyline takes over and it becomes obvious that Poirot is going to be relegated to a smaller role next to Inspector Sharpe, the story becomes a lot less interesting and bogged down in the monotony of criminal investigation. The numerous student characters never get properly fleshed out and by the end of the book I was still getting confused as to who was who. As always, Poirot comes through with the goods in the end, but some of his deductive leaps feel too far-fetched and implausible, and it’s not clear at all how he was able to draw certain conclusions that come completely out of the blue. The identity of the killer came as a major surprise I didn’t see coming, so I’ll give the book credit for that, however the resolution is so messy and convoluted that I’ve already forgotten some of the key details.

Hickory Dickory Dock is neither great nor terrible, an ultimately workmanlike mystery with mostly forgettable characters and a couple of neat twists, that’s unlikely to stick in the memory all that much.

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