First published in the UK 1949, Collins Crime Club
This edition Fontana, 1974
Source: City Bookshop
My post about the Crime Writers Association’s most recent poll garnered recommendations from Sarah and Sergio for Agatha Christie’s Crooked House. I went straight out and bagged myself a Fontana edition.
Sarah and Sergio are not the only fans; Christie herself thought it was a good one:
‘This book is one of my own special favourites… writing Crooked House was pure pleasure and I feel justified in my belief it is one of my best.’
Crooked House opens with one of those terribly polite wartime love affairs. Young diplomat Charles Hayward falls for the eminently English Sophia Leonides in Cairo (presumably a less seedy version of wartime Cairo than the one depicted in A Key to Rebecca). They can’t possibly marry until the war blows over, so agree to keep in touch and get married back in Blighty.
Back home a few years later, Charles contacts Sophia, but his timing is off. Sophia’s 85-year-old grandfather Aristide has just been killed, and her entire family is on the short list of suspects. Obviously her mood his sombre.
As luck would have it, Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. The ‘Old Man’ thinks it would be a good idea to send Charles down to the Leonides residence as a police agent, the theory being that the family will open up to him (apparently the term ‘conflict of interest’ wasn’t yet in the police rulebook). So Charles heads off to the London suburb of Swinly Dean and to Three Gables – the crooked house of the title.
The Leonides family all live together under one roof, and offer plenty of scope for the amateur detective.
Roger is the bumbling elder son, running the Leonides business empire (into the ground) and apparently in urgent need of financial support. His wife Clemency is a cold-blooded scientific researcher who would, however, do anything to keep her husband happy – apart from letting him make a mess in their perfect minimalist rooms.
Roger’s brother, and Charles’ prospective father-in-law, Eustace is a reclusive historian who stays holed up in his study writing all day. If innocent, he won’t be much fun on the stag weekend. Eustace’s wife Magda is an over-theatrical West End actress with a gift for making scenes. It’s not explained how they got together in the first place, but they seem to rub along OK.
The children of the house Philip and Josephine are both annoying. He’s a highly-strung know-it-all and she’s a nosy-parker know-it-all.
The older generation is represented by Edith de Havilland, Aristide’s snooty sister-in-law who stepped in to take care of Roger and Eustace when his first wife died.
Meanwhile, Brenda Leonides was his second, much younger, wife. None of the surviving Leonides likes her, and they all hope very much that she turns out to be the killer.
Laurence Brown is the rabbitlike tutor to Philip and Josephine. It’s public knowledge that he and Brenda have got something going on, but nobody knows to what extent.
The only other member of staff who gets a mention is Nannie, retired now but still making herself useful by ordering the fish up from the village.
But the most important family member is, of course, absent…
It was the portrait of a little old man with dark, piercing eyes. He wore a black velvet skull cap and his head was shrunk down in his shoulders, but the vitality and power of the man radiated forth from the canvas. the twinkling eyes seemed to hold mine.
‘That’s him,’ said Chief-Inspector Taverner ungrammatically. ‘Painted by Augustus John. Got a personality, hasn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I said, and felt the monosyllable was inadequate.
Aristide was a Greek from Smyrna who arrived with nothing and made himself a fortune by sailing just an inch or so to the right side of the law. He moved to the leafy suburbs after marrying into the horsey set, but never integrated into English society.
His personality dominates the book, in the same way that John Lafcadio does in Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost. He is palpably missing from the house, and manages to rule the roost even from six feet under.
Charles enters the crooked house with no clear idea of what he is looking for beyond the Old Man’s advice:
‘I’ve never met a murderer who wasn’t vain… It’s their vanity that leads to their undoing, nine times out of ten. They may be frightened of being caught, but they can’t help strutting and boasting and usually they’re sure they’ve been far too clever to be caught.’ He added: ‘And here’s another thing, a murderer wants to talk.’
Leonides was poisoned by somebody who put his eye-drop mixture into his insulin. Everybody had means and opportunity, so the investigation centres on establishing who has the strongest motive. Unfortunately this is complicated by some business with Aristide’s last will and testament – signed and witnessed in front of the entire family but now apparently unsigned and therefore invalid (I thought Christie had recycled a trick she used in a Miss Marple short story, but it’s a different trick entirely).
Brenda and Laurence are the strongest suspects from the crime-of-passion angle, but nobody can quite believe it of them (especially Charles, who seems to take a bit of a shine to Brenda, even if he doesn’t admit it). Brenda’s too lazy and Laurence too cowardly.
Psychologically, it looks like most of the Leonides are capable of murder. As Sophie explains:
‘You see, we’re a very queer family… There’s a lot of ruthlessness in us – and – different kinds of ruthlessness. That’s what’s so disturbing. the different kinds.’
While everybody’s motives are closely examined by the police, the solution is of course staring the reader right in the face. Even Charles, who has a secret weapon in the obnoxiously watchful and chatty Josephine, doesn’t get close until the very end.
Having partially solved a John Dickson Carr earlier in the month, I tried my hand at cracking this case but got nowhere. The solution is a classic piece of misdirection.
I thoroughly enjoyed Crooked House. The eccentric and lively Leonides family is reminiscent of a Margery Allingham creation (high praise indeed, on this blog). The twist isn’t as clever a ‘trick’ as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or And Then There Were None, but seems more authentic as a result – and it does arise from character rather than craftiness.
See also: Death Comes as the End
Final destination: A keeper
I am entering Crooked House in the Vintage Mystery Challenge, in the Country House Criminals category.
P.S. There is (probably) going to be a film of Crooked House, or at least there is some evidence of it on the web – the last news seems to be from 2011. Julie Andrews is going to star, presumably as Miss De Havilland (but possibly dusting off her Mary Poppins umbrella to play another Nannie). Neil LaBute is director, and the script is by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes. LaBute said: ‘I have always liked whodunnits. And I mean real whodunnits, not mystery-slash-thriller-slash-horror whodunits. I thought, “When did I last see one of those? And in fact it was probably Gosford Park: at least a nominal portion of Gosford Park had a whodunnit running through it.“‘
Fellowes said: ‘I love the period, I love Agatha Christie and I love the idea of reinventing it. It will be exciting to work with a really vivid, contemporary director – he’s one of the originals around at the moment.‘
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.