Mrs McGinty’s Dead
First published in the UK by William Collins & Sons, 1952
This edition: Published as part of The Agatha Christie Crime Collection (with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and They Do It With Mirrors) 1969, Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd
Source: The Past Offences domestic library, after almost an hour’s search
Mrs McGinty’s Dead is my entry for the #1952book challenge launched at the beginning of the month. Entries are arriving thick and fast, so head over to the sign-up page if you want to play. You just have to read a crime book published in 1952 (or watch a film, or read a comic).
The story opens with Hercule Poirot, retired and in an advanced state of boredom, with only the anticipation of his next gourmet meal to keep him going. He is pulled out of his ennui by an old colleague, Superintendent Spence of the Kilminster Police, who needs Poirot’s help to reverse a possible miscarriage of justice.
Mrs McGinty, a very ordinary daily help in the very ordinary village of Broadhinny, was murdered last year. Her lodger James Bentley, a singularly graceless loner with a reputation for oddness, was caught next-to-red-handed with Mrs McGinty’s blood on his sleeve. He has just been sentenced to hang, to almost everybody’s satisfaction since the evidence is overwhelming. Spence, however, has his doubts. To him, Bentley just doesn’t seem like a murderer. He simply isn’t cocky enough. Spence doesn’t have the freedom to pursue the investigation, so he asks if Poirot will take the case.
‘I haven’t seen – not in my experience – an innocent man hanged for something he didn’t do. It’s a thing, M. Poirot, that I don’t want to see. Not in this country.’
Poirot accepts with alacrity and begins theorising. There seems no reasonable motive for killing McGinty. Perhaps the murder was committed to frame Bentley. Perhaps the answer lies not in the victim per se, but in the objectives of the murderer.
‘If Mrs McGinty is just an ordinary charwoman – it is the murderer who must be extraordinary.’
The great Belgian then goes down to Broadhinny to see if he can divine any extraordinary motives for the murder of Mrs McGinty, and soon an ordinary bottle of ink puts him on the trail of the real killer. There follows the usual mix of red herrings, family histories, skeletons in closets, and obvious suspects, culminating in all the suspects gathered together in one room. And for once, ladies and gentlemen, I got the killer before Poirot. Well, it was one of my two candidates.
Most reviewers pick up on the humour in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and I can testify to the amusement value of the awful Broadhinny B&B where Poirot suffers at the hands of the gloriously incompetent landlady.
He had eaten rabbit stew and spinach and hard potatoes and a rather peculiar pudding, not scorched this time. Instead, ‘the water got in,’ Maureen had explained. He had drunk half a cup of muddy coffee. He did not feel well.
As well as Poirot, Christie’s thinly-veiled alter ego Ariadne Oliver puts in an appearance, as usual moaning about her amusing foreign detective Sven Hjerson:
‘How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson.’
So just how 1952-ish is Mrs McGinty? Well, considering that Christie is supposed to write in some kind of timeless vacuum, the answer is ‘very’. We are definitely in a world which is putting itself back together after the War. This comes through explicitly in the histories of many of the characters:
‘What about the war?’
‘Luckily we never had any bombs near here.’
‘What was your part in the war, mademoiselle?’
‘Oh, I did V.A.D. work in Kilchester. And some driving for the W.V.S.’
In terms of topical references, the recently-founded NHS is brought in:
‘But there, nowadays if you’ve got a chilblain you run to the doctor with it so as to get your money’s worth out of the National Health. Too much of this health business we’ve got.’
But for my money, we get the best sense of the fractured post-war world in a throwaway comment by Ariadne Oliver:
‘I suppose there will be lots of apples down here in the country. Or aren’t there? Perhaps they all get sent away. Things are so odd nowadays, I find.’
And of course the War has hindered police work:
‘You know what things are nowadays. The war stirred up everyone and everything. The approved school where [name redacted] was, and all its records, were destroyed in a direct hit. Then take people. It’s the hardest thing in the world to check on people.’
This, by the way, is markedly different from the portrayal of the police as an paternalistic omniscient power, which I have most recently highlighted in The Tiger in the Smoke (also published in 1952) and Rope for Breakfast (1945). I guess this simply supported Christie in her preferred supersleuth approach. The police are not incompetent, but they are tramelled by procedure and by the ‘official’ mindset.
Mrs McGinty is one of the funnier mysteries I have read, and one of my favourite Christies. Highly recommended.
Clothes in Books: ‘Some commentators have accused Agatha Christie of having no sense of humour, no good jokes, but in fact she can be very funny in her own way. In this book Hercule Poirot stays in an awful amateurish B&B, and the descriptions (all too convincing) of its horrors are very amusing.’
Books Please: ‘As always, for me, there is more to the book than the puzzle of the murders, and in Mrs McGinty’s Dead there are several things, including the view Agatha Christie paints of life in an English village not long after the war (usually the setting for a Miss Marple mystery), the mix of characters, working class and middle class, the very amusing picture of the dreadful Bed and Breakfast, run by Major Summerhayes and his wife, Maureen, where Poirot stays in Broadhinny, and then there is Ariadne Oliver.’
Genre Reviews: ‘There was no sex. There was a very minor amount of explicit bad language. Overall, I’d recommend this novel to Agatha Christie fans.’