The ABC Murders
First published in the UK by William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1936
This edition, Pan Books, 1958
Source: City Bookshop, Norwich
The ABC Murders opens with Captain Hastings coming back to England from his ranch in Argentina for a holiday. He finds his old friend, the Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot, installed in his modern service flat, looking younger than before (thanks to Revivit hair dye) and back in harness working as a detective. As his old police ally Japp tells Hastings, Poirot is:
‘Mixed up in all the celebrated cases of the day. Train mysteries, air mysteries, high society deaths […] Never been so celebrated as since he retired.’
However, fame has its costs. Poirot has received a sinister challenge in the post.
Let us see, Mr Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be […] Look out for Andover on the 21st of the month.
Sure enough, on the 21st, a Mrs Alice Ascher of Andover is found dead in her corner shop. The only clue is an ABC Railway Guide left on the counter. There are other suspects, including her drunkard husband, but they are soon eliminated in favour of an anonymous killer. This is a new kind of challenge for Poirot and Hastings:
Always, up to now, it has fallen to our lot to work from the inside. It has been the history of the victim that was important. The important points have been: “Who benefited by the death? What opportunities had those round him to commit the crime?” It has always been the crime intime. Here, for the first time in our association, it is cold-blooded, impersonal murder. Murder from the outside.
Scotland Yard’s Inspector Crome, an up-and-coming know-all who has hunted this kind of killer previously, is brought in to lead the case, which seems more of a job for police procedure than individual genius. They are advised by Dr Thompson the famous alienist. But even so, the odds are stacked against them:
‘The sanity of a city full of men against the insanity of one man? […] I am afraid… I am very much afraid…’
A few years ago, I looked into the origins of the label ‘serial killer‘, so I was interested to see how Christie describes the killer. Inspector Crome calls the crimes ‘the “chain”or “series” type of murder’, and the killer is described variously as a homicidal maniac, or suffering from acute mania:
‘A deadly logic is one of the special characteristics of acute mania.’
It seems that this killer’s deadly logic is alphabetical. The next murder is Betty Barnard in Bexhill, and then Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston, both marked by a copy of the ABC guide. Each murder leaves a small circle of the bereaved, and several of them agree to join Poirot’s informal ‘legion’ to trap the killer. He is convinced that one of them will know – perhaps unconsciously – a clue which will help the police find the killer. And as usual, he has a bit of a twinkle in his eye:
‘Murder, I have often noticed, is a great matchmaker.’
Essentially, they have to wait for the next murder – with Doncaster nominated – before the case can move on.
For once, Christie didn’t beat me and I guessed the ending, but only because I half-remembered reading something about The ABC Murders on a holiday in Devon a few years ago. It’s a quick read, probably two sittings’ worth, and it’s interesting to see how Poirot copes in a different kind of investigation, and with a killer who seems to defy all the usual laws of human behaviour.
Final destination: A keeper