I’m back today to review my November choice for Penguin’s Read The Year Challenge. I was feeling really bad that I missed October’s deadline by a day so I wanted to crack on with November’s right away. The focus for this month is: Pick up a book about the country you live in. Agatha Christie is such a prolific English writer and yet, shamefully, I’ve never read anything by her. However, this changed when I read this book. Set in and around London in 1947, this book fits the brief perfectly. The bonus was I absolutely flew through it because I was completely hooked. I just had to find out what happened!
What’s it all about?
The novel opens towards the latter stages of the Second World War with character Charles Hayward in Cairo. He meets and falls in love with Sophia Leonides. She’s a small and very successful English woman who works in the Foreign Office. Despite being madly in love, they decide to leave their engagement until after the war, when they can be reunited in England.
“It is always a shock to meet again someone whom you have not seen for a long time but who has been very much present in your mind during that period.”
Once home, Charles sees a death notice in The Times. Sophia’s grandfather, Aristide Leonides, the wealthy business entrepreneur, has died ages 85. As a consequence of the war, the whole family have been living with Aristide in their mansion “Three Gables”, the ‘crooked house’ of which the novel is entitled. Following the autopsy, it is revealed that Leonides was poisoned with his own eserine based eye medicine, via an insulin injection. Sophia tells Charles that she cannot possibly marry him in these circumstances. The culprit has to be found first.
The most obvious suspects from the start are Brenda Leonides, Aristide’s vastly younger wife and Laurence Brown, the private tutor of Sophia’s younger siblings, Eustace and Josephine. The rumour: the illicit love affair conducted right under Aristide’s nose. What’s even more interesting is that the family are desperate for it to be Brenda as they openly despise her. The age gap causes suspicion amongst them, seeing the marriage as an opportunity for her to be rich, rather than one for love.
“I think people more often kill those they love, than those they hate. Possibly because only the people you love can really make life unendurable to you.”
Charles decides to help his father who is an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, to investigate the murder and hopefully get to the bottom of it. By becoming a guest of the house, he hopes that someone will reveal a clue or let something slip, enabling him to progress in his deductions.
As the novel progresses it becomes clear that each member of the family has a motive and opportunity to kill him. They are all well aware of the eye medicine and how poisonous it was. Aristide was open with them all following questioning from Josephine.
Following the discussion of his will, it is apparent that they all stand to gain a healthy bequest from the estate. Only the servants do not as their wages have been annually increasing. Therefore, this removes them as suspects.
“What are murderers like? Some of them, have been thoroughly nice chaps.”
The family members also have very little in common with one another. Edith de Haviland, his unmarried sister in law, is a rude woman in her 70s who lives with them to supervise the upbringing of the children. The eldest son, Roger, is Aristide’s favourite despite being a complete failure at business. His catering business is balancing precariously on a knife edge. His wife, Clemency, is a scientist with unsentimental tastes. She’s never been able to enjoy the wealth of the family. Roger’s younger brother Philip, has suffered because of being in his brothers shadow. As a consequence, he removed himself to a world of books and historical facts and figures, spending his time in the library. Philip’s wife Magda is a semi successful actress who views every day life as if being on stage. Naturally, she always wants the leading role.
Eustace, 16, has polio. Handsome and intelligent, he is bitter and cynical as a result of his illness. His 12 year old sister, Josephine, is ugly, intelligence and obsessed with detective stories. Taking this as her inspiration, she spies on the rest of her family, listening at doors, making notes in her little black notebook.
What characters don’t quite realise at the start is that Aristide has secretly rewritten his will to leave everything to Sophia. It was his belief that she was the only one who had the strength of character to take his place as the head of the house. When the family are told this information, it is a complete surprise.
Throughout the investigation, Josephine has been mocking the police for their stupidity. She brags that she knows who the killer is. Soon after, she is found lying unconscious in the yard, after a blow to the head from a marble doorstop.
“Child’s evidence is always the best evidence there is. I’d rely on it every time. No good in court, of course. Children can’t stand being asked direct questions. They mumble or else look idiotic and say they don’t know. They’re at their best when they’re showing off.”
When Charles finds letters from Brenda to Laurence, sharing their love for one another, it seems that it fits with the death of Aristide. Therefore, they are arrested. However, whilst they were both in custody, the children’s Nanny dies after drinking a hot chocolate, laced with digitalis (heart medicine). Apparently, this was for Josephine and once again the family are twitchy as the murderer is still lurking around them.
Fearing for Josephine’s life, Charles (in vain) to get her to tell him the murderer’s name. Edith de Haviland invites Josephine to have an adventure with her to get ice cream sodas. However, the car drives over a cliff and both are sadly killed.
Back at Three Gables, Charles finds two letters from Edith. Upon inspection, one is a suicide note for Chief Inspector Taverner, where by she takes full responsibility for the murder of both Aristide and Nanny. In the second letter, which is only for Sophia and Charles, Edith reveals the full truth of the matter. The murderer was in fact Josephine. As proof and evidence, Edith attaches her black notebook which discloses “Today I killed grandfather.”
The novel closes with the reasoning why Josephine kills her grandfather and the Nanny. Her grandfather refuses to pay for her ballet lessons. The attention she received following the murder she relishes so this convinced her into another murder. She planned her own with the marble door stop as a means of diverting the attention away from her. We learn that she poisoned Nanny for encouraging Magda to send her away to Switzerland. Josephine also disliked being called a “silly little girl”.
Edith found her notebook inside a dog kennel and felt compelled to protect the child. She devised the suicide/murder car crash as she did not want the child to suffer in prison or an asylum which is where she would have ended up when the police learned the truth.
The novel closes neatly with the engagement between Charles and Sophia confirmed.
“Because this is just what a nightmare is. Walking about among people you know, looking in their faces- and suddenly the faces change- and it’s not someone you know any longer- it’s a stranger- a cruel stranger.”
I really enjoyed this pocket rocket of a book. I didn’t know what to expect really. I just knew Christie is such a prolific writer. I was not disappointed and I was hanging on till the very end. I hope you all had a fabulous November and enjoy the weekend ahead.
Big love xxx