Poirot Meets His Match
When is a suicide not a suicide? – When it’s murder!
‘Observe, mon ami, if you please. I take the card and I place it so.’ His long-standing friend, Captain Hastings, looked on, mesmerised by the card trick. He had seen Poirot perform it three times in a row now but, somehow, he kept missing the sleight of hand that his brain told him was there. Then, with a flourish, Poirot seemed to make the pack of cards disappear and instead conjured a hen’s egg in its place.
‘By God, Poirot, that’s amazing! I don’t see how you could possibly do it! I mean, where do the cards go and how many eggs do you have in your pockets, or up your sleeve, or wherever they’re coming from?’
‘Ah Hastings, you must permit me not to divulge my secrets – yes? As a woman must have her secrets then so must I, else you will no longer be enchanted by this simple trick.’
Poirot held up his hand – the one not containing the egg – and, with a flick of his wrist, he revealed a fan of playing cards.
‘You see, Hastings, the cards never went anywhere, it was only your eyes that made the journey. But my eyes, they see everything. Eh bien! The great Hercule Poirot never misses a trick. I seize upon the clues that crooks and thieves leave behind and that Japp dismisses of no importance. But, voila! My mind is sharper than any criminal, for I see through their feints and their guises and I know how their crimes are carried out simply because I comprehend how their minds work.’
Hastings was still in awe of the magic trick. It had him baffled, but then he remembered that Chief Inspector Japp also enjoyed magical performances and that he, too, was completely bemused by this sort of thing.
Furthermore, Hastings was captivated by Poirot’s skill in analysing the psychology of killers and of making accurate deductions from even the smallest of clues. It was, he reflected, rather like being treated to a front row attendance at a first-rate show put on by the Magic Circle. He didn’t know what he loved the most – watching the magic being performed, failing to understand how it was being done, or clapping enthusiastically at the final reveal. In his eyes, Poirot was a master magician who made catching criminals no more difficult than presenting a parlour trick.
‘I don’t know how he does it,’ Hastings said to himself, ‘I really can’t see how his “little grey cells” have anything to do with a case – yet, somehow, he always manages to amaze me.’
Suddenly, Hastings had a curious thought. It was quite likely that Poirot had cultivated an idea that policemen were bumbling fools and idiots when compared to himself. And it seemed quite possible that this idea was seeded by the daily papers who, frequently and gleefully, proclaimed the police as incompetents, deploring not only their methods but their inability to apprehend criminals.
‘Great Scott!’ he reflected further. ‘What if the papers are conspiring together to form public opinion? They could get away with anything! They could censure anyone!’
A worried frown appeared on his generally unblemished forehead. He looked across at his friend who was busying himself at practicing another card trick. Had they been able to manipulate Poirot in the eyes of the public?
‘My God,’ he muttered, ‘I believe they have.’
Poirot looked up. ‘What is that, Hastings? Did you say something?’
‘No, nothing of any importance.’ Hastings agonised over telling the lie. He looked for a convenient excuse to cover his confusion, but couldn’t think of any, and was therefore relieved when Poirot’s attention shifted back to the cards. ‘He has no idea about any of this,’ he realised, and then, with a jolt, he reflected that he, Hastings, must be using the “little grey cells” that Poirot had so often urged him to use.
He played with that idea for a little while, bemused that he hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary to secure that claim. Then he grew serious again. Set against the derision aimed at the police, the title of “the great detective” was often bestowed upon Poirot in headline print, establishing his name firmly in the public’s imagination, and affirming his prestigious ability to secure scandalous arrests.
Was it possible, he wondered, that Poirot’s ego was puffed up by the papers’ frequent adulation of his detecting success? Were they responsible for playing upon his vanity? It was a disturbing thought and one that he didn’t like. Humility and self-deprecation, he reflected, were not in Poirot’s character, in fact (as far as the playing card analogy went) he might sometimes draw these qualities from the pack to play a cunning hand when it suited him, but invariably discard them at the earliest opportunity when he no longer needed to play the pretentious innocent!
‘I say, Poirot, have you read today’s papers?’
‘Mais oui. I observe that they have all agreed that I am an expert on catching even master criminals and that there is nobody my equal in the whole of the country.’
‘Well, they do say inflated things at times, I’ve found.’
‘But Hastings, you misunderstand, they are only reporting the truth, for I, Hercule Poirot, has yet to meet his match.’
Hastings knew that it would be pointless to argue when Poirot was in this mood. The issue of grandiose self-importance didn’t bother him at all but he was concerned that the papers could overstate matters and manipulate his friend so easily and subtly. He couldn’t see, though, how he could state this point of view without putting his foot in it and riling Poirot until he became insufferable. Best let sleeping dogs lie, he concluded.
Luckily, the news had other things to report. ‘Hastings, I bring to your attention this article in the paper about the rise in suicides. Have you seen it?’
‘Rather. Quite shocking I thought.’
‘You know, sometimes I think that some of these suicides may hide a deeper tragedy.’
‘You mean, the parents or relatives who are left behind to mourn their loss?’
‘No, no. It is murder to which I allude. What you think of as a suicide can so easily be treated as a murder if you know what to look for.’
‘I say, Poirot, don’t you think that’s going too far? I mean, I know you enjoy a good murder case, but surely it doesn’t happen like that in real life, else every death you came across would be a murder victim.’
‘Precisely, mon ami! That is how I see it. If I am called to a case then my eyes must register all the signs that tell me a murder has been committed. I must be vigilant, for I cannot let down my guard and allow a murderer to escape.’
‘I see,’ said Hastings, mindful that Poirot still carried an egg in one hand and a pack of cards in the other, and that he had a habit of demonstrating wildly with his hands whenever he got excited. That moment isn’t too far off, he thought. Best to get him distracted before the egg hits the wall. ‘Now why don’t you show me that trick one more time? I think I might be able to guess now how it’s done.’
That very afternoon Poirot’s secretary, Miss Lemon, knocked on the door and announced that a young lady who refused to give her name was waiting in the vestibule outside.
‘Show her in please, Miss Lemon,’ said Poirot.
Captain Hastings set aside the newspaper he was reading, whilst Poirot rose from behind his desk and came forward to greet his guest as she was ushered into the room.
‘Monsieur Poirot, is it?’ she said, proffering her hand and allowing him to hold it for a moment in solemn reverence, after which he then gave a courteous bow that concluded the expected formal etiquette.
‘Mademoiselle, is it not? Yes? Good. Please to take a seat. This is my companion and confidant, Captain Hastings. You may talk freely in front of him. And now, how can Poirot help?’
‘Oh, Monsieur Poirot.’ The young woman took a kerchief from her bag and dabbed at her eyes, even though they were not moist. ‘I’m afraid that I have terrible news.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Poirot encouraged, ‘what is it that brings you to me with such sad tidings?’
‘It’s my brother. He … he’s been found … been found dead.’
‘Ah, this is tragic news indeed. Allow me to extend my commiserations, Mademoiselle. But why have you come to me? Surely, this is now a case for the undertaker?’
Suddenly, she spoke in a rush of words, as if her grief could no longer be contained.
‘Alas, it was I who found him, not more than an hour ago. But I fear that he’s been murdered, even though it looks like suicide.’
Poirot’s eyes began to twinkle.
‘But this changes everything, does it not? A suicide.’ He looked pointedly at Hastings with a slight smirk and an inclined rise of an eyebrow. ‘But pray, tell me, why do you think he was murdered?’
‘Because I know my brother, Monsieur. To take his life is not a thing that he would do. He had plans for the future; there was so much that he wanted to achieve. But now this? No, I tell you! No! No! No!’
‘Please Mademoiselle, calm yourself. Poirot will accompany you at once. You found the body, not more than an hour ago, you say?’
‘That is correct. His body was cold to touch. He held a gun in his hand, but … but there was no suicide note to explain anything. I have not yet called the police. What could they do? What should I do? I was in a panic, and then I thought of you. Your name is in the papers. You solve cases like this. Oh, please help me, I beg of you.’
At which she burst into tears this time and Poirot administered a small glass of brandy.
It was only a short walk to the scene of the crime, but the young lady talked in such a rapid-fire, clearly nervous fashion that Hastings felt he had come to know her brother reasonably well by the time they arrived. Inside, Poirot tasked Hastings with interviewing the sister for more routine information whilst he examined the body.
She invited Hastings to sit down in a large comfortable armchair in a small drawing room, whilst she perched on the edge of an austere-looking upright-back chair.
‘I know you must ask questions,’ she led, ‘but I really don’t know what to tell you. Surely Monsieur Poirot will find all the evidence that he needs.’
For the first time in his life, Captain Hastings didn’t feel the need to provide consolation. Generally, he noted, it was perfectly natural for his gallantry to spring into action – but not today. And for some reason that he couldn’t fathom, he didn’t feel the slightest bit perturbed by this shift in his manner.
‘Well then,’ he started, ‘I guess I’d better ask you if you’ve noticed anything out of the ordinary in the last few days. I mean, did your brother appear upset or–’
‘I can assure you that there was nothing of that nature to suggest suicide. It … it’s preposterous. No, I cannot allow that possibility. I just cannot.’
That’s unfortunate, he thought. I seem to have got off to a bad start here. Clearly this line of questioning isn’t going to work. I’m lucky that she hasn’t stamped her feet. Now what would Poirot do to mollify her? Again, he reflected on his apparent lack of compassion and was surprised to find that there was nothing in him that wanted to be the good Samaritan right now. My word, he wondered, perhaps Poirot’s manner is rubbing off on me after all. Perhaps this is what it’s like to be a detective … putting aside one’s feelings and establishing only the facts!
And then, struck by an inspiration, he asked, ‘I say, did your brother have any lady friends?’
‘That I cannot tell you,’ she said. ‘He never intimated that he had. Is that important?’
‘Ah,’ Hastings said, feeling somewhat elated that here was a possible line of enquiry, ‘I’m not sure, but in any case, perhaps it would be a good idea to check his bedroom for clues.’
As she led the way there, he felt confidence surge inside him, as if he was about to make a significant find: an important breakthrough in the case that would have Poirot heap well-earned praises upon him. ‘Steady on,’ he suddenly thought, ‘it wouldn’t do to be big-headed over this. Let’s just get our first lead.’
As they stepped inside the brother’s bedroom, Hastings was struck by the immaculate orderliness of the room compared to his own.
‘Does your brother have a valet or a maid to do the cleaning?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘he engaged a maid a month or two ago, I believe. But you should know, Captain Hastings, that I don’t live here. I live nearby but visit only occasionally. It’s just by chance that I happened to call on him today.’
‘I see.’ Hastings found his attention drawn to the bedside table where a leather bound journal lay invitingly. ‘I say, may I?’ he asked the woman.
Ignoring his first impulse to start with the beginning pages, he opened it at random, noticing that it was a fairly recent purchase, not yet well used and having very few entries. He started reading and soon became engrossed. Pretty quickly he formed the picture that he was reading about a secret affair between the brother and his maid.
‘Oh no,’ muttered Hastings in what was less than a whisper, and then became aware that he held something damning in his hands that would be upsetting to the woman not three feet away from him if he showed it to her.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘I’m going downstairs to read this at leisure. Would you have some refreshments at hand?’
Having settled himself in a comfortable armchair, he turned again to the journal and began to read from the beginning. In little more than a quarter of an hour Hastings had established that in trying to break off the relationship by dismissing the girl the brother had been informed by her that she was pregnant by him and was seeking a financial arrangement. Violent action was cited if money was not forthcoming.
The sequence of events of the tragedy flashed across his mind. He sprang up, pocketed the journal and raced towards the study – the scene of the crime.
As he rushed through the door, Hastings saw Poirot on his knees by the dead body and blurted out, ‘It wasn’t suicide you know.’
Poirot turned in his direction and frowned.
‘Hastings, I would like not to be disturbed. Please keep your pronouncements to yourself until I have finished my investigation. Is that understood?’
Hastings was chastened. He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other before clearing his throat and saying, ‘Oh, right oh then, old chap.’ Took two steps back and watched as Poirot returned to his study of the body.
‘So,’ Poirot muttered to himself, ‘the angles line up perfectly. His body would fall in this direction if he had shoot himself from that angle.’ He looked at Hastings solemnly and declared, ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you, mon ami, but yes, this is a clear case of suicide.’
Hastings was crestfallen. Poirot’s pronouncements were usually spot on, but, surely, he was wrong in this instance. He bit his lip. He needed to confirm his suspicions beyond all doubt. He would do what Poirot was always telling him to do – he would use his “little grey cells” once more, provided he could find them again. And, so, the precious information would stay in his pocket for now, to be triumphantly produced at the right moment – just like in one of those magic shows. He was itching to make his own “final reveal”.
He had an address for the maid. Surely the best approach now was to confront her and listen to what she had to say. Should he call Japp and ask him to meet him there? No, best strike while the iron’s hot, he thought; besides, Hastings felt that he had a good grasp of the situation.
Nevertheless, it was with some trepidation that he rang the bell of the maid’s house. He had formed a mental picture of her – a fiery temperament, strong-willed and determined. Would he be able to force a confession from her? Would she be able to explain the circumstances in a favourable light to her advantage?
But the woman who answered the bell did not meet his expectations. It was evident that she had been crying: two wet streams had coursed down her cheeks and partly dried.
‘Oh sir,’ she said, ‘I suppose you’ve come to take the body.’
When Hastings had recovered his poise and explained that he hadn’t, then the woman delivered the news – her mistress was dead. No, not strangled or stabbed or poisoned, as one might read in the dailies. Nothing so sensational. Apparently, a straightforward suicide for there was a note explaining all. Did the gentleman know anything about the matter? Was he a friend of the mistress? No, she wasn’t sure it was a good idea for him to see the body until the police came. They had already been called for and there was nothing more to be done as far as she was concerned.
Hastings was aghast. Good Lord, he thought, they’re falling like ninepins. What if these would-be suicides were really the work of a murderous madman?
He knew that it was vital for him to at least see the note and, after much begging and urging and pointing out that this was connected to another death, Hastings found himself seated in a drawing room reading it. But it was not what he expected.
His eyes took in the first few sentences and then he realised what he was holding. This isn’t a suicide note, he muttered to himself, it’s a confession! He read on and became more excited. Her pretence as a maid was an act after all, an act to secure herself a husband – a husband with money. But as with many a well-laid plan the situation had got out of hand and the man had been shot.
‘This is it,’ he said aloud to the empty room, ‘the case is solved. Poirot will be pleased.’ And then he read through the document again to confirm that it said exactly what he thought he had read.
A half-hour later, after he had met with the police and explained the contents of the note, and how the suicide was connected to a murder, Hastings escorted a sergeant to the murder scene.
Poirot was more than a little surprised.
Later, back at Whitehaven Mansions, Poirot and Hastings celebrated with a glass of sherry.
‘So, you see, it was really an incitement to murder when she gave him a fast-acting poison in his agitated state of mind, and in an apparent fit of madness he shot himself. She would have got away with it but, alas, could not live with the pain she had caused him and inflicted on herself.’
‘Well done, mon ami, today is a big step forward for you. You have brought a special talent to this case – you have provided valuable inside information, no? – and in doing so you have shown Poirot that Hastings can teach him a new trick or two.’
‘I say, Poirot, that’s extremely generous of you.’
‘No, no, no.’ Poirot protested with his right hand. ‘When the greatest detective in the world is stumped by a case then it is only fitting that he should pass the praise to where it is due. I have underestimated you, Hastings, but from today you will see a chastened Poirot.’ And Poirot brought his heels together with a sharp click before offering Hastings a curt bow of his head.
Hastings thought that this was all well and good but he knew that Poirot was no more capable of honouring this earnest gesture than he was of riding a camel. If Hastings had learned anything from observing his friend’s behaviour over the past thirty years, then it was the predictability of knowing the swift turnaround of Poirot’s moods – friendly and heaping praise one moment but critical and snippy the next. There was only one thing that Hastings could do to maintain the peace and bask in his friend’s praise for as long as he could – he…would…keep...his…mouth…shut.
The theme music fades away, and a scene unfolds before you as you watch spellbound, ready to enjoy this latest episode on your TV screen. The year is indeterminate but the setting is familiar - we are in Poirot’s office at Whitehaven Mansions in London W1. Poirot has become a household name, whilst his friend, Captain Hastings, as faithful as ever, is spellbound at Poirot’s latest “reveal”.
Having read all the stories written by Agatha Christie in which Poirot and Captain Hastings feature and having seen a good many episodes of the UK TV series, I have an impression of how these two characters play off each other: I recognise their mannerisms, their vocabulary and how they interact. So, using this as a base, it is fun to play with their strengths and character flaws to create new dynamics for their relationship together.
For this story, I’ve settled on a parody of Poirot’s self-importance and his belittling of Captain Hastings. But what if Hastings himself employed Poirot’s psychology of character analysis? Hastings, we find, doesn’t play the game of one-upmanship and it’s just as well that he doesn’t! But the tables are turned, nonetheless, by allowing Hastings a prime role in this story. He gets to understand the significance of certain clues and, using his own initiative, relegates Poirot to the position of second string – but don’t tell Poirot that!
About the author
Santari is a self-published fantasy author who is currently writing his fourth book and engaged on a project to turn them all into audiobooks. He has a love for language and is working towards a BA(Hons) in English Language & Literature.