Having watched many of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot adaptations of these mysteries, sometimes it’s hard to tell if I’m figuring out the ending or just remembering it from the TV show. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Peril at End House. That didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this Poirot mystery, of course. With the weather finally verging on warm, I was yearning to curl up on my deck with a blanket and some tea and read a classic Christie mystery. This isn’t really her most clever or even most emotionally satisfying, yet it has its high points.
Hercule Poirot, master detective, has retired. For good. Or so he says. He and his longtime friend, Captain Hastings, have gone on vacation to one of those quaint seaside towns that seem to exist everywhere in this period of the British Empire. In a case of “be careful what you wish for,” Poirot and Hastings stumble into a murder-yet-to-be-committed. Poirot vows to prevent the murder of Nick Buckly, the young mistress of End House. The trouble is, no one seems to have a compelling motive. Who wants to kill Miss Buckly, and why do they keep failing?
Christie brings an interesting twist to this story in that, for the majority of the novel, there is no murder and no body (no spoilers about who does get murdered). Poirot is legitimately vexed for a portion of the story, because this is a puzzle that doesn’t make any sense to his little grey cells. It’s that nonsensical nature that actually forces him to confront the one possibility that didn’t seem at all possible.
However, the mystery itself is not the best part of this book. Owing to the way Christie actually develops the plot, none of the suspects ever feel that fleshed out. No, Peril at End House is more interesting for the dynamic between Poirot and Hastings. You can read Christie mysteries just for the mystery (there is nothing wrong with that), but if you think that’s the only thing happening in this books, you’d be dead wrong (pun intended). Christie is deeply interested in developing a consistent morality for Hercule Poirot, and this book has some of the most telling moments. Set chronologically as it is towards the end of Poirot’s career, there is interesting foreshadowing of Curtain and Poirot’s agony over the way that some murderers can get away with their crimes.
Hastings is an admirable foil in this respect. Brought up in that stereotypical old boys’ school mode of British education, Hastings believes in surface impressions and some ineffable sense of justice and fair play. As he puts it to Poirot at one point: “but, Poirot, that’s not playing the game!” Hastings’ world is the world of the British Empire before the wars, before the 20th century’s spectres of globalization and nationalism threatened its coherency and supremacy. Poirot, on the other hand, has a more sceptical view. For Poirot, justice is something that has to be enacted by mortal agents—and it should be as methodological as possible.
I’d be very curious to hear Poirot’s takes on AI-run systems of justice….
The setting of End House is intentionally tired, dilapidated, the liminal space between the energy of youth and the decline of senescence. Nick comments that the house itself is run down. Indeed, Christie’s country houses always seem to have a patina of dust over everything: families with their glory days behind them, debt and bankruptcy nipping at the heels, servants reduced in number and quality. Against this backdrop, Poirot investigates what he believes to be an extremely clever and determine opponent.
Whether or not you determine the culprit before Poirot reveals them, it’s still possible to admire the inevitable drawing room scene reveal. As usual, there is every amount of theatre and duplicity, especially on Poirot’s part. Christie manipulates the atmosphere expertly. It’s not her best work—it lacks the urgency and depth of many of her mysteries—but it is quite revealing, quite an interesting character study of my favourite detective of all time.