Death Takes the Stage by Agatha Christie (1942)
I'm starting off April with a book which, if not truly forgotten, had until now been as rare as it was legendary. Death Takes the Stage is one of the three initial offerings to be published by the newly-formed Puzzled Press in May.
In his introduction to that edition, Quincy Germaine recalls the strange history behind the book and how, shortly after the publication of the novel, Dame Agatha herself purchased all available copies of the book and refused to have the book reprinted. Speculations about Christie's reasons abound. Did she think it was inferior to her other work? (Surely not, The plotting and the characterization are superb and the solution itself was as logical and as ingenious as Christie had ever produced.) Did one or more of her characters come too close to their real-life counterparts, bringing a threat of libel? (Perhaps. There has been some discussion on whom Audrey Glynn and Sir Malcolm Bassett might have been based upon.) Had the author intended this book to be the swan song for her little Belgian detective? (Perhaps. We know Christie had tired of that "fussy little man" and at times said she was sorry she ever created him.) Could the book have somehow revealed the true story of the author's famous "disappearance" years before? (Very doubtful. I couldn't find anything to support tht in the ext.) The wildest speculation was that the book itself took a plot point from the story and somehow contained coded military secrets intended for the third Reich. (That explanation, certain to be popular among conspiracy theorists, is a bit too much, don't you think?) Whatever the reasons, Agatha Christie disavowed this fine novel; ther's not a single mention of it in her autobiography.
As to the book itself, it's a corker. Colonel Hastings is in town to celebrate Poirot's first anniversary, having served the year before as his friend's best man. Poirot's wife, the noted stage actress Angelina Wyndham-Gillis, is in the early stages of pregnancy and has announced her pending retirement. That night will be her final performance in the lead of Ariadne Oliver's long-running play. Before the performance, however, the play's director, Sir Malcolm Bassett is found dead at center stage, poisoned and laid out with a copy of a playbill from a play he had directed early in his career placed open across his face.
Suspects abound, including Poirot's wife. There's Sir Malcolm's effeminate assistant, Reggie Hamilton, who knew more about Sir Malcolm than is healthy. There's Audrey Glynn, Angelina's understudy and the one designated to take over her role. And Audrey's troubled fifteen-year-old son who has a history of deliquency and gang violence. We can't forget Hugo Drax, the millionaire backer of the play whose political views are suspect. The stage manager Jocko Harris has some hidden secrets in his past and was always nervous around the victim. There are also two shadowy men who have been seen lurking outside the theatre each night for the past two week's. finally, there's Thomas and Glynis McBride, the twins who own the McBride Theatrical Agency -- a pair whose ethics are questionable at the very least.
Sir Malcolm's death is only the first. Two more victims fall to the murderer, then Angelina is savagly aattacked. Poirot himself is caught in a bomb explosion and from his hospital bed must use those little gray cells before any more harm can come to his wife and to his future happiness.
I'm not really giving anything away when I say the key to the whole affair is an old nursery rhyme that is intergral to Whippoorwill, the play whose playbill covered the face of the first victim.
In all her later books, Christie never again mentioned Poirot's marriage, his wife, or her pregnancy. It was part of Poiirot's legacy she did not wish to revisit. For almost three-quarters of a century, this part of her detective's history has remained hidden. Now this sublimely well-written novel will be available to her legion of fans. It is certainly a reason to celebrate.
However, I doubt we will ever solve the mystery behind this mystery.