R. T. Raichev is best known for his crime novels and stories featuring mystery writer Antonia Darcy and her husband, Major Payne. There are nine highly acclaimed novels in the series and several short stories, most published in EQMM. The most recent story, “A Chronicle of Deaths Foretold,” appears in our current issue, May/June 2018. Library Journal has said of the series, “Mixes Henry James’s psychological insight with Agatha Christie’s whodunit plotting skills.” That reference to Agatha Christie is apt, for R. T. Raichev is not only a mystery author, he’s a scholar of the form; he wrote his university dissertation on British mystery fiction. An academic by day, he has posted scholarly articles on this site before (most recently a piece about the Sherlock Holmes stories). This time he talks about his two favorite Agatha Christie short stories. Please be aware, if you have not yet read these stories, that some of each story’s plot is revealed in the post.—Janet Hutchings
The short story is a sterner test of the detective writer than the full-grown novel. With ample space almost any practiced writer can pile complication on complication, just as any man could make a puzzling maze out of a ten-acre field. But to pack mystery, surprise and a solution into three or four thousand words is to achieve a feat.
In such glowing terms did an Observer reviewer write in 1924 of Poirot Investigates, Agatha Christie’s first published collection of short stories. A less enthusiastic opinion of Christie’s short fiction has been expressed by crime critic Robert Barnard in his study A Talent to Deceive. He points out—I paraphrase—that while the short format worked so brilliantly for Conan Doyle, the art of the novel somehow eluded him—with Agatha Christie the opposite was true: the full-length whodunit was her undisputed forte, a standard her short stories never quite managed to achieve. Barnard referred to them as “one-trick” stories.
The truth lies somewhere in between. There is no question of ignoring Agatha Christie’s short stories, which number 150. The majority are compulsively, addictively readable and they teem with original ideas—whatever weaknesses they may have, one only notices them after finishing reading.
As it happens, the gems among Christie’s contes are not whodunits but intricate tales of suspense. The most celebrated one of course is that masterpiece of double bluff and moral ambiguity “Witness for the Prosecution.” My own personal preference is for “Philomel Cottage” and “Accident,” which appear in the 1934 Christie collection The Listerdale Mystery. They show Agatha Christie not only at her cleverest but at her most unsettling.
“Philomel Cottage” was first published in Grand Magazine in 1923 and follows a path of sinister discovery as Alix, a young, recently married woman, slowly comes to the realization that her husband Gerald is planning to kill her. It all starts with a “twinge of anxiety” which “invades her perfect happiness.” (Robert Barnard, while praising “Philomel Cottage,” describes its style as somewhat “novelettish.”) Their gardener mentions the fact that she and Gerald are going to London on Wednesday—it was Gerald who told him—but Alix is not aware of any such plans having been made. Alix learns that their house—Philomel Cottage—cost £2000 and not £3000—it was Gerald who dealt with the transaction using Alix’s money. (Did Gerald—who had professed to be “violently in love with her”—keep £1000 for himself?) Alix then finds Gerald’s diary and she sees her name and a date penned in—the date is the Wednesday on which she is supposed to be going away. . . .
She manages to open a locked drawer in Gerald’s desk and finds old newspaper clippings concerning the trial and subsequent escape of a serial wife killer called Lemaitre (described as possessing “extraordinary powers over women”). In the photo accompanying the article Alix recognizes her husband. From this point on the story becomes a tense cat-and-mouse game between Alix and Gerald—a fight for survival, no less—which culminates in one of Agatha Christie’s most unusual shock endings.
Murder by suggestion is extremely difficult to bring off convincingly on the last page of a story, but Christie manages it superbly. It is a feat indeed, remarkable in its assured boldness, especially impressive given that in the 1920s she was still in the very early stages of her career. It rivals her other “outrageous” ploys—the Orient Express conspiracy, the unreliable first-person narration that covers Roger Ackroyd’s murder, and the ten people killed off according to the words of a macabre children’s poem. Incredibly, in the last mentioned, a novel written sixteen years after “Philomel,” Christie uses the idea again and even more startlingly. Though the circumstances couldn’t have been more different, what is Vera Claythorne’s suicide if not murder by suggestion? The careful staging of the suicide—the chair positioned under the noose hanging from a hook in the ceiling—later described in the killer’s confession as an “interesting psychological experiment”—will continue to send shivers down readers’ spines for generations to come.
It is worth noting that “Philomel Cottage” was written a couple of years after the trial in France of multiple murderer Landrou who used to prey on rich women. (Alix, we learn, has come into an inheritance.) Like Landrou, Lemaitre is a charming psychopath who is single-minded, ruthless, and deceitful. It is easy to imagine Agatha taking a vivid interest in Landrou’s trial and subsequent execution and storing away details for further use. In fictional terms, the origins of “Philomel Cottage” can be traced back to the gruesome French tale of Bluebeard. The forbidden chamber Bluebeard uses as storage for the bodies of the wives he has killed may be seen as paralleled by the forbidden desk drawer with its revelation of Gerald’s murderous true identity. On a more fanciful note, could the name “Gerald” have been inspired by that of the monstrous chevalier Gille de Rais, the real-life fifteenth-century serial killer who served as a model for Bluebeard?
The damsel-in-distress theme, central to “Philomel Cottage,” has always been a favorite with book readers, theatregoers, and film audiences. It is at the heart of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1859), Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight (1938), and Frederick Knott’s Dial M for Murder (1952). More recently and less successfully we find a modified version of it in Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, which also happens to be the title of an Agatha Christie short story. In all of these, outwardly charming, seemingly respectable men manipulate and try to dispose of their wives.
“Accident” was originally published in 1929 in The Sunday Dispatch, under the title “The Uncrossed Path.” Its riveting opening lines are clearly designed to make the reader want to read on. “. . . I tell you this—it’s the same woman—not a doubt of it!” The woman in question has already committed two murders and managed to make them look like accidents. The speaker, a retired police inspector called Evans, is presented as overzealous, overconfident, and complacent, not a particularly sympathetic character. Evans has always believed that the Madonna-like Mrs. Anthony—Mrs. Merrowdene, as she has become—was guilty. As fate would have it, their paths have crossed in the little village where she now lives, married en secondes noces, to a mild-mannered ex–chemistry professor who works with poisons. After learning that she has persuaded her husband to take a life insurance, Evans becomes convinced that she is planning a third murder. . . .
Christie, the arch manipulator, makes us examine the situation from Evans’s point of view—but it is the wrong point of view. All along Evans has been looking at the situation the wrong way up—which, ironically, he realizes too late. This is the tale of a hunt that goes spectacularly wrong. As in “Philomel Cottage,” Agatha Christie manages to whip up tremendous tension that culminates in a confrontation between hunter and hunted—and then end it with a completely unpredictable, though entirely logical, death on the last page—a death that looks like an accident.*
Alfred Hitchcock had a penchant for charming psychopaths (vide Uncle Charlie in A Shadow of a Doubt, Bruno in Strangers on a Train, Bob Rusk in Frenzy), so it is a pity he never turned his attention to “Philomel Cottage.” We learn from Janet Morgan’s biography of Agatha Christie that Hitchcock considered adapting “Accident” as an episode for his famous Hour. It is not known why he didn’t do it as it has some of the ingredients he favored—a femme fatale accused of murder—ambiguities over her guilt—a love motive—and a hunt. Hitchcock clearly liked the story well enough as he included “Accident” in one of his earliest anthologies of Suspense Stories (1947), reprinted in 1963 as Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Baker’s Dozen of Suspense Stories.
Even though “Philomel Cottage” failed to become a Hitchcock film, it has the distinction of being one of the most frequently adapted twentieth-century short stories—as a play (twice), for TV (three times), as a film (twice, as Love from a Stranger), and for radio (five times).
“Accident,” on the other hand, was transformed into a one-act play by Margery Vosper in 1939, under the title Tea for Three. Margery Vosper was the sister of Frank Vosper who was the man who adapted Philomel Cottage as a play.**
Talk about paths crossing.
* “Accident” is one of four Agatha Christie stories in which the killer is allowed to get away with it. Either because she felt sympathy for a woman who’s had to fight for her love—or else because it made such a damned effective ending.
** There also exists a never-performed adaptation of “Philomel Cottage” written by Christie herself.
Thank you for the thoughtful piece. Read it twice
Glad you like it. One thing I should have mentioned is how wonderfully unpredictable both stories are — the endings are anyting but what the reader might have imagined. Agatha Christie’s mind has been a source of perennial fascination to me.
Excellent, interesting piece. Many thanks. I read Philomel Cottage recently at became my favorite Christie short.
That should be “and it became” my favorite Christie short. Sorry.
Thank you for this great essay. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the story until reading this and have now found sweet relief in understanding.