Golden Age of Detective Fiction Forum

November 23, 2008

Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies” – is it fair play?

Filed under: Agatha Christie,Fair Play — Jon @ 2:07 am

I’ve recently reread Christie’s “Lord Edgware Dies” (aka “Thirteen at Dinner”) and was again troubled by the question of whether one of the key moments of misdirection is fair.

Hastings has narrated a scene between Poirot and Jane Wilkinson which concludes as follows. [Jane Wilkinson is speaking.]

“‘I shall always think you were wonderful.’

“I only saw Jane Wilkinson twice again. Once on the stage, once when I sat opposite her at a luncheon party. I always think of her as I saw her then, absorbed heart and soul in clothes . . . ” etc.

The tone of this passage is brilliantly designed to be valedictory. By ending with a line of dialogue that sounds like an envoi, and then recounting how he only sat opposite her once at “a luncheon,” Hastings is giving the impression that Jane Wilkinson will vanish from our story. But of course she doesn’t — she’s the culprit.

Brilliant, yes — but fair? I can’t decide. As Hastings somewhat sheepishly declares at the novel’s end, he was “suddenly recalled to the Argentine” and thus never saw Jane Wilkinson at her trial. Hmm! And while it’s true that he literally “sat opposite her at a luncheon party,” this does not happen in some unspecified future but is instead a crucial moment in our story, as JW provides an essential clue in a line of dialogue which Hastings overhears — as does another character who JW then murders. (Of course, a sharp reader, arriving at this moment, might realize that this has to be the luncheon to which Hastings earlier referred, and conceivably question the valedictory tone of the rest of Hastings’ statement.)

Now if Hastings were Dr. Sheppard, doing his best to mislead, that would be one thing. But if ever there was a reliable (if dense) narrator, it is Hastings. Can we really credit him with the cleverness to fool us like this? Or are we to believe that he’s so dense that he doesn’t realize the effect of his words? No, that’s surely impossible, since he’s at any rate smart enough to write up Poirot’s cases so they read like mysteries, with the important facts concealed, etc. He would have to know what he was doing, in writing that dubious passage. In short, the problem is that Christie decides to endow Hastings with her own brilliance here, just for a moment. She lets him make an observation that exceeds his function as a narrator. It has no narrative weight whatsoever — it’s strictly personal, so to speak. Its only purpose is misdirection, something I can’t recall Hastings ever doing elsewhere.

So, fair or not? As I said, I’m honestly not sure. Has anyone else ever had doubts about Christie’s legerdemain here?

John

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