Bonfire Night: A Good Night for a Murder


It’s that time of the year - when the British celebrate a horrible bit of history (attempted terrorist attack, horrible execution of those involved) by having fun on cold nights setting off fireworks and building bonfires. It is Guy Fawkes night! We have a tradition on the blog of having special posts, and this year Hercule Poirot makes an obvious point about A Good Night for a Murder

the book: Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie

published 1927




[Excerpt from story]

'Penny for the guy, sir?' a small boy with a grimy face grinned ingratiatingly.

'Certainly not!' said chief inspector Japp. 'And, look here, my lad -' a short homily followed, the dismayed urchin beat a precipitate retreat, remarking briefly and succinctly to his youthful friends: 'Blimey, if it ain't a cop all togged up!'

The band took to its heels, chanting the incantation:

Remember, remember

The fifth of November

Gunpowder treason and plot,

We see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

The chief inspector's companion, a small, elderly man with an egg-shaped head and large, military-looking moustaches, was smiling to himself. 'Tres bien, Japp,' he observed, 'you preach the sermon very well! I congratulate you!'

‘Rank excuse for begging, that's what Guy Fawkes' day is!' said Japp.

'An interesting survival,' mused Hercule Poirot. 'The fireworks go up - crack crack - long after the man they commemorate and his deed are forgotten.' The Scotland Yard man agreed.

They had been dining together and were now taking a shortcut to Hercule Poirot's flat. As they walked along the sound of squibs was still heard periodically, an occasional shower of golden rain illuminated the sky.

'Good night for a murder,' remarked Japp with professional interest, 'nobody would hear a shot, for instance, on a night like this.'

'It has always seemed odd to me that more criminals do not take advantage of the fact,' said Hercule Poirot.

'Do you know, Poirot, I almost wish sometimes that you would commit a murder.'

'Mon cher!'

'Yes, I'd like to see just how you'd set about it.'

'My dear Japp, if I committed a murder you would not have the least chance of seeing how I set about it! You would not even be aware, probably, that a murder had been committed.'

Japp laughed good-humouredly and affectionately. 'cocky little devil, aren't you?' he said indulgently.




comments: If you look back at past posts for this date, you will see the same photos turning up a lot – because they are so very very good. And in this first one, back in 2012, the origins of Bonfire Night in 1605 are explained in the book extract.

In this story, the police interview a rather pompous MP about his movements on the night:

‘I went for a walk… watched some fireworks.’

‘Nice to think there aren’t any plots of that kind nowadays,’ said Japp cheerily.

Laverton-West gave him a fish-like stare.

WHY do people think Christie isn’t funny?

No surprises where the story above is going: yes, a dead body is found in a mews house the next day, and Poirot and Japp investigate. The story mentions the famous Sherlock Holmes quote about the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and the theory behind it features in several different ways in this long short story or short novella: one of them deals with clothes in a very neat way. Once you spot which way it is going you can see how Christie has created the various clues. It is nicely done, and about the right length – in later years she might have expanded the idea to a full-length novel, but this is fine the way it is.

A mews was originally the place where the hawks were kept, behind a rich family’s house, and servants would live there too. (It's where the hawks would 'mew', or moult, their feathers.)Then it was a kind of coach house for horses and servants, and by the time this book was written, cars and chauffeurs lived there. The point being that they were small rough and ready buildings very close to big smart houses in desirable areas. So also a mews might be ‘converted’ into a small central space for two young women to share, as in this case.

In Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom (written in 1965, but very much set in the 1920s) the girls live in a place known as The Heathen - a converted mews flat, so referred to because the conversion hasn’t been very successful. (There are several entries on the book, well worth a look for some excellent photos, though I say so myself.)

Looking back, I found this in an entry from three years ago, and am reproducing it as I enjoyed it so much – the post does also contain a picture of a firework cake:

As it happens I have just been looking at a cookbook first published in the 1950s, and was interested to see an idea for a Guy Fawkes cake. The cake is covered in chocolate icing then:

Using white icing, cover the top and sides of the cake with drawings of Catherine wheels, rockets and sparklers, using real fireworks as models. Add silver balls and other cake decorations to give the effect of colour and sparks.

I’m sure we all know what they mean, but I just love the idea that you might set off the fireworks in your kitchen in order to do a good job of reproducing them (you can imagine this scene in a certain kind of sitcom). In those days every household would have fireworks, ready for the big night, to copy – nowadays nearly everyone goes to an organized event for safety reasons. Today very few houses would have fireworks ready to hand for copying.

See also my entry on Celia Fremlin’s The Trouble-Makers – in what is quite a sinister book, one of the most shocking events to modern eyes is the children holding lit fireworks in the garden. That was 1963, so absolutely normal then.

The victim’s name is Barbara, and though obviously this is the cover of a different book altogether, the cover did give a feel for the poor woman.




The top photo, by Man Ray from 1927, comes via Kristine’s photostream, and I thought had a look of Barbara’s friend Jane sitting in her room in the mews. It shows Simone Breton (who was married to Andre Breton, but had a life of her own - playing ‘an important but long unrecognized role beside her husband’ according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

One of my all-time favourite pictures from the blog: the children ready to celebrate Bonfire Night – 1954 (but SO WHAT? How could I not use it?), from the National Library of Wales. I can just stare and stare at this picture, drinking in every detail, and I strongly recommend you do the same.

Comments

  1. I know just what you mean, Moira! Christie could be very funny. In a way, I've always thought this one had a sad explanation for the mystery, but I think it's clever. And it's one of those shorter stories that packs as much punch as some of Christie's longer ones do. What I find interesting, too, is that we feel Barbara Allen's presence very much, although she's the victim. Not in a ghoulish sense, but we get to know her. I think that's very effective.

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    1. Yes, you totally nail it there Margot. An interesting and unusual story, with some very real characters, and situations that could be at any time, a lot of the story would make sense in a contemporary setting.

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  2. Great minds, Moira - I was thinking of Murder in the Mews just five minutes before I saw your blog! Great photos. I can hear fireworks somewhere as I type this. When I think of the bonfire nights of my youth: we used to buy fireworks with our pocket money in the weeks leading up to it. And I think I remember storing them in a box under my bed! I must have been about 8 or 9.

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    1. Storing them in a box under your bed?? Oh golly, that sounds like the lead-up to an excellent story.

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    2. It does indeed! And I ought to add in fairness to my parents, that they were no different from other parents of the time and in no way neglectful. People allowed their children far more freedom than they do today. I think my brother may even have had a chemistry set!

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    3. My goodness but our perceptions have changed, we thought nothing of having fireworks about the place. I remember being at a party where the person setting off the fireworks had a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth...
      I did absolutely love the excitement of it when I was a child. Dads in the garden, mums doing the cooking - it was very stereotyped!

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    4. ABsolutely Chrissie - the parameters for child safety were quite different. And of course we were all in cars with no seatbelts, in rooms with people smoking heavily, doing actitivities that weren't properly supervised...

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  3. Celia Fremlin is definitely of my list of 'writers to try' as her name keeps cropping up again and again. The Hours Before Hours is the one that gets the most attention, but I've also made a note of The Trouble-Makers as something to check out.

    As for Christie, I think she can be very funny in a sly, slightly mischievous way. Murder in the Mews sounds great. I may well have read it is as a teenager but could quite happily do so again with little memory of the plot!

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    1. Jacqui, I think you would really like Celia Fremlin - it is hard to describe why she is so good, but I think you would totally get it.

      Yes - I always say the A* Christies mean you remember the twists so no surprises, but the slightly less good ones make for better re-reads in terms of plot.

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  4. Here in Canada we don't have Guy Fawkes, of course. But by coincidence, I watched Murder in the Mews the other night, having recently recorded it on my PVR, as PBS (in Buffalo, across the lake) is currently running the very old (and very stylish) David Suchet episodes.

    Agatha's sense of humour? Totally. Just go and read the Mah Jong-playing scene in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, interspersed with gossip and mansplaining. It's a an absolute delight.

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    1. Oh I must see if I can find that - if I've seen it at all, it must be 20 years ago or more.
      And oh yes, Mah Jong. Also, the reason why Miss Shepherd doesn't want a lamb cutlet....

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  5. WHY do people think Christie isn’t funny? What a good question. I have begun to appreciate the humor in the Poirot novels since we started watching the Poirot TV episodes. I recently read Dumb Witness (with a different title) and I loved all the dialogue between Poirot and Hastings. Hastings was appalled that Poirot was lying to so many people. So much fun!

    And Murder in the Mews was one of the first episodes in the TV series. I thought I had a copy of the book, but if so, it must be uncataloged and in a box somewhere.

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    1. Yes indeed Tracy, the dialogue is very good in Dumb Witness - which is the title I know! I guess you might have Murder in the Mews in a different title or collection? - there were about four stories in the book I have, because this one is a long short story. So might be in another short story collection? I don't remember seeing it on TV, I must look out for it.

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  6. Shocker, not a Christie I've ever heard of. I did pick up some Fremlin books a year or two ago. I wonder if that was one of them?

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    1. It's a funny length for Christie - too long for a story, too short for a novel - which may be while it is not so well-known. Definitely time you gave your Fremlins a go.

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