Dress Down Sunday: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie



published 1959

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES

cat among the pigeons


Can I speak to you, Miss Bulstrode?’

Miss Bulstrode laid her pen aside and looked up into the flushed face of the matron, Miss Johnson.

‘Yes, Miss Johnson.’

‘It’s that girl Shaista—the Egyptian girl or whatever she is.’

‘Yes?’

‘It’s her—er—underclothing.’

Miss Bulstrode’s eyebrows rose in patient surprise.

‘Her—well—her bust bodice.’

‘What is wrong with her brassière?’

‘Well—it isn’t an ordinary kind—I mean it doesn’t hold her in, exactly. It—er—well it pushes her up—really quite unnecessarily.’

Miss Bulstrode bit her lip to keep back a smile, as so often when in colloquy with Miss Johnson. ‘Perhaps I’d better come and look at it,’ she said gravely.

A kind of inquest was then held with the offending contraption held up to display by Miss Johnson, whilst Shaista looked on with lively interest.

‘It’s this sort of wire and—er—boning arrangement,’ said Miss Johnson with disapprobation.

Shaista burst into animated explanation. ‘But you see my breasts they are not very big—not nearly big enough. I do not look enough like a woman. And it is very important for a girl—to show she is a woman and not a boy.’

‘Plenty of time for that. You’re only fifteen,’ said Miss Johnson.

‘Fifteen—that is a woman! And I look like a woman, do I not?’

commentary: Ah, Meadowbank School. When considering what fictional school I would most like to attend, this would be up there in the top 5 along with Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and the revered Castle Monastery School in this obscure book. The staff – with the exception, naturally, of Mademoiselle, all fictional Mademoiselles are dreadful - are rather wonderful, there is a beautiful new Games Pavilion, and the girls all seem to have their own bedrooms rather than sleeping in dormitories. The fact that there’s a dead body in the Pav is a small matter in comparison.

Cat Among the Pigeons bridged my teenage reading between the school stories I loved and the crime novels I came to love, and it’s one of my favourite Christies still after all these years. The details of school life are convincing (apparently based on Benenden, where Christie’s daughter Rosalind was a pupil) and very funny, and the plot is exotic and highly enjoyable.

This is what I said about it in my blog schools list:
A select all-girl boarding school. The games mistress is murdered, the foreign princess is abducted, the gardener is an impostor. That’s what I call a proper school. Also, contains one of my all-time favourite Christie lines, after schoolgirl Julia tells Poirot that her Aunt serves up ‘peculiar’ food, but ‘makes smashing omelettes.’
“Hercule Poirot has not lived in vain,” he said. ‘It was I who taught your Aunt Maureen to make an omelette.”
(To get the full effect you have to have read Mrs McGinty's Dead, where Aunt Maureen's cooking is a feature.)

There is an excellent section where the plot is advanced and the reader entertained by a selection of letters home from students and staff. And the final unveiling of the culprit (well, one of them) comes with one of those splendid moments of identification:
‘Mrs Upjohn will you look round this room and tell me if you see that person here now?’
‘Yes of course,; said Mrs Upjohn. ‘that’s her.’ She stretched out a pointing finger…
In case you were wondering about the outcome of the discussion above – Miss Bulstrode compares Shaista to another girl who ‘could quite well wear a liberty bodice still’. She says ‘I like my girls to use make-up discreetly and to wear clothes suitable to their stage of growth’ and then suggests a compromise, that Shaista ‘should wear your brassière when you are dressed for a party or for going to London, but not every day here. We do a good deal of sports and games here and for that your body needs to be free to move easily.’ Miss Bulstrode was very go-ahead and decisive: no wonder she was so successful.

The book has a final scene which is remarkable and touching, and features a character who has not appeared at all in the rest of the book, but who lives in the memory.






















Comments

  1. The book has a final scene which is remarkable and touching......off to get my copy immediately! Not really.

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    1. You have a heart of stone, mate, a heart of stone....

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  2. What a treat to see you've featured this one, Moira! There are so many well-drawn characters in it, I think. I've always really liked Honoria Bulstrode quite a lot. And Julia Upjohn is a great character, too. Christie did a really effective job of creating a realistic adolescent character with her. There are a lot of other things I like about this one, and that particular scene with the bra is terrific. I'm glad you featured it.

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    1. Thank you Margot - we are in total agreement on this one. It is full of great characters and situations and conversations, a real winner. I think it's one I'd recommend to someone who hadn't read Christie before.

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  3. Moira, I was amused by the excerpt you reproduced. I had no idea Christie wrote this (which, in fact, is quite funny) not having read all her novels yet.

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    1. I do think it is one of her best Prashant - funny, and clever, and tense.

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  4. Christie was a much funnier writer than those who have never read her would ever guess. The quote is lovely, spare, comic writing. As I remember, Poirot turns up very late in the novel and sorts everything out, basically serving as a deux ex machina. I wonder whether Christie would have been happier writing this as a stand-alone novel, but decided to keep her publisher happy by bringing in the great detective at the very last minute?

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    1. She wrote largely in dialogue, and wrote as people speak.

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    2. ggary, that's a good point, eminently possible. It could easily have been a standalone.

      Lucy, yes exactly, in fact her dialogue doesn't look like normal novel dialogue often - but when you say it in your head it is truly convincing. Which most booktalk isn't.

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  5. So funny, yes, and Miss Bulstrode really is a terrific headmistress, isn't she? (There is also an excellent headmistress in the first chapter of Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding). And I agree about the end of Cat Among the Pigeons.

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    1. Such a good one. And headteachers is almost a topic of its own, as well as schools-in-books. They would make a good list...

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  6. Daniel Milford-Cottam8 February 2016 at 12:42

    Let's not forget the lovely exception of the Mademoiselle in The Enchanted Castle when saying all Mademoiselles are horrible! ;)

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    1. Absolutely Daniel, fair point. She was a very different kind of Mademoiselle, with all the hair...

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  7. Oh, one of my absolute favourites. She totally plays with us. I think I'd prefer this school to Miss Pym's school, though there still seems too much time spent on games in gym slips.

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    1. In real life I would have hated them all, and am extremely glad not to have gone to boarding-school - but that never stops me (over many many years) having a good think about which one I would like.

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    2. ... and yes, exactly, plays with us...

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  8. Great job, Moira! I have always loved this one, despite its improbable spy plot (not Christie's strong suit ever! How could she love doing them so much?) The most wonderful mystery out of all of them is: who will become the next schoolmistress? And of course, you think that this is the "domestic" aspect of the book, and it ends up becoming a central part of at least one of the criminal storylines. I love so many scenes here: the woman on the balcony, the tennis game between Julia and Jennifer, the various flirtations Adam must endure, and the climax, with little Mrs. Upjohn journeying resolutely from Anatolia to protect her baby (and nobody needs protection LESS than Julia Upjohn!) Lots and lots of fun!

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    1. Perfect rundown of the great scenes in this one, Brad - I've not long read it and you make me want to pick it up again.

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  9. I was just today reading about the Wonderbra, in The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures. I had no idea it did so much. I had heard of it of course but just thought the name was designed to sell the product. This one was really loaded with push up power and padding. Based on the diagrams of an early model, I actually bought a similar type bra in my late teens designed to enhance but not use padding or push up.

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    1. I don't think I knew that, either. It would always be a moneymaker, to change women's shapes to what is seen as more desirable...

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