PART-II: IT ENDS AT STYLES:

Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case

Main characters:

Hercule Poirot (the famous Belgian detective and former officer of the Belgian Police Force), Captain Arthur Hastings (Poirot’s old friend and narrator of the story)

The Styles occupants:

(Styles Court has now been turned into a guest house)

Colonel George Luttrell and Mrs. Luttrell: (Owners of the guest house, a duo of a henpecked husband and wife with a tongue like vinegar)

The Guests:

Judith Hastings: Youngest daughter of Captain Hastings, assistant to Dr. Franklin

Dr. John Franklin (a researcher in tropical diseases) & Barbara Franklin (his invalid wife)

Sir William Boyd Carrington (a retired government officer recently come into baronetcy)

Major Allerton (a smooth-talking lady-killer, liked by all women and disliked by all men of the household)

Stephen Norton (a bird watcher, quiet and someone one is apt not to notice)

Elizabeth Cole (a quiet person with a past)

Nurse Edith Craven (Mrs. Franklin’s nurse)

Curtiss (Poirot’s new valet, while his old valet George has to go on leave)

Synopsis:

Captain Arthur Hastings is once again on a train to Styles St. Mary. This time it is not for recuperation. This time his friend Hercule Poirot has requested him to come there.

As it happens Hercule Poirot is currently staying in Styles, which has been sold by its old owners and now turned into a guest house. Hercule Poirot is now a cripple, suffering from arthritis and heart disease and bound to a wheelchair. Only his little grey cells function as usual.

As for Captain Hastings he is now a widower with four children. His youngest daughter Judith is also staying at Styles along with her employer. A good many years have elapsed since Hastings’s first visit to Styles. This gives rise to a wave of memories and emotions as Captain Hastings travels, arrives at this house and when he later meets his friend Poirot.

But this is not just any visit taken to refresh their past at this old age by Poirot. Poirot has another very definite and vital purpose in mind. That is to catch a murderer and prevent a murder (if possible).

Poirot discusses with Hastings about some deaths or killings that have happened in the past in different places. In all of them the suspects have either been punished, are dead or acquitted due to insufficient evidence. He provides Hastings with all the necessary newspaper cuttings and his own summary of these events. According to Poirot’s conclusions there is more to these murders and there has been one common element in all of them. This element is a person who was either present at the place of the murders or acquainted/ connected with the people involved, in some way, and who is as of now a member of the Styles household (once again). This person he labels as “X”.

And while Poirot confides everything to Hastings, even the fact of the knowing the identity of the culprit, i.e. the aforementioned “X”, he does not reveal that identity. Because as Poirot tells Hastings “..you are still the same old Hastings. You have still the speaking countenance”. This of course Hastings does not believe to be true, so now he is at making his wild surmises and ideas again.

However, for Captain Hastings some troubles lie in the investigations this time as his daughter is around. An intelligent and beautiful girl of whom he plainly accepts to be a little scared of. As a father he wants to be more a part of her life and worries for her, but feels at a loss with his wife no more there to help him.

To complicate matters further are a love triangle, a disreputable lady-killer, a person with a dark past and the husband-wife duo who runs the guest house (or rather it’s the wife running everything, the guest house as well as her husband).

This is the perfect layout- both for displaying the various facets of human psychology and emotions as you can find in any Agatha Christie book and for the other thing one definitely finds in them. A death.

And when this death takes place, Poirot is all the more resolved to stop this secret culprit from committing more such crimes.

And this time he has to adopt some drastic measures to stop the criminal. The method is not only something he has never tried before it is also something that goes against his principles. It is a tough choice for him as Poirot himself values and has a high respect for human life. What that method is and what its effects are for you to be found out.

Remarks & Recommendations:

As light as my descriptions may sometime sound, this novel does not by any means have many of those humorous or lighter moments and dialogues which one finds in the Poirot stories. It is actually quite on the emotionally heavier side and it is sad. Sad because of the way the lives of various characters are described, sad because of some psychological effects one may feel at times. Mostly sad because the delightful and not so modest Belgian detective dies in the end.

Despite this there are many reasons for recommending this book. The most vital being that this is the last of Poirot novel (in case you are a fan too). The other reasons- well lets’ see if I can explain them below.

THE BOOK:

“In my recollection of it, it presents itself to me as a series of conversations – of suggestive words and phrases that etched themselves into my consciousness.”

That sentence by Hastings is actually true. You won’t find many clues or red herrings that are usually part of a murder mystery. This one’s actually has got a lot to do with people, their relations, the emotions and the conversations or dialogues that go with it. But even sans the clues it is still a very interesting read. So let’s begin with the main elements:

Memories and Changes:

Déjà vu is a feeling of having experienced something before. That’s exactly what Hastings goes through as he is travelling to Styles for one last time (though unbeknownst to him).

“Who is there who has not felt a sudden startled pang at reliving an old experience or feeling an old emotion? I have done this before.” He puts this question to himself as memories come flooding down on his second train journey to Styles. This time he is an old man, a widower with four children and still deeply grieving for his wife. As contrasted back then he was a thirty-year-old young man but thinking that his life was over after the war:

“Wounded in that war that for me would always be the war…. ”…. “I had been journeying, though I did not know it, to meet the man whose influence over me was to shape and mould my life.”

Along with the old memories comes the realisation of the changes that have taken place in his life, life of his old friends at Styles and the surroundings in general: “John Cavendish was dead……Lawrence was living with his wife and children in South Africa. Changes-changes everywhere.”

Changes, whether it be people or places or behaviours or quality of products even, has always formed an important element of Ms. Christies stories. These observations are often expressed through her characters.

One such change in the story of Styles is its conversion to a guest house.

Styles- Old and New:

The old Styles Court belonging to the Cavendish family had been subsequently sold and the current owners converted it into a guest house. The guest house is bought by a retired Colonel George Luttrell and he and the guest house are run by his wife. Poirot tells Hastings that it is his wife who makes this undertaking pay:

“She is a good manager, that one, but the tongue like vinegar, and the poor Colonel, he suffers much from it.”

The Colonel is often left embarrassed in front of the others due to his wife’s nagging and once he observes to Hastings: “….settling down- coming home- nothing’s ever quite what you picture it-no- no.”

This takes us to the other guests at Styles.

The Guests/ Inmates:

The guests or inmates as they are called in the book are a varied lot. Though not explicitly mentioned it appears that the conversion of Styles to a guest house is comparatively recent and these are the first batch staying. As such, most of them are somehow or the other known to or connected with each other.

The ensemble of guests

Among the guests are Hastings’s daughter Judith- his youngest. Her employer Dr. John Franklin and his invalid wife Barbara. Judith is described by Hastings as:

“A queer, dark, secretive child, with a passion for keeping her own counsel……..undemonstrative by nature…..often scornful and impatient of what she called my sentimental and outworn ideas”.

The terms like unsentimental, unsympathetic or highbrow are often found to be used to describe youngsters in Ms. Christie’s book.

Her employer is a doctor researching in tropical disease and his wife prone to one ailment or other (including making a fuss about it). She in turn is known to Sir W. B. Carrington since her childhood and though a lot younger to him he still appears to have feelings for her. Then there is a Major Allerton, disliked by all men and attractive to all women (inexplicably for Hastings) of the house party. Elizabeth Cole and Stephen Norton have also been acquainted. While Miss Cole is a quiet person, Stephen Norton is someone who Hastings describes as inconspicuous.

The above thus form the total and one of them is the secret murderer- “X”.

The Friends:

The relations between different sets of people always form a vital part of any Agatha Christie stories and this one’s no different. For me, however, the highlight of Curtain is the depiction of the friendship of its central characters- Poirot and Hastings. Their deep concern and care towards each other has been brought out here clearly and this continues right up from beginning to the end. At the same time, it is endearing to read the way these two friends are dedicated to each other and we enjoy their little fights (though most of the time it is Poirot who gets flared up in emotions).

Hastings is distraught to find his friend crippled by arthritis:

“Nothing is so sad, in my opinion, as the devastation brought by old age.”

And every time he realises that the end is near for Poirot his fear is evident. One is able to empathize with Captain Hastings’s dread of losing his friend and having a life without him. Once he says: “I went downstairs sad at heart. I could hardly imagine life without Poirot…”

Or when Dr. Franklin tells him that there won’t be any miraculous recoveries in Poirot’s case Hastings says: “Again that cold hand closed around my heart.” 

The same goes with Poirot. Despite his slight bantering of his friend during conversations he is very attached to Hastings. For instance, he tells Hastings:

“The trouble with you is that you are mentally lazy”, or while remembering the first outing: “…..,and as far as I remember, you proceeded to complicate matters by falling in love with two women at the same time.”

However, Poirot always in a way likes the trusting nature of Hastings: “You, my good, my honest, my oh-so-honourable Hastings- so kindly, so conscientious- so innocent.”

One feels a sadness in the description like: Cher ami!(Dear Friend), Poirot had said to me as I left the room. They were the last words I was ever to hear him say.”

Cher Ami

And much more so after Poirot has passed away, when Hastings remarks:

“I don’t want to write about it all”….Hercule Poirot was dead- and with him died a good part of Arthur Hastings.”

And finally, Poirot’s own words in his last letter to Hastings:

“We shall not hunt together again, my friend. Our first hunt was here- and our last….

They were good days……Yes, they have been good days.”

THE PLOT:

To write something worthwhile about this books’ story has to be done on the risk of a few spoilers. Therefore, in case you do not want to read the book you can take a little time for this discussion. In case you want to read the book but do not mind a few spoilers you are most welcome. You just may find your interest rising.

The whole plot and premise of the story might seem a little incredulous at first instance. It did so to me when I first read it way back. But the incredulity goes down a little at the second instance and if you try to see it in the light of few current incidences it does not seem improbable altogether.

The main premise on which the story of Curtain rests is the invisibility of the real murderer. The person has been attributed an insignificant and innocuous personality. It helps the killer to enjoy a certain hold over others. This hold is practised mostly through conversations, dialogues with the victims and in a way that no one realises it. The sadistic attitude, enjoying other’s pain, playing with their inner sentiments, and taking pleasure in their power over others, all these might sound to some too fantastic to be true. But try and juxtapose it with some current happenings and it won’t sound too far-fetched.

The incidences I am talking about are those linked to the Blue Whale Challenge. Though the effects, the actual happenings/ incidents and their links to Blue Whale Challenge have not been officially accepted, but cases were reported in newspapers and it was alleged that some people had actually built such an online game. It was reported that people, especially children of a certain age fell to it. Now what kind of people can build a game calling on to hurt or kill oneself? And what kind of people fall prey to such an influence?

Of course, one will find many dissimilarities between the book’s story and this latest game, but a little corollary can be drawn. All I want to say is that the idea presented long back in this book does not seem too far-fetched.

IT’S JUST A BEGINNING: 

Once Hastings remembers Poirot’s words: “You may prefer to say: ‘Ring down the curtain’….”

Though the Curtain dropped in this final Poirot novel, we are not going to do that so soon.

On the contrary we have just begun, as one by one I will try and discuss Agatha Christie’s stories and try a hand at decoding the reason for her popularity as the- “Queen of Crime.”

DISCLAIMER:

All the screencaptures, stills and/or videos from the movie/tv series are from the episode on “Curtain: Poirot’s last Case” produced/ telecast by ITV network. The copyright over the film/tv series rests with the owners/ producers of the movie/tv series.

The last image is the obituary of Hercule Poirot, published in the New York Times

 

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