Published in 1975, Agatha Christie’s Curtain, featuring the last case of her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, is a novel that I’ve read before and, to this day and after reading it again (perhaps for the third or so time), bewilders, amuses, amazes, and frustrates me, almost all in equal measure.
Agatha Christie wrote the book in the early 1940’s and while World War II was raging. She feared she wouldn’t make it through the war and decided to create a final tale for Hercule Poirot and put it in a lock box with the intention of having her heirs release it at some future date.
Of course, Agatha Christie survived the war and continued writing until her death in 1976 and, shortly before passing away, she authorized the release of Curtain, which wound up being the final book released while she was still alive (there was another book, Sleeping Murder, which was her last written work and which was released posthumously).
Intriguingly, I’ve read the there was no attempt to revise the novel and it was released as Mrs. Christie wrote it back in the early 1940’s, even though its actual first publication was some thirty five years later.
In this novel, we’re witnessing an elderly, frail Hercule Poirot, bedridden yet anxious to solve one last crime involving a mysterious man or woman he calls “X”, who may well be the most nefarious criminal he’s ever tangled with: The wo/man has had a hand in at least 5 different murders yet somehow is never suspected and, further, in all cases others are very clearly the murderer.
Yet, Poirot insists to his companion/Watson/narrator Arthur Hastings, this “X” is clearly the puppet master and the one who caused the murders… and is about to commit another.
The story takes place in Styles Court, the same location Agatha Christie’s first novel (and first Poirot novel) The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) took place.
Thus the proverbial circle closes, with our Belgian detective and his right hand man, now some 25 years or so later, come together one last time to solve one last mystery.
Agatha Christie would write several Poirot novels after Curtain and, while this novel does make mention of previous books/mysteries Poirot was involved in, there are no mention of the novels that came afterwards. Further, Christie, no doubt realizing the novel would be released in some unknown future date, kept any real world events/technologies to a minimum. We get no descriptions of vehicles, for example, and the entire story takes place in its one setting, isolated from any other locations.
I said above that the novel bewilders, amuses, amazes, and frustrates me and I mean what I said.
The story itself is somewhat typical Agatha Christie: Once again we have a clever murder story which (as is typical of Mrs. Christie), the murderer is the person the reader least suspects.
Mrs. Christie made a literal king’s fortune out of her ability to present her story, then build up our suspicions on this character or that, sometimes hitting us with red herrings, before often shocking us with the surprising murderer.
This is very much the case in Curtain!
But the novel frustrates me at times, too. The plot, once all is said and done, is almost too clever for its own good. Both Poirot and our “X” are engaging in such a high level game of chess that can only exist in a novel and not in real life.
This is a common complaint, by the way, I have of Agatha Christie’s stories: If you take a cold look at the plot, you realize there are so many things that have to fall into place for the story to work that its an impossibility.
The books are so damn well written and Curtain is yet another example of Agatha Christie’s incredible talents.
The book itself, compared to some tomes (looking at you, Stephen King) wastes no time getting going and has almost no fat at all to wade through. Each word, sentence, paragraph, and page present something interesting for the reader to read, and you’re so involved in the book you don’t notice some of the absurdities until well after you’ve come to the wrapup.
Interestingly, Agatha Christie chose to end the novel not unlike (you’re not going to believe this in a million years) And Then There Were None. If you’ve been reading my ramblings for the past few weeks, I’ve noted how I’ve been in a weird And Then There Were None temporal/spatial trap (read all about it starting here, continuing here, surprising me here, and then ending with my review of the famous novel here!).
Thinking about it some more, Curtain is in many ways very much like And Then There Were None, though to get into the details involves considerable spoilers (I’ll do that below).
If you’ve already read both novels, then by all means read what comes below but, if you haven’t and are curious to read these books, please DO NOT READ WHAT COMES AFTER THE SPOILER WARNING.
In sum, Curtain is another grade “A” Agatha Christie novel, slim and to the point yet entertaining as hell even as the story told is at times rather preposterous.
YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!
Let me start with the differences and then I’ll get to the similarities between And Then There Were None, what many consider Agatha Christie’s best novel (I can’t say I disagree!) and Curtain.
And Then There Were None involves a group of 10 people called to a secluded island under false pretenses who realize they’re trapped and accused of murder. In the course of the book, one after the other is in turned killed and those who remain become suspicious of each other, thinking they could be the murderer.
In Curtain, we have a group of 13 people at Styles Court -not trapped- who are enjoying their country vacation (or working, in the case of a few of them) with Poirot aware that one of them is a mastermind murderer targeting the others.
In And Then There Were None, the reader suspects everyone even as they do as well. We have a couple of semi-clear protagonists, but with each murderer, anxiety and suspense rise.
In Curtain, we have, in the end, “only” 3 deaths, two of which are considered by everyone but Hastings and Poirot suicide and the last which is Hercule Poirot’s death… which may well have been by natural causes.
And Then There Were None has all the murders being obviously that. In Curtain, the deaths are obviously more devious.
Those are the differences.
Now the similarities:
In both And Then There Were None and Curtain, we’re dealing with a master manipulator/murderer. Both novels feature masterminds and, in the end of And Then There Were None, the murderer is indeed the one we “least suspect” (a trademark of Agatha Christie) because it is someone we thought already dead.
In Curtain, there are two killers: our Mister (as I said, SPOILERS) “X” and… Hercule Poirot himself.
Mister X tries, as we find out in the end of the novel, to kill three different people. He’s thwarted, we find in the end, by one of the manipulated people missing his shot (or perhaps sanity prevailed before the murderous impulse was let loose), while in another Poirot defused the situation. In the third case, one of the cast of characters is indeed murdered but it was because of confusion on the part of others, and this character’s death is labeled a suicide in the end.
The final murder is that of Mister X, and that death is also ruled a suicide because it is in a locked room with no possibility of anyone else having done it…
…which, of course, turns out not to be the case. For the “invalid” Hercule Poirot, with no way to stop this mastermind killer, created the illusion to others that he was a total invalid and confronted Mister X, drugged him to sleep, then put him in his room, shot him in the forehead, left the man’s door key in his pocket, and with a duplicate key, locked the door from the outside and returned to his room.
Everyone thought Mister X killed himself and Poirot himself is found dead the next day of natural causes. Or, perhaps, he purposely didn’t take his heart medication, knowing this would end his life after he -the one person we least suspected of murder- actually committed the murder.
Like And Then There Were None, Curtain ends with our murderer (in this case Poirot), writing a declaration of everything that happened and explaining what he did in the story. He, like the killer in And Then There Were None, is dead and this is his declaration and explanation.
The only reason this exists, by the way, is to give readers a resolution of the story. For if either book didn’t have these declarations, they would be left in the dark as to what exactly happened.
It’s not unusual for authors to reuse certain concepts and when you write as prolifically as Mrs. Christie did, its bound to happen.
Still, it was interesting to see her using the “written last testament” ideal found in And Then There Were None used again in Curtain to give us this finality to the story.