Mrs McGinty’s Dead By Agatha Christie
Mrs McGinty’s Dead is an intriguing mystery, published in 1952. Its title comes from an old children’s game – echoing several other Christie titles which come from nursery rhymes. I’ve only heard of it played by adults. Years ago my family played ‘Mrs McGinty’s Dead’ at Christmas – a slightly different version than in the novel – and my aunt recalled playing it as a drinking game in the war-time R.A.F.
Mrs McGinty was a quiet, respectable charwoman who was found bludgeoned to death. Her lodger James Bentley was the only possible suspect with convincing evidence of his guilt. He has been tried and convicted of her murder. When the novel opens he is waiting for the death sentence to be carried out.
The case was investigated by Superintendent Spence, (who appears in Hallowe’en Party and Elephants Can Remember). He’s a thoroughly decent policeman. Despite building a seemingly irrefutable case, his instincts tell him the lodger isn’t the right type to be a murderer. He’s met too many and this time the psychology feels wrong. Spence takes his concern to an old friend and a bored Hercule Poirot gladly agrees to take another look at the case…
As usual Agatha Christie creates a wonderfully sinister atmosphere in the village of Broadhinny. We meet a varied cast of believable characters who seem innocuous though may have something to hide. It’s an interesting portrait of an English village a few years after the war. Times are gradually changing and the big houses are finding it hard to get someone who will come in and cook. A daily woman is ‘a treasure’ and employers are thankful for the half-day a week she can spare them. The sub-post office is still the hub of the community – sadly no longer in recent years.
The plot has that useful device for tension, a race against time. In prison the days of James Bentley’s life are running out. He’s accepted he’s on his way to the gallows and at first even Poirot can’t find anything missed. The way he finds the first faint hint of the trail is cleverly written.
This novel contains something more though, it’s full of delightful humour at Poirot’s expense. Agatha Christie was clearly having fun. The only accommodation in the village is at a private house where the charming hostess has no idea how to look after paying guests.
‘I do hope,’ she said, ‘that you’re not too frightfully uncomfortable?’
‘You are too kind, madame,’ he replied politely. ‘I only wish it were within my powers to provide you with suitable domestics.’
A miserable Poirot is suffering agonies of dust and disorder, gritting his teeth only to save an innocent man’s life. The descriptions of the run-down country house are very funny if you know his obsessive love of order. Early in the novel Poirot thinks proudly about his London flat, ‘There could truly be said not to be a curve in the place.’
Poirot’s old friend Mrs Ariadne Oliver also turns up in Broadhinny. Scatty yet surprisingly shrewd, she usually notices something pertinent that assists Poirot in his deductions. Mrs Oliver – based on the author gently sending herself up -is having one of her detective novels adapted to a play. Her heartfelt comments on having her characters changed, surely echo Christie’s own thoughts.
There are plenty of suspects and an atmosphere of lurking danger, some clever misdirection and a brilliant reveal.
A fine example of classic village Christie from her heyday.