Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “Death in the Clouds” by Agatha Christie

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Death in the Clouds by Agatha ChristieDeath in the Clouds, one of Agatha Christie’s more sensational novels, begins with a plane trip from Paris to London and ends with a murder. And to make things even more exciting, Poirot, who happens to have been on the flight but not alert due to bad airsickness, discovers something unique on the floor, which thrills the famous mystery novelist Mr. Clancy, “This object, gentlemen, is the native thorn shot from a blowpipe by certain tribes. . . . That is undoubtedly a native dart that has been aimed by a blowpipe” he begins, only to have Poirot conclude for him that the tip probably contains “the famous arrow poison of the South American Indians.” A search of the plane uncovers the blowpipe tucked down behind one of the seats, which Poirot finds very droll, the seat having been his own.

The police cause quite a stir at the inquest when they announce the public identity of the murdered woman, that of Madame Giselle, the notorious moneylender to the upper class who uses knowledge as potential blackmail as her security against her loans. However, on the madame’s instructions, her maid has burned all her papers, so the police do not have evidence of any connections between Madame Giselle and the eleven other people in the car of the plane. Further, the question that haunts everyone is how anyone had the opportunity to put the blowpipe to his or her mouth in order to launch the dart without being spotted by others on the plane.

Much of the book zeroes in on the effect that being in the vicinity of this murder has had on two particular passengers of the plane, hairdresser Jane Grey and dentist Norman Gale. While Jane has seen her business improve, Norman has to fold up shop and plans to move to Canada, or maybe New Zealand, where no one has heard of the dentist who shared a plane with a murder victim. The two, who develop a romance, assist Poirot in his investigations, with Jane even taking a post as Poirot’s private secretary in Paris for a while.

The book concludes with a dramatic scene in which Poirot confronts the murderer as only Poirot can do.

Three characters in this book preview other elements of Christie’s books. The first, Mr. Clancy, the famous mystery novelist, foreshadows the character of Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, introduced in Parker Pyne Investigates and seen in six Poirot books plus one other Christie book. Christie seems to have enjoyed playing with the character of the mystery writer, inserting a piece of herself into the novel as she shows the man finding inspiration for names and plot devices while walking out on the street.

As a fun side note, in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, the aforementioned Mrs. Ariadne Oliver bemoans the way the public are quick to point out every little error in her writing and gives as an example the fact that she once made a blowpipe one foot long and got criticized because really blowpipes are six feet long. Since Mrs. Oliver speaks for Christie, it is obvious that this complaint refers to the blowpipe in Death in the Clouds.

The other two characters who introduce elements found regularly in Christie’s writing are the father/son team of French archaeologists who express a love of ancient pottery and plan a dig in Syria several months later. In 1930, Agatha Christie married the famous archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, five years before the publication of Death in the Clouds, having met him while on a dig in Iraq, and she went with him to digs many times. In fact, Agatha Christie and Max Mallowan are one of the very few married couples in which each partner earned a knighthood. The topics of archaeology and the Middle East figure in a lot of Christie’s books (she even wrote a book, Come, Tell Me How You Live, about life on an archaeological dig), with this one the first time the topic of archaeology arising in a Poirot book. The next Poirot book, Murder in Mesopotamia, actually takes place on an archaeological dig in Iraq.

The audio version of this book is performed by Hugh Fraser, who continues to justify my appreciation of him as my favorite British male narrator by his excellent reading of the book.

Though seeming melodramatic at times, Death in the Clouds is a whole lot of fun to read and once again shows Christie’s gift for creativity in its unique plot and well done red herrings. I highly recommend it and give it five stars!

To purchase this book for yourself, click here on Amazon.

PS: For those of you wondering, yes–this is the book featured in the Doctor Who episode The Unicorn and the Wasp

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