Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “The Under Dog and Other Stories”

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Hercule Poirot returns with a novella and eight other short stories in Agatha Christie’s The Under Dog and Other Stories. Put together into a compilation for the first time in 1951, the stories themselves actually were among Christie’s earliest, being published in magazines between 1923 and 1926.

In the novella The Under Dog, Lily Margrave, companion to the wife of the recently murdered Sir Reuben Astwell, approaches Poirot on behalf of her employer because Sir Reuben’s nephew Charles Leverson has been arrested for the crime, but Lady Astwell is certain that the true murderer is the secretary, Owen Trefusis. Noticing that Lily tries to put Poirot off taking the case, working subtly to do so, he accepts and goes to stay at Sir Reuben’s house. With a combination of ingenuity, pretense of fake clues, and the dragging out of the investigation, Poirot proceeds to solve this complicated case that has several red herrings.

Seven of the other eight short stories feature Captain Hastings as narrator, a character whom Christie stops using in 1937’s Dumb Witness until the final Poirot book, Curtain. Some also feature Inspector Japp, the most memorable of the Scotland Yard detectives who work with Poirot.

Three of the stories get developed into larger works later. “The Plymouth Express,” about a rich young woman found murdered in a train, was the basis for Christie’s 1928 The Mystery of the Blue Train. Curiously, the names are partially changed but often only the first or last name. Even the conclusion to this story directly parallels that of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball” involves a mystery where a man in a Harlequin suit at a costume ball is found murdered.

Another story that gets developed further is “The Market Basing Mystery,” but its longer form, Murder in the Mews is not a full-length novel itself but rather a novella. In this short story, the local police ask for help from Japp, who brings along Poirot and Hastings, being on vacation with them, when a man appears to have committed suicide but is holding the gun in the wrong hand. With his customary cleverness, Poirot gets to the bottom of this crime.

“The Lemesurier Insurance” features a family curse that the eldest son shall never inherit the title, so a distraught mother seeks out Poirot’s help to keep her young son alive.

“The Cornish Mystery” sees a woman approach Poirot for help because she believes her husband is trying to kill her in order to marry his beautiful young assistant.

In ” The King of Clubs,” a dancer stumbles into the home of her neighbor, just barely able to utter the single word “murder” before collapsing in a faint. A man is found dead at her house, the victim of an evidently much stronger assailant than the dancer.

“The Submarine Plans,” the basis for the later novella The Incredible Theft,  features important military secrets that have been stolen from the study of the Secretary of Defence, who is soon to become Prime Minister. Suspecting Mrs. Conroy of being up to no good, he has invited her to his home to keep an eye on her, but the plans get stolen anyway. It takes clever Hercule Poirot to unravel this complicated case.

In “The Adventure of the Clapham Cook,” Mrs. Todd talks Poirot into taking on the case of her missing cook, Eliza Dunn. Observing that a good cook is hard to come by, Poirot tracks down this cook and discovers sinister elements at work.

This book is narrated by David Suchet, the award-winning portrayer of Hercule Poirot in the very successful BBC series that depicts every Poirot book and story. His reading is done excellently, though I must confess to finding it a bit strange to hear him read narration by Hastings, since Hugh Fraser, who plays Hastings in the series, usually performs any books narrated by his character.

As for the book as a whole, I enjoyed it but would not recommend it to newcomers to Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot because there are so many stronger books. It is evident that Christie was still developing her stride in these early stories, most of which do not captivate the way most of her works do. I give The Under Dog and Other Stories three stars.

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

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