‘The A.B.C. Murders’ is one of Poirot’s more interesting adventures. In some ways it harks back to the early novels, Captain Hastings has returned from Argentina and it is he who in part narrates the story and Chief Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard is in charge of the police investigation. Yet at the same time it is closer to the later novels. Georges is present and Christie experiments with style and perspective.
Agatha Christie’s writing was at the top of it’s game in 1936 and ‘The A.B.C. Murders’ slots into the middle of what many consider her golden period. Away from writing she was more settled although world events were starting to have an impact.
Max Mallowan, Christie’s husband, had been forced to abandon his work in Iraq due to the worsening political situation and briefly had started work on an archeological site in Syria. Christie loved Syria and was greatly saddened when Mallowan was again forced to close his excavations due to the uncertainty in the region.
The state of the world in the run up to the second world war is, briefly, mentioned. Captain Hastings has been running a ranch in Argentina and at only appears sporadically in the books when making a return visit to England, notices a change in mood from his last visit. While Chief Inspector Japp alludes to things he isn’t at liberty to discuss, although he assumes Poirot knows all about.
Structurally the book is interesting as it switches between a first person narrative and a third person narrative. This switching of perspective is something that Christie had done before but here there is an extra layer.
Like the early novels ‘The A.B.C. Murders’ is presented as if being written up by Hastings. His first person observation of what is going on. Yet we also get the perspective of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, a suspect, this is written in third person yet seems also to be the interpretation of Hastings after the fact, as if he sat down and extensively questioned Cust.
All of this makes for a very interesting read, and ‘The A.B.C. Murders’ further enhances the character of Hastings away from his early function as mere chronicler who has fanciful ideas.
The plot itself revolves around what at first seems to be a serial killer, although the term wasn’t coined until 1974, who writes goading letters to Poirot singed A.B.C. and kills in alphabetical order starting with Alice Ascher in Andover, Betty Barnard in Bexhill and Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston.
A travelling salesman, Cust, comes under suspicion although Poirot has other ideas. Plus there are trains. Lots of trains. The police and Poirot use the A.B.C. Railway Guide in an attempt to head the killer off. With Japp sending his men all over the country by rain in hopes of preventing the next murder.
There is a sense of the coming of another war as well as the tragedy of the last one. Cust like Hastings was a veteran of the First World War. Also like Hastings he didn’t come out of that conflict unscathed, while Hastings sustained a leg wound that only plays up in damp weather Cust received a head injury that leaves him with epilepsy and prone to blackouts.
Christie, who herself had worked as a nurse during the first war and would work as a pharmacist in University College London where many injured servicemen were sent in the second war, never shied away for depicting both the lasting physical and psychological difficulties returning servicemen faced. This was rare between the wars and something that Christie was heavily criticised for doing.
A 1965 film based on the novel and starring Tony Randell as Poirot was released under the title ‘The Alphabet Murders’. This takes many liberties with the plot and turns the whole thing into a farcical comedy.
In 1992 ITV filmed ‘The A.B.C. Murders’ with David Suchet as Poirot. Hugh Fraser and Phillip Jackson take on their regular roles in the series as Hastings and Japp respectively while Donald Sumpter puts in a standout performance as Cust. This adaptation is for the most part faithful to the novel although Georges is absent.
The last of Agatha Christie’s train novels was 21 years later and this time Poirot is nowhere to be seen as Miss Marple investigates a murder on the ‘4:50 from Paddington’.