The action takes place in and near London in the autumn of 1947. Christie said this and Ordeal by Innocence were her favorites.
The title refers to ("There Was a Crooked Man") nursery rhyme, common theme of author. Narrator Charles' fiancée Sophia says not dishonest rather "we hadn't been able to grow up independent ... twisted and twining" unhealthily interdependent on the intensely strong personality of the family patriarch Aristide.
Three generations of the Leonides family live together under wealthy patriarch Aristide. His first wife died; her sister Edith has cared for the household since then. Second wife indolent Brenda, decades his junior, exchanges love letters with grandchildren's tutor. After Aristide is poisoned by his own eye medicine (eserine), his granddaughter Sophia tells narrator and fiancé Charles Hayward that they cannot marry until the killer is apprehended. Charles' father "The Old Man" is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, so Charles investigates from the inside along with assigned detective, Chief Inspector Taverner. When sly Josephine suffers attack and Nanny is poisoned by hot chocolate after Brenda and the tutor are arrested, the danger escalates to a surprise finish.
The first person narrator is Charles Hayward who, towards the end of the Second World War, occupies some post in Cairo. There he meets Sophia Leonides, a smart, successful young Englishwoman who works for the Foreign Office. They fall in love, but put off getting engaged until after the end of the war when they will be reunited in England.
Hayward returns home only to find an obituary in The Times: Sophia's grandfather, the wealthy entrepreneur Aristide Leonides, has died, aged 85. Due to the war, the whole family has been living with him in a sumptuous but ill-proportioned house called "Three Gables"–the 'crooked house' of the title. When the autopsy reveals that Aristide Leonides has been poisoned with his own eserine-based eye medicine via an insulin injection, Sophia tells Charles that she can't marry him until the matter is cleared up.
The obvious suspects are Brenda Leonides, Aristide's much younger second wife, and Laurence Brown, a conscientious objector who has been living in the house as private tutor to Eustace and Josephine, Sophia's younger brother and sister. Rumour has it that Brenda and Laurence have been carrying on an illicit love affair right under old Leonides's nose. All the family members hope these two prove to be the murderers because they despise Brenda as a gold digger and also hope to escape the scandal that a different outcome would bring. When police interviews fail to turn up a clear suspect, Charles agrees to help his father, an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, investigate the crime. He becomes a house guest at Three Gables, hoping that someone might reveal a clue at an unguarded moment.
All the family members had motive and opportunity, none has an alibi, and everyone knew that Aristide's eye medicine was poisonous. Moreover, according to the will of record, they all stand to gain a healthy bequest from the old man's estate. Aside from this, the family members have little in common. Edith de Haviland, Aristide's unmarried sister-in-law, is a repressed, somewhat bitter woman who came to stay with him after his first wife's death in order to supervise his children's upbringing. Roger, the eldest son and always Aristide's favourite, is a failure as businessman and has steered the catering business bestowed to him by his father to the brink of bankruptcy; he longs to live a simple life somewhere far away. Roger's wife Clemency, a scientist with austere tastes, has never been able to enjoy the wealth offered by her husband's family. Philip, Roger's younger brother, has suffered all his life under his father's preference for Roger and retreated into a distant world of books and bygone historical epochs, spending all his waking hours in the library of the house. Philip's wife Magda is a modestly successful actress to whom everything, even a murder in the family, is a stage show in which she wants to play a leading part. Sixteen-year-old Eustace still suffers from the aftereffects of a mild case of polio, but otherwise is an average sort of boy. His twelve-year-old sister Josephine, on the other hand, is ugly, odd, precociously intelligent, and so obsessed with detective stories that she spies continually on the rest of the household, writing down her observations in a secret notebook.
Things get complicated when it is revealed that Leonides secretly redrafted his will to leave everything to Sophia because he believed that only she had the strength of character to assume his place as the head of the family. Next, Josephine–who has been bragging that she knows the killer's identity–is found lying in the yard, unconscious from a severe blow to the head from a marble doorstop. At this point, Charles discovers a cache of incriminating love letters from Brenda to Laurence, and the two are arrested. While they are in custody, however, the children's nanny dies after drinking a digitalis-laced cup of cocoa that had apparently been intended for Josephine, and the family realizes that the killer is still among them.
Charles, afraid for Josephine's life, tries in vain to induce her to tell him the murderer's name. Afterwards, Edith de Haviland invites the girl to come out with her in the car for an ice cream soda—then drives over a cliff. Both die instantly.
Back at Three Gables, Charles finds two letters from de Haviland: one is a suicide note for Chief Inspector Taverner confessing to the murders of Aristide, the nanny, and Josephine. The other letter, intended for Charles's eyes only, reveals the truth of the matter - Josephine is the murderer. As proof, de Haviland has enclosed the child's secret notebook, the first line of which reads "To-day I killed grandfather." It is revealed that she committed the murder simply because her grandfather wouldn't pay for her ballet lessons; she then revelled in all the attention she received afterwards and planned her own assault with the marble doorstop as a way of diverting attention. She poisoned Nannie for encouraging Magda to send her to Switzerland, and also because she despised her for calling her a 'silly little girl'. Edith discovered Josephine's notebook hidden in a dog kennel, and killed them both because she didn't want her to suffer when the police discovered the truth.
- Charles Hayward, fiancé to Sophia Leonides, narrator
- Sophia Leonides, daughter of Magda and Philip Leonides, grand-daughter of Aristide
- Brenda Leonides, spoiled much young widow of Aristide Leonides
- Magda West, "drama queen" stage actress
- Edith de Haviland, Sophia's elderly great-aunt, sister of first wife
- Roger Leonides, son of Aristide
- Clemency Leonides, his wife, a scientist
- Philip Leonides, Magda's husband and Roger's brother
- Laurence Brown, teacher to Josephine and Eustace
- Josephine Leonides, Magda's 12-year-old daughter
- Eustace Leonides, her older brother
- Janet "Nannie" Rowe, nanny to Leonides children
- Chief Inspector Taverner, Scotland Yard inspector assigned,
- "The Old Man", Assistant Commisssioner of Scotland Yard, father of Charles
Maurice Richardson, in the May 29, 1949 issue of The Observer gave a positive review in comparison to his opinion of Taken at the Flood the previous year: "Her forty-ninth book and one of her best seven. Poisoning of aged iniquitous anglicised Levantine millionaire. Nicely characterised family of suspects. Delicious red herrings. Infinite suspense and shocking surprise finish make up for slight looseness of texture."
An unnamed reviewer in the Toronto Daily Star of March 12, 1949 said, "Chief Inspector Taverner of Scotland Yard was as brilliant as usual but barking up the wrong tree - as Agatha Christie demonstrates in a surprise ending which introduces a novel idea in murder mystery."
Robert Barnard: "'Pure pleasure' was how the author described the writing of this, which was long planned, and remained one of her favourites. As the title implies, this is a family murder – and a very odd family indeed. The solution, one of the classic ones, was anticipated (but much less effectively) in Margery Allingham's 'prentice work The White Cottage Mystery."
Film, TV or theatrical adaptationsEdit
The novel was adapted for BBC Radio 4 in four weekly 30-minute episodes which began broadcasting on February 29, 2008. It starred Rory Kinnear (Charles Hayward), Anna Maxwell Martin (Sophia Leonides), and Phil Davis (Chief Insp. Taverner). The radio play was dramatised by Joy Wilkinson and directed by Sam Hoyle. It was subsequently issued on CD. This version removed the character of Eustace.
American filmmaker Neil La Bute has announced that he will direct a feature film version, for 2012, of the novel with a script by Julian Fellowes. On 15 May 2011, Gemma Arterton, Matthew Goode, Gabriel Byrne and Julie Andrews were announced to lead the cast. In a report issued on 10 June 2012, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions acquired all rights in the U.S., Canada and internationally for the film, which could help secure it a lucrative release – but it should also be noted the report states that casting is about to gear up in London as the film is set for a fall production start, suggesting that the initial cast lineup may have been changed for now. Producers Joe Abrams and Rory Gilmartin of Brilliant Films are behind the project.
- 1949, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), March 1949, Hardback, 211 pp
- 1949, Collins Crime Club (London), 23 May 1949, Hardback, 192 pp
- 1951, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, (Pocket #753), 200 pp
- 1953, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin #925), 191 pp
- 1959, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
- 1967, Greenway collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 223 pp
- 1967, Greenway collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 223 pp
- 1978 Omniprose collected works with Passenger to Frankfurt, Hardcover, 472 pp, isbn 0921111096
- 1991, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, ISBN 0-7089-2419-0
A condensed version of the novel was first published in the US in Cosmopolitan magazine in the issue for October 1948 (Volume 125, Number 4) with an illustration by Grushkin.
In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in seven abridged instalments from April 23 (Volume 85, Number 2234) to June 4, 1949 (Volume 85, Number 2240) with illustrations by Alfred Sindall.
- Czech: Hadí doupě (Snakes' Den)
- French: La Maison biscornue (The Crooked House)
- German: Das krumme Haus (The Crooked House)
- Indonesia: "Buku Catatan Josephine" (Josephine's Notebook)