When Hercule Poirot’s own dentist, Henry Morley, is found dead from a gunshot wound, the official verdict is that he has killed himself; a verdict apparently supported when it appears that he has given one of his patients a fatal overdose of anaesthetic. Poirot suspects, however, that there is more to the case than at first appears, and soon events confirm his worst suspicions.
Explanation of the novel's titleEdit
The book's UK title is derived from a well-known children's nursery rhyme of the same name, and the chapters each correspond to a line of that rhyme. Other Agatha Christie books and short stories also share this naming convention, such as Hickory Dickory Dock, A Pocket Full of Rye, and most famously And Then There Were None.
Hercule Poirot leaves the office of his dentist, Morley, after an appointment, and notices the arrival of Mabelle Sainsbury Seale. He returns to her the shiny buckle that has fallen from her shoe. Later, he hears from Inspector Japp that Morley has died of a gunshot. Between Poirot’s appointment and Morley’s death there were only three patients: Banker Alistair Blunt, Mabelle, and a Greek blackmailer named Amberiotis. The presence of a man thought essential to the country’s economic survival, the banker, Blunt, ensures Japp’s involvement in the case. Amberiotis dies of an overdose of anaesthetic and it is thought that the dentist has killed himself after realising the accident for which he had been responsible.
The movements of people at the dental surgery are inconclusive. Morley’s partner, Reilly, is a rogue but seems to have no motive. Morley’s secretary had been called away by a fake telegram. Her boyfriend, Frank Carter, had a weak motive given that Morley had attempted to dissuade her from seeing him. Also present at the surgery was Howard Raikes, a prickly left-wing activist violently opposed to Blunt but enamoured of his niece. There is too little evidence for Poirot to construct an alternative hypothesis, but he senses that the story is not complete.
When Mabelle goes missing, his fears are realised. A search for her is conducted, and some time later her body is apparently found in a sealed chest in the apartment of Mrs. Albert Chapman, who has herself disappeared. The corpse’s face has been smashed in, and Poirot notices its dull buckled shoes. He is skeptical of the theory that Mrs. Chapman has killed Mabelle and fled. Sure enough, once the dental records are produced by Morley’s successor at the surgery, it is discovered that the corpse is Mrs. Chapman’s. The hunt for Mabelle continues.
Poirot is now drawn into the life of the Blunt family. An attempt is made on Alistair Blunt’s life at which Raikes is a bystander. Poirot is invited down to Blunt’s house, where he is persuaded to undertake a search for Mabelle. While he is there, a second attempt is made on Blunt’s life, but it is seemingly thwarted by Raikes. The pistol used in the attack is found in the hand of none other than Frank Carter, who has taken a job as gardener at the house under a false identity. When a maid at the surgery admits to having seen Carter on the stairs going up to Morley’s office, it seems that Carter is likely to be tried and convicted of both the murder and the attempted murder. The fact that the gun with which he was captured was the twin of the murder weapon only makes things worse for him.
In the climax of the novel – one of the darkest in the Poirot series – Poirot realises that by allowing Carter to persist in his lies he can ensure that the real killer goes free, and wrestles with his conscience. Eventually he presses Carter to admit the truth: that when he entered Morley’s office the dentist was already dead. It is the final element in the puzzle.
Poirot visits Alistair Blunt and explains the murders. The real Mabelle Sainsbury Seale had known him and his first wife, Gerda, whom he had never divorced, in India; his money came from his now deceased second wife, and he would be disgraced if caught in bigamy. Running into Blunt in the street, she had recognised and spoken to him in front of his niece, but had not realised whom he had become. By chance she had mentioned this chance encounter to the blackmailer, Amberiotis, who made the connection between the name 'Blunt' and the wealthy banker and began to blackmail Blunt.
Gerda, posing under several aliases including that of Mrs. Albert Chapman, invited Mabelle to visit her, killed her, and took her identity, but had to buy new shoes because Mabelle’s did not fit her. This is why the corpse’s buckles were dull, while the buckle of the woman whom Poirot met going into Morley's surgery were shiny: the fake Mabelle had newer shoes than the real one, who was by that time decomposing in the chest. The woman in the trunk could hardly have worn through a new pair of shoes in a single day. Ironically, the face of the corpse had been disfigured not because it wasn’t Mabelle, but because it was.
Alistair Blunt had attended his appointment, shot Morley and stashed his body in the side office with his wife’s help. Having appeared to leave the surgery, he returned and changed the dental records of Mrs. Albert Chapman and Mabelle in order to ensure that the corpse would be identified as Mrs. Chapman: a woman who in reality did not exist; the motive for killing Morley was simply to prevent him from detecting this change. At the end of Mabelle’s appointment, Gerda left, while Blunt dressed as a dentist in order to administer the overdose to Amberiotis, a new patient who had never met Morley. Poirot’s involvement had forced Blunt to compound the lies with talk of assassins and spies as the detective had relentlessly tracked the truth.
At the novel’s bleak conclusion, Poirot is forced to admit that Blunt does indeed stand in public life “for all the things that to my mind are important. For sanity and balance and stability and honest dealing”. Nevertheless, he adds: “I am not concerned with the fate of nations, Monsieur. I am concerned with the lives of private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken from them.” He turns Blunt over to the police. Later, he confronts Blunt's niece and her fiancé Howard Raikes, telling them that they now have the "new heaven and the new earth" that they desire, asking them only to "let there be freedom and let there be pity". In the last chapter, Mr. Barnes tells Poirot that he took such a vivid interest in the case as he was Mr. Albert Chapman, the wife of whom Gerda (apparently Mrs. Albert Chapman) pretended to be.
- Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective
- Chief Inspector Japp
- Henry Morley, a dentist
- Georgina Morley, his sister
- Gladys Nevill, Morley's secretary
- Martin Alistair Blunt, a high-profile banker/politician
- Julia Olivera, Blunt's deceased wife's niece
- Jane Olivera, her daughter
- Howard Raikes, Jane Olivera's lover, a leftist political activist
- Amberiotis, a dental patient who died of an overdose
- Mr. Barnes, a dental patient and former member of the Home Office AKA Mr. Chapman
- Mabelle Sainsbury Seale, a dental patient
- Frank Carter, Gladys's shady boyfriend
- Reilly, another dentist
- George, Poirot's manservant
- Alfred, Morley's porter
- Gerda Blunt, Alistair Blunt's first wife AKA Mrs. Chapman
This is the first of the Poirot novels to reflect the pervasive gloom of the Second World War, and is also one of Christie’s most overtly political novels. Frank Carter is a British fascist and a representative of one set of political forces threatening Britain. Howard Raikes (although his direct politics are never stated) represents the competing force of communism. Alistair Blunt’s credentials as a champion of conservative reaction are made obvious throughout the text. Nevertheless, given the choice between setting free a murderer and expediently allowing an unpleasant but innocent man go to the gallows, Poirot (with marked reluctance) saves Carter. The fact that throughout the novel Poirot has striven for the truth on behalf, principally, of an insignificant victim, a dentist, shows Christie’s sensitivity to the lives of ordinary people in time of war.
Literary significance and receptionEdit
Maurice Willson Disher in The Times Literary Supplement of November 9, 1940 was not impressed with either the novel or the genre when he said in the article titled Murder of a Dentist, "Possibly the reader who wants to be puzzled may be the best judge of a detective story. If so Agatha Christie wins another prize, for her new novel should satisfy his demands. But another type of reader will find it dry and colourless." He continued; "The facts are stated in a joyless style of impartial investigation; it quickens into life only when a revolting corpse is discovered. This is characteristic of Christie's school. The 'full horrible details' that bring people to death are accounted of more importance than details which bring people to life."
In The New York Times of March 2, 1941, Kay Irvin concluded, "It's a real Agatha Christie thriller: exceedingly complicated in plot, briskly and compactly simple in narrative, with a swift course of unflagging suspense that leads to complete surprise. After closing the book one may murmur, "Far-fetched," or even "Impossible." But any such complaint will be voiced only after the story has been finished; there won't be a moment to think of such things, before."
Maurice Richardson in the November 10, 1940 issue of The Observer started, "The Queen of Crime's scheming ingenuity has been so much praised that one is sometimes inclined to overlook the lightness of her touch. If Mrs. Christie were to write about the murder of a telephone directory by a time-table the story would still be compellingly readable." He did admit that, "Fiend's identity is perhaps less obscured than usual; motivation a trifle shaky, but clue details are brilliant."
The Scotsman of December 26, 1940 said of the book that, "Although motive is not of the obvious order, Mrs Christie deals with the mystery in the most ingenious way and, as usual, produces a masterly solution."
E.R. Punshon in The Guardian of December 13, 1940 summed up by saying, "Mrs Christie has to work coincidence rather hard and the plot is more ingenious than probable, since the culprit could, and certainly would, have reached his end by simpler means than murder."
An unnamed reviewer in the Toronto Daily Star of March 15, 1941 referred to the story as a "neat puzzle" having a "highly involved plot" with a "not-unforeseen solution." The reviewer added, "the pace is swift and talk - curse of the English detective story - is kept to a minimum" and concluded by saying, "Far from usual is...Christie's use of her thriller to expound a number of her own rather odd political opinions."
Robert Barnard: "It is usually said that Christie drags herself into the modern world in the 'fifties, but the books in the late 'thirties show her dipping a not-too-confident toe into the ideological conflicts of the pre-war years. Here we have political 'idealists', fascist movements and conservative financiers who maintain world stability. But behind it all is a fairly conventional murder mystery, beguilingly and cunningly sustained."
References to other worksEdit
- In Part 7, iii, of the novel, Poirot recollects the jewel thief, Countess Vera Rossakoff. Rossakoff, the nearest that Poirot comes to a love interest, appeared as character in Chapter six of The Big Four (1927).
- In Part 8, ii, of the novel, mention is made by name of the Case of the Augean Stables. This had been first published in The Strand in March 1940 but would not be collected in book form until 1947, in The Labours of Hercules.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptationsEdit
The novel was adapted in 1992 for the series Agatha Christie's Poirot with David Suchet as Poirot. The adaptation is overall faithful to the book but lacks certain characters such as Raikes. Blunt's niece therefore has not as great a role as in the novel. The adaption for TV has gained much praise in several countries, standing out as one of the darkest episodes of the series, in contrast to adaptions that have been lighter in tone.
The novel was adapted for BBC Radio in 2004, with John Moffatt as Poirot.
- 1940, Collins Crime Club (London), November 1940, Hardback, 256 pp
- 1941, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), February 1941, Hardback, 240 pp
- 1944, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback (Pocket number 249)
- 1956, Pan Books, Paperback, 192 pp (Pan number 380)
- 1959, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
- 1973, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 322 pp
- 2008, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1940 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, April 1, 2008, Hardback, ISBN 0-00-727457-2
The book was first serialised in the US in Collier's Weekly in nine parts from August 3 (Volume 106, Number 5) to September 28, 1940 (Volume 106, Number 13) under the title The Patriotic Murders with illustrations by Mario Cooper.
- Czech: Nástrahy zubařského křesla (Perils of the Dentist's Chair)
- Dutch: Moord in de martelstoel (Murder in the torture chair)
- German: Das Geheimnis der Schnallenschuhe (The Secret Of the Buckled Shoes), TV-movie-title: Himmel und Hölle (Heaven And Hell) (German name for the children game: Hopscotch)
- Hungarian: A fogorvos széke (The Dentist's Chair)
- Italian: Poirot non sbaglia (Poirot is Not Wrong)
- Japanese: 愛国殺人 (The Patriotic Murders)
- Portuguese: Uma Dose Mortal (A Lethal Dose) (Brazil); Os Crimes Patrióticos (The Patriotic Murders) (Portugal)
- Russian: Раз, два - пряжку застегни (=Raz, dva - pryazhku zastegni, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe), Раз, раз - гость сидит у нас (=Raz, raz - gost' sidit u nas, One, one, we have a guest (Russian nursery rhyme) )
- Spanish: La Muerte Visita al Dentista (Death Visits the Dentist)
- Swedish: Skospännet (The Shoe Buckle)