Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (1942)

When famed artist Amayas Crale was found dead no one doubted that it was his wife who poisoned him. All the evidence points directly at Caroline—Amayas is leaving her for a younger woman, and she admits to stealing the poison that killed him. Her attitude of quiet resignation during the trial leads to a quick conviction and life sentence. Sixteen years later, her daughter Carla has been given a letter, written by Caroline before her death in prison, assuring Carla that she was innocent. Carla wants the truth laid bare and appeals to Hercule Poirot to find out the truth. To do so, Poirot turns to the five individuals present at the time of the murder, who knew the couple best.

The five individuals, aka the “five little pigs”, are Stockbroker Phillip Blake (“went to market”), his brother reclusive herbalist Meredith Blake (“stayed at home”), wealthy socialite Lady Dittisham (“had roast beef”), impoverished governess Cecilia Williams (“had none”), and Angela Warren, Caroline’s younger sister, who still bears the disfiguring scar Caroline gave her years earlier (cried “Wee! Wee! Wee! all the way home”). 

Christie’s format here is interesting. Poirot interviews as many people involved with the case as possible, including the five. Each tell the story from their perspective, and Poirot cajols them into providing written narratives as well. What he finds are conflicting memories regarding the Crales, the events that occurred, and previously unsuspected motives. Through these vignettes Christie develops some excellent characterizations, which Poirot then uses as psychological profiles from which he plucksthe truth hidden amongst the lies. 

Given the nature of the narrative, with multiple characters recalling the same events, some readers may feel that there is no shortage of repetition here. But, within each telling, Christie manages to weave in tidbits of new information which move the story along by adding to the mystery, uncovering a clue, or laying a red herring. And I must admit that the red herrings that Christie laid out were very inviting. The reader will be questioning their choice a few times as the identity of the real murderer remains hidden for much of the story. 

I’ve read many times that Christie often sacrifices characterization in creating the puzzles in her books. As I’ve only read a small fraction of her work I can’t really say whether that is true or not. I can only say that in this case, characterization is the key to the puzzle, and both are done exceptionally well.

By far my favorite Poirot so far. 

Prior Rulings –Brad @ Ah Sweet Mystery, José @ A Crime is Afoot, John @ Countdown John’s Christie Journal, Kate @ Cross Examining Crime

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one book with a size in the title 

6 thoughts on “Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie (1942)

  1. Laurie – glad you liked this one. It is certainly one of my favourite Christies. You’re right that considering the characters, what they say, the depth of emotions that motivate their actions, how many of them want something they can’t have, etc. are needed to determine whodunit. The best GAD novels are those where I remember how I felt reading them long after finishing them. This is one of those.

    Also, while I would never claim that all the David Suchet television adaptations of Poirot are of equal quality, Five Little Pigs is by far one of the better ones that doesn’t deviate significantly from the book and brings the rich Christie characterisations to life.

    1. Now that I’ve really started reading Christie I have a very hard time watching the Poirot and Marple TV programs. There are so many that are nothing at all like the books (except possibly for the outer coating of the setting). I understand poetic license, but to wipe out whole characters, add non-existent characters, and change the killer (as in Murder in Mesopotamia)?

  2. Christian Henriksson

    You’re quite right that characterisation is of great importance in this novel. As I’ve been re-reading Christie over this year, I’ve come to the conclusion that from around 1939 to 1950, Christie to a large extent changed her style from more plot-oriented mysteries to character-driven mysteries, and this one falls right in the middle of that period.

    If you look at the other novels she wrote during this period, there’s very few where the solution doesn’t rely on characters and their interactions rather than on “plot gimmicks” for want of a better word.

    1. Scott

      Christian – I agree with you. Many of Christie’s novels of the 1940s reflected the change to character-driven mysteries including but not limited to: Sad Cypress, Towards Zero, The Hollow and Crooked House. Spot on assessment.

    2. The more Christie I read the more I question the criticism of her lack of characterization. I know I have so much to look forward to with the novels written in the period you mention.

  3. This is actually my favorite Christie of all time. I think whenever someone says anything about Christie being unable to write characters, you really just have to point to this book, or The Hollow, and that idea is blown to smithereens.

    The solution to the mystery isn’t one of her most incredible in terms of identity or method, but it’s her most incredible in terms of the impact it has. The revelation behind the truth of Amyas’ death, and why everyone did what they did, is a moment of emotional clarity that you rarely see as well done as here in any mystery. I absolutely love the final exchange between Poirot and the murderer, which I think is some of her best writing. I know one of the main criticisms for this book is that it’s too talky, but Christie was one of a few Golden Age writers who could make a talky, and interview centric book good, and this is a prime example.

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