by Agatha Christie
Published in 1940
Also titled: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
In this book, Hercule Poirot goes to the dentist. And, as usual murder ensues.
This was a good mystery, and I greatly enjoyed it. But, as usual, the reason I enjoyed it was because Christie was willing to delve a little deeper than just “who killed whom,” and wrestle with some more serious issues, in this case, Is human life inherently valuable simply because it is human life?
My only beef with this story is that several characters had names that were very similar, making the story sometimes difficult to follow. (Wait, is this Blunt or Barnes?)
This mystery was a 4/5 for me, and below I take a brief look at those more serious issues, whilst revealing many spoilers…
Basically, the plot revolves around the fact that a dentist has died, either through suicide or murder. Various other people die along the way, but his was the first death, and the starting point for Poirot’s investigations. The general consensus, for those who are not Poirot, is that either the dentist killed himself, or there was some kind of attempt to kill one of his patients that day, namely, Alistair Blunt. Blunt is a financial giant, whose efforts are a large part of what is stabilizing and securing the British economy. (As usual, the fact that I am reading several non-fiction books on this time period is immensely helpful in understand the true distress facing the economy at this time… the slightest breath could send everything into chaos.)
In the end, though, Poirot reveals that it was Blunt who actually did the killing, because one woman knew a dangerous secret about his past. If revealed, this secret would destroy everything he had done. When confronted with the evidence, Blunt explains to Poirot his reasoning:
“I tell you this–and it’s not just self-preservation–I’m needed in the world. And do you know why? Because I’m an honest man. And because I’ve got common sense–and no particular axe of my own to grind.”
Poirot nodded. Strangely enough, he believed all that.
He said: “Yes, that is one side. You are the right man in the right place. You have sanity, judgment, balance. But there is the other side. Three human beings who are dead.”
“Yes, but think of them! Mabelle Sainsbury Seale–You said yourself–a woman with the brains of a hen! Amberiotis–a crook and a blackmailer!”
“I’ve told you before. I’m sorry about Morley. But after all–he was a decent fellow and a good dentist–but there are other dentists.”
“Yes,” said Poirot, “there are other dentists. And Frank Carter [being held for Morley’s murder]? You would have let him die, too, without regret?”
Blunt said: “I don’t waste any pity on him. He’s no good. An utter rotter.”
Poirot said: “But a human being…”
“Oh, well, we’re all human beings…”
“Yes, we are all human beings. That is what you have not remembered. You have said that Mabelle Sainsbury Seale was a foolish human being and Amberiotis an evil one, and Frank Carter a wastrel–and Morley–Morley was only a dentist and there are other dentists. That is where you and I, Mr. Blunt, do not see alike. For to me the lives of those four people were just as important as your life.”
“No, I am not wrong. You are a man of great natural honesty and rectitude. You took one step aside–and outwardly it has not affected you. Publicly you have continued the same–upright, trustworthy, honest. But within you the love of power grew to overwhelming heights. So you sacrificed four human lives and though them of no account.”
“Don’t you realize, Poirot, that the safety and happiness of the whole nation depends on me?”
“I am not concerned with nations, Monsieur. I am concerned with the lives of private individuals who have the right not to have their lives taken from them.”
This, I believe, is brilliant writing. On one hand, the man who presumably can “save the nation.” On the other, four people whose lives, objectively, mean nothing to the good of said nation. But Poirot realizes that it is not the right of any one man to decide who is or who is not of importance. Christie obviously believes–as do I–that human life is intrinsically valuable and worth preserving. For once the strong decide that they are more valuable than the weak, what chance do the weak have of survival? And what kind of world would it be then?