The theme of illusion and illusive identity is an essential element in Agatha Christie's technique as a writer of classic crime fiction. That illusion is a theme of infinite variety is demonstrated in the three novellas and final short story that pack this volume full of snap and crackle.
The title story, "Murder in the Mews", opens on 5th November, the night English children set off a blaze of colourful fireworks. The sky glows and bursts as comets, rockets, and squibs explode in memory of Guy Fawkes' plot to blow up the Palace of Westminster when King James I and VI opened Parliament in 1605. It is a night when any loud bang can be mistaken for another. A quite innocuous crack might be interpreted as something suspicious while the sound of explosives, however deadly, goes unnoticed. In this skilfully crafted novella, Monsieur Poirot and Inspector Japp investigate a fatal shooting of the fiancée of a Member of Parliament. Nobody hears the shot to determine the exact time of death. 'Nor likely to,' insists Mrs Hogg the chauffeur's wife, 'with fireworks popping off here, there and everywhere and my Eddie with his eyebrows singed off as near as nothing.' The question of when death took place is followed by the problem of how and why it occurred. Was the shooting murder or suicide? Moreover, has a perfectly constructed secondary plot been set in motion that only Poirot can prevent from achieving its lethal justice? "Murder in the Mews" is a story of moral dilemma as grave as that faced by any seventeenth-century plotter. 'Is it in honour or in execration that on the fifth of November the feu d'artifice are sent up?', muses Poirot, 'To blow up the English Parliament, was it a sin or a noble deed?'
Politics and all its knavish tricks are the background to "The Incredible Theft" in which Poirot investigates the disappearance of political documents. Political espionage has never been Agatha Christie's strong suite. Novels like "The Big Four" and "They Came to Baghdad" have always struck me as brave experiments that fizzle out without much sparkle, rather like a damp Roman Candle on Guy Fawkes' Night. This novella is the weakest in the collection but its relative brevity and the presence of Poirot rather than one of Mrs Christie's lesser-known or one-off sleuths prevents it from marring the volume. And there is excellent humour! 'If you could not make the best of both worlds', remarks Hercule Poirot to Lord Mayfield, 'you would not be a politician!' Indeed, what is politics if not a superlative form of illusion?
'To blow up the English Parliament,' Poirot pondered in "Murder in the Mews", 'was it a sin or a noble deed?' In "Dead Man's Mirror", the longest and best of the novellas in this collection, the author juggles with the ethics of whether it can ever be right to take a life in order to preserve the wellbeing of a third party. For Christie addicts, the first pages of the story hold a special delight in that Hercule Poirot meets Mr Satterthwaite, the dried up stick of a man who plays a fascinating role in "The Mysterious Mr Quin". Mr Satterthwaite and one of the dowager duchesses he invariably accompanies are quizzed as to the background of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, a baronet of fabulous wealth who traces his ancestry back to a twelfth-century crusader. Sir Gervase is fighting his own crusade, a supposed case of fraud, and has commissioned Poirot to take up arms at Hamborough Close, an English country house typical of the 'Christie Classic'. It is a tense tale of illusive bloodlines and bloodstains in which the Chevinix-Gore genealogy and the social class bias with which it is bound up supply both a motive for murder and a shroud to secrete that motive.
Readers might feel slightly cheated by the last story in this collection. Too short to be described as a novella, "Triangle at Rhodes" appears to be a 'make-weight', included for no better reason that to ensure the book has the right number of pages for a Christie publication. However, this is yet another intriguing tale of illusion that prefigures two later novels, "Evil Under the Sun" and "Death on the Nile". Hercule Poirot, taking a holiday in Cyprus, observes the development of what every reader of detective fiction immediately recognises as the typical love triangle. The geometry of passion, though, can prove delusive, all too like one of those trick drawings that we perceive in one way rather than another for as long as nothing in our field of vision contradicts the most likely optical hypothesis. The moment something disturbs our field of vision we notice an alternative pattern that suggests, rightly or wrongly, that our original perception was false. The love triangle Poirot sees in Rhodes appears typical of the form until something shifts our perspective, causing us to question which individuals are part of the deadly pattern. That Poirot perceives the illusion and the reality from the beginning is, perhaps, slightly provoking but, after all, Poirot is Poirot!
It has to be said that Agatha Christie does not excel as a writer of short stories. The best collections, such as "The Mysterious Mr Quin", are held together by a remarkable leitmotif. Other volumes, "The Hound of Death" for example, earn their place on the bookshelves by virtue of a one brilliantly constructed narrative. "Murder in the Mews" does not fall into either category. None of these four stories are in the Premier League of detective fiction. However, this volume is the most evenly balanced, well-composed collection of short narratives that Mrs Christie has produced and, what is more, there is gunpowder, treason, and plot aplenty!