This is where the marketing and publishing of Agatha Christie's vast output of novels is so good. The 2007 signature editions are just the right size to be slipped into a bag or case and a readable length.
It was time to remedy that situation by reading Five Little Pigs, which was named by John Curran, author of Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks, as one of her ten best novels.
Caroline Crale was tried and convicted of the murder of her husband, painter Amyas Crale, but because of mitigating circumstances the sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. She died only a year after the trial.
Sixteen years later her daughter, Carla Lemarchant, returns to England from Canada and asks Hercule Poirot to investigate the murder. When Carla was twenty one she had been given a letter her mother had written before her death insisting on her innocence.
If Caroline did not kill Amyas Crale there were five other "little pigs" who could have done it.
Philip Blake, a close friend of Amyas, a stockbroker, who went to market.
Meredith Blake, an amateur herbalist, who stayed at home.
Elsa Greer, a three time divorcee, now Lady Dittisham, who had her roast beef.
Cecilia Williams, the devoted governess, who had none.
Angela Warren, the disfigured sister, who cried all the way home.
Poirot, interviews the barristers, solicitors and police superintendent, before going on to speak to the five suspects, and persuade them all to write their own accounts of the events that occurred sixteen years previously. The novel is beautifully structured, as Christie produces what amounts to a character study of each of five very different suspects, and then in a classic denouement Poirot reconstructs the murder leading the reader to the wrong conclusion, before unmasking the real perpetrator.
On the evidence of Five Little Pigs, written in 1942, Agatha Christie is an underestimated writer, because not only is this novel entertaining with its clues and puzzle to solve, but contains character studies and a lot of social commentary.
Perhaps it is because she sells in such vast quantities that other authors enjoy taking pot shots at her novels.
P.D. James objects to 'her cardboard cut out characters', and the American Edmund Wilson objected to her on the grounds that he liked murders that happened 'for a reason, rather than just to provide a body'. [from an article by Lucy Mangan in today's Guardian]
But in Five Little Pigs her characters are sharply drawn, believable [for 1942] and quite sensitive to the way society is moving.
Miss Williams the governess for instance.
Poirot said: ' You hold no brief for men?'
She answered drily:
'Men have the best of this world. I hope it will not always be so.'
'I feel very strongly about the marriage tie. Unless it is respected and upheld, a country degenerates.'
Five Little Pigs is a brilliant example of Agatha Christie's detective fiction, with just the right number of suspects, red herrings, interestingly flawed characters and teasers to leave the reader entertained, and satisfied by the experience.
Hercule Poirot said:
'Have you ever reflected, Mr Blake, that the reason for murder is nearly always to be found by a study of the person murdered?'
'I hadn't exactly--yes I suppose I see what you mean.'
'Until you know exactly what sort of a person the victim was, you cannot begin to see the circumstances of a crime clearly.'