“You comprehend my dear friend that it would be so much easier if Mrs McGinty was not Mrs McGinty, so to speak. If she could be what is called a Mystery Woman – a woman with a past.”
“Well she wasn’t,” said Spence stolidly “She was just Mrs McGinty, a more or less uneducated woman, who let rooms and went out charring. Thousands of them all over England,”
“But they do not get murdered.”
When you’re asked what your favourite Agatha Christie is, there are some classics that come straight to mind to her avid fans. And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express maybe? The Death of Roger Ackroyd? Potentially something like Evil Under The Sun if you’re particularly “adventurous”. If someone were to suggest Poirot novella Mrs McGinty’s Dead, the normal response would be “say again?”. Indeed that was my first thought in seeing it on a used book shelf.
Mrs McGinty’s Dead sees Detective Hercule Poirot venture to the English countryside village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of an old charwoman, Mrs McGinty. Whilst her lodger James Bentley has been arrested and convicted of the crime, neither Poirot nor the arresting officer are convinced of his guilt. Whilst trying to find other suspects, Poirot encounters a problem that plagues him throughout his investigation. Who would want to kill such a quiet woman with such a mundane life?
The genius of Mrs McGinty’s Dead comes down in many ways to this banality. On the one hand, most murder mysteries usually have the presumption the victim, for want of a better phrase, did something to get them killed. They ran afoul of someone, somewhere. In trying to find the cause for the murder of someone seemingly inconsequential, like Mrs McGinty, this trend is broken, and the mystery is deepened. However, there’s more to it than that. Fundamentally, murder mysteries as a form of literature embody a paradox. They are chilling and enthralling enigmas yet also simultaneously something we cannot associate with. Many people remark how the murder mystery genre provides an escape from their lives. Even characters in this book say as such. In being an “escape” however, there is a latent acceptation of it being distinct from those lives. The grandiose plots, theatrical dramas and incoherent motivations that have formed the semantic basis for the clichéd majority of the genre are a world away from the calmly ordered sanity of our everyday existences. In that way they can never truly be chilling for the reader – there is something that kicks in psychologically when we open the first page. Almost a necessitated suspension of disbelief. We know this kind of thing could never actually happen to us. This is where Mrs McGinty’s Dead breaks the mould. Mrs McGinty is the most inoffensive person you could ever hope to meet. A hardworking widow, with a sparse social life, her existence is frankly dull. You pity her, as Poirot himself does, for her sheer vapid normality. And yet she is still the victim of this brutal crime. The quintessential picture of banal British life, cleft in two. She is a normal woman, from a normal town, living a perfectly normal life. The thrill of the story becomes all the more gripping for being that much closer to home. The line between fiction and reality is blurred and the reader is left in the perplexing, unsettling hinterland in-between.
The book goes further to challenge the preconceptions baked into the genre. Everyone in the book seems to have a theory on what a murderer must be: arrogant, or male, or angry, or antisocial; the list is endless. Despite all of them having a theory and a suspect no one suspects Robin Upward, not even Poirot until the closing chapters. In choosing this man to be the murderer Christie puts up a mirror to us as readers. Often in literature and culture certain archetypes are prescribed when it comes to murderers. Whether it be the arrogant, scheming or occasionally sociopathic men, or “Black Widow” women, but these stringent, often very gendered presumptions govern the field. Whilst the spindly, antisocial loner of initial suspect James Bentley isn’t fully against the clichéd grain, you couldn’t imagine anything further from it than the effeminate, chatty and pretentiously artistic Robin Upward. The art of building a good twist comes in presenting a solution perfectly feasible, and yet something the reader wouldn’t even consider in a thousand years. It is something very few murder mysteries manage to do, yet it is fundamental to creating an engaging, believable plot. Here however it is managed with ease. In crafting Robin to be the unsuspecting almost laughable character that he is, we never even consider him for the crime, simply because of the stereotypes culture, society and even the genre itself have instilled in us. We aren’t always aware of these preconceptions, but when they are shattered, as they are at the end of Mrs McGinty’s Dead, we are left baffled, bewildered and ashamed we couldn’t see it sooner. It’s a feeling every good murder mystery should give you.
This is something Agatha Christie seeks to challenge across her works. Indeed, it forms the basis of Witness For The Prosecution. As the unassuming Leonard Vole comes to court charged with murder, no one, not his solicitor, nor the court witnesses, nor the great legal counsel Sir Wilfrid Robarts could imagine him committing such a heinous act. His seemingly emotionless German wife remarks repeatedly that the court will merely judge her for being a “foreigner”. No one can understand her decision later to publicly indite her own husband. Later it is revealed that the ensuing legal collapse of her testimony was her plan all along, playing into the jury’s preconceptions of her supposed lying foreign nature to assure her husband’s acquittal. In the end it is revealed that Mr Vole did commit murder, and enthusiastically; his mousy demeanour a successful guise to convince jurors of his innocence. Both of them portrayed the expected character and played off people’s baseless preconceptions, much like Robin does. More than that in both cases we ponder our own preconceptions. We wonder about how we each adopt personas in life, as a means to an end, or so as to fit into the social climate. At the end of the day it seems, we are all playing a role – in one way or another.
And in yet another way the line between murder and the everyday is blurred.
Throughout the book protagonists, antagonists and everyone in-between frequently recite an eponymous and chilling children’s song sung around the town of Broadhinny:
“Mrs. McGinty’s dead, how did she die?
down on one knee, just like I
Mrs. McGinty’s dead, how did she die?
holding her hand out, just like I
Mrs. McGinty’s dead, how did she die?
sticking her neck out, just like I”
It is the final line that proves the most pertinent here. At the end of the day we are just like her. Her story, and worse her fate, could be awaiting any of us. By subverting the often repetitive semantics of the genre, Christie manages to give it new life. And so, the once tarnished thrill of the murder mystery kick-starts again. This time each and every death is all the more real and all the more close to home. Any one of us could be next.
Andrew Kersley is Politics and Economics coeditor, Staff Writer at The Boar and a third year History student. He can be found on Twitter @AndrewKersley