|Curtain: Poirot's Last Case|
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Not known|
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|Publication date||September 1975|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||224 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|LC Classification||PZ3.C4637 Cu PR6005.H66|
|Preceded by||Poirot's Early Cases|
|Followed by||Sleeping Murder|
Curtain: Poirot's Last Case is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in September 1975 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year.
The novel features Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings in their final appearances in Christie's works (see below). Christie wrote the novel in the early 1940s, during World War II. Partly fearing for her own survival, and partly wanting to have a fitting end to Poirot's series of novels, Christie had the novel locked away in a bank vault for over thirty years. The final Poirot novel that Christie wrote, Elephants Can Remember, was published in 1972, followed by Christie's last novel, Postern of Fate. Knowing that she could no longer write any novels, the elderly Christie authorised Curtain's removal from the vault and subsequent publication. It was the last of her books to be published during her lifetime.
Not only does the novel return the characters to the setting of her first, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but it reunites Poirot and Hastings, who had not appeared together since Dumb Witness in 1937.
A murderer, identified by Poirot simply by the letter X, has been completely unsuspected of involvement in five previous murders, in all of which there was a clear suspect. Four of these suspects have subsequently died (one of them hanged), but in the case of Freda Clay, who gave her aunt an overdose of morphine, there was considered to be too little evidence to prosecute. Hastings agrees that it is highly unlikely to be coincidence if X was connected with all five deaths, but Poirot, now using a wheelchair due to arthritis and attended by his new valet Curtiss, will not give him X's name. He merely makes it clear that X is in the house, which has been turned into a private hotel by the new owners: Colonel and Mrs Luttrell.
Hastings makes certain discoveries in the next few days. Elizabeth Cole, another guest at the hotel, reveals to him that she is in fact the sister of Margaret Litchfield, who had confessed to the murder of their father in one of the five cases. Margaret had died in Broadmoor Asylum and Elizabeth is stigmatised by the trauma. Later that day Hastings and several others overhear an argument between the Luttrells. Shortly afterwards, Mr Lutrell wounds his wife with a rook rifle, having apparently mistaken her for a rabbit. Hastings reflects that this is precisely the sort of accident with which X is associated, but Mrs Luttrell rapidly recovers.
Hastings is concerned by the attentions paid to his daughter Judith by Major Allerton, whom he discovers is married but estranged from his Catholic wife. While Hastings and Elizabeth are out with Stephen Norton, a newly arrived birdwatching guest, Norton seems to see something disturbing through his binoculars. Hastings suspects it is something to do with Allerton and, when his clumsy attempts to persuade Judith to give Allerton up merely antagonise her, he plans Allerton's murder. He falls asleep while waiting to poison Allerton, and feels differently about things when he awakes the next day.
Barbara Franklin, the wife of Judith's employer Dr Franklin and the childhood friend of Sir William Boyd Carrington, dies the following evening. She has been poisoned with physostigmine sulphate, an extract from the Calabar bean that her husband has been researching. After Poirot's testimony at the inquest – that Mrs Franklin had been upset and that she had emerged from Dr Franklin's laboratory with a small bottle – a verdict of suicide is brought in, but Hastings suspects that the death was murder and Poirot confirms this.
Norton, still evidently upset about what he has seen through the binoculars, asks Hastings for his advice, which is to confide in Poirot. Poirot arranges a meeting between them and says that Norton must not speak to anyone further of what he has seen. That night, Hastings is awakened by a noise and sees Norton – with his dressing-gown, untidy grey hair and characteristic limp – go into his bedroom. The next morning, however, Norton is found dead in his locked room with a bullet-hole perfectly in the centre of his forehead, the key in his dressing-gown pocket and a pistol (remembered by a housemaid as belonging to him) nearby. Apparently, X has struck again.
Poirot takes Hastings over the evidence, pointing out that his belief that he saw Norton that night relies on loose evidence: the dressing-gown, the hair, the limp. Nevertheless, it seems that there is no one in the house who could have impersonated Norton, who was a short man. Hastings despairs that the mystery will ever be solved when Poirot himself dies that night, apparently of natural causes. He nevertheless leaves Hastings three conscious clues: a copy of Othello, a copy of John Ferguson (a 1915 play by St. John Greer Ervine), and a note telling Hastings to speak to his permanent valet, George. In the weeks that follow the death of Poirot, Hastings is staggered to discover that Judith has all along been in love with Dr Franklin, and is now marrying him and going with him to do research in Africa. Was Judith the murderer? When Hastings speaks to George, he discovers that Poirot wore a wig, and that Poirot's reasons for employing Curtiss were vague. Perhaps the murderer was Curtiss all along?
The solution, and one of the greatest of Christie's twist endings, is contained in a written confession that is sent to Hastings from Poirot's lawyers, four months after Poirot's death from a heart attack. Poirot reveals that he wore a false moustache as well as a wig and explains that X was Norton, a man who had perfected the technique of which Iago in Othello (like a character in Ervine's play) is master: applying just such psychological pressure as is needed to provoke someone to commit murder, without his victim truly realising what is happening. Again and again Norton had demonstrated this ability, first by apparently clumsy remarks that goaded Colonel Luttrell to take a shot at his wife. The shot is not fatal and Mrs Luttrell recovers. Then, Norton carefully manipulated Hastings to resolve upon the murder of Major Allerton. It was Norton's contrivances that created the impression to Hastings that Judith loved Allerton, when in fact she has been in love with Franklin all along. Hastings's potential murder was averted by Poirot, who put sleeping pills in Hastings' hot chocolate that night. Poirot knew Hastings was not a murderer, but had he not intervened Hastings likely would have hanged.
Deprived of his prey twice, Norton turned to Mrs Franklin, fertile territory, as she was really a conniving and mercenary woman underneath her timid facade. Mrs Franklin was successfully manipulated by Norton to attempt the murder of her husband, after which she could be reunited with the wealthy Boyd Carrington. By an ironic twist of fate, Hastings himself had inadvertently intervened, by turning a revolving bookcase table while seeking out a book to solve a crossword clue (Othello again, coincidentally), thus accidentally swapping the cups of coffee and the one with poison in it was actually drunk by Mrs Franklin herself. Poirot knew all this but could not prove it and sensed that Norton, who had been deliberately vague about whom he had seen through the binoculars when attempting to imply that he had seen Allerton and Judith, was now intending to reveal that he had seen Franklin and Judith, thus almost certainly implicating them in the apparent murder of Mrs Franklin. The immediate solution was for Poirot to heavily insist that Mrs Franklin had actually done what she had meretriciously whined about doing – taking her own life – which no one ever believed she would do. Poirot's strange insistence confuses Hastings, but the strength of Poirot's word carries the day.
However, the only permanent solution was for Poirot himself to murder Norton. At their meeting, he revealed to Norton what he suspected and said that he intended to 'execute' him. He then gave him hot chocolate. Norton, who did not deny anything, remained arrogantly self-assured in the face of both the accusation and the threat, insisted on swapping cups, but both contained the same sleeping pills which Poirot had previously used to drug Hastings; guessing that Norton would request the swap, Poirot had drugged both cups, knowing that his time taking the pills would give him a higher tolerance for a dose that would put Norton out.
With Norton unconscious, Poirot, whose incapacity had been faked (for which he needed a temporary valet who wouldn't realise this and would accept his word without question, the reason Poirot did not travel with his long-term permanent valet George, who knows Poirot's true physical condition, and with whom Hastings later speaks), moved the body back to Norton's room in his wheelchair. Then, he disguised himself as Norton by removing his wig, putting on Norton's dressing-gown and ruffling up his grey hair. Poirot was the only short suspect at the house. With it established that Norton was alive after he left Poirot's room, Poirot shot him – with characteristic symmetry – in the centre of his forehead. He locked the room with a duplicate key; both Hastings and the reader would have assumed that the duplicate key was to Poirot's own room, but the detective had said he had changed rooms before Norton's arrival, and it was to this previous room that he had the key.
Poirot's last actions were to write the confession and await his own death by moving the amyl nitrite phials out of his own reach and dying of a heart attack, thus avoiding the traditional arrogance of the murderer who has come to believe that he had the right to kill those he deemed it necessary to eliminate. Poirot had always insisted during his long career that a person who had taken another person's life, except in the cause of self-defence, could no longer be relied upon to respect the sanctity of life, and hence Poirot's own relentless insistence on bringing guilty parties to justice. Poirot's last wish is implicitly that Hastings will marry Elizabeth Cole: a final instance of the inveterate matchmaking that characterised his entire career.
- Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective
- Captain Arthur Hastings, Poirot's friend and Judith's father
- Curtiss, Poirot's new valet
- Dr John Franklin, a research chemist
- Barbara Franklin, his invalid wife
- Judith Hastings, Franklin's laboratory assistant and Captain Hastings' independent daughter
- Nurse Craven, nurse to Barbara Franklin
- Sir William Boyd Carrington, former governor of a province of India
- Major Allerton, a womaniser
- Colonel Toby Luttrell, owner of Styles Court
- Mrs Daisy Luttrell, his wife
- Elizabeth Cole
- Stephen Norton
- George, Poirot's former valet
Literary significance and reception
In a review titled The last labour of Hercules, Matthew Coady in The Guardian, on 9 October 1975, wrote that the book was both "a curiosity and a triumph". He repeated the tale of the book being written some thirty years before and then stated that, "through it, Dame Agatha, whose recent work has shown a decline, is seen once more at the peak of her ingenuity." Commenting on the return of Hastings, whom Coady called the "densest of Dr Watsons [but] ... never has the stupidity of the faithful companion-chronicler been so cunningly exploited as it is here." Coady summarised the absolute basics of the plot and the questions raised within it and then said, "In providing the answers, the great illusionist of crime fiction provides a model demonstration of reader manipulation. The seemingly artless, simplistic Christie prose is mined with deceits. Inside the old, absurd conventions of the Country House mystery she reworks the least likely person trick with a freshness rivalling the originality she displayed nearly 50 years ago in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Coady concluded, "For the egotistic Poirot, hero of some 40 books…it is a dazzlingly theatrical finish. 'Goodbye, cher ami', runs his final message to the hapless Hastings. 'They were good days.' For addicts, everywhere, they were among the best."
Two months later, Coady nominated Curtain as his Book of the Year in a column of critic's choices. He said, "No crime story of 1975 has given me more undiluted pleasure. As a critic, I welcome it, as a reminder that sheer ingenuity can still amaze."
Robert Barnard: "Written in the 'forties, designed for publication after Christie's death, but in fact issued just before it. Based on an idea toyed with in Peril at End House (chapter 9) – a clever and interesting one, but needing greater subtlety in the handling than Christie's style or characterisation will allow (the characters here are in any case quite exceptionally pallid). In fact, for a long-cherished idea, and as an exit for Poirot, this is oddly perfunctory in execution."
References or Allusions
References to other works
Due to its early date of composition, Curtain takes no account of Poirot's later career. While details are only very occasionally anachronistic (such as the mentions of hanging, which had been abolished in Great Britain in 1965) they often have implications for the series as a whole that can only be dismissed by remembering that Christie probably intended the novel to be published earlier than it was; the fifth paragraph ("Wounded in the war that for me would always be the war—the war that was wiped out now by a second and more desperate war") sets it within World War II.
Hastings, who had been invalided out of the First World War, became involved in the first Styles investigation in 1916, at which time he was around thirty years old. We know that Poirot was alive to solve the mystery in Elephants Can Remember, which was set in 1972-3. Quite apart from Poirot's age, Hastings must therefore himself be around ninety years old at the time of Curtain. While this does not make it impossible that he should marry Elizabeth Cole, who is thirty-five, it certainly makes it exceptional. Hastings himself estimates in Chapter 8 that Elizabeth is "well over ten years my junior" and an age of fifty is far more suitable for the way that he describes himself in the novel.
Another detail is Poirot's reference to a trip to Egypt for his health. At the time that Curtain was written this was almost certainly intended to be a reference to Death on the Nile, but if Hastings has seen Poirot a year before his death, then we must suppose that Poirot made a second trip there in about 1974. This, however, is merely to tie oneself in knots attempting to suggest a true, consistent biography that stands behind an entirely fictional sequence of events.
Poirot mentions that once in Egypt he attempted to warn a murderer before the person committed the crime. That case is the one retold in Death on the Nile. He mentions that there was another case in which he had done the same thing: almost certainly that retold in “Triangle at Rhodes” (published in Murder in the Mews in 1937). In The ABC Murders, Inspector Japp says to Poirot: "Shouldn't wonder if you ended by detecting your own death". A clue of Curtain already being formed in the author's mind in 1935. On 6 August 1975, The New York Times published a front-page obituary of Poirot with a photograph to mark his death.
The novel was adapted in 2013 starring David Suchet as Poirot. It was the final episode of the final series of Agatha Christie's Poirot, despite being the first of the series to be filmed. Hugh Fraser again returned to the role of Hastings after appearing in The Big Four earlier in the series, following a ten-year absence; stars such as Alice Orr-Ewing (Judith Hastings), Helen Baxendale (Elizabeth Cole), Anne Reid (Daisy Luttrell), Matthew McNulty (Major Allerton), Shaun Dingwall (Dr Franklin), Aidan McArdle (Stephen Norton) and Philip Glenister (Sir William Boyd-Carrington) were among the other cast. The program was aired in Britain on 13 November 2013. The adaptation only mentions the Litchfield, Sharples, and Etherington murders, and Margaret Litchfield is hanged during the opening credits, whereas in the novel she dies in an asylum. The killer is also not labelled as 'X,' although it is alluded when Poirot speaks to them. Otherwise, the adaptation remains extremely faithful to the novel.
- 1975, Collins Crime Club (London), September 1975, Hardcover, 224 pp ISBN 0-00-231619-6
- 1975, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 238 pp, ISBN 0-396-07191-0
- 1976, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 280 pp
- 1976, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 325 pp, ISBN 0-85456-498-5
- 1977, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 188 pp
- 1992, G.K. Hall & Co. large-print edition, Hardcover, ISBN 0-8161-4539-3
In the US the novel was serialised in Ladies Home Journal in two abridged instalments from July (Volume XCII, Number 7) to August 1975 (Volume XCII, Number 8) with an illustration by Mark English.
- Czech: Opona (Curtain)
- Dutch: Het doek valt (The Curtain Falls)
- Estonian: Eesriie (Curtain)
- Finnish: "Esirippu" (Curtain)
- French : Poirot quitte la scène (Poirot leaves the stage/Poirot gives up the stage)
- German: Vorhang: Hercule Poirots letzter Fall (Curtain: Hercule Poirot's Last Case)
- Hebrew: מסך המוות – החקירה האחרונה של הרקולה פוארו (Curtain of Death – The last Investigation of Hercule Poirot)
- Hungarian: Függöny (Poirot utolsó esete) (Curtain [Poirot's Last Case])
- Indonesia: "Tirai" (Curtain)
- Italian: Sipario (L'ultima avventura di Poirot) (Curtain [Poirot's Last Adventure])
- Polish: Kurtyna (Curtain)
- Português: Cai o pano (The Curtain Falls)
- Norwegian: Teppet faller (The Curtain Falls)
- Romanian: Cortina(The Curtain)
- Slovak: Opona (Poirotov posledný prípad) (Curtain [Poirot's Last Case])
- Spanish: Telón. El último caso de Poirot (Curtain. The last case of Poirot)
- Swedish: Ridå – Hercule Poirots sista fall (Curtain – The last case of Hercule Poirot)
- Turkish: Ve perde indi (And the curtain closed)
- Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
- Cooper and Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (Pages 82 and 87) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- "Others will correct me if I'm wrong, but I think "Rook & Rabbit" rifles were developed soon after 1880 when the "technology" of conical bullets and rifling had developed sufficiently. People wanted a small calibre rifle for varmint shooting, and for teaching boys (especially the young sons of wealthy fathers) to shoot. They were made in a vast range of calibres, mainly established pistol calibres, and a large proportion were very well made and decorated." internetgunclub.com, Retrieved on 10 December 2006
- The Guardian. 9 October 1975 (p. 13).
- The Guardian. 11 December 1975 (p. 14).
- The Observer, 5 October 1975 (p. 23)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (Page 191). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Hastings writes of John Cavendish in Chapter 1 of The Mysterious Affair at Styles: "He was a good fifteen years my senior […] though he hardly looked his forty-five years."
- in Chapter 1 of that novel, Mrs Oliver refers to "Famous writers of 1973 – or whichever year it is that we've got to now." Elephants Can Remember was actually published in 1972.
- Haining, Peter. Agatha Christie: Murder in Four Acts (p. 17). Virgin Books 1990; ISBN 1-85227-273-2.