Cat Among the Pigeons
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Not known|
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|2 November 1959|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||256 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|Preceded by||Ordeal by Innocence|
|Followed by||The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding|
Cat Among the Pigeons is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 2 November 1959, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in March 1960 with a copyright date of 1959. The UK edition retailed at twelve shillings and sixpence (12/6), and the US edition at $2.95.
It features Christie's Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who makes a very late appearance in the final third of the novel. The emphasis on espionage in the early part of the novel relates it to Christie's international adventures (such as They Came to Baghdad) and to the Tommy and Tuppence stories.
At the start of the summer term at Meadowbank School for Girls, the most prestigious prep school in England, Miss Bulstrode, the popular but aging headmistress, has no reason to believe that the challenges facing her on parent's day will be more than the occasional irate or inebriated parent. She scarcely listens when Mrs Upjohn, a parent, who just happened to have worked in military intelligence, looks out the window and recognizes on the school campus someone whom she recognised and whose presence at the school apparently surprised but did not alarm her. Mrs Upjohn is still talking but the crucial moment has passed. After Mrs Upjohn leaves, Miss Bulstrode has a sudden feeling that she has missed something important to which she should have paid more attention but then dismissed the notion.
The story flashes back three months to Ramat, a kingdom in the Middle East, where a revolution is about to take place. Prince Ali Yusuf gives a fortune in jewels into the safekeeping of Bob Rawlinson, his pilot and the only person he trusts to take them out of the country. Rawlinson conceals the jewels in the luggage of his sister, Mrs Joan Sutcliffe, travelling with her daughter, Jennifer. He is seen doing this by a rather sinister woman via a handheld mirror on her balcony in the next room. Soon after, both Ali Yusuf and Bob Rawlinson are killed in an aeroplane crash after a flight mechanic sabotages their plane. British Intelligence among others get onto the trail of the jewels. Their attention focuses on Meadowbank School, where not only Jennifer, but also the prince's cousin, Shaista, are studying.
This term at Meadowbank includes both old and new staff. Miss Chadwick helped Miss Bulstrode found the school. Miss Vansittart has been teaching there for several years, and Miss Rich for 18 months. Miss Johnson is the girls' matron. The new staff include Angèle Blanche (French teacher), Grace Springer (gym teacher), Ann Shapland (Miss Bulstrode's new secretary), and Adam Goodman (gardener). Miss Bulstrode is nearing retirement, and is deciding whom to appoint as her successor. Many assume Vansittart will be the successor. But Bulstrode is also considering Rich, who is young and has lots of ideas. She is not considering Chadwick, whom she believes to be too old. These deliberations are cut short when Miss Springer is shot dead in the Sports Pavilion late at night. Johnson and Chadwick discover her body.
Inspector Kelsey interviews everyone and Adam Goodman reveals his true identity (undercover British agent posing as a gardener) to Miss Bulstrode. Jennifer Sutcliffe, an expert tennis player, complains that her racquet feels unbalanced and writes to her mother asking for a new one. Meanwhile, she swaps racquets with Julia Upjohn, who prefers Jennifer's as it was refurbished recently. Later a strange woman arrives and gives Jennifer a new racquet, saying it is a gift from her Aunt Gina. The woman takes the old racquet (actually Julia's racquet). Julia later realises that Aunt Gina would have known that Jennifer's racquet had been refurbished and restrung recently, so she would not have assumed the problem is in the strings. Soon enough, Jennifer's aunt writes that she did not send the new racquet.
One weekend, Shaista is kidnapped by a chauffeur posing as the one sent by her uncle to take her home. That night there is another murder in the Sports Pavilion, where Miss Vansittart is found dead, having been coshed. Many of the girls go home, but the resourceful Julia, who has been pondering the exchange of the racquets, takes her racquet back to her room and discovers gems in the hollowed-out handle. She hears someone at the door who quietly turns the knob and attempts to enter. Julia places furniture against the door to prevent entry and is ready to scream out loud but the person who turned the knob leaves, identity unknown. The following day Julia flees the school to tell her story to Hercule Poirot, of whose career she learned from a friend of her mother. The police focus on the newcomer, Miss Blanche, who knows the identity of the murderer. She is killed for attempting blackmail. With three unsolved murders and the school hemorrhaging fearful students, Poirot arrives.
Poirot explains that Princess Shaista is an impostor: the real Shaista had been kidnapped earlier in Switzerland, and the apparent abduction was the impostor's escape from the school. She is the representative of a group of interests but did not know where the gems had been concealed. The murderer knew where the jewels were concealed, having been in Ramat to see Bob Rawlinson hide them. Eileen Rich, who was thought to be sick at the time, was in Ramat. Jennifer thought she had recognised her, although the woman she saw was far heavier. (Miss Rich had been in Ramat for the delivery of an illegitimate child, who was stillborn.) Just as it seems that Miss Rich is becoming a suspect, Mrs Upjohn enters the room and identifies the woman whom she had known fifteen years earlier in her intelligence work: Ann Shapland, known in intelligence circles as a ruthless espionage agent and a mercenary. Her soubriquet was "Angelica". It was Shapland who had had the room next to Bob Rawlinson and had seen him put the gems in the handle of the tennis racket.
Christie describes what happens then: "Inspector Kelsey was quick and so was Adam, but they were not quick enough. Ann Shapland had sprung to her feet. In her hand was a small wicked-looking automatic and it pointed straight at Mrs Upjohn. Miss Bulstrode, quicker than the two men, moved sharply forward, but swifter still was Miss Chadwick. It was not Mrs Upjohn that she was trying to shield, it was the woman who was standing between Ann Shapland and Mrs Upjohn." Chadwick is fatally wounded.
Shapland had murdered Springer, who had caught her while she was searching the Sports Pavilion for the jewels. She also murdered Mademoiselle Blanche, the would-be blackmailer. But she did not kill Miss Vansittart, and has a perfect alibi for that night. Vansittart was killed by Chadwick, in an unpremeditated fit of passion. Chadwick had found Vansittart, whom she disliked, in the Sports Pavilion the second night, kneeling in front of Shaista's locker. Chadwick was carrying a sandbag for protection, and there was Vansittart in a perfect position to be coshed. Chadwick apparently suffered a psychotic break and bludgeoned Vansittart. The same murderer committed the first and third murders, while the second and third murders were by the same method (a sandbag); Shapland had used the sandbag only to make it seem that the second and third murders were linked.
Dying, Chadwick confesses she imagined the removal of the widely presumed successor (Vansittart) would make Bulstrode change her mind about retiring. Bulstrode comforts her and Chadwick dies.
Miss Bulstrode reconfirms her decision to make Miss Rich her eventual successor, and together they determine to help rebuild Meadowbank. Poirot turns over the gems to the enigmatic “Mr. Robinson” who, in turn, delivers them to the English woman who had been secretly married to Prince Ali Yusuf when he was a student. She gives Julia Upjohn one emerald as a reward.
- Hercule Poirot, the famed Belgian detective
- Inspector Kelsey, the investigating officer
- “Adam Goodman”, an operative for Special Branch, working undercover at Meadowbank as a gardener
- Honoria Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank School for Girls
- Ann Shapland, Miss Bulstrode's secretary
- Elspeth Johnson, the matron
- Miss Chadwick, a long-serving and senior teacher who helped found Meadowbank
- Eleanor Vansittart, a senior teacher, set to succeed Miss Bulstrode
- Grace Springer, a sports teacher
- Angèle Blanche, a French teacher
- Eileen Rich, a teacher
- Miss Blake, a teacher
- Miss Rowan, a teacher
- Princess Shaista, the cousin of the late Prince Ali Yusuf of Ramat
- Prince Ali Yusuf, hereditary Sheikh of Ramat
- Bob Rawlinson, the personal pilot of the Prince of Ramat (and the Prince's best friend)
- Jennifer Sutcliffe, niece of Bob Rawlinson and pupil at Meadowbank; daughter of Joan and Henry Sutcliffe
- Lady Veronica, the disruptive and tipsy mother of twin daughters enrolled at the school
- Joan Sutcliffe, Bob Rawlinson's sister and Jennifer's mother
- Henry Sutcliffe, Joan's husband and Jennifer's father
- Julia Upjohn, pupil at Meadowbank and Jennifer's friend
- Mrs Upjohn, Julia Upjohn's mother, and a former British intelligence agent
- Colonel Ephraim Pikeaway, a senior figure in Special Branch
- John Edmundson, a member of the Foreign Office; third secretary in the British embassy in Ramat at the time of the revolution.
- Derek O'Connor, a member of the Foreign Office
- "Mr Robinson", a shadowy figure, of importance in international affairs
- Denis Rathbone, Ann Shapland's boyfriend
- Briggs, the gardener
Literary significance and reception
Maurice Richardson of The Observer of 8 November 1959 said, "Some nice school scenes with bogus sheikhs sweeping up in lilac Cadillacs to deposit highly scented and busted houris for education, and backwoods peers shoving hockey-stick-toting daughters out of battered Austins. It's far from vintage Christie, but you'll want to know who."
Robert Barnard: "Girls' school background surprisingly well done, with humour and some liberality of outlook. Some elements are reminiscent of Tey's Miss Pym Disposes. Marred by the international dimension and the spy element, which do not jell with the traditional detective side. Fairly typical example of her looser, more relaxed style."
References or allusions
References to other works
In Chapter 17, III, of the novel, Julia tells Poirot that she has been told of him by Maureen Summerhayes, at whose rather dilapidated guest house he had been forced to stay during the case related in Mrs. McGinty's Dead. Also, Miss Bulstrode is mentioned in a later Poirot novel with a strong school-girl plot, Hallowe'en Party.
References to actual history, geography and current science
In Chapter 13, II, of the novel, mention is made of popular British comedy actress Joyce Grenfell. In 1957, Grenfell had appeared in Blue Murder at St Trinian's, a comedy set in a girls' school with a plot that includes a jewel thief and a foreign prince.
The location of the fictional Sheikdom of Ramat is not revealed in the novel, but by some hints (proximity to Aden and mountains) it is likely that Ramat was one of numerous principalities of south Yemen which still existed at the time when the book was finished. Sheik Ali Yusuf of Ramat was a graduate of an unnamed English public school. Agatha Christie spent considerable time in Iraq, whose last King, Feisal II, was a graduate of Harrow.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
A television adaptation of the novel for the series Agatha Christie's Poirot was broadcast on 28 September 2008, in the UK and on 21 June 2009 in the US. David Suchet once again reprised his role as Poirot and it also starred Harriet Walter as Miss Bulstrode, Natasha Little as Ann Shapland, Claire Skinner as Miss Rich, Miranda Raison as Mlle Blanche, Elizabeth Berrington as Miss Springer, Katie Leung as Hsui Tai Wan, Raji James as Prince Ali Yusuf, and Adam Croasdell as Adam Goodman. The adaptation was written by Mark Gatiss and has several significant plot changes from the original novel, including:
- Moving the period of the story from the 1950s to the 1930s, as a result of which most of the novel's scenes set in Egypt and the Middle East and the scenes related to the British secret service had to be rewritten or eliminated: instead of Rawlinson and the Prince being killed in a plane crash while attempting to leave the country, the pair die in a shootout during the revolution.
- Changing the primary murder weapon from a revolver to a javelin.
- Introducing Poirot at the beginning of the story as an old friend of Miss Bulstrode, come to be a guest speaker at the school, rather than two-thirds of the way through as in the novel.
- Eliminating the character of Miss Vansittart. The murder of Vansittart, however, is kept loosely: in the adaptation, Miss Chadwick coshes Miss Rich in the hope of being nominated as Miss Bulstrode's successor, but Rich survives the attack.
- The addition of a subplot concerning the games mistress (Miss Springer)'s blackmail of another teacher: this version of the character was much more sadistic and bullying than the one in Christie's original story, whom she described as a "woman you could neither love or hate".
- Eliminating the murderer's attempt at stealing the jewels from Jennifer Sutcliffe by posing as a stranger with a new tennis racquet from her Aunt Gina; subsequently Jennifer is not the unobservant and uninterested character as in the novel. Another small fact related to the theme of concealed identity – a pregnant and hardly recognisable Miss Rich being in Ramat at the time of the revolution – is also left out of the adaptation, although Miss Rich was still pregnant and delivered a stillborn child during a leave of absence in the adaptation.
- Eliminating the "Mr. Robinson" character and Prince Ali Yusuf's secret wife. Instead, at the end of the story, it is Poirot who takes charge of the jewels (which are all rubies rather than a mixture of jewels), returning them to the Foreign Office to be returned to the real Princess Shaista, but secretly leaving one to Julia Upjohn in a bag of gobstoppers.
- 1959, Collins Crime Club (London), 2 November 1959, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1960, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), March 1960, Hardcover, 224 pp
- 1961, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 216 pp
- 1962, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 187 pp
- 1964, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 255 pp
In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in six abridged instalments from 26 September (Volume 106, Number 2771) to 31 October 1959 (Volume 106, Number 2776) with illustrations by "Fancett". In the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the November 1959 (Volume LXXVI, Number 11) issue of the Ladies Home Journal with an illustration by Joe DeMers.
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 15)
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- The Observer, 8 November 1959 (p. 23)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (p. 190). Fontana Books, 1990; ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON LD116.