Death in the Clouds
Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition. See Publication history (below) for UK first edition jacket image.
|Publisher||Dodd, Mead and Company|
|10 March 1935|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||304 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|Preceded by||Three Act Tragedy|
|Followed by||The A.B.C. Murders|
Death in the Clouds is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company on 10 March 1935 under the title of Death in the Air and in UK by the Collins Crime Club in the July of the same year under Christie's original title. The US edition retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6). The book features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and Chief Inspector Japp.
In the book, Poirot is a passenger on board a flight from Paris to Croydon. Some time before landing, one of the passengers, Madame Giselle – a wealthy French moneylender – is found dead. Initially, a reaction to a wasp sting is postulated, but Poirot spies the true cause of death: a poison-tipped dart, apparently fired from a blowgun. It becomes apparent that the victim has been murdered.
Frustrated with the evident artificiality of the blowpipe, an item that could hardly have been used without being seen by another passenger, Poirot suggests that the means of delivering the dart may have been something else. Is it the flute of one passenger, or perhaps one of the ancient tubes carried by one of the two French archaeologists (father and son) on board? Or maybe Lady Horbury's long cigarette holder? Why were there two coffee spoons in the victim's saucer?
Poirot's focus is upon a wasp that has been seen in the compartment and which provided evidence for the original theory of the cause of death. Without explaining himself, he asks for a detailed list of the items in the possession of the passengers, and finds an incriminating clue, but does not specify to which passenger the clue pertains, although he expresses considerable surprise. Madame Giselle is suspected of using blackmail to ensure her clients paid up, so any of the passengers could either have owed her money or feared exposure. Equally, Madame Giselle had an estranged daughter who will inherit her considerable estate: could one of the female passengers be this heiress? Much of the novel focuses on the pursuit of this line of inquiry, with the passengers all coming under suspicion in turn. Special attention is given to Mr Clancy, a detective novelist who enables Christie to include the same sort of parodies of her craft achieved in other novels through the character of Ariadne Oliver.
The only other suspect who proves of material significance is, however, the Countess of Horbury, a woman from the lower classes who married well. She was one of Madame Giselle's debtors and her wealthy husband has cut her off. The countess' maid has been called into the compartment during the flight where she would have had the perfect opportunity to commit the crime. When this maid is revealed to be none other than the victim's daughter and heir, Anne Morisot, it seems she must be the murderess. But the maid was only on the flight by accident, having been asked to be there at the last moment. Moreover, the death of Anne Morisot from poison on the boat-train to Boulogne leaves no clear suspect.
Poirot reveals in the dénouement that dentist Norman Gale, heretofore seen as a sympathetic protagonist with a crush on the novel's ingenue heroine, Jane Grey, is none other than Anne's new husband. Gale's plans – almost certainly including the eventual murder of Anne herself – had been laid well in advance. Gale brought his dentist's jacket on board—the item which had made Poirot suspicious earlier when reviewing the passengers' list of onboard possessions. In the apparently innocuous moments when he apparently went to the water closet, he actually changed into this jacket to pose as a steward. Under the pretense of delivering a coffee spoon to Miss Giselle he had walked up the aisle and stabbed her with the poisoned thorn. As Poirot puts it: "No one notices a steward particularly." Gale's intention had been to frame the Countess, and the blowpipe found behind Poirot's seat would have been found behind hers had they not switched seats at the last moment. Poirot invites Mr Clancy to the dénouement where he gleefully allows the novelist to see how a real-life detective solves a case, to both men's great enjoyment. Finally, in a single stroke Poirot makes a romantic match by pairing off Jane Grey with the younger archaeologist, who has fallen in love with her.
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement of 4 July 1935 summarised thus: "Any of the other nine passengers and two stewards could be suspected. And all of them were, including Clancy, the writer of detective stories, whom the author evidently enjoys making absurd. It will be a very acute reader who does not receive a complete surprise at the end."
The Times in its main paper gave the book a second review in its issue of 2 July 1935 when they described its plot as "ingenious" and commented on the fact that Christie had evolved a method of presenting a crime in a confined space (with reference to The Mystery of the Blue Train and Murder on the Orient Express) which "however often employed, never loses its originality."
Isaac Anderson in The New York Times Book Review of 24 March 1935 began his column, "Murder by poisoned dart, such as primitive savages blow from blow-guns, ceased long ago to be a novelty in detective fiction, and murder in an airplane is by way of becoming almost as common as murder behind the locked doors of a library, but the combination of poisoned dart and plane is probably unique. Not that such minor matters are of the slightest consequence to the reader; the main thing is that this is an Agatha Christie story, featuring Hercule Poirot, who is, by his own admission, the world's greatest detective." He concluded, "This is a crime puzzle of the first quality, and a mighty entertaining story besides."
In The Observer's issue of 30 June 1935, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) started his review, "My admiration for Mrs. Christie is such that with each new book of hers I strain every mental nerve to prove that she has failed, at last, to hypnotise me. On finishing Death in the Clouds, I found that she had succeeded even more triumphantly than usual." He concluded, "I hope that some readers of this baffling case will foresee at least the false denouement. I did not even do that. Agatha Christie has recently developed two further tricks: one is, as of the juggler who keeps on dropping things, to leave a clue hanging out for several chapters, apparently unremarked by her little detective though seized on by us, and then to tuck it back again as unimportant. Another is to give us some, but by no means all, of the hidden thoughts of her characters. We readers must guard against these new dexterities. As for Poirot, it is only to him and to Cleopatra that a certain remark about age and custom is strictly applicable. But might not Inspector Japp be allowed to mellow a little, with the years, beyond the moron stage?"
An admirer of Christie, Milward Kennedy of The Guardian began his review of 30 July 1935, "Very few authors achieve the ideal blend of puzzle and entertainment as often does Agatha Christie." He did admit that, "Death in the Clouds may not rank with her greatest achievements, but it is far above the average detective story." He finished by saying, "Mrs Christie provides a little gallery of thumb-nail sketches of plausible characters; she gives us all the clues and even tells us where to look for them; we ought to find the murderer by reason, but are not likely to succeed except by guesswork."
Robert Barnard: "Exceptionally lively specimen, with wider than usual class and type-range of suspects. Scrupulously fair, with each clue presented openly and discussed. Note Clancy the crime writer, and the superiority of French police to British (no signs of insularity here)."
References or allusions
References to other works
- In Chapter 7, Poirot refers to a case of poisoning in which the killer uses a "psychological" moment to his advantage, an allusion to Three Act Tragedy.
- In Chapter 21, Poirot refers to a case in which all the suspects were lying, an allusion to Murder on the Orient Express.
References in other works
- In Chapter 12 of a later Poirot novel, Mrs McGinty's Dead (1952), Christie's alter ego, Ariadne Oliver, refers to a novel of hers in which she made a blowpipe one foot long only to be told later that they were six feet long. This was an admission of a fundamental error in the plot of Death in the Clouds.
- First aired on 17 May 2008, an episode of the BBC Television science fiction drama Doctor Who entitled "The Unicorn and the Wasp" by Gareth Roberts makes reference to the novel in a plot in which Christie's well-recorded disappearance in 1926 was explained by the intervention of a Vespiform – a shape-changing alien resembling a giant wasp. A copy of "Death in the Clouds" (printed in the year 5,000,000,000) also appears at the end of the episode, with the Doctor claiming that Christie's faint memory of these events inspired the story.
Allusions to real life
- An event experienced by Christie herself, shortly after her second marriage (to Max Mallowan), and described in her Autobiography, is alluded to in Chapter 13. "Imagine, in a little hotel in Syria was an Englishman whose wife had been taken ill. He himself had to be somewhere in Iraq by a certain date. Eh bien, would you believe it, he left his wife and went on so as to be on duty in time? And both he and his wife thought that quite natural; they thought him noble, unselfish. But the doctor, who was not English, thought him a barbarian."
An adaptation for the ITV series Agatha Christie's Poirot, was broadcast in 1992, starring David Suchet as Poirot. While remaining largely faithful to the original, a number of minor changes were made:
- The doctor in the novel is omitted from the adaptation, while only one archaeologist is involved in the story.
- Jane is made an air stewardess, who works on the flight that the murder is committed on, and is not matched up with anyone by Poirot at the end of the case.
- Poirot is assisted by Japp in the adaptation, who comes with him to Paris. The French Sûreté detective is retained, but assists in the case in a lesser role, mainly to aid Japp.
- Countess Horbury's title is changed to that of Lady. She and Poirot do not change seats; the wooden pipe is thus left behind her seat in the adaptation, mainly as a red herring.
- Poirot encounters most of the suspects of the case during a tennis match that he is invited to attend; all of the characters are thus on the flight, returning from watching the match.
- Anne is not on the plane by accident, but rather returning with Horbury following the match. She and Gale marry in Paris, not in Rotterdam.
- Mr Clancy is present at the denouement, but is not gleeful to watch it. He is instead revealed to be struggling to create a new book, and suffers a mental malady, in which his fictional detective has taken a hold of his life.
- The aircraft used for the flight is a Douglas DC-3, whereas the cabin plan in the book suggests a Handley Page H.P.42 (as were operated by Imperial Airways).
The novel was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4 in 2003, featuring John Moffatt as Poirot, Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector Japp (as in the Agatha Christie's Poirot adaptation), Geoffrey Whitehead as Monsieur Fournier, and Teresa Gallagher as Jane Grey.
In popular culture
- The novel is referenced notably in the Doctor Who episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp", which featured both the Doctor and Donna meeting Agatha Christie in the year 1926, and investigating a series of murders alongside her that were inspired by her novels to that date, committed by an giant, alien wasp. The Doctor notably remarks towards the end of the episode, that although Christie's memories of the events were erased after the wasp's death, she recalled them in such a way, that they later inspired her to write Death in the Clouds with the inclusion of a wasp as part of its plot.
- Death in the Air (hardcover), New York: Dodd Mead and Company, 10 March 1935, 304 pp.
- Death in the Clouds (hardcover), London: Collins Crime Club, July 1935, 256 pp.
- Death in the Air (paperback), Avon (89), New York: Avon Books, 1946, 259 pp.
- Death in the Clouds (paperback), Fontana Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 1957, 188 pp.
- Death in the Air (paperback), New York: Popular Library, 1961, 189 pp.
- Death in the Clouds (paperback) (X317), Pan Books, 1964, 188 pp.
- Death in the Clouds (Hardcover) (large-print ed.), Ulverscroft, 1967, 219 pp.
- Death in the Clouds (hardcover), Greenway edition of collected works, William Collins, 1973, ISBN 0-00-231187-9, 256 pp.
- "Death in the Air", Murder on Board (hardcover), Dodd, Mead & Co, 1974, ISBN 0-396-06992-4, along with The Mystery of the Blue Train and What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, 601 pp.
- Death in the Air (hardcover), Greenway edition of collected works, Dodd Mead, 1974, 256 pp
- Death in the Clouds (hardback) (Poirot facsimile ed.), HarperCollins, 2 April 2007, ISBN 0-00-723442-2 (facsimile of 1935 UK first edition).
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from 9 February (Volume 207, Number 32) to 16 March 1935 (Volume 207, Number 37) under the title Death in the Air with illustrations by Frederick Mizen.
In the UK, the novel was serialised as an abridged version in the weekly Women's Pictorial magazine in six instalments from 16 February (Volume 29, Number 736) to 23 March 1935 (Volume 29, Number 741) under the title Mystery in the Air. There were no chapter divisions and all of the instalments carried illustrations by Clive Uptton.
- Marcum, J.S., American Tribute to Agatha Christie, Insight BB
- Peers, Chris; Spurrier, Ralph; Sturgeon, Jamie (March 1999), Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (2nd ed.), Dragonby Press, p. 15.
- "Review: Death in the Clouds", The Times Literary Supplement, p. 434, 4 July 1935
- "Review: Death in the Clouds", The Times, p. 8, 2 July 1935
- The New York Times Book Review, 24 March 1935, p. 18.
- "Review: Death in the Clouds", The Observer, p. 8, 30 June 1935
- "Review: Death in the Clouds", The Guardian, p. 7, 30 July 1935
- "Review: Death in the Clouds", Daily Mirror, p. 6, 20 July 1935
- Barnard, Robert (1990), A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie (revised ed.), Fontana Books, p. 191, ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON TB12.