Death in the Clouds

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Death in the Clouds
Death in the Clouds US First Edition cover 1935.jpg
Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition. See Publication history (below) for UK first edition jacket image.
AuthorAgatha Christie
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish
GenreCrime novel
PublisherDodd, Mead and Company
Publication date
10 March 1935
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages304 (first edition, hardcover)
Preceded byThree Act Tragedy 
Followed byThe A.B.C. Murders 

Death in the Clouds is a work of detective fiction by British writer Agatha Christie, first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company on 10 March 1935 under the title of Death in the Air[1] and in UK by the Collins Crime Club in the July of the same year under Christie's original title.[2] The US edition retailed at $2.00[1] and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6).[2] The book features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and Chief Inspector Japp.

Plot summary[edit]

Hercule Poirot travels back to England on the midday flight from Paris to Croydon Airport in London. He is one of eleven passengers in the plane's rear compartment – the others include: mystery writer Daniel Clancy; Armand Dupont and his son Jean, French archaeologists; dentist Norman Gale; Doctor Bryant; French moneylender Madame Giselle; businessman James Ryder; Countess Cicely Horbury and her friend Venetia Kerr; and Jane Grey. As the flight begins to get close to landing, a wasp is spotted flying around the rear compartment, before a steward finds that Giselle is dead. Poirot, who slept through most of the flight, dismisses the belief she died from a wasp sting. Instead he points out a dart on the floor, which is found to have a poisoned tip. Giselle was stung in the neck with it. The question remains on how she was murdered, without anyone noticing.

A blowpipe is found in the side of Poirot's seat by police. Annoyed at being labelled a suspect in the murder, he vows to clear his name and solve the case. Requesting a list of the passengers' possessions, he notes something in it that intrigues him, yet doesn't say what it is. Aided by Jane in the investigation, Poirot works with Inspector Japp in England, and Inspector Fournier in France. A few interesting facts on the case soon come to light: the victim had two coffee spoons with her cup and saucer; the blowpipe was bought in Paris by an American man; Horbury is one of Giselle's debtors, and had been cut off from her husband's money; Giselle employed blackmail to ensure that her debtors didn't miss their repayments; only the stewards passed by the victim on the flight; Horbury's maid was on the flight after asking to be on it at the last moment.

Eventually it is found that Giselle has an estranged daughter, Anne Morisot, who stands to inherit her fortune. Poirot flies to Paris to meet with her. While on the flight, he conducts an experiment that shows that the use of the blowpipe, or anything similar, would have been noticed by the other passengers. In Paris, Poirot meets with Anne, and comments about how he feels that he has seen her before; the meeting reveals she has an American husband, whom she married a month ago. When Jane makes a remark on needing to file a nail, Poirot realises that Anne is Horbury's maid Madeline – he had seen her come into the rear compartment during the flight when Horbury requested for her to get something. He immediately instructs Fournier to find her. French police soon find her body on the boat-train to Boulogne, with a bottle beside it; she had supposedly poisoned herself.

Poirot makes his dénouement of the case in the presence of Japp, Gale, and Clancy. Giselle's killer was Norman Gale, who sought her fortune. The plan for her murder was made in advance – Gale had brought his dentist's coat on the flight, which he changed into after some time to pose as a steward, knowing no-one would pay attention to such a person. On the pretence of delivering a spoon to Giselle, he stabbed her with the dart, then changed out of his clothes and returned to his seat before the body was found. Anne's murder was part of the plan - Gale married her when he learnt she was Giselle's daughter, and intended to kill her in Canada after she inherited her mother's fortune, making certain he inherited everything from his wife. However, he had to kill her earlier than planned, because she claimed her inheritance on the same day that Poirot went to meet her.

The wasp that buzzed around in the rear compartment was released from a matchbox that Gale brought with him; both this and his coat had aroused Poirot's suspicions when he read the list of passenger possessions. The blowpipe, which he bought under his real surname, was intended to frame Horbury for the murder had she and Poirot not changed seats at the last moment. Gale, who denies Poirot's theory, mistakenly reveals he wore gloves in Anne's murder, after Poirot lies to him about the police finding his fingerprints on the bottle that contained the poison. Gale is arrested as a result. Afterwards, Poirot pairs off Jane with Jean Dupont, who had fallen in love with her during the case.

Literary significance and reception[edit]

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."[3]

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."[4]

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."[5]

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?"[6]

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."[7]

A review in the Daily Mirror of 20 July 1935 concluded, "We leave Poirot to figure it all out. He is at it and in it, with his usual brilliance, till the end."[8]

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)."[9]

References or allusions[edit]

References to other works[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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[edit]

  • 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."

Adaptations[edit]

Television[edit]

The novel was adapted as an episode for the series Agatha Christie's Poirot, in 1992. It starred David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, and Philip Jackson as Chief Inspector James Japp. Although the adaptation remained largely faithful to most of the novel's plot, it featured a number of changes:

  • The characters of Dr Bryant, James Ryder and Armaud Dupont are omitted from the adaptation; Jean Dupont is the only archaeologist on the flight.
  • The aircraft is a Douglas DC-3, instead of a Handley Page H.P.42 used in the novel.
  • Poirot is assisted by Japp throughout the investigation; he comes with him to investigate the case in France. Inspector Fournier is given a lesser role as a result.
  • A few characters were changed/altered:
    • Jane Grey is an air stewardess on the flight. Although she works with Poirot on the case, she is not matched up with anyone at its conclusion.
    • Daniel Clancy suffers from a mental malady, in which he believe his fictional detective has a control on his life. He attends the denouement mainly to learn who the killer is, rather than witnessing a real-life detective at work.
    • Cicely Horbury is a Lady, not a Countess. She and Poirot do not change seats on the flight; the blowpipe is found in her seat, and is regarded as a red herring by Poirot.
    • Anne Morisot (aka. Madeline), is returning with her mistress on the flight, not by chance. She and Gale marry in Paris, not Rotterdam.
  • Poirot meets some of the suspects at a tennis match he attends in Paris, as per an invitation by Jane.

Radio[edit]

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[edit]

  • 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 a 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.

Publication history[edit]

Dustjacket illustration of the UK first edition (book was first published in the US)
  • 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.[10]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Marcum, J.S., American Tribute to Agatha Christie, Insight BB
  2. ^ a b Peers, Chris; Spurrier, Ralph; Sturgeon, Jamie (March 1999), Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions (2nd ed.), Dragonby Press, p. 15.
  3. ^ "Review: Death in the Clouds", The Times Literary Supplement, p. 434, 4 July 1935
  4. ^ "Review: Death in the Clouds", The Times, p. 8, 2 July 1935
  5. ^ The New York Times Book Review, 24 March 1935, p. 18.
  6. ^ "Review: Death in the Clouds", The Observer, p. 8, 30 June 1935
  7. ^ "Review: Death in the Clouds", The Guardian, p. 7, 30 July 1935
  8. ^ "Review: Death in the Clouds", Daily Mirror, p. 6, 20 July 1935
  9. ^ Barnard, Robert (1990), A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie (revised ed.), Fontana Books, p. 191, ISBN 0-00-637474-3
  10. ^ Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON TB12.

External links[edit]