Cat Among the Pigeons – Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie takes us to Meadowbank School a rather exclusive girl’s school, where ordinary girls get to mix with foreign royalty and the like whilst learning a correct and proper education ran by Miss Bulstrode who seemingly vets the pupils (and the parents) before letting the girls enter her educational establishment.

She is supported by the faithful staff and conventional stereotypes for the reader to recognise about a book based in a school. Miss Chadwick or Chaddy has devoted her life to the school and is anything Meadowbank through and through. Miss Rich has a passion for English but also a passion for change despite her secret, Miss Vansittart wants to carry on the Meadowbank way because it is trusted and works. Miss Springer, a rather apt name for a Games Mistress and new to the school this term with obviously no care or thought for her colleagues. Mademoiselle Blanche the new French teacher who thinks all English girls are slow and stupid and that she is lowering herself to teach them. We question her reasons for being at the school. There is of course a matron Miss Johnson who has the care of the girls and sees they get the correct amount of fresh-air is administered and also the correct under apparel is also word!

There is mention of a new gardener, young and rather good looking who could start to turn the girl’s heads if Miss Bulstrode is not careful. But why is a seemingly well educated young man taking up such a job when his brain could be of better use elsewhere. Miss Shapland the new secretary is also trying to take in her new surroundings and being used to working for men, how will she cope with all these females.

The ‘girls’ just as important in this book as they are in any school story, Julia Upjohn a rather independent young girl of intelligent logical thought whose mother has taken herself on a bus trip through Turkey whilst her daughter is at school. But what did Mrs Upjohn see which startled her when she dropped her only daughter off at school. Jennifer Sutcliffe is new and really does not want to go to boarding school having returned early from Ramat before the revolution out there took hold. All that excitement you would think would turn a girl but she soon settles in and attracts attention, but Jennifer is so caught up in her own world that she takes everything at face value.  Coincidentally Princess Shaista is also at the school, a young girl destined to marry the Prince of Ramat had he not been killed in an aeroplane fleeing the country with his pilot, Bob Rawlinson, Jennifer Sutcliffe’s uncle.

With the scene set, you think you are going to get a good old fashioned school story, but you have picked up an Agatha Christie, are you that naive that is all you were going to get? There is something wrong in the picture painted there is in fact a ‘cat among the pigeons’.  Of course you get murder, robberies, kidnap and investigations. Here Christie uses all the tools to twist and turn the plot so you cannot see where the path is going to take us as first of all and not forgetting the subtle humour that I think is present in many of her novels. “Death of a Games Mistress “said (Inspector) Kelsey, thoughtfully. “Sounds like the title of a thriller on a railway bookstall.” Miss Springer is the first to be killed. Will there be anymore?

Julia Upjohn, stuck at the school thinks there is more to this death, and why is everyone focused on the new Sports Pavilion? Through tenacity and the spirit of her mother she sets out to London and Whitehaven Mansions. Enter Hercule Poriot.

Poriot comes late into this book and you could be forgiven for trying to work out how he is going to actually turn up at an English boarding school for girls. Not his normal stamping ground one thinks. Christie’s most famous detective, gets to work and suddenly all the pieces are brought together but not without some revelations along the way which result in the denouement which I think Christie is most skilled at being rather heart stopping. A good book to start your journey with Christie if you have not sampled any before.

My reasoning for picking up this book was simple. I have been having a bit of a sojourn with ‘school’ stories and I remembered there was a Christie one (there could be more) which was set in a school. I have to confess I did know who had done it, having seen the TV adaptation which I am going to comment on in another post but it was very interesting seeing how Poirot got to that conclusion. I like Christie’s humour and her writing and reading it in the twenty first century you perhaps chuckle at some of the references. I have picked out two below for you to read, they made me smile and perhaps resonated with me as well.

“Shaista never thinks of anything except things to wear,” said Julia scornfully as the two friends passed on. “Do you think we shall ever be like that?”

“…If you rubbed a lamp and a genie did appear, what would you ask him for, Julia?” “Lots of  things,” breathed Julia ecstatically. “A tape recorder, and an Alsatian – or perhaps a Great Dane, and a hundred thousand pounds, and a black satin party frock, and oh! lots of other things…What would you?” “I don’t really know,” said Jennifer. “Now I’ve got this smashing new racquet, I don’t really want anything else.”

Yes these books have dated when you read passages such as the one above, but come on that is what makes the story so great reading them years later. What would a young girl of about fourteen want today if she rubbed a lamp and a genie appeared?

The cover illustrated at the top, is of the version of the book I read. Procured off my mum’s book shelf. (Good old mum!) Published in 1964 its third impression. Below are a selection of other covers which have been used.

Do the covers of these books give some clues to the plot?

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