One of my favorite television shows these days is Cold Case, where a group of Philadelphia homicide detectives routinely reopen murder cases that years — and often decades — old.
That’s the same principle that Agatha Christie used in her 1942 novel Five Little Pigs (which has also been published in the US as Murder in Retrospect). Unfortunately, the same storytelling gimmicks that work so well on TV with Cold Case simply don’t have the desired effect on the printed page. As a result, I found this book pretty boring to read, and had to struggle to get through it.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Private detective Hercule Poirot’s latest case is an unusual one. His client is a young woman named Carla Crayle who lost both of her parents at a young age. Carla’s father Amyas, a famous painter, was murdered, and her mother Caroline was sent away to prison for the crime. Caroline died a few years later, but not before writing Carla a letter proclaiming her innocence — the first time she had ever done so.
It’s now 16 years later, and Carla wants Poirot to review the case files, interview the other people who were at the Crayle residence at the time of the murder, and see if he can find out anything that the police might have overlooked. Poirot is at first skeptical, but soon relents.
He then sets about interviewing the five people who were present when Amyas Crayle was poisoned. They are Meredith Blake (an herbalist whose coniine solution was used to kill Crayle) , Phillip Blake (a stockbroker and Amyas’ best friend), Elsa Greer (a young woman half Crayle’s age who was sitting for a portrait and who was having an affair with the painter), Cecilia Williams (the governess), and Angela Warren (Caroline’s younger sister).
Poirot convinces all five to write down as detailed an account of the events leading up to the murder as they can. He knows that the reports probably won’t be 100 percent accurate given all the time that has passed, but he’s convinced that he’ll learn enough from them to make a pronouncement as to Caroline’s guilt or innocence.
The rest of the novel consists of these five different reports, as well as the conclusions Poirot draws from them. Indeed, he learns that Caroline Crayle was truly innocent, and in the final scene lays out precisely what happened on that fateful day before revealing who the real murderer is.
My Reaction: I liked the idea of Poirot investigating a murder that took place so long ago, and I read on Wikipedia that Christie was the first mystery writer to use this sort of plot device. However, I found the execution to be extremely boring.
It was very tedious to read through all five accounts of what happened on the day of the murder. Yes, there were small discrepancies that I should have been on the lookout for if I wanted to make a guess as to who the murder was, but in all honesty, I found it difficult to focus that closely on the narrative. The reports were written, so there weren’t any conversations to break up monotony or change the pacing of the story.
Furthermore, since the characters were essentially introduced via these narratives, it was hard for me to get an idea of what they were like. The reports mostly talked about Amyas and Caroline, so I had a good sense of who those two characters were, but not any of the suspects.
As far as the murder itself went, I thought it was fairly well planned out. At least three out of the five suspects had sufficient motive to want Amyas dead, and I thought Christie’s solution was highly plausible and satisfactory. Even so, this book wasn’t any fun to read because of the problems I’ve just mentioned.
Overall, while I appreciate what Christie was trying to do in Five Little Pigs, I can’t say that I liked this novel very much. The beginning and the end were decent, but that long stretch in the middle that contained the same story told over and over again ruined it for me.