By Agatha Christie
William Morrow; Reissue edition (February, 2011)
by Larry Jung
The setting is a sprawling, ugly manor house in the English countryside near London. The occupants are living off the very rich and very old patriarch Aristide Leonides. Unexpectedly Aristide dies after his daily insulin injection by his young wife. The police quickly determine that Aristide was deliberately poisoned. Suspicion falls on Aristide’s wife. She administered the injection. She is also his second and much younger wife. The rest of the family sees her as a gold-digger who couldn’t wait to inherit Aristide’s vast wealth. But that motivation equally applies to the rest of the family. Each one of the family had the opportunity to tamper with the insulin. The medicine cabinet containing the insulin and other medications used by Aristide is never locked. To complicate matters, the old man recently told everyone how easy it would be to poison him. Just substitute his glaucoma drops for his insulin.
Until the murder is solved, all the family members are suspects.
Sophia Leonides is determined to know the truth about who killed her grandfather. She is driven to know for the sake of the family and to clear herself in order to wed Charles Hayward, her finance. Charles will likely be joining the diplomatic corp, and Sophia refuses to let him damage his career by marrying an unsuitable woman. So she makes Charles an awkward proposition. He should investigate the murder from the “inside” to discover the murderer because she has little hope that the police will solve it. Also Charles will discover what sort of family he will be marrying into.
Strangely Charles’s father, agrees with Sophia. His father is Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard. If the murder is to be solved, the police and Charles will need to get the inside dope.
Charles tags along with Chief Inspector Taverner, who is conducting the official investigation. Traverner has little hope that Arisitde’s murder will be solved unless one of the family by chance gives the police a useful pointer that might start a possible line of inquiry.
In the meantime, Traverner tells Charles that the questions the Inspector is asking the family are unimportant. It doesn’t matter who was in the house and who wasn’t, or where they were at the time of the murder. What Traverner wants is to look them over and size them up. What he is looking for is motivation backed by evidence.
Charles learns that the Leonides family is unhappy, dysfunctional, and mired in contradictions.
The household consists of Philip Leonides and his actress wife Magda West. Philip writes history books nobody reads. Magda acts in failed play after failed play. Their children are Sophia, the eldest; Eustace and Josephine, both in their teens.
Eustace is a supercilious young gentleman. Josephine is an unlikable child who sneaks about collecting secrets that others are too dumb to know. Laurence Brown, a conscientious objector, is the tutor of Eustace and Josephine. He is treated little better than a servant.
Roger, the eldest, has run the family business into the ground. He constantly blames himself for betraying his father’s trust by running the family business into the ground. He is more suited to shoot pheasants and fishing than running a large business.
Brenda Leonides is the spoiled second wife of Aristide. She is 53 years younger than Aristide. She and Laurence Brown are suspected of being lovers. Brenda is ostracized by the rest of the family, who would be happy if Brenda were found guilty of killing her husband.
Edith de Haviland is the true matriarch of the household. She is the great-aunt of Sophia and sister to Aristide’s first wife. She hated Aristide but stayed on for the children.
CROOKED HOUSE is among Agatha Christie’s best mystery novels. Within the framework of a whodunit, she gives us a perceptive view of the decline of the traditional idea of the English landed gentry class in post World War II Britain. As we read along, it seems inevitable that the Leonides family is brought to disaster by their personal failings and the tragic flaw of ruthlessness that runs throughout its members. The story has the hallmark Christie red-herrings and surprising twists. The book, from the golden age of English whodunits, is as readable today as when it was first published in 1949.
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