That was how it started, on the evening of Thursday, 7 February 1929, with Hercule Poirot, and Jennie and Fee Spring; amid the crooked, teapot-huddled shelves of Pleasant’s Coffee House. Or, I should say, that was how it appeared to start. I’m not convinced that stories from real life have beginnings and ends, as a matter of fact. Approach them from any vantage point and you’ll see that they stretch endlessly back into the past and spread inexorably forward into the future...I wasn’t present that Thursday evening at the coffee house. My name was mentioned — Edward Catchpool, Poirot’s policeman friend from Scotland Yard, not much older than thirty (thirty-two, to be precise) — but I was not there. I have, nevertheless, decided to try to fill the gaps...
I first met Hercule Poirot six weeks before the Thursday evening I have described, when he took a room in a London lodging house that belongs to Mrs Blanche Unsworth… On this particular Thursday evening — the night of Poirot’s encounter with Jennie — he arrived home at ten past ten, much later than usual. I was in the drawing room, sitting close to the fire but unable to warm myself up. I heard Blanche Unsworth whispering to Poirot...
I couldn’t hear what she was saying but I could guess she was anxious, and I was the cause of her anxiety. She had arrived back from her sister-in-law’s house at half past nine and decided that something was wrong with me. I looked a fright — as if I hadn’t eaten and wouldn’t sleep…
Poirot is normally back from Pleasant’s and reading in the drawing room by nine o’ clock on a Thursday evening. I had returned from the Bloxham Hotel at a quarter past nine, determined not to think about what I had encountered there, and very much looking forward to finding Poirot in his favourite chair...
He wasn’t there. His absence made me feel strangely remote from everything...
I was afraid I might not be able to persuade myself to return to the Bloxham Hotel the following day, and I knew that I had to. That was what I was trying not to think about…
Poirot appeared in the drawing room, still wearing his hat and coat, and closed the door behind him. I expected a barrage of questions from him, but instead he said with an air of distraction, ‘It is late. I walk and walk around the streets, looking, and I achieve nothing except to make myself late.’ ... ‘Looking?’ I asked. ‘ Oui. For a woman, Jennie, whom I very much hope is still alive and not murdered.’
Actors Anthony Perkins and Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express (1974).
‘Murdered?’ I had that sense of the ground dropping away again. I knew Poirot was a famous detective. He had told me about some of the cases he’d solved. Still, he was supposed to be having a break from all that, and I could have done without him producing that particular word at that moment, in such a portentuous fashion.
‘What does she look like, this Jennie?’ I asked. ‘Describe her. I might have seen her. Especially if she’s been murdered. I’ve seen two murdered women tonight, actually, and one man, so you might be in luck. The man didn’t look as if he was likely to be called Jennie, but as for the other two — ’
‘ Attendez, mon ami, ’ Poirot’s calm voice cut through my desperate ramblings. He took off his hat and began to unbutton his coat. ‘So Madame Blanche, she is correct — you are troubled? Ah, but how did I not see this straight away? You are pale. My thoughts, they were elsewhere... please tell Poirot immediatement: what is the matter?’
‘Three murders are the matter,’ I said. ‘And all three of them like nothing I’ve seen before. Two women and one man. Each one in a different room.
Of course, I had encountered violent death before many times — I had been with Scotland Yard for nearly two years and a policeman for five — but most murders had about them an obvious appearance of lost control: somebody had lashed out in a fit of temper, or had one tipple too many and lost his rag. This business at the Bloxham was very different. Whoever had killed three times at the hotel had planned ahead — for months, I guessed. Each of his crime scenes was a work of macabre art with a hidden meaning that I could not decipher. It terrified me to think that this time I was not up against a chaotic ruffian of the sort I was used to, but perhaps a cold, meticulous mind that could not allow itself to be defeated.
...Three matching corpses: the very idea made me shudder...
‘Each of the three murders in a different room in the same house?’ Poirot asked.
‘No, at the Bloxham Hotel. Up Piccadilly Circus way. I don’t suppose you know it?’ ‘ Non.’ ‘I had never been inside it before tonight. It’s not the sort of place a chap like me would think to go. It’s palatial.’
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Poirot was sitting with his back very straight. ‘Three murders, in the same hotel and each in a different room’’ he said.
‘Yes, and all committed earlier in the evening within a short space of time.’
‘This evening. And yet you are here. Why are you not at the hotel? The killer, he is apprehended already?’
‘No such luck, I’m afraid. No, I…’ I stopped and cleared my throat... I had no wish to explain to Poirot how my mood had been affected by what I had seen, or to tell him that I had been at the Bloxham for no more than five minutes before I succumbed to the powerful urge to leave.
The way all three had been laid out on their back s so formally: arms by their sides, palms of their hands touching the floor, legs together…
Laying out the dead. The phrase forced its way into my mind, accompanied by a vision of a dark room from many years ago — a room I had been compelled to enter as a young child, and had been refusing to enter in my imagination ever since. I fully intended to carry on refusing for the rest of my life.
Lifeless hands, palms facing downwards. ‘Hold his hand, Edward." ‘Don’t worry, there are plenty of police crawling about the place," I said quickly and loudly, to banish the unwelcome vision. ‘Tomorrow morning is soon enough for me to go back’. Seeing that he was waiting for a fuller answer, I added, ‘I had to clear my head. Frankly, I’ve never seen anything as peculiar as these three murders in all my life.’ ‘In what way peculiar?’ ‘Each of the victims had something in his or her mouth – the same thing.’
‘ Non,’ Poirot wagged his finger at me. ‘This is not possible, mon ami. The same thing cannot be inside three different mouths as the same time.’
‘There separate things, all identical,’ I clarified. ‘Three cufflinks, solid gold from the look of them. Monogrammed. Same initials on all three: PIJ. Poirot? Are you all right? You look —’
‘ Mon Dieu! He had risen to his feet and begun to pace around the room. ‘You do not see what this means, mon ami. No, you do not see it at all, because you have not heard the story of my encounter with Mademoiselle Jennie. Quickly I must tell you what happened so that you understand.’