Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Christie & the Art of Disguise (Spoiler Alert!)

It's Tuesday and it's time once again to gather round the table with my fellow GAD-ers* for a cozy session of The Tuesday Night Bloggers, brain-child of Curtis at The Passing Tramp. We will continue our discussions of all things Agatha Christie throughout the month of October. Noah has suggested a year's worth of authors to keep us busy in the months to follow. If you're a fan of Golden Age mysteries, we'd love to have you join in. Please check out his post (HERE) for background and details.
This week, in honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, I'm going to take a look at Agatha Christie's use of disguises (or costumes) in some of her stories. Please know that in most cases it will be impossible to discuss the disguise in question without offering up spoilers. So--reader be warned, there be SPOILERS ahead!
While it is true that Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple were not the masters of disguise that Sherlock Holmes was and that Christie did not make the use of disguise a regular feature in her novels, there are instances of cloaked identity sprinkled throughout her work. A prime example is the novel, The Big Four, a tale of international espionage and intrigue. Poirot, Hastings, and Inspector Japp take on the the titular Big Four of super criminals--resulting in many close shave encounters for our heroes. It features, as one of the Big Four, Number Four: known as the Destroyer. The Destroyer is a master of disguise (having been an actor) and appears in multiple identities throughout the book. Poirot also takes up an alternate identity, bringing to life Achille who is purported to be his "less handsome" twin brother. Achille is just as smart as Hercule, but has a deeper voice, no marvelous mustaches, and a scar on his lip. In this same story, he and Hastings dress up in "filthy blouses" in order to remain inconspicuous.

This isn't the only time that Poirot goes about in disguise. In "The Chocolate Box" (found in
Poirot's Early Cases), he assumes the identity of a plumber to break into a house and find evidence which he believes will solve his case. In "The Lost Mine" (same collection) Poirot's client suggests (to Poirot's outrage) that they disguise themselves and investigate an opium den which seems to be a focal point in the mystery. Poirot refuses this suggestion--particularly the suggestion that he lose the mustache, but does obscure his identity enough to pretend to be a customer and overhear important information relating to the case. 
"The Adventure of the Clapham Cook" (same collection, as well as The Underdog & Other Stories) finds another criminal donning a disguise to get his way. This time the disguise is used to fool a cook into running away from her mistress without giving her notice...and leaving a crucial item behind. But Poirot sees through the costume to find a bank thief.
Mary Durrant and her aunt use a disguise in "Double Sin" (Double Sin & Other Stories) to successfully run an antiques scam...until Poirot and Hastings decide to take the same bus tour as Miss Durrant. Poirot isn't fooled at all by the description of a "tall woman, middle-aged, grey hair, blotchy complexion and a budding moustache."
Of course, one of the most interesting use of disguise by a criminal occurs in Three Act Tragedy. A rare Christie story where one can say that the butler did it. Except not really. Because the butler in question isn't really a butler at all--he is simply the murderer impersonating a butler and using the disguise to pass poison right under the nose of Poirot himself. Impersonation is useful form of disguise and it is also employed to good effect in Lord Edgeware Dies. Without someone to play her part at a dinner party, the murderess would be without an alibi.
And then there is Murder on the Orient Express with a whole train full of people--most of whom are covering their true identities, either through misdirection (the loss of one letter of a name, for instance) or with a full display of artistic talent. Christie also provides us with the "woman in the scarlet kimono" and the "small man with the womanish voice" who may have been incognito as a Wagon Lit conductor. Plenty of red herrings and disguises to fool all but the most perceptive of detectives, Hercule Poirot.

I'm sure I'm missing some costume changes in Christie. I have a recollection of Poirot as an Irishman (or some such thing) in "The Third Floor Flat," but I'm not sure if that's from the story as written or if it somehow got shoved into the televised version.  Please feel free to jog my memory in the comments.
*Golden Age Detection aficionados 


Brad (ahsweetmystery) said...

As soon as I started this, Bev, I knew you would get to Three Act Tragedy! Tommy and Tuppence used disguise in nearly all their cases: they played different detectives and other characters in each story in Partners in Crime. And who can forget Mrs. Blankensop in N or M? There's a brilliant use of disguise by Norman Gale in Death in the Clouds which helps Poirot catch a particularly ruthless killer. And while you wouldn't think of Miss Marple as a mistress of disguise, she did sort of disguise herself to catch a killer at the end of A Murder Is Announced, and the ruse (improbably) worked!

Bev Hankins said...

Thanks, Brad. It's been a long, long time since I read any Tommy and Tuppence stories. I knew that they did use disguise, but most of my recollections come from the shows with Francesca Annis as Tuppence. I know they were pretty faithful to the stories, but I wanted to try and be sure that I was using the novels/stories and not film/tv versions.

Clothes In Books said...

I loved this Bev, it's endlessly rewarding to look at impersonation and disguise in Christie. And don't even start me on Dead Man's Folly and Murder in Mesopotamia which have quite outrageous examples...

Nick Fuller said...

Good article! I think, though, that Murder in Mesopotamia is more credible than you think! Louise Leidner in M in M is based on a real person, Katherine Woolley; if you look at K.W.'s life and personality, and her relations, the deception in the Christie book is plausible. (Curran's books deal with this.)