Curtain: Poirot's Last Case is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in September 1975 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year.
The novel features Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings (who had not appeared together since Dumb Witness in 1937) in their final appearances in Christie's works. The novel also returns the characters to the setting of Christie's first published work, The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
Christie wrote the novel in the early 1940s, during World War II. Partly fearing for her own survival, and partly wanting to have a fitting end to Poirot's series of novels, Christie had the novel locked away in a bank vault for over thirty years. The final Poirot novel that Christie wrote, Elephants Can Remember, was published in 1972, followed by Christie's last novel, Postern of Fate. Knowing that she could no longer write any novels, the elderly Christie authorised Curtain's removal from the vault and subsequent publication. It was the last of her books to be published during her lifetime.
After a year apart Hercule Poirot, now crippled with arthritis, is reunited with his old companion Captain Hastings, who has since become a widower. When they receive a letter from Styles Court, the place where they solved their first murder together, it seems like fate and they readily accept. However, after the great detective brands one of the seemingly harmless guests, whom he will only identify as 'X', a ruthless serial killer, people begin having doubts about the capability of his once renowned 'little grey cells'. But Poirot is aware that he alone must work quickly before the murderer strikes again, even if it means putting his life on the line...
The murderer, identified by Poirot simply by the letter X, has been completely unsuspected of involvement in five previous murders, in all of which there was a clear suspect. Four of these suspects have subsequently died (one of them hanged), but in the case of Freda Clay, who gave her aunt an overdose of morphine, there was considered to be too little evidence to prosecute. Hastings agrees that it is highly unlikely to be coincidence if X was connected with all five deaths, but Poirot, now using a wheelchair due to arthritis and attended by his new valet Curtiss, will not give him X's name. He merely makes it clear that X is in the house, which has been turned into a private hotel by the new owners: Colonel and Mrs Luttrell.
Hastings makes certain discoveries in the next few days. Elizabeth Cole, another guest at the hotel, reveals to him that she is in fact the sister of Margaret Litchfield, who had confessed to the murder of their father in one of the five cases. Margaret had died in Broadmoor Asylum and Elizabeth feels stigmatised by the case. Later that day Hastings and several other people overhear an argument between Colonel Luttrell and his wife. Shortly afterwards, he wounds her with a rook rifle, apparently mistaking her for a rabbit. Hastings reflects that this is precisely the sort of accident with which X is associated, but Mrs Luttrell rapidly recovers.
Hastings is concerned by the attentions paid to his daughter Judith by Major Allerton, whom he discovers is married but estranged from his Catholic wife. While he and Elizabeth are out with Stephen Norton, another guest and a birdwatcher, Norton sees something through his binoculars that seems to upset him. Hastings suspects that it is something to do with Allerton and, when his clumsy attempts to persuade Judith to give Allerton up merely antagonise her, he plans Allerton's murder. He falls asleep while waiting to poison Allerton, and feels differently about things when he awakes the next day.
Barbara Franklin, the wife of Judith's employer Dr Franklin and the childhood friend of Sir William Boyd Carrington, dies the following evening. She has been poisoned with physostigmine sulphate, an extract from the Calabar bean that her husband has been researching. After Poirot's testimony at the inquest – that Mrs Franklin had been upset and that she had emerged from Dr Franklin's laboratory with a small bottle – a verdict of suicide is brought in, but Hastings suspects that the death was murder and Poirot confirms this.
Norton, still evidently upset about what he has seen through the binoculars, asks Hastings for his advice, which is to confide in Poirot. Poirot arranges a meeting between them and says that Norton must not speak to anyone further of what he has seen. That night, Hastings is awakened by a noise and sees Norton – with his dressing-gown, untidy grey hair and characteristic limp – go into his bedroom. The next morning, however, Norton is found dead in his locked room with a bullet-hole perfectly in the centre of his forehead, the key in his dressing-gown pocket and a pistol (remembered by a housemaid as belonging to him) nearby. Apparently, X has struck again.
Poirot takes Hastings over the evidence, pointing out that his belief that he saw Norton that night relies on loose evidence: the dressing-gown, the hair, the limp. Nevertheless, it seems that there is no one in the house who could have impersonated Norton, who was a short man. Hastings despairs that the mystery will ever be solved when Poirot himself dies that night, apparently of natural causes. He nevertheless leaves Hastings three conscious clues: a copy of Othello, a copy of John Ferguson (a 1915 play by St. John Greer Ervine that is now – unluckily for readers of Curtain – largely forgotten) and a note telling Hastings to speak to his permanent valet, Georges.
In the weeks that follow the death of Poirot, Hastings is staggered to discover that Judith has all along been in love with Dr Franklin, and is now marrying him and going with him to do research in Africa. Was Judith the murderer? When Hastings speaks to Georges, he discovers that Poirot wore a wig, and also that Poirot's reasons for employing Curtiss were vague. Perhaps the murderer was Curtiss all along?
The solution, and one of the greatest of Christie's twist endings, is contained in a written confession that is sent to Hastings from Poirot's lawyers, four months after Poirot's death. In it, Poirot reveals that he wore a false moustache as well as a wig and explains that X was Norton, a man who had perfected the technique of which Iago in Othello (like a character in Ervine's play) is master: applying just such psychological pressure as is needed to provoke someone to commit murder, where normally they would let the other live and dismiss their desires as simply the heat of the moment, without anyone ever truly realising what he is doing. Again and again Norton had demonstrated this ability, first by apparently clumsy remarks that goaded Colonel Luttrell to take a homicidal shot at his wife, and then by his careful manipulation of Hastings to resolve upon the murder of Major Allerton. It was Norton's contrivances that created the impression that Judith loved Allerton when in fact she has been in love with Franklin all along. Hastings's potential murder had, however, been averted by Poirot's presence of mind in forcing drugged hot chocolate upon him on the night that he had intended it to take place, the same action resolving Poirot to take action; he knew that Hastings was not a murderer, but if he had not intervened Hastings would have hanged for a crime while the 'true' murderer would have escaped seemingly innocent.
Deprived of his prey twice, Norton turned to Mrs Franklin, who was soon persuaded to attempt the murder of her husband, after which she could be reunited with the wealthy and attractive Boyd Carrington. By an ironic twist of Fate, however, Hastings himself had intervened in this murder; by turning a revolving bookcase table while seeking out a book in order to solve a crossword clue (coincidentally Othello again) he had swapped the cups of coffee so that the one with poison in it was actually drunk by Mrs Franklin herself.
Poirot knew all this but could not prove it. He sensed that Norton, who had been deliberately vague about whom he had seen through the binoculars when attempting to imply that he had seen Allerton and Judith, was now intending to reveal that he had seen Franklin and Judith, almost certainly implicating them in the apparent murder of Franklin's wife. The only solution was for Poirot to murder Norton himself. At their meeting, he revealed to Norton what he suspected and said that he intended to 'execute' him. He then gave him hot chocolate. Norton, arrogantly self-assured in the face of both the accusation and the threat, insisted on swapping cups, but both contained the same sleeping pills that had previously been used by Poirot to drug Hastings; guessing that Norton would request the swap, Poirot had drugged both cups, knowing that his time taking the pills would give him a higher tolerance for a dose that would put Norton out.
With Norton unconscious, Poirot, whose incapacity had been faked (a trick for which he needed a temporary valet who did not know how healthy he was and would accept his word without question) moved the body back to Norton's room in his wheelchair. Then, he disguised himself as Norton by removing his wig, putting on Norton's dressing-gown and ruffling up his grey hair. Poirot was the only short suspect at the house. With it established that Norton was alive after he left Poirot's room, Poirot shot him – with characteristic but unnecessary symmetry – in the centre of his forehead. He locked the room with a duplicate key that Hastings knew Poirot to possess; both Hastings and the reader would have assumed that the duplicate key was to Poirot's own room, but Poirot had said that he had changed rooms before Norton's arrival, and it was to this previous room that he had the key.
Poirot's last actions were to write the confession and await his death, which he accelerated by moving amyl nitrite phials out of his own reach, seeking to avoid the traditional arrogance of the murderer where he might come to believe that he had the right to kill those he deemed it necessary to eliminate. His last wish is implicitly that Hastings will marry Elizabeth Cole: a final instance of the inveterate matchmaking that has characterised his entire career.
- Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective
- Captain Arthur Hastings, Poirot's friend and Judith's father
- Curtiss, Poirot's new valet, formerly a mental hospital assistant
- Dr John Franklin, a research chemist
- Barbara Franklin, his invalided wife
- Judith Hastings, Franklin's laboratory assistant and Captain Hastings' independent daughter
- Nurse Craven, nurse to Barbara Franklin
- Sir William Boyd Carrington, former governor of a province of India
- Major Allerton, a womaniser
- Stephen Norton, a bird watcher
- Toby Luttrell, owner of Styles Court
- Daisy Luttrell, his wife
- Elizabeth Cole
- George, Poirot's former valet
- Leonard Etherington
- Mrs Etherington
- Miss Sharples
- Freda Clay
- Edward Riggs
- Ben Craig
- Derek Bradley
- Mrs Bradley
- Matthew Litchfield
- Margaret Litchfield
Literary significance and reception
In a review titled The last labour of Hercules, Matthew Coady in The Guardian of October 9, 1975 said that the book was both "a curiosity and a triumph." He repeated the tale of the book being written some thirty years before and then stated that, "through it, Dame Agatha, whose recent work has shown a decline, is seen once more at the peak of her ingenuity." Commenting on the return of Hastings, Coady called the character the "densest of Dr Watsons; but never has the stupidity of the faithful companion-chronicler been so cunningly exploited as it is here." Coady summarised the absolute basics of the plot and the questions raised within it and then said, "In providing the answers, the great illusionist of crime fiction provides a model demonstration of reader manipulation. The seemingly artless, simplistic Christie prose is mined with deceits. Inside the old, absurd conventions of the Country House mystery she reworks the least likely person trick with a freshness rivalling the originality she displayed nearly 50 years ago in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Coady concluded, "For the egotistic Poirot, hero of some 40 books…it is a dazzlingly theatrical finish. 'Goodbye, cher ami,' runs his final message to the hapless Hastings. 'They were good days.' For addicts, everywhere, they were among the best."
Two months later, Coady nominated Curtain as his Book of the Year in a column of critic's choices. He said, "No crime story of 1975 has given me more undiluted pleasure. As a critic, I welcome it, as a reminder that sheer ingenuity can still amaze."
Maurice Richardson in The Observer of October 5, 1975 summed up: "One of her most highly contrived jobs, artificial as a mechanical birdcage, but an unputdownable swansong."
Robert Barnard: "Written in the 'forties, designed for publication after Christie's death, but in fact issued just before it. Based on an idea toyed with in Peril at End House (chapter 9) – a clever and interesting one, but needing greater subtlety in the handling than Christie's style or characterisation will allow (the characters here are in any case quite exceptionally pallid). In fact, for a long-cherished idea, and as an exit for Poirot, this is oddly perfunctory in execution."
References or Allusions
References to other works
Due to its early date of composition, Curtain takes no account of Poirot's later career. While details are only very occasionally anachronistic (such as the mentions of hanging, which had been abolished in Great Britain in 1965) they often have implications for the series as a whole that can only be dismissed by remembering that Christie probably intended the novel to be published earlier than it was; the fifth paragraph ("Wounded in the war that for me would always be the war--the war that was wiped out now by a second and more desperate war.") sets it within World War II.
Hastings, who had been invalided out of the First World War, became involved in the first Styles investigation in 1916, at which time he was around thirty years old. We know that Poirot was alive to solve the mystery in Elephants Can Remember, which was set in 1972-3. Quite apart from Poirot's age, Hastings must therefore himself be around ninety years old at the time of Curtain. While this does not make it impossible that he should marry Elizabeth Cole, who is thirty-five, it certainly makes it exceptional. Hastings himself estimates in Chapter 8 that Elizabeth is "well over ten years my junior" and an age of fifty is far more suitable for the way that he describes himself in the novel.
Another detail is Poirot's reference to a trip to Egypt for his health. At the time that Curtain was written this was almost certainly intended to be a reference to Death on the Nile, but if Hastings has seen Poirot a year before his death, then we must suppose that Poirot made a second trip there in about 1974. This, however, is merely to tie oneself in knots attempting to suggest a true, consistent biography that stands behind an entirely fictional sequence of events.
Poirot mentions that once in Egypt he attempted to warn a murderer before the person committed the crime. That case is the one retold in Death on the Nile. He mentions that there was another case in which he had done the same thing: almost certainly that retold in “Triangle at Rhodes” (published in Murder in the Mews in 1937).
In another book, Japp asks Poirot how he would commit a murder. Poirot replies that if he did, there would be no body to find. This is proved wrong in this book.
In The A.B.C. Murders, Inspector Japp says to Poirot: "Shouldn't wonder if you ended by detecting your own death". A clue of Curtain already being formed in the author's mind in 1935. Another reference to that novel is that Hastings asks Poirot if the murders occuring at the time can be like the ABC case, which seemed serial killing while it turned out to be something very different.
On August 6, 1975, The New York Times published a front-page obituary of Hercule Poirot with a photograph to mark his death.
- 1975, Collins Crime Club (London), September 1975, Hardcover, 224 pp ISBN 0-00-231619-6
- 1975, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 238 pp, ISBN 0-396-07191-0
- 1976, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 280 pp
- 1976, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 325 pp, ISBN 0-85456-498-5
- 1977, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 188 pp
- 1992, G.K. Hall & Co. large-print edition, Hardcover, ISBN 0-8161-4539-3
In the US, the novel was serialised in Ladies' Home Journal in two abridged instalments from July (Volume XCII, Number 7) to August 1975 (Volume XCII, Number 8) with an illustration by Mark English.
- Czech: Opona: Poirotův poslední případ (Curtain: Poirot's Last Case)
- Dutch: Het doek valt (The Curtain Falls)
- Finnish: Esirippu (Curtain)
- French : Poirot quitte la scène (Poirot Leaves the Stage/Poirot Gives up the Stage)
- German: Vorhang: Hercule Poirots letzter Fall (Curtain: Hercule Poirot's Last Case)
- Hungarian: Függöny (Poirot utolsó esete) (Curtain: Poirot's Last Case)
- Indonesia: Tirai (Curtain)
- Italian: Sipario (L'ultima avventura di Poirot) (Curtain: Poirot's Last Adventure)
- Polish: Kurtyna (Curtain)
- Português: Cai o pano (The Curtain Falls)
- Slovak: Opona: Poirotov posledný prípad (Curtain: Poirot's Last Case)
- Spanish: Telón. El último caso de Poirot (Curtain: Poirot's last case)
- Turkish: Perde indi (The Curtain Closed)