Mrs McGinty's Dead is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in February 1952 and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on March 3 of the same year. The US edition retailed at $2.50 and the UK edition nine shillings and sixpence (9/6). The Detective Book Club issued an edition, also in 1952, as Blood Will Tell.
The novel features the characters Hercule Poirot and Ariadne Oliver. The story is a “village mystery”, a sub-genre of whodunit which Christie usually reserved for Miss Marple. The novel is notable for its wit and comic detail, something that had been little in evidence in the Poirot novels of the thirties and forties. Poirot's misery in the run-down guesthouse, and Mrs Oliver's observations on the life of a detective novelist, provide considerable entertainment in the early part of the novel.
The publication of Mrs McGinty’s Dead may be considered as marking the start of Poirot's final phase, in which Ariadne Oliver plays a large part. Although she had appeared in Cards on the Table in 1936, Mrs Oliver's most significant appearances in Christie's work begin here. She appears in five of the last nine Christie novels featuring Poirot to be written, and appears on her own without Poirot at all in The Pale Horse (1961).
Poirot, disillusioned by the “senseless cruel brutality” of modern crime, pays no attention to the sad case of Mrs McGinty, an old woman apparently struck dead by her lodger for thirty pounds that she kept under a floorboard. When, however, he is asked by the investigating officer to take another look at the case in order to stop an innocent man going to the gallows, he realises that things may not be as simple as they first appear to be.
Explanation of the novel's title
The novel is named after a children's game - a sort of follow-the-leader type of verse somewhat like the Hokey-Pokey - that is explained in the course of the novel.
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
Superintendent Spence informs famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot of the case of Mrs McGinty, an elderly charlady who was apparently killed by her lodger, James Bentley, for thirty pounds she kept under a floorboard. Bentley is soon to be executed for the crime, but Spence does not think he is guilty. Poirot agrees to go to the town of Broadhinny and investigate the murder further. Poirot finds that Mrs McGinty often worked as a cleaner at the houses of people in the village. No one wants to talk to Poirot, and most agree Bentley is the killer.
During a search among Mrs McGinty's possessions, Poirot finds a newspaper from which an article has been cut out. The newspaper is dated a few days before the murder. He later discovers that the missing article is about women connected with famous murder cases, and includes photographs of them. He also discovers that Mrs McGinty had purchased a bottle of ink in a local shop shortly before her murder. He concludes that she had recognized one of the women in the article, and had written to the paper in question. Someone must have found out about it and then killed her to prevent her from talking. Poirot and Spence, using the ages of people in the town, conclude that someone is either Lily Gamboll, who committed murder with a meat cleaver as a child, or Eva Kane, who had been the love interest who inspired a man to murder his wife and bury her in the cellar. Another possibility is that someone is Evelyn Hope, the daughter of Eva Kane. Shortly afterwards, Poirot discovers the murder weapon, a sugar hammer, left around in plain sight at his boarding house and accessible to all the suspects. In an attempt to flush out the murderer, Poirot claims to know more than he does and is nearly pushed under an oncoming train. Poirot decides to show most of the suspects the photos at a party. Mrs Upward claims to have seen the photo of Lily Gamboll, but does not say where.
The following day, Poirot is contacted by Maude Williams, who had approached him a few days earlier, telling him that she had known Bentley when they worked together briefly for the same estate agents. She told Poirot that she liked Bentley and did not believe he was guilty or even capable of murdering Mrs McGinty. She now offers to help Poirot who takes up her offer by getting her to pose as a maid in the house of Mrs Wetherby, a resident in the village for whom Mrs McGinty worked as housekeeper, and whose daughter, Deirdre, Poirot suspects may have some connection with the circumstances surrounding Mrs McGinty's murder.
During the maid's night off, Mrs Upward's son Robin, a theatre director and Ariadne Oliver, a famed mystery novelist who has been working on a theatre adaptation with Robin, leave for an evening at the theatre, leaving Mrs Upward alone at the house. When they return, they find Mrs Upward strangled to death. She has evidently had coffee with her murderer, and the evidence of lipstick on a coffee cup and perfume in the air points to a woman having committed the crime. Mrs Upward had invited three people to her house that night: Eve Carpenter, Deirdre Henderson and Shelagh Rendell. Any of the three women could be someone from the photographs. Additionally, the postmistress's assistant, Edna, saw someone with blonde hair enter the house, which points to either Carpenter or Rendell, as Henderson is not blonde. Confusing matters even further is the fact that a book is discovered in Mrs Upward's house with Evelyn Hope's signature written on the flyleaf, which suggests that Mrs Upward was actually Eva Kane. Poirot connects the final piece of the puzzle when he finds the photo Mrs McGinty saw at Maureen Summerhayes' house. It is of Eva Kane and has the inscription “my mother” on the back. Now, the story complete, Poirot gathers the suspects together and reveals the murderer – Robin Upward.
Robin is Eva Kane's son, Evelyn (which in England, can be a man's name as well as a woman's, the same being true of Robin, perhaps a clue to the plot device); the child was a boy, not a girl. Mrs Upward had not known who was the mother of her adopted son, but he realized that any scandal would be to his detriment. Mrs McGinty saw the photo of Eva Kane while working at the Upward house and assumed the photo was of Mrs Upward as a young woman. Robin killed her to prevent her from telling anyone who might recognize the photo. Mrs Upward thought Kane's photograph to be similar to a photo Robin had shown her of his mother, whose back story he made up. She wanted to confront Robin by herself, so she pointed to the wrong photo (that of Lily Gamboll) to put Poirot off the scent. Robin, however, sensed the truth and killed her before leaving for the play. Then he planted the evidence and made the three calls to make it appear that a woman had committed the crime. At this point Robin still had the photo, but rather than destroy it, he kept it and planted it at Mrs Summerhayes' house in order to incriminate her. But Poirot had gone through the drawer earlier and did not see the photo, so he knew it had been planted subsequently.
Further revelations are also made. Eve Carpenter wanted to conceal her past for reasons of her own, which was why she didn't cooperate in the investigation. Poirot discovers that Dr Rendell may have killed his first wife, which led Mrs Rendell to talk about anonymous letters she'd received warning her of the fact. Poirot now suspects it was Dr Rendell, convinced that Poirot was actually in Broadhinny to investigate the death of his first wife, and not that of Mrs McGinty, who tried to push him under the oncoming train, not Robin. Maude Williams turns out to be the daughter of Eva Kane's lover, and has always believed that her mother was murdered by Eva and that her father took the blame. She came to see Mrs Upward, who she thought was Eva Kane, intending to confront and frighten her, but found her dead and left quietly. She admits this to Poirot, who agrees to keep it a secret and wishes her good luck in her life.
Characters in Mrs McGinty’s Dead
- Hercule Poirot, the detective
- Superintendent Spence who helps Poirot in his investigations
- Ariadne Oliver, crime novelist who first met Poirot in Cards on the Table
- George (or Georges), Poirot's valet
- District Judge Stanisdale
- Mr Scuttle from Breather and Scuttle
- Abigail McGinty - the main murder victim
- James Bentley, who was put on trial for Mrs McGinty's murder
- Maude Williams, who worked with James Bentley
- Maureen Summerhayes, wife of Major Summerhayes (was mentioned again in Cat Among the Pigeons)
- Major Johnnie Summerhayes, owner of Long Meadows
- Eve Carpenter, married to Guy
- Guy Carpenter, politician
- Robin Upward, theatre director
- Laura Upward, his sixty year old mother
- Deirdre Henderson, the daughter of Mrs Wetherby
- Mrs Edith Wetherby, who is married to Roger
- Roger Wetherby, Deirdre's stepfather
- Dr Rendell, local physician
- Sheelagh Rendell, his wife
- Bessie Burch, niece of Mrs McGinty
- Joe Burch, her husband
- Mrs Sweetiman, who worked in the local post office
- Edna, a witness
- Pamela Horsfall
- Frieda, domestic servant
- Mrs Kiddle
- Eva Kane
- Lily Gamboll
- Vera Blake
- Michael West
- Mrs Elliot
- Mrs Scott
- Janet Groom
- Sergeant Fletcher
- Albert Hayling
Literary significance and reception
No review of this book appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.
Maurice Richardson of The Observer of March 23, 1952 thought that Poirot was, "slightly subdued" and summed up "Not one of A.C's best-constructed jobs, yet far more readable than most other people's."
Robert Barnard: "This village murder begins among the rural proletariat (cf. Death by Drowning in The Thirteen Problems and the excellent London working-class woman in The Hollow), but after a time it moves toward the better-spoken classes. Poirot suffers in a vividly awful country guesthouse in order to get in with the community and rescue a rather unsatisfactory young man from the gallows. Highly ingenious – at this point she is still able to vary the tricks she plays, not repeat them."
References to other works
- When Superintendent Spence arrives to see Poirot, the detective reacts to him as though it has been many years since the case on which they worked. The case in question was, however, the one retold in Taken at the Flood, which is the previous novel in the series, and was explicitly set in 1946. At most, it can only have been six years since they last worked together.
- Poirot refers in the first chapter to a case in which the resemblance between a wealthy financier and a soap boiler he had known in Liege proved significant. This is the case of “The Nemean Lion”, first published in the Strand Magazine in November 1939 and later collected in The Labours of Hercules (1947).
- Mrs Oliver, who is a very amiable caricature of Dame Agatha herself, remarks about her gaffes in her books. In chapter 12, she mentions one of her novels (actually a thinly-veiled reference to Christie's own Death in the Clouds) in which she had made a blowpipe one foot long, instead of six. Ariadne Oliver also asks Poirot who is the victim he is researching about, and Poirot compares Mrs McGinty to Mr Shaitana from Cards on the Table.
- “Evelyn Hope” is the name of a poem by Robert Browning that is quoted in the course of the novel. In Taken at the Flood Christie had made a character take the alias of "Enoch Arden", which is a poem by Tennyson.
Film, TV, or theatrical versions
Murder Most Foul
The novel was adapted by MGM in 1964 as the film Murder Most Foul. However, in an unusual move, the character of Poirot was replaced with Christie's other most famous detective Miss Marple (portrayed by Margaret Rutherford), who comes onto the case when she is a juror in the trial of the lodger who is accused of the murder. As she is the only juror to believe the lodger is innocent and will not join with the others to vote guilty the jury foreman says to the judge that they cannot make up their minds. The judge rules for a mistrial and arranges for a retrial for a week's time, giving Miss Marple seven days to solve the case.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
A television film was produced in 2007 with David Suchet as Poirot in the ITV series Agatha Christie's Poirot, first broadcast on 14 September 2008. It was directed by Ashley Pearce, who also directed Appointment with Death and Three Act Tragedy for the ITV series. It also starred Zoë Wanamaker and Richard Hope returning as Ariadne Oliver (who first appeared in Cards on the Table) and Superintendent Spence (who first appeared in Taken at the Flood), respectively. The adaptation is very faithful to the novel, despite the deletion of a few characters and omitting two of the women from the newspaper article — only focusing on Lily Gamboll and Eva Kane. The characters of Dierdre Henderson and Maude Wiliams are merged in the film. As such it is Maude Williams, the estate agents' secretary (with dark hair instead of blonde), who is in love with Bentley and helps Poirot throughout his investigation. Maude and Bentley are reunited by Poirot in the final scene.
Radio 4 Adaptation
Les Petits Meurtes d'Agatha
An French adaptation Mademoiselle Mac Ginty est morte was made as episode 10 of season 2 of the series Les Petits Meurtres d'Agatha Christie, first broadcast on France 2 on 11 Sep 2015. The premise is the same, but just like in the Agatha Christie's Poirot episode the newspaper article is about two women and not four. Michael Doutremont, the Robin Upward parallel, does not call anyone the night of his mother's murder. The alibi of Michael is given here by Marlène Leroy instead of Ariadne Oliver. The action takes place in a block of apartments in Lille rather than in the village of Broadhinny.
- 1952, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), February 1952, Hardback, 243 pp
- 1952, Collins Crime Club (London), March 3 1952, Hardback, 192 pp
- 1952, Walter J. Black (Detection Book Club), 180 pp (Dated 1951)
- 1953, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 181 pp
- 1957, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 188 pp
- 1970, Pan Books, Paperback, 191 pp
- 1988, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, ISBN 0-7089-1771-2
- 2008, HarperCollins; Facsimile edition, Hardcover, ISBN 978-0-00-728053-7
In the US, the novel was serialised in the Chicago Tribune in its Sunday edition in thirteen parts from October 7 to December 30, 1951 under the title of Blood Will Tell.
- Chinese (Simplified): 清洁女工之死 (The Death of the Charwoman)
- Czech: Smrt staré posluhovačky (The Death of an Old Charwoman)
- Dutch: Poirot komt terug (Poirot Returns)
- French: Mrs McGinty est morte (Mrs McGinty is Dead)
- German: Vier Frauen und ein Mord (Four Women and a Murder)
- Hungarian: Mrs. McGinty halott (Mrs McGinty's Dead), Mrs McGinty meghalt (Mrs. McGinty has Died)
- Indonesian: Mrs McGinty Sudah Mati (Mrs McGinty's Dead)
- Italian: Fermate il boia (Stop the Hangman)
- Japanese: マギンティ夫人は死んだ (Mrs McGinty's Dead)
- Spanish: La Señora McGinty ha muerto (Mrs McGinty Has Died)