Problem at Sea is a short story by Agatha Christie which was first published in the U.S. in This Week in January 1936 and in the U.K. in The Strand Magazine in February 1936 (as Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66). It was later gathered and published in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939 in the U.S. In the U.K., the story was part of the a fairly rare collection Poirot Knows the Murderer published in 1946. It was then published as part of the collection Poirot's Early Cases in the U.K. in 1974.
A woman is found dead in her cabin while her cruise ship is docked at Alexandria. Although most of her fellow passengers dislike her, almost nobody is a plausible suspect. Moreover, her cabin door was locked from the inside. How did the killer get in?
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
Hercule Poirot is undergoing the trial of a sea voyage to Egypt, supposedly as a holiday. Not enjoying one bit the motion of the waves, he joins in the conversations of the other passengers. Among them is a General Forbes who is angrily dismissive of a man who calls himself Colonel Clapperton. He states that Clapperton is a former music hall performer who, injured during the war, got himself into a society lady's nursing home and then received her patronage to find him a job at the War Office. The other passengers on the boat are more sympathetic towards Clapperton, particularly as he demonstrates continuing patience with his shrewish and hypochondriac wife, who complains of her heart trouble while at the same time stating that she keeps extremely active, despite her husband's constant entreaties to take life easier. Even Poirot seems to incur her wrath when he responds a little too dryly to her conversation. Somewhat annoyed with him, she marches out of the smoking room where they have been conversing, dropping the contents of her handbag on the way. She leaves behind a piece of paper – a prescription for digitalin.
Two young girls on the boat, Kitty Mooney and Pamela Creegan, take a shine to the Colonel and decide to "rescue" him from his wife. They take him for a walk on the boat deck while his wife plays bridge, a game which the Colonel won't play. Later on, Poirot sees the Colonel demonstrating amazing card tricks to the two young girls who have taken him under their wing. Able to deal out hands of exact suits to the others, the Colonel makes them realise why he won't play cards – he would be able to cheat and win every time – or at least be suspected of doing so – and it would be better for him not to take part.
The boat reaches Alexandria and many of the company go ashore. Mrs Clapperton refuses, shouting to her husband from behind her locked cabin door that she has suffered a bad night and wants to be left alone. When everyone has returned later on, Mrs Clapperton is still not answering her door. A steward opens it for her worried husband and they find the lady dead – stabbed through the heart with a native dagger and money and jewellery stolen. Several bead sellers were allowed on the boat at the port and they are questioned, particularly as one of their wares was found on the floor of the cabin. Poirot though is puzzled: the door to the cabin was locked from within and he cannot see a reason why Mrs Clapperton would open it to a bead seller, nor why such a person would murder her and lay himself so open to suspicion.
That evening, at Poirot's request, the other passengers are assembled in the lounge. Poirot addresses them and unwraps a ventriloquist's doll which speaks and repeats the words used by Mrs Clapperton from behind the locked cabin door to her husband. The man himself jumps up…and promptly collapses, dead of a heart attack.
Poirot explains: Mrs Clapperton was already dead when her husband, witnessed by Poirot, Kitty and Pamela, heard her "speak" to him from inside the cabin but it was her husband using his music hall act. He showed his card trick to the others to divert attention away from his real skill. Poirot's use of the doll in the lounge was helped by a young girl ( a fellow passenger and the owner of the doll) behind a curtain providing the voice. Poirot is not surprised that Clapperton died of a weak heart – digitalin would have produced symptoms of dilated pupils which he didn't see in Mrs Clapperton but he did see in her husband; the prescription was for him.
- Although it was published as "Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66" in The Strand, there is no mention of the cabin number in the text, at least not in the text in Poirot's Early Cases.
- The 1936 text in the Strand is slightly longer than the one in Poirot's Early Cases and contains several peripheral paragraphs which were removed when included in the 1974 anthology. Some phrases were also changed.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
- 1936: This Week, The Sunday Star (Washington D.C.), 12 January 1936.
- 1936: The Strand Magazine, February 1936 (as "Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66").
- 1939: The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1939.
- 1946: Poirot Knows the Murderer, Polybooks (London), 1946 (as "Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66").
- 1964: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, vol. 43 no. 3, whole no. 244, Mar 1964, as "The Quickness of the Hand".
- 1974: Poirot's Early Cases, Collins Crime Club (London), September 1974, Hardcover, 256 pp; ISBN 0-00-231312-X