The A.B.C. Murders is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on January 6, 1936 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company on February 14 of the same year. The UK edition retailed at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6) and the US edition at $2.00.
The book features the characters of Hercule Poirot, Arthur Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp. The form of the novel is unusual, combining first- and third-person narrative. Christie had previously experimented with this approach (famously pioneered by Charles Dickens in Bleak House), in her novel The Man in the Brown Suit. What is unusual in The A.B.C. Murders is that the third-person narrative is supposedly reconstructed by the first-person narrator, Hastings. This approach shows Christie's commitment to experimenting with point of view, famously exemplified by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
When a serial killer nicknamed ABC taunts Poirot in veiled letters and kills people in alphabetical order, Poirot employs an unconventional method to track down ABC. In a seemingly unconnected story, a traveling salesman named Alexander Bonaparte Cust has traveled to all of the murder locations on the day the crimes occurred. Cust had suffered a blow on the head during military service. As a result, he is prone to blackouts, headaches and epileptic attacks. Could this seemingly innocent stranger be the eponymous killer?
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
The story starts with Hastings meeting Poirot after almost a year. They receive a cryptic and sinister letter from an A.B.C., who hints that he will commit a murder in Andover. Poirot becomes upset and informs Japp about the date the murder will occur. Later, a small tobacco shop owner named Alice Ascher gets bludgeoned to death in her own shop in Andover. ABC has also left an ABC railway guide, showing the Andover location.
The investigation progress given from Hastings's diary is followed by description of life of an Alexander Bonaparte Cust. Contrary to his pompous name, Cust has not tasted real success. He was briefly drafted in military, where a blow to his head made him prone to blackouts and headaches. Due to his condition, now Cust has taken a job of travelling salesman, who sells stockings. While Poirot is investigating Alice's murder, Cust marks the Andover destination in his map.
Nearly a month after Alice's murder, ABC sends another letter, directing Poirot to Bexhill. A part-time waitress named Betty Barnard is strangulated to death by her own belt during midnight prior to the promised date. After a lull, ABC sends another letter, pointing Poirot to Churston. But Poirot is helpless: the letter has arrived three days later than it was supposed to, just because ABC misspelled Poirot's address.
Poirot unexpectedly gets a clue that ABC masqueradeg salesman, probably to spy on his victims. Here, ABC sends a letter telling that the next murder will be in Doncaster. Franklin points out that there will be a St. Leger on the given date. Poirot expects to unmask ABC on the Doncaster race course, but ABC strikes in a cinema hall instead, killing George Earlsfield, instead of Roger Emmanuel Downes, a logical victim sitting only two seats away.
Alibis and investigation
Alice's drunkard husband Franz is the only suspect in her murder. Despite a flimsy alibi, Poirot reasons out that Franz would not have the required brains to pass off her murder as a serial killing. Donald is the only suspect in Betty's murder, since he was a short tempered man who hated her flirtatious ways. However, he was Betty's boyfriend and he had no opportunity to kill her and wasn't anywhere near Bexhill.
Carmichael is survived by a wife on death bed and a younger brother Franklin. Franklin is the logical suspect, but no concrete evidence ties him to any case. Poirot proposes the formation of Legion of acquaintances of deceased, which Franklin supports. Later, Thora, Carmichael's assistant, is fired by a delusional Lady Clarke, who tells Poirot that she saw Thora talking to a shabbily dressed stranger on the day Carmichael was murdered. Poirot deduces that ABC scouts the crime scenes dressed as a salesman.
Poirot is also aided by his friends Hastings and Japp, while an Inspector Crome and a Dr. Thompson are also roped in. Poirot hopes to catch ABC on Doncaster race course, but he kills George Earlsfield in a cinema hall. Cust, who is present in the cinema hall, leaves unnoticed. It is revealed that Cust has suffered another blackout. A terrified Cust decides to run away and lies about his destination to his landlady. But he soon ends in trouble when an old friend Michael Hartigan tells Lily that he saw Cust in Doncaster.
Crome is tipped about Cust, but the latter manages to escape, only to surrender unconditionally. Cust doesn't remember committing any murder, but he confesses nonetheless. A search in his apartment reveals boxes of ABC railway guides and several packets of stockings. ABC tells the police that he was hired by a reputed firm as a salesman and that he knew nothing about the railway guides. The typewriter used to type the ABC letters is also found to be used for typing the appointment letter and the firm denies any claims made by Cust.
Later, when Poirot meets and interrogates Cust, he finds that Cust was in Bexhill when Betty was murdered, but he has an alibi, making it impossible for him to kill her. Also, Poirot realizes that Cust is not ABC, but believes himself to be the elusive killer. After pondering over the issue, Poirot praises Hastings for his ingenuity (which leaves him puzzled, as according to him he had done nothing extraordinary) and calls upon a Legion meeting.
Poirot explains to the Legion that the real ABC is not a homicidal maniac, but a sane man trying to pass a murder as a part of several serial killings. ABC is a handsome, coldblooded killer who killed three people want only to suppress the truth behind the fourth murder. Not only that, ABC set Cust up to take the blame. Based on the letters, ABC is someone who dislikes foreigners, which is why he wrote the letters to Poirot.
Poirot expresses the doubts he had in the case-
- Why did ABC send the letters to him instead of Scotland Yard or any local newspaper?
- If Cust didn't kill Betty, then who was her killer?
- Why did a meticulous planner like ABC misspell Poirot's address on Churston letter?
- Why would Cust not remember Poirot or typing the letters?
Poirot claims that the real ABC had to have brains, motive and opportunity to kill the people. He exonerates Franz, Donald and Cust on the grounds that they lacked one or more of the said characteristics. Poirot tells that Carmichael would have been alive, had the Churston letter not gone astray. On this, Hastings says, The letter was meant to go astray!. Poirot reminds him that he had said this earlier too, but everybody ignored it.
Ironically, this seemingly apparent observation was the truth: ABC didn't want Poirot to reach Churston on time. A letter to police or a local newspaper would never go astray, but one sent to a man like Poirot would. This was why Poirot had praised Hastings. This was also another reason ABC sent the letters to him, Hercule Poirot. Only one man could have had the brains, motive and opportunity: Franklin Clarke.
Franklin knew that after Lady Clarke's death, Thora and Carmichael would have come closer and ended up in a marriage, as it usually happens with wealthy widowers. Thora was young and capable of having Carmichael's children, which would deprive Franklin from inheriting the money. Hence, he decided to kill Carmichael before Lady Clarke died. Franklin, decided to make it look like a part of serial killings to throw any suspicions off him. He also decided to kill one more person after his brother to keep people from suspecting him.
Franklin met Cust by chance in a bar, where he got the idea of ABC. He bought a typewriter and typed all the ABC letters, along with Cust's appointment letter. Then, he posed as the "firm" and sent the typewriter, stockings and railway guides to Cust. He sent Cust to the crime scenes on the day he intended to carry out the murders. In Doncaster, he followed Cust to the cinema hall and murdered George. He cleaned the blood with Cust's sleeve and slid the knife in his pocket, effectively implicating him.
Franklin laughs off the theory, upon which Poirot provides several circumstantial evidences. Franklin says he cannot prove a thing, but Poirot tells him that his fingerprint was found on one of the keys of typewriter. Franklin tries to commit suicide, but Poirot, who had already guessed this, informs him that he had the bullets removed from the revolver. With his guilt proved, Franklin is arrested and Cust is released.
After Franklin has been arrested, Poirot plays as matchmaker for Donald & Megan. Cust is offered 100 pounds for publishing his story. Poirot offers him some financial advice and also hints that the headaches are actually due to the wrong power of his spectacles. Later, Poirot shocks Hastings by telling him that the "fingerprint on the typewriter" was a bluff. Poirot remarks that they indeed went on a hunting trip (something that Hastings was always planning to do throughout the novel).
The letter A
- Alice Ascher
- Franz Ascher
- Mary Drower
- Dr Kerr
- Inspector Glen
- Constable Dover
- Constable Briggs
- Miss Rose
- Dick Willows, Curdie, George and Platt - friends of Franz Ascher who can alibi him
- Mrs Fowler and her daughter Edie Fowler
- James Partridge
- Albert Riddell
The letter B
- Elizabeth "Betty" Barnard
- Megan Barnard
- Milly Higley
- Superintendent Carter
- Inspector Kelsey
- Donald Fraser
- Colonel Jerome
- Miss Merrion
- Mr Barnard
- Mrs Barnard
The letter C
- Sir Carmichael Clarke
- Lady Charlotte Clarke
- Franklin Clarke
- Thora Grey
- Inspector Wells
- Nurse Capstick
- Dr Logan
The letter D
- Roger Downes
- George Earlsfield
- Colonel Anderson
- Inspector Rice
- Mr Leadbetter
- Katherine Royal
- Mr Ball
- Mary Stroud
- Geoffrey Parnell
- Sam Baker
- Alexander Bonaparte Cust
- Hercule Poirot
- Captain Arthur Hastings
- Detective Chief Inspector James Harold Japp
- Inspector Crome
- Mrs Marbury
- Lily Marbury
- Tom Hartigan
- Dr Thompson
- Sir Lionel
- Sergeant Jacobs
- Mabel Homer
Literary significance and reception
The Times Literary Supplement of January 11, 1936 concluded with a note of admiration for the plot that, "If Mrs. Christie ever deserts fiction for crime, she will be very dangerous: no one but Poirot will catch her."
Isaac Anderson in The New York Times Book Review of February 16, 1936 finished his review by stating, "This story is a baffler of the first water, written in Agatha Christie's best manner. It seems to us the very best things she has done, not even excepting Roger Ackroyd.
In The Observer's issue of January 5, 1936, "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) said, "Ingenuity...is a mild term for Mrs. Christie's gift. In The A.B.C. Murders, rightly chosen by the [crime] club as its book of the month, she has quite altered her method of attack upon the reader, and yet the truth behind this fantastic series of killings is as fairly elusive as any previous truth which Poirot has had to capture for us. The reader adopts two quite different mental attitudes as he reads. At first, and for a great many pages, he is asking himself: "Is Agatha Christie going to let me down? Does she think she can give us this kind of tale as a detective story and get away with it?" Then the conviction comes to him that he has been wronging the authoress, and that he alone is beginning to see through her artifice. In the last chapter he finds, because brilliant circus work with a troop of red horses and one dark herring has diverted his attention from a calm consideration of motive, he has not been wronging, but merely wrong. It is noticeable, by the way, that characters break off at intervals to tell us that we have to do with "a homicidal murderer." We are ready to take this for granted until Mrs. Christie (I wouldn't put it past her) gives us one who isn't."
E. R. Punshon reviewed the novel in the February 6, 1936 issue of The Guardian when he said, "Some readers are drawn to the detective novel by the sheer interest of watching and perhaps anticipating the logical development of a given theme, others take their pleasure in following the swift succession of events in an exciting story, and yet others find themselves chiefly interested in the psychological reactions caused by crime impinging upon the routine of ordinary life. Skilful and happy is that author who can weave into a unity this triple thread. In Mrs. Agatha Christie's new book…the task is attempted with success." He went on to say, "In the second chapter, Mrs. Christie shows us what seems to be the maniac himself. But the wise reader, remembering other tales of Mrs. Christie's, will murmur to himself 'I trust her not; odds on she is fooling me,' and so will continue to a climax it is not 'odds on' but a dead cert he will not have guessed. To an easy and attractive style and an adequate if not very profound sense of character Mrs. Christie adds an extreme and astonishing ingenuity, nor does it very greatly matter that it is quite impossible to accept the groundwork of her tale or to suppose that any stalking-horse would behave so invariably so exactly as required. As at Bexhill, a hitch would always occur. In the smooth and apparently effortless perfection with which she achieves her ends Mrs. Christie reminds one of Noël Coward; she might, indeed, in that respect be called the Noël Coward of the detective novel."
An unnamed reviewer in the Daily Mirror of January 16, 1936 said, "I'm thanking heaven I've got a name that begins with a letter near the end of the alphabet! That's just in case some imitative soul uses this book as a text book for some nice little series of murders." They summed up, "It's Agatha Christie at her best."
Robert Barnard: "A classic, still fresh story, beautifully worked out. It differs from the usual pattern in that we seem to be involved in a chase: the series of murders appears to be the work of a maniac. In fact the solution reasserts the classic pattern of a closed circle of suspects, with a logical, well-motivated murder plan. The English detective story cannot embrace the irrational, it seems. A total success – but thank God she didn't try taking it through to Z."
References or Allusions
References to other works
In Chapter 1, Poirot alludes to a situation in the 1935 novel, Three Act Tragedy. In the same chapter, Poirot mentions his failed attempt of retirement to grow vegetable marrows as depicted in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
In Chapter 3, Poirot lays out the plot of what he considers a perfect crime, a crime so challenging that 'even he' would find it hard to solve. This exact murder — where someone is murdered by one of four people playing bridge in the same room with him — is the subject of Christie's Cards on the Table, which was published later in the same year.
In Chapter 19, Poirot reflects over his first case on England, where he "brought together two people who loved one another by the simple method of having one of them arrested for murder." This is a reference to the novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the lovers mentioned are John and Mary Cavendish.
Roger Downes is said to resemble the frog footman in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
References in other works
The plot of The ABC Murders is mentioned by Detective Inspector John Appleby in Michael Innes′ novel Appleby′s End (1945), and in the first story in volume 39 of the manga Detective Conan (chapters 393-397), which was inspired by the novel.
References to actual history, geography and current science
While discussing the second letter from A.B.C., Hercule Poirot makes references to Jack the Ripper.
The house of Carmichael Clarke at Churston is probably based on Churston Court at Churston Ferrers, Devon. Agatha Christie was a frequent guest of Lord Churston at Churston Court which is near her home at Greenway.
Film, TV and other adaptations
The Alphabet Murders (1965)
MGM UK produced an adaptation in 1965 called The Alphabet Murders with Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot. Although this used the same plot device of the murders following an alphabetical sequence, the story departed significantly from the original novel.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
The novel was adapted as a television film in 1992 for the television series Agatha Christie's Poirot with David Suchet playing the role of Hercule Poirot. This adaptation is largely faithful to the original.
Agatha Christie's Great Detectives Poirot and Marple
A four-part anime film was produced by NHK as episodes 5-8 of their series Agatha Christie's Great Detectives Poirot and Marple and broadcast in August 2004.
Les Petits Meurtes d'Agatha
The story of the Malayalam film Grandmaster draws plot elements from The A.B.C. Murders. The characterisation of Chandrasekhar as played by Indian movie veteran Mohanlal is also inspired by Hercule Poirot.
The ABC Murders BBC/Amazon TV Miniseries
BBC and Amazon Prime Video produced a new adaptation as a three-part mini series. Written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Alex Gabassi, it starred John Malkovich as Poirot. It was first released in the UK on 26 December 2018.
Radio 4 Adaptation
The novel was adapted as a radio play for BBC Radio 4 and broadcast on 22 April 2000.
Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders video game
In 2009, DreamCatcher Interactive released a video game version of the novel for the Nintendo DS. The game has players control Captain Hastings and must solve the mystery by inspecting crime scenes and questioning suspects. In order to appeal to players familiar with the original story, the game also offers the option to play with a different murderer, which results in different clues and testimony throughout the entire game. The game received mediocre reviews, but was commended for its faithful recreation of the source material.
- 1936, Collins Crime Club (London), January 6, 1936, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1936, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), February 14, 1936, Hardcover, 306 pp
- 1941, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, (Pocket number 88)
- 1948, Penguin Books, Paperback, (Penguin number 683), 224 pp
- 1958, Pan Books, Paperback (Great Pan 95), 191 pp
- 1962, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1976, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, 251 pp, ISBN 0-00-231014-7
- 1978, Greenway edition of collected works (Dodd Mead), Hardcover, 251 pp
- 1979, Pan Books, Paperback, 191 pp
- 1980, Collins Crime Club (London), Golden Jubilee of Crime Club with introduction by Julian Symons, Hardcover, 224 pp, ISBN 0-00-231323-5
- 1980, Ulverscroft Large-print edition, Hardback, ISBN 0-7089-0590-0
- 2006, Poirot Facsimile Edition (Facsimile of 1936 UK First Edition), HarperCollins, September 4, 2006, Hardcover ISBN 0-00-723443-0
The first true publication of The A.B.C. Murders occurred in the US with an abridged version appearing in the November 1935 (Volume XCIX, Number 5) issue of Cosmopolitan magazine with illustrations by Frederic Mizen.
The UK serialisation was in sixteen parts in the Daily Express from Monday, November 28 to Thursday December 12, 1935. All of the instalments carried an illustration by Steven Spurrier. This version did not contain any chapter divisions and totally omitted the foreword as well as chapters twenty-six, thirty-two and thirty-five. In addition most of chapters seven and twenty were missing. Along with other abridgements throughout the novel, this serialisation omitted almost forty percent of the text that appeared in the published novel.
- Chinese (simplified): ABC谋杀案 (The ABC Murders)
- Czech: Vraždy podle abecedy (The Alphabet Murders)
- Dutch: ABC-Mysterie (ABC-Mystery)
- French: A.B.C. contre Poirot (A.B.C. versus Poirot)
- German: Die Morde des Herrn ABC (The Murders of Mr. ABC) (since 1962), first edition in 1937: Der ABC Fahrplan (The ABC Timetable)
- Hungarian: Poirot és az ABC (Poirot and the Alphabet), Az ABC-gyilkosságok (The A.B.C. Murders)
- Italian: La serie infernale (The Hellish Series)
- Japanese: ABC殺人事件 (The A.B.C. Murders)
- Polish: A.B.C. baeeeee
- Portuguese: Os Crimes ABC (The ABC Crimes)
- Romanian: Ucigaşul ABC (The ABC Killer)
- Russian: Убийство по алфавиту (=Ubiystvo po alfavitu, The Alphabet Murder), Убийства по алфавиту (=Ubiystva po alfavitu, The Alphabet Murders)
- Spanish: El Misterio de la Guía de Ferrocarriles (The Railway Guide Mystery)
- Swedish: ABC-morden (The ABC murders)
- Turkish: Cinayet alfabesi (The alphabet of murder)