The Mystery of the Spanish Chest is a novella by Agatha Christie which was first published in three instalments in Women's Illustrated from 17 September to 1 October 1960 with illustrations by Zelinksi in the U.K. The story was also gathered and published as part of The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées in October 1960. In the U.S., the story was published in the collection The Harlequin Tea Set in 1997.
The story is an expanded version of The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest which was first published in The Strand Magazine in January 1932. The expanded version incorporated changes to the names of the characters, notably, the inclusion of Miss Lemon and the deletion of Captain Hastings.
(may contain spoilers - click on expand to read)
Poirot's attention is caught by newspaper headlines which tell of the latest developments in the "Spanish Chest Mystery". At his request Miss Lemon prepares a précis of the case. A Major Charles Rich held a small party at his flat. The guests were a Mr and Mrs Clayton, a Mr and Mrs Spence and a Commander McLaren. At the last minute, Mr Clayton received an urgent telegram summoning him to Scotland that night on business and did not attend the party. Shortly before the party, he had a drink with McLaren at their club where he explained his coming absence and then before going to the station, took a taxi to Rich's to offer his apologies. Rich was out but Burgess – Rich's manservant – let him in and left Clayton to scribble a note in the sitting room while he carried on his preparations in the kitchen. Some ten minutes later, Rich returned and sent Burgess out on a short errand. Rich denies seeing Clayton at the flat nor did Burgess after leaving the man to write his note. The party went well. The next morning, Burgess noticed what seemed to be bloodstains on a rug that were seeping from a Spanish chest in the corner of the room. Opening it, the startled man found the stabbed body of Mr Clayton. Rich has now been arrested as the obvious suspect but Poirot sees a flaw in that he cannot see how or why Rich would calmly have gone to bed with a bleeding corpse in the chest. He is able to start investigating the case when a mutual friend recommends him to Mrs Clayton.
Meeting the widow, he is struck by her beautiful innocence and realises quickly that she is attracted to Major Rich although she denies having an affair with him. She does admit that she wasn't in love with her closed and emotionless husband. He then sees each of the people involved in the party in turn who each agree about the charms of Mrs Clayton and the lack of emotion in her husband. Poirot has some suspicions of Burgess and goes to Rich's flat where the manservant shows him the scene of the crime. Inspecting the chest, Poirot finds some holes in the back and side and asks Burgess if anything in the room is noticeably different from the night of the party. He is told that a screen in the room was almost in front of the chest on the night. Remembering a reference to Othello used by Mrs Spence, Poirot realises the truth. Mr Clayton is Othello and his wife is Desdemona and the missing character of Iago is in fact Commander McLaren. He is in love with Mrs Clayton and, jealous of her attraction to Major Rich, planned the perfect crime whereby Clayton would die and Rich be accused of the murder. He made numerous subtle suggestions to Clayton about his wife's infidelity to the point where the man himself hatched a plan to fake a summons to Scotland and then found a reason to get into Rich's flat where he hid in the chest to observe what happened in his absence during the party. McLaren, playing records for the people to dance to, nipped behind the screen, opened the chest and stabbed his friend. Poirot feels certain that if the theory is put to McLaren he will confess.
- This novella mentions that in Poirot's past, "There had been a certain Russian countess--but that was long ago now. A folly of the past". Probably a reference to Vera Rossakoff.
- There is a detailed description of Miss Lemon, with a comparison to Captain Hastings. See also How Does Your Garden Grow?.
Agatha Christie's Poirot
A television film with David Suchet as Poirot was produced as episode 8 of Series 3 of the ITV series Agatha Christie's Poirot, first broadcast on 17 February 1991. The adaptation is fairly faithful to the original story, but is closer to the shorter version The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest. Most of the names of the characters are taken this version rather than the expanded one.
- 1960 Women's Illustrated, 17 September to 1 October 1960 (in three instalments)
- 1960 The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées, Collins Crime Club (London), 24 October 1960
- 1997 The Harlequin Tea Set, Putnam (New York), 14 April 1997