Literature / The ABC Murders

A madman, mon ami, is to be taken seriously. A madman is a very dangerous thing.

1936 novel by Agatha Christie, often considered to be one of her best works. Hercule Poirot has received a letter after retirement, daring him to solve a case before a victim for every letter of the alphabet is killed (and it's not a Spoiler Title).

This detective mystery provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Many of the Scotland Yard officers who gets involved in the ABC case, particularly Crome (who, in the books, was the person-in-charge of the investigation), were removed and their roles given to Chief Inspector Japp (whose only role in the books was to commission the case to his, so to speak, "subordinates").
  • Alliterative Name: The victims of the killer: Alice Ascher, Betty Barnard and Sir Carmichael Clarke.
  • Awesome McCool Name: Invoked. Cust's mother named his son after two great conquerors, Alexander the Great and Napoleon Bonaporte, in hopes that he'd grow up to be someone important.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: The murderer tries to commit suicide after The Reveal, preferring to go out quickly rather than go through the inevitable execution, but Poirot prevents this, saying that he doesn't deserve an easy death.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: Clarke confesses after Poirot mentions he left a fingerprint on Cust's typewriter. Discussing the case later with Hastings, Poirot admits that there was no fingerprint: "I put that in to please you, mon ami."
  • Calling Card: The murderer leaves a book of railway timetables at the scene of each murder. The book in question, naming all the stations in Britain in alphabetical order, is known as an ABC.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Betty Barnard is a notorious flirt and enjoys having parties with any men who's willing to take her there (much to her boyfriend's displeasure). Her older sister Megan is a lot more sensible and down-to-earth.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Within the opening pages of this novel, Hastings suggests that the next time he sees Poirot, he will be wearing a fake moustache. In Curtain, the last Poirot novel, Poirot dons a false moustache, which becomes key to understanding the murder.
    • When Poirot describes to Hastings what he sees as an ideal murder case, he gives the premise of Cards on the Table, which is released a few months after this book.
  • Gold Digger: Mrs Clarke suspects that Thora Grey might be buttering up to her husband, Carmichael, and that he'd probably marry her after she dies. She immediately sends her away when Michael was killed. This ends up being important to the motive of the murderer: If Thora had married Sir Carmichael and perhaps had children, Franklin would not have inherited his brother's money.
  • Instant Death Bullet: The fourth murder is committed in a cinema. The murderer leaves in the middle of the film, pretends to stumble, leans forward and stabs a man, who dies instantly, without making a sound.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: When Poirot and Hastings see the dead body of the first victim, Alice Ascher, an elderly storekeeper, Poirot notes that she must have been beautiful when she was young. Hastings doubts it, but later, when they find her wedding photo, he sees that Poirot was right.
  • The Killer in Me: Alexander Bonaparte Cust has frequent black-outs, and believes that he had committed the murders unaware during those blackouts.
  • Mistaken Nationality: Poirot gets mistaken for French, which annoys him greatly. Part of the ongoing Running Gag.
  • Murder by Mistake: The fourth victim's name starts with E, instead of D, as the killer's pattern would have indicated. However, a man named Downes was sitting near the victim, so the police assumed that he's the intended victim, and A.B.C. just killed the wrong guy. Subverted, however, because the killer has reached his intended victim, so he doesn't care about continuing the pattern any more. He simply killed a random guy and hope that someone who fits his killing pattern would be sitting somewhere nearby.
  • Never One Murder: Lampshaded at the beginning when Poirot and Hastings talk about murder mysteries, and Hastings says that it's good if a story has more than one murder, because otherwise it could get boring.
  • Perspective Flip: The radio program Suspense features an adaptation of the story from the perspective of Alexander Bonaparte Cust.
  • Red Herring: There's a Serial Killer who nicknames themselves A.B.C. There is also a suspicious character who not only have A.B.C. as their initial and has been in the murder locations during the time of the tragedy. Of course, they're just a scapegoat used by the actual killer to cover their tracks.
  • Running Gag: In the TV Adaptation, Hastings arrives in London bringing a preserved crocodile corpse, whom he named "Cedric". He's really proud of his kill, and tries to tell his story of the hunt to whoever is around, but is always interrupted before he can even start. In the last scene, though, he finally got an interested listener in the form of Cust, and Poirot and Japp could quietly slipped away while the two chatted about the crocodile.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target: The killer's intended victim was Sir Charmichael, and all the other murders were committed to draw away the attention from the individual murder.
  • Theme Serial Killer: The killer apparently chooses their targets based on the letters of the alphabets, first killing an old lady with the initials of A.A., then a young woman named B.B., and an elderly man named C.C.
  • Unwitting Pawn: The killer "hires" Cust to sell silk stockings, and sends him a list of "potential customers" to ensure that he'd be seen on the crime locations when the tragedy takes place. Poor Cust is a suggestible epileptic who suffers from frequent blackouts, and believes himself to commit the murders while unaware.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The killer initially reacts to being exposed with grace and dignity... until Poirot reveals that he's emptied the gun he was planning to use to kill himself in order to escape justice. This provokes a tantrum.