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:

  • Alliterative Name: The victims of the killer: Alice Ascher, Betty Barnard and Sir Carmichael Clarke.
  • Berserk Button: Don't insult Hastings' combover.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: The murderer tries to commit suicide after The Reveal, 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A rare case here, as while the Chekhov's Gun is not applicable in this book, it is relevant to a later Christie novel, Curtain. Within the opening pages of this novel, Hastings comments (once learning that Poirot dyes his hair) that the next time Hastings sees Poirot, he will be wearing a fake mustache. In Curtain, the last Poirot mystery, Poirot dons a false mustache, which becomes key to understanding the murder.
  • Connect the Deaths: Used as a red herring.
  • Criminal Mind Games: The killer at first appears this way.
  • Discussed Trope: By Poirot and Hastings, on murder mysteries:
    Hercule Poirot:(after Hastings describes his ideal mystery) You have written a very pretty resume of nearly all the detective stories ever written.
    Hastings: Well, what would you order?
    Hercule Poirot: A very simple crime. A crime with no complications... very unimpassioned, very intime.
    Hastings: I can't see any excitement in that.
    Hercule Poirot: No, because there are no curiously twisted daggers, no blackmail, no emerald that is the stolen eye of a god... You have the melodramatic soul, Hastings.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Betty and Megan Barnard, respectively.
  • Foreshadowing/Be Careful What You Wish For: Poirot's description of the ideal mystery would end up being the plot of the novel Cards on the Table.
  • Genre Savvy: Poirot.
  • Gold Digger: Poirot suspects that Thora Grey is one, to Hastings' displeasure. 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 Knife: 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 random 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.
  • Malaproper: Poirot.
  • Mistaken Nationality: Poirot gets mistaken for French, which annoys him greatly. Part of the ongoing Running Gag.
  • Murder by Mistake: Subverted. It appears to occur with the fourth murder, which does not fit the killer's pattern. In reality, the identity of the victim was unimportant to the pattern; the victim was simply chosen at random, on the assumption that someone who in fact did fit the pattern would be nearby.
  • Murder-Suicide: The murderer tries to commit suicide, but Poirot prevents it, because he doesn't believe that the murderer deserves an easy death.
  • Napoleon Delusion: Referenced by Poirot when speaking of the killer.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: The first two and fourth murder victims were only killed as cover for the third.
    • Also exploited by the murderer for the fourth murder. The police know where and when it will be in advance, Doncaster, and that the target should be someone whose name starts with D, so they should be able to catch him...except that the date in question is that of the St Leger Stakes, one of the biggest horse racing events in England, so Doncaster is flooded with visitors from all over the country.
  • 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.
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: The page quote, but subverted with the line that comes after.
  • Perspective Flip: The radio program Suspense features an adaptation of the story from the perspective of Alexander Bonaparte Cust.
  • Poirot Speak
  • Red Herring: Alexander Bonaparte Cust in general.
  • Serial Killer: Could arguably be considered a subversion. The psychology of serial killers is a Discussed Trope throughout the novel, especially in The Summation.
  • Serial Killings, Specific Target
  • Twist Ending
  • Theme Serial Killer: Subverted in that a mentally ill man was framed to make it look like this.
  • 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.
  • The Watson: Captain Hastings.