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Literature / Cat Among the Pigeons

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Cat Among the Pigeons is a 1959 mystery novel by Agatha Christie, featuring detective Hercule Poirot.

At the start of the summer term at Meadowbank School for Girls, a prestigious prep school in England, there is no reason for Miss Bulstrode, the popular but aging headmistress, to believe that the challenges facing her will be more than the occasional irate or inebriated parent. She scarcely listens when Mrs Upjohn, a parent, recognizes someone that she sees from her wartime days in the intelligence service. But there is a killer at the school who does not wait long to strike.

In 2008, ITV adapted the story for the eleventh season of Poirot. Tropes concerning the adaptation are listed on the series page.

This novel provides examples of the following:

  • Amateur Sleuth / Kid Detective : Julia Upjohn has definite shades of this. Not only does she deduce the significance of Jennifer's tennis racket and then finds the cache of hidden jewels, she actually figures out a large part of what is going on, when all the grown-ups around her (including Miss Bulstrode and Adam Goodman), are pretty much clueless. She is then intelligent enough to realize that she knows enough to be in danger, and promptly goes to see Poirot.
  • Arab Oil Sheikh: At the beginning of the book, Prince Ali Yusuf is the hereditary sheikh of the small but rich (including in oil) Middle-eastern state of Ramat. He has a liberal, western education and has sunk his treasury into making the country a welfare state with schools and hospitals while rejecting the example of his grandfather, The Caligula (who has a bizarre Villain with Good Publicity legacy). This gets him overthrown in a coup.
  • Asshole Victim: Downplayed. Miss Springer is highly opinionated, conceited, and rather annoying, making no attempt to be friendly with the rest of the staff. Still, her murder shocks and saddens everybody.
  • Blackmail: Miss Blanche knew the identity of Miss Springer's killer and attempted to blackmail them. Unsurprisingly, this only gets her killed.
  • Boarding School: The main setting is the girls-only boarding school Meadowbank.
  • Continuity Nod: Julia Upjohn, who discovers the cache of jewels and brings the case to Poirot's attention, is the god-daughter of Maureen Summerhayes from Mrs. McGinty's Dead:
    Julia: Auntie Maureen really is great fun - and she makes the most smashing omelettes
    Poirot: Then I, Poirot, have not lived in vain. For it was I who taught your Aunt to make an omelette.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Eileen Rich just happens to go to Ramat to hide her pregnancy and one of her students, Jennifer Sutcliffe sees her, but doesn't recognize her.
  • Cool Teacher: Honoria Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank, is not overly strict, but she seems to have an almost telepathic knowledge of everything that goes on at her school. Eileen Rich, the English teacher, also qualifies.
  • Cool Uncle: Bob Rawlinson to his niece Jennifer.
  • Crazy-Prepared: The reason for the MacGuffin existing in the first place. The collection of unset jewels is an emergency cache constantly carried by the Prince of Ramat, in case there was ever a situation he had to buy his way out of. Or there was an unexpected revolution and they had to support themselves (which is exactly what happened, but the revolution was so uncivilised that neither Ali or Bob survived it). It's stated it's a family tradition, and some of Ali's cache was passed down from similar caches held by now-deceased members of his family.
  • Dawson Casting: In-universe. It is said of some of the older girls that they could pass for adults in their 20s. In the case of "Princess Shaista", it turns out that this is because she is an adult of 25, having been switched with the real Princess.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Ali Yusuf's secret son Allen provides a belated example of both this and Someone to Remember Him By.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Miss Blanche, who is actually impersonating her sister Angèle who died, and who earned her teaching references. It is not as relevant to the plot as you might expect.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Jennifer is set up to receive a fair amount of focus at the beginning, but her trading tennis rackets with Julia and her own relatively unimaginative nature keep her from having much to do with the plot.
  • Famed in Story: Meadowbank is one of the most famous girls' schools in England, numbering many well-known and successful women in all walks of life among its graduates. Miss Bulstrode has elements of this among the school population, probably for good reason.
  • Foreshadowing: Although not relevant to the actual murder, Julia's letter to her mother mentions that Jennifer told her that -according to her uncle- Prince Ali Yusuf was in love with someone other than Shaista and that woman appears at the end of the novel.
    • One of the staff complains about Princess Shaista's wardrobe being inappropriate, particularly her brassiere, and it's commented that girls from her part of the world develop more quickly than English girls. The reason she's more busty is because she's actually in her mid-twenties.
  • Genre Savvy: Julia Upjohn figures out quickly after finding the jewels that she's in danger and takes precautions, which probably save her life
  • He Knows Too Much: Miss Blanche.
  • I Know You Know I Know: Ann Shapland hints that she knows Adam Goodman is no mere gardener, and he hints that she might be right.
  • I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: Twice. Prince Ali Yusuf, who fears an assassination attempt, hands the jewels off to Bob. Bob realizes that having the jewels makes him a target, and hides them in his sister's luggage.
  • Impersonation-Exclusive Character: Princess Shaista was kidnapped in Switzerland before she could arrive at Meadowbank School, and the character believed to be her throughout the book is an actress specializing in Dawson Casting parts. The reader never gets to know the real Shaista at all.
  • Insistent Terminology: It is not the gymnasium, it is the Sports Pavilion.
  • Lady Drunk: Lady Veronica Carlton-Sandways even has the Lady part in her title and makes a scene showing up drunk, upset at being away from her twin daughters for the school year.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Julia says she guesses there will be a second murder. When asked why she says "Well, there's usually a second murder in books." (There is a second murder, and then a third.)
  • Mistaken for Pregnant: Inverted. Jennifer Sutcliffe saw Eileen Rich in Ramat, but didn't realize it was her, because "Miss Rich isn't fat". That's where she had traveled to when her pregnancy became impossible to hide.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Eileen Rich, a respectable schoolteacher, has had a stillborn illegitimate child and is among the most sympathetic characters in the novel. Honoria Bulstrode, her headmistress, does not hold this against her, provided it does not become public knowledge. The novel ends with the implication that Bulstrode has chosen Rich as her eventual successor.
  • My Own Private "I Do": While studying at a British university, Ali Yusuf had an English lover who he married after she got pregnant, but he kept this a secret from everyone in his home country. It was understood between him and Alice that it would not be considered legal in his own country; it was solely in order to protect her and their son from the stigma of illegitimacy. The marriage is, however, considered legal enough for her to inherit the jewels.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Miss Shapland "broke out in a low-pitched flood of invective" when she is unmasked as the killer.
  • Never One Murder: Four murders are committed by two people with entirely different motives.
  • Not My Driver: Princess Shaista, a student at Meadowbrook School, gets into a car to meet her uncle in London and never arrives. This is a subversion, though, because it actually was her driver. "Shaista" was an impostor, and the car had come to help her disappear before she met anyone who knew the real Princess, making it look like a kidnapping.
  • One-Gender School: Meadowbrook is a school for girls in (apparently) their mid-late teens.
  • Perfumigation: Princess Shaista arrives, "prefaced by such a gust of expensive perfume as almost to knock Miss Bulstrode backwards."
  • Poor Communication Kills: Miss Chadwick was under the impression that Miss Bulstrode was considering Miss Vansittart as her successor, leading to jealousy and eventually murder. Miss Bulstrode had considered Miss Vansittart, but had actually settled on Miss Rich.
  • Precision F-Strike: Well, as close as one is likely to come in a Christie novel, when Ann Shapland calls Mrs. Upjohn "You lying bitch!"
  • Punny Name: Ronnie originally suggests the name "Adam Eden" for his undercover gardener, but Colonel Pikeaway considers that too obvious, and they go with Adam Goodman.
  • Qurac: A hunt for a cache of jewels once owned by the Prince of "Ramat".
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Miss Bulstrode is the disciplined yet compassionate Headmistress of Meadowbank School, while Inspector Kelsey takes competent command of the murder investigations, gathering clues, though only Poirot is able to unravel the entire story.
  • Redemption Equals Death: One of the murderers, Miss Chadwick, redeems herself by Taking the Bullet to stop her best friend being killed and thus atoning for her own crime.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Prince Ali Yusuf and Alice get married when they find out that Alice is pregnant.
  • The Spook: Mr. Robinson. Who he works for, what exactly he does, and even just who he is, is completely unknown.
    The man who came into the room did not look as though his name was, or could ever have been, Robinson. It might have been Demetrius, or Isaacstein, or Perenna—though not one or the other in particular. He was definitely not Jewish, nor definitely Greek nor Portuguese nor Spanish, nor South American. What did seem highly unlikely was that he was an Englishman called Robinson.
  • Spy Speak: Bob has a code when he's talking to John Edmundson, his friend at the embassy in Ramat. If Bob uses the phrase "Out of this world," it means that there's something urgent and they must meet.
  • Stern Teacher: Miss Bulstrode is the tough but fair kind.
  • Summation Gathering: Poirot gathers all the characters together to summarize the crime and reveal the murderer.
  • Taking the Bullet: Miss Chadwick steps in front of Miss Bulstrode and takes a bullet meant for the latter. Eventually, Miss Chadwick dies.
  • Those Two Girls: Jennifer and Julia, for a while, with a letter from one of their classmates to her mother mentioning that everyone at school calls them the Jays.
  • Title Drop: By Eileen Rich, talking about the odd feeling she has had since the beginning of the term (Eileen is noted to be highly intuitive):
    Eileen: ... it's like a cat among the pigeons, but we can't see the cat.
    • Poirot later drops that phrase twice.
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    "There is nothing," said Hercule Poirot, with feeling, "more dangerous than levying blackmail on a person who has killed perhaps twice already. Mademoiselle Blanche may have taken her own precautions but whatever they were, they were inadequate. She made an appointment with the murderer and she was killed."
    • Miss Vansittart sees a person with a flashlight in the gym. She knows that Miss Springer went to investigate after seeing a mysterious flashlight in the gym, and was murdered. Miss Vansittart decides to go on her own anyway to investigate, and is murdered in turn.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: The murder of Ms. Vansittart was completely unpremeditated, with Ms. Chadwick having simply gone to inspect a suspicious light while bringing a sandbag, and upon finding her rival there, with her back turned, was unable to resist the urge to strike her down, something she instantly felt horrified over.
  • Undercover Cop Reveal : Adam Goodman. His actual agency isn't specified, but he's either Special Branch or domestic intelligence. Played with in that the reader is introduced to him as he's instructed to go undercover, played straight later on with the police Inspector investigating Miss Springer's murder during his initial questioning.
  • Unfit for Greatness: It isn't that anyone has anything bad to say about Ms. Vansittart, but Ms. Bulstrode secretly feels that she lacks the imagination and flexibility to help the school remain great.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Sight: or rather, activity. At one point, Miss Bulstrode and Poirot think it might be a good idea to get in contact with Mrs Upjohn, and get some more details on exactly who she was talking about on the first day of term, so they naturally enough ask Julia.
    Julia: I'm sorry, but Mummy's gone to Anatolia on a bus.
    (after Julia leaves)
    Miss Bulstrode: Gone to Anatolia on a bus? The child said it as if she'd taken the 43 bus to Selfridges!
  • Villain with Good Publicity: At the beginning of the novel, Ali Yusuf bemoans how the people of the country are trying to overthrow him, even as they venerate the memory of his grandfather, an Ax-Crazy dictator.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The book never reveals the fate of the real princess Shaista, though Poirot says she "was taken to a very pleasant chalet in Switzerland", although she is rescued in the TV adaptation.
  • The Wise Prince: Ali Yusuf tried to be this to his country, introducing many reforms. Unfortunately, it just made his enemies see him as weak and launch a revolution.