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Literature / Crooked House

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"'And they all lived together in a little crooked house.' That's us. Not really such a little house either. But definitely crooked-running to gables and half-timbering!"
"Are you one of a large family? Brothers and sisters?"

Crooked House is a murder mystery by Agatha Christie, published in 1949.

While in Cairo during World War II, narrator Charles Hayward meets and falls in love with Sophia Leonides. As his Love Epiphany does not occur until he is called east, they put off their engagement until both have returned to England. Two years later, his reunion with Sophia is preceded by the death notice of her grandfather, Aristide Leonides. Early suspicions of foul play are quickly proved correct; he died of eserine poisoning, an unknown party placing his eyedrops in one of his insulin vials. Worried about jeopardizing Charles' career in the Diplomatic Service, Sophia refuses to go through with the marriage until the matter can be completely resolved.

Charles, being both Sophia's fiancé and the son of Scotland Yard's Assistant Commissioner, finds himself in a unique position to investigate the Big, Screwed-Up Family. Suspicion falls squarely on Aristide's second wife, fifty years his younger, but there was no lack of motive and opportunity among the odd family members.

The novel was adapted to film in 2017, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner. The film stars Max Irons, Terence Stamp, Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, Christina Hendricks and Stefanie Martini.

This work of fiction contains examples of:

  • Absence of Evidence: The fact that all fingerprints were wiped off a frequently-handled vial rules out the possibility that Aristides' death could have been an accident.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Charles always calls his father "the Old Man" in narration, and it's clear that it's a sign of love.
  • Affluent Ascetic: Clemency, Roger's wife, has a distaste for the wealth of his family.
  • Alone with the Psycho: Charles has several conversations with Josephine over the course of the story, but in an ironic twist, he feels protective over her, in large part because she's a child, and he never suspects her, no matter how morbidly she behaves.
  • Amoral Attorney: Several of Aristide's lawyers are described this way, but averted by Mr. Gaitskill, the only one to make an appearance. The firm of Gaitskill, Callum, & Gaitskill is highly respectable. He is very irritated to have been drawn into Aristide's fake will play.
  • Attention Whore:
    • Magda is described as such—she always wants to be the center of attention and, as described under Drama Queen, thinks of life as a play with herself as the star.
    • Charles's father discusses this trope, remarking that murderers are almost always vain people who are bursting to tell someone about what they've done. He instructs Charles to find out which of the Leonides family loves to talk and boast the most, as that person matches a killer's psychological profile. He's spot-on—it seems that Josephine, the killer, inherited her mother's sense of drama and bragged incessantly about being smarter than everyone in the house. Josephine even killed Nannie after Brenda and Laurence was arrested because she was angry that, with the murder solved, she wouldn't get to be in the spotlight any longer.
  • Big Fancy House: Three Gables, the titular crooked house, described as a country cottage that has swollen to the size of a castle.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Downplayed by the Leonides family. Although it's filled with clashing personalities, its members all care about each other. Except for Brenda.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Josephine's notebook, in which she keeps her observations about the family. It's forgotten about after Charles is led to the love letters, but it contains Josephine's confession.
  • Convenient Terminal Illness: Edith is dying, and thus has no compunctions about taking her own life if it means stopping Josephine.
  • Disabled Snarker: Eustace's polio gives him some trouble walking, and it's left him bitter.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Josephine's motive for killing her grandfather was the fact that he refused to let her take ballet lessons. When she fakes a second attempt on her life, she targets Nannie because she criticized her for showing off, and agreeing with Magda's decision to send her to Switzerland.
  • The Dog Was the Mastermind: Josephine, a child, was the killer.
  • Drama Queen: Magda treats life as a show, with herself in the starring role. She seeks feedback from Sophia on how she should "perform" during her interview with Inspector Taverner.
  • Enfant Terrible: Even Sophia's younger siblings, Eustace and Josephine, have some Troubling Unchildlike Behavior that invokes suspicion. As it turns out, Josephine was the killer.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: It can't even be narrowed down to those with knowledge of medicine, as Aristide made a comment at the dinner table about how terribly poisonous his eyedrops are.
  • Everyone Knew Already: One of the running themes of the novel: the Leonides family usually know a lot more than they're letting on, but their intense love for one another keeps them from saying anything until it's too late. We see evidence of this with Brenda's supposed guilt (none of them actually think it was her), Roger's horrible business sense (they all know he's an idiot with no head for work but won't say so), and Josephine's sociopathic nature (both Aunt Edith and Nannie realize very early on that the girl has no moral sense and correctly suspect her of the murders).
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: As is par for the course with Dame Christie. This one gets special attention because, in addition to clear clues, Christie explicitly spells out the murderer's psychological profile via Charles's father, although there are enough suspects who match it to some degree that readers are thrown off the trail.
  • Forging the Will: One mystery that crops up is the fact that Aristide's rather ordinary will is unsigned, despite the fact that his signature had multiple witnesses. He used blotting paper to hide his actual will, which leaves everything to Sophia.
  • Friend on the Force: Charles is the son of the Assistant Commissioner, and on good terms with Chief Inspector Taverner.
  • Gold Digger: Everyone is quick to suspect Brenda Leonides, believing her to be this. Although financial benefit was the reason for the marriage, it was prompted by Aristide and not entirely one-sided. Brenda really did have affection for him, even if she wasn't in love with him, and Aristide enjoyed getting to rescue and spoil her.
  • He Knows Too Much: One concern about Josephine is that her snooping might leave her privy to information that puts her in danger. She invokes this by setting up an attempt on her life, making it seem as though she's figured it out ahead of the police.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Aunt Edith, having deduced that Josephine was the killer, drives herself and the girl into a quarry, ending the murders (especially because she knew Josephine wouldn't stop). Edith also makes a false confession about the deaths of Aristide and Nannie, freeing Brenda and Laurence from suspicion and preventing a scandal for her living relatives.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Aristide reads his will to his gathered family members, then has two servants sign it in full view of everyone—but when his lawyer opens the sealed envelope that contains the document, the signatures have vanished. The detectives try to figure out how one of the relatives pulled off the change, but the solution is actually staring them in the face: Aristide himself made the swap by switching the phony will with his real one, then covering it up with blotting paper when the servants signed it. It's lampshaded by Charles, who laments that they were all incredibly stupid to not consider that Aristide was the only person who had access to the will and thus the only one able to play the trick.
  • Hollywood Law: Between the fact Aristide drew up his second will himself without having his solicitor go over the legalese and the trick he used to get the witnesses' signature on the document without them reading it, those of his surviving kin who were excluded from the new will could have grounds to challenge it.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Roger is the firstborn son, but decidedly unfit to continue his father's catering business.
  • Inheritance Murder: Brought up, but ultimately subverted; although everyone would receive a tidy sum from their inheritance, Aristide did not hesitate to share his wealth with his family, leaving only a marginal benefit to killing him for wealth. Double Subverted when his real will leaves everything to Sophia, forcing Charles to consider her as a suspect. And then triple subverted in that the real murder motive had nothing to do with inheritance at all.
  • In the Blood: A theme brought up several times throughout the novel. Sophia is said to have inherited the best traits of her parents' bloodlines, and Josephine the worst traits.
  • It Amused Me: If Josephine hadn't poisoned Nannie, she would have gone unsuspected while Brenda and Laurence faced charges. But she found things much too boring with the investigation concluded.
  • The Killer Becomes the Killed: Josephine is killed by Edith, ending her murderous streak before it can grow any longer.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Downplayed. None of the Leonides family are truly evil (except the murderer), but they are deeply flawed people who resent one another, can't communicate clearly, and all share different varieties of ruthlessness. Artiside, though, truly loved them all and wanted them to be as close as possible, so he made them all live together at Three Gables and is stated to have enjoyed having them all nearby. As such, the family does genuinely care for each other, but live in a constant state of tension and anger that they can't express because of their affection.
  • Maiden Aunt: Edith de Haviland, sister of Aristide's first wife, moved to Three Gables after her death.
  • Medication Tampering: Aristide's insulin was replaced with his eyedrop medicine, causing him to die of eserine poisoning.
  • Mercy Kill: Edith views her killing of Josephine as this, ensuring that she did not spend the rest of her life suffering in an asylum.
  • Murder by Mistake: Invoked by Josephine, who makes it look as though an attempt on her life killed Nannie. In reality, she poisoned her own cocoa, leaving it for Nannie to drink so it wouldn't go wasted.
  • Murder-Suicide: Edith kills herself and Josephine by driving into a quarry.
  • Never One Murder: Around halfway through the novel, Josephine comments that in books, it would be the right time for a second murder. Being the killer, her prediction comes true, and she sets up an attempt on her life. After her return, she fakes a second attempt which kills Nannie.
  • Never the Obvious Suspect: Brenda is the obvious suspect to everyone else in the family. An outcast of the family who married for money, the one to give Aristide his medicine, and (supposedly) having an affair with Laurence. She didn't do it.
  • Not So Stoic: Philip Leonides loses his temper and screams in despair after hearing the real will of his father, where all the property goes to his daughter, believing that Aristide was ungrateful to him.
  • Obvious Rule Patch: Discussed as the characters talk about Aristide Leonides. He never did anything illegal, but his business practices were decidedly sneaky (hence his title as the "crooked man") and skirted around rules as much as possible. As such, laws and regulations were frequently passed immediately after he finished making a deal to ensure that no one could ever try the same tricks.
  • Only Sane Man: Sophia seems to be the only member of the Leonides with her head on her shoulders. As such, Aristide leaves his estate to her, trusting her to continue handling family affairs as he had.
  • Pet the Dog: Although Brenda is suspected by the rest of the Leonides family, and generally disliked by them, they are insistent on getting her a good lawyer so that she receives a fair trial. It's implied that deep down, none of them actually think that Brenda did it, even though they hope it's the case because it would be the easiest explanation. They turn out to be right in that suspicion, as Brenda is totally innocent.
  • Poor Communication Kills: A running trait with the Leonides family. None of them seem capable of sharing how they actually feel about things, instead bottling up their emotions until they become too much to bear. Philip, for example, can't stand the fact that Roger is the favored son of the family, but retreats into himself rather than express it, while Roger himself is incredibly bad at finance and doesn't want to run his father's catering company, but did the job anyway rather than tell Aristide the truth.
  • Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense: Roger is given control of his father's successful catering business, and promptly runs it into the ground with poor business decisions.
  • Rules Lawyer: A variation—Aristide Leonides is described as a ruthlessly cunning businessman who exploited every possible loophole to get around rules and make himself a huge fortune. He prided himself on never officially breaking laws, but it's clear that even if his actions weren't illegal, they were certainly unfair.
  • Snooping Little Kid: Josephine, who fancies herself a Kid Detective on the case.
  • The Sociopath: Josephine, who kills her grandfather out of pettiness and Nannie out of boredom. She takes the opportunity to show off as a precociously brilliant investigator, repeatedly thwarting the killer's attempts to silence her.
  • The Stoic: Sophia says it herself, that her father Philip controls himself even too well. And the inspector Taverner even emphasizes after the first dialogue with him his external unemotionality.
  • Taking the Heat: Edith leaves a note accepting responsibility for the murders, to lessen the scandal of Josephine being the killer.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Josephine poisons her own cocoa in an attempt to kill Nannie.
  • Technical Pacifist: Laurence is a conscientious objector who states that he could not take a life, but it's speculated that he could set up a scenario where someone else administered the poison. Continued indirect methods of murder do not help his case.
  • Title Drop: Several references are made to the nursery rhyme that lends the book its title.
  • Too Clever by Half: Charles thinks of Josephine this way—she's an exceptionally bright girl, but her tendency to snoop and love of lording the fact that she knows people's secrets over them makes her a target for the murderer. In the end, Josephine is the murderer, but the trope still applies: she thought herself too brilliant to be caught, but both Aunt Edith and Charles's father realized that she was behind the murders, with Edith taking drastic action to stop her.
  • The Un Favourite: Philip, Sophia's father, feels completely passed-over compared to his older brother Roger.
  • Unwanted Assistance: Roger is aware of his poor acumen, and just wants to go bankrupt so he can leave the business behind. He continually balks at family members trying to bail him out and keep the business afloat.
  • Wham Line: Josephine's diary entry: "Today I killed Grandfather".
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Josephine sets up an attempt on her life, both diverting any suspicion and making it seem as though she's figured out who the killer is.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: The apparent culprits are arrested, and taken away from the house. Then someone poisons Nannie.