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Literature / Five Little Pigs

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Five Little Pigs is a 1942 mystery novel by Agatha Christie. (For many years, American editions were published under the title Murder in Retrospect.)

Sixteen years ago, Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, the painter Amyas Crale. Their daughter approaches Hercule Poirot to investigate the case. Poirot visits the five people present at the time of the murder, and each of them gives a slightly different story.

In 1960, Christie adapted the story for the stage, under the title Go Back for Murder. The story was also featured in the ninth series of Poirot in 2003. Tropes concerning the TV adaptation are listed on the series page.

This detective mystery provides examples of:

  • Am I Just a Toy to You?: Thought to be part of Caroline's motive. Actually Elsa's.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Miss Williams is an old maid who takes Does Not Like Men to the hardcore and sees Caroline as a saintly martyr to one of that filthy kind. To the more modern reader, it may look like she had been attracted to Caroline.
  • Asshole Victim: Possibly subverted. Several characters sided with Caroline Crale when she was convicted of murdering her husband Amyas, since he was having an affair with his model - one of many. It turns out he never intended to leave Caroline, and he was murdered by said model. It depends on the reader whether you think that the fact that he never intended to leave Caroline is enough to get Amyas out of the "Asshole" category, or if you think he was still an asshole for having an affair and letting Elsa think he loved her enough to leave his wife.
  • The Atoner: Caroline Crale is continually haunted by the injury she inflicted on Angela, and in her attempts to make up for it, spoils her rotten. Caroline sees her opportunity for redemption by taking the blame for what she thought was Angela's crime.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Amyas has frequent flings with the models he painted, but never takes his relationship with them seriously, and is actually devoted to his wife.
  • Betty and Veronica: Amyas Crale stands in the middle between his long-suffering wife, Caroline, and his young but glamorous new model, Elsa.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Caroline did everything she could to take care of Angela, including erasing Angela's fingerprints from a beer bottle to keep her from being charged for murder.
  • Brutal Honesty: Caroline Crale believed in this, at least according to her daughter. The reason that Carla believes her mother is innocent is that Caroline sent her a letter saying so, and Caroline never told her daughter comforting lies.
  • Clear Their Name: The daughter wants to prove that her mother was innocent.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Gender-inverted with Amyas. The infamous rows between the couple were not caused by Amyas' frequent flings with other women, but because he was jealous that Caroline seemed to prioritise her sister Angela over him.
  • Continuity Nod: When he meets Meredith Blake, Poirot bears a letter of introduction from Lady Mary Lytton-Gore, a character from Three Act Tragedy.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: Amyas' womanizing ways eventually got him murdered. Elsa, one of his lovers, genuinely believed his claims when he told her that he would leave his wife for her. Then she overheard the truth, got her heart broken, and killed Amyas in revenge.
  • Does Not Like Men: Miss Williams. Years of observing the womanizing Amyas probably didn't help.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Meredith Blake towards Caroline Crale back in the day. Poirot's diagnosis was that Meredith "would serve his lady faithfully and without hope of reward," and it's suggested that Meredith couldn't have been the killer because he could have just waited to "comfort" Caroline after her divorce. Poirot subverts this in the end by figuring out that in fact Meredith had transferred his affections to the younger, prettier Elsa.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Elsa made Caroline the scapegoat for the murder not only out of jealousy but also because she was furious when she heard Caroline calling out Amyas for the cruel treatment of her (Elsa).
  • Doomed Moral Victor: While no one really believes that Caroline was innocent except for her daughter and her sister, many of the onlookers note that the way she accepted her fate was really quite impressive. And she turns out to actually be this for Elsa, the real murderer; while Caroline ended up taking the fall for Elsa's crime, and Elsa herself goes on to marry into wealth and fame, the brave and dignified way she meets her fate serves to rob Elsa of any satisfaction she might have gained from seeing Caroline go down, and all the wealth and fame in the world don't end up making Elsa happy in the slightest.
  • Ear Worm: Poirot just can't get the "This Little Piggy" nursery rhyme out of his head - which in the end structures the whole book, both In-Universe and on meta-level, including the title of the novel (the latter being quite a typical Christie feat).
  • Easily Forgiven: Amyas has had several affairs, but since he truly loves (or claims he loves) only Caroline, she accepts them and feels more sorry for the 'other woman' in the equation.
  • Eccentric Artist: The justification a lot of people give in-universe for Amyas Crale not only being a serial adulterer who screws all his models, but for at the time of his death keeping his mistress in the home with his wife. He's an artist, darn it, and it's just what he does.
  • Empty Shell: The killer is described as this in the end, having felt nothing ever since killing the love of her life after realizing she was just another fling to him and he'd never leave his wife for her. Even getting the wife accused of the crime didn't bring the killer any satisfaction- Caroline was screening her sister who she thought was the murderer, and so was able to Face Death with Dignity.
    She and Amyas both escaped — they went somewhere where I couldn’t get at them. But they didn’t die. I died.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Elsa snorts when Poirot says that he is going to ask the courts to pardon Caroline posthumously. She doesn't understand that exonerating an innocent woman would bring peace of mind to her descendants, and restore honor to her memory.
  • Exact Words: Caroline is overheard fuming about the unfairness of the situation. She is not mad that her husband has fallen for yet another model, but that he is going to break the model's heart. The key phrase is, "You and your women!" In the Summation Poirot notes the plural, implying there is nothing special to Amyas about this latest woman, Elsa, after all.
  • Face Death with Dignity: It is often remarked even by those who have reason to think the worst of Caroline that the way she met her death was incredibly brave and dignified. And ironically, this serves to thwart the true killer's spiteful desire for vengeance, since the noble way Caroline meets her fate simply serves to remind Elsa of how truly pathetic and inadequate she ultimately is.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: Most of the book, which is really a long stretch of conversations and letters with little action.
  • Foil: Caroline Crale and Elsa Greer. Caroline has developed into a woman of great conscience and self-sacrificing love, putting up with her husband's dalliances and deliberately taking the fall for a crime she did not commit in order to protect Angela, while Elsa is an egotist whose love is only of the selfish kind with zero consideration for the feelings of others; it leads her to attempt to break up a marriage, and failing that, murder her lover and frame her rival for it. Despite going on to lead a rich and privileged life, Elsa has condemned herself to an utterly empty and joyless existence; by contrast, Caroline, despite her outwardly bleak fate of being wrongly condemned and dying in prison, manages to achieve a level of peace and fulfilment she'd never known before. As Elsa says, it is as if she is the one who has died, while Caroline and Amyas have escaped together to a place where Elsa can no longer reach them or harm them.
  • Funny Foreigner: One of several Poirot books where he's said to play up his Belgian-ness in order to get people to underestimate him. When he's talking to Philip Blake the narration says "He was at his most foreign today."
  • Gender-Blender Name: When this novel was written and originally published, "Meredith" was still an exclusively male name; it wasn't until very late in the twentieth century that it lost this status, and became mainly a girls' name.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Played with: Caroline Crayle thinks that she's doing this to spare Angela from prosecution for murder and to atone for blinding her as a child, but as it turns out Angela is completely innocent and Caroline's sacrifice is needless. However, the peace and courage Caroline derives from what she thinks is this trope ironically serves to thwart Elsa by depriving her of any satisfaction she might have received from seeing her romantic rival be punished for her crime.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Philip Blake is Amyas's steadfast companion, to whom Amyas would confide in whenever he has rows with his wife.
  • Hidden Depths: Meredith Blake discusses this trope in his personal recollection of the Crale Case by saying that people usually have hidden sides that no-one knows about. This is the reason why he believes that Amyas could have committed suicide, even though it would seem very out-of-character for him to do so. Of course, it also foreshadows Meredith's own deep secret, which is that he grew to like Elsa much more than everyone else and proposed to her after the court hearing that convicted Caroline.
  • If I Can't Have You…: Amyas is constantly having flings with numerous girls, and was apparently about to leave his wife and marry his latest model, Elsa Greer. This incident eventually leads to his being murdered. In actual fact he wasn't going to leave Caroline at all but dump Elsa, since Caroline's the only one he really loves. Elsa overhears this, and she's the one who adopts this trope.
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The five suspects matches the five little pigs in the nursery rhyme ‘This Little Piggy’:
    “This little piggy went to market. (Philip Blake)
    This little piggy stayed at home. (Meredith Blake)
    This little piggy had roast beef. (Elsa Greer)
    This little piggy had none. (Cecilia Williams)
    And this little piggy went "Wee! Wee! Wee!" all the way home. (Angela Warren)”
  • It's All About Me: By everyone's account, Amyas was a raging egomaniac. Elsa has shades of this as well, and is quite open about it.
  • It's for a Book: When speaking with some of the witnesses, Poirot claims he is writing a book about famous murders.
  • Jealous Parent: Amyas Crale often expresses jealousy over his wife Caroline frequently favouring her sister more than him. They do have a child, but their daughter barely registers in anyone's attention.
  • Karma Houdini: As Poirot himself admits at the end, he has no evidence, so Elsa will get away with murder. However...
  • Karma Houdini Warranty: Downplayed. Poirot admits to the killer he has no physical evidence to prove their guilt and they won't publicly confess to it. He says even if the inspectors want to take the case, they will get off without any charges due to their connections. However, they don't get away consequence-free: Elsa Greer has never been able to move on from the day she murdered the only man she ever loved. She lives a wealthy but utterly joyless and miserable life. As she puts it "She and Amyas both escaped — they went somewhere where I couldn’t get at them. But they didn’t die. I died."
  • Late to the Punchline: Angela mentions having one of these moments, where she actually said aloud "Oh! Now I get the point of that story about the plum pudding." This led her to recount a similar incident where she realized the significance of something she observed the weekend of the murder.
  • Living Lie Detector: Miss Williams to a degree. When she was a governess, none of the kids even tried to lie to her, feeling that it would be pointless. Poirot, at first, tells to other people that he is writing a book about the case, but he tells the truth to Miss Williams right away.
  • Market-Based Title: It was originally published in the US as Murder in Retrospect. Later publications restored the original British title.
  • Meaningless Villain Victory: Elsa succeeded in killing her lover Amyas and framing his wife Caroline for the murder. Even when Poirot deduces that she was the culprit instead of Caroline sixteen years after the murder, he admits that he doesn't have the concrete evidence to get her convicted. However, Elsa still feels like she ultimately lost because not only did Caroline's serene acceptance of her fate deprive her of any satisfaction she might have gained from watching her love rival get punished in her place, but her own life has been empty and devoid of joy after Amyas's death with her being unable to love any other man.
  • Must Make Amends: Caroline never stops trying to make up for her sister's injury, but as a result spoils her rotten.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Both Caroline and Miss Williams tried to protect someone in the name of what they thought was justice, but their lies caused the actual murderer, whom neither of them would want to shield, to get away with what they had done.
  • Parental Substitute: Shortly after Caroline maimed her half-sister their parents died and Caroline spent the rest of her life as her mother and trying to ammend her mistake.
  • Parents as People: Lampshaded by Poirot when he finds strange that every witness seems to forget that the murder victim has a little daughter: Miss Williams as the governess discusses it when she explains that middle class children know that their parents love them but are too busy providing for them to pay attention; the love between the affluent murder victim and his wife was so intense that the baby could never have been their first concern.
  • Promotion to Parent; Caroline Crale was the guardian of her younger half-sister Angela.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Elsa murders Amyas, lets Caroline take the fall for it, and gets away with everything scot-free. However, by killing her one true love, she condemned herself to a miserable, joyless existence; as she puts it: "I didn’t understand that I was killing myself — not him." And the brave and noble way Caroline meets her death even serves to thwart any satisfaction Elsa might have otherwise gained from setting her up.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: Poirot pieces together what actually happened by hearing the differing accounts of the five main witnesses to the crime. These accounts differ due to the tellers both not having the full perspective on what happened and due to them frequently concealing information for their own purposes.
  • Revisiting the Cold Case: Poirot is asked to investigate a case from sixteen years prior.
  • Shout-Out: The narration mentions "that picture once described by a child as a 'blind girl sitting on an orange and called, I don't know why, "Hope"'". The child in question is Oswald Bastable.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: Amyas and Caroline, constantly. Amyas had affairs and he had very nasty fights with Caroline, but despite this, they were very much in love. According to Angela, they actually enjoyed fighting, and would have found life boring without it. Amyas never considered leaving Caroline, and she always forgave him.
  • Spoiled Brat: Caroline inadvertently turns Angela into this due to her desperation to atone for the accident that left Angela blind in one eye. Following the the deaths of Amyas and Caroline, Angela eventually grows out of it into a mature, pleasant woman.
  • Summation Gathering: Poirot assembles all the suspects and names the killer in his usual way.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Amyas seems to be portrayed in that way by the narration and in the end it's confirmed, though not all of the characters see him that way.
  • Taking the Heat: Caroline believes that Angela poisoned Amyas (perhaps by accident, just meaning to make him sick). Since she believes that she still owes Angela for injuring her when they were kids, she lets suspicion fall on herself instead and ends up being jailed for Amyas' murder.
  • Together in Death: Amyas and Caroline, who remained devoted to each other right to the end, despite initial appearances. In her final letter to Angela, Caroline writes: "I'm going to Amyas. I haven't the least doubt that we shall be together." Part of Elsa's psychological punishment for her crime is that she feels as if the husband and wife have escaped together to a place beyond her reach, and that they have not died at all, but she has.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Each guest's account of the events leading up to the death of Amyas Crale is tainted by their own prejudices, things they want to keep hidden, or things they have simply forgotten or don't realize the significance of. For example, one guest casually remarks to Poirot about a minor prank that was once played on Amyas, only to later realize in shock that it was actually something that has occurred on the day of his death and which holds greater significance than anyone could have thought.
  • Unrequited Love Lasts Forever:
    • Both the Blake brothers were in love with Caroline, and neither ever marries, even after her death. And Meredith has grown to harbour the same feelings for Elsa.
    • Another possible example is Elsa, who still seems to be in love with Amyas Crayle even after he rejected her and she murdered him.
  • Wham Line: From Poirot: "We have taken it for granted that Amyas Crale proposed to leave his wife for the other woman. But I suggest to you now that he never intended to do anything of the kind."
  • Who Murdered the Asshole: Poirot encounters this problem; it seems most of the people he talked to had reasons to dislike Amyas. It's revealed that Elsa did it discreetly on learning he wouldn't leave Caroline for her.
  • Woman Scorned:
    • Gender-flipped with Philip Blake, who wanted to make Caroline look as black as possible at least partially because she rejected him when they were young.
    • Played straight with Elsa Greer, who not only murders Amyas when she learns he never planned to leave his wife for her and was only using her; she also frames the woman he really loves, Caroline.

Christie's stage adaptation, Go Back for Murder, additionally provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Badass: Carla is even more active and determined in the play than in the original story; she goes herself to visit the five suspects, and ends up figuring out part of the mystery on her own.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Carla's fiance Jeff is more boorish and unpleasant than John Rattery was in the original. Carla realises she doesn't want to be with him after all.
  • Adaptational Karma: Possibly, depending on whether Philip Blake's promise to "get his fellow on the case in the morning" has any substance.
  • Adaptational Name Change: Lady Dittersham becomes Lady Melksham, and Carla's fiance John Rattery becomes Jeff Rogers.
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: After the case has been solved, Carla ends up breaking off her engagement to Jeff, and gets together with Justin Fogg instead.
  • Adapted Out: Typical of Christie's adaptation of Poirot novels, he is written out and replaced by the solicitor Justin Fogg.
  • Decomposite Character:
    • Hercule Poirot's role in the original story is split between Justin Fogg and Carla herself.
    • John Rattery is divided into Jeff Rogers (Carla's original fiance with whom she breaks things off) and Justin Fogg (with whom she falls in love at the end).
  • I Choose to Stay: Carla decides at the end of the play not to return to Canada, but instead to stay in England and marry Justin Fogg.
  • Newhart Phonecall: Carla has an argument with Jeff on the phone, but only she can be heard.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Jeff is not a villain, but he does try to obstruct Carla's investigations by pressing Justin Fogg to turn her down. Ironically, Justin had already done so, but Jeff's interference persuades him to change his mind and accept Carla's request after all.
  • Precocious Crush: Downplayed. During the events of the past, a teenaged Justin Fogg fell in love with thirty-something Caroline.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Justin fell for Caroline in the past, and ends up falling for her daughter Carla in the present. Carla is the splitting image of her mother, and is played by the same actress.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Numerous characters fall into this at some point: Meredith reading an evocative account of poisoning to everyone while in the presence of deadly poisons in his collection, Caroline stealing the coniine, Amyas failing to check that Elsa was out of earshot before confessing the truth to Caroline, Angela preparing to spike Amyas' drink with valerian (causing Caroline to jump to conclusions), Miss Williams misinterpreting Caroline's actions with the beer bottle and withholding her evidence...