The ABC Murders is a 1936 mystery 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).
In 1992 the novel was adapted into an episode for the fourth season of Poirot; tropes unique to this adaptation are listed there. The novel received another adaptation in 2018 - a three-part BBC miniseries starring John Malkovich as Hercule Poirot. Two video game adaptations, a 2009 Nintendo DS game and a 2016 multi-platform game, have been released.
No relation to the real life "ABC Murders" committed by South African serial killer Moses Sithole.
This novel provides examples of:
- Alliterative Name: Invoked, as the killer deliberately sought victims whose names matched their towns, A to Z. In fact, in the first three murders, the victims have completely alliterative names: Alice Ascher, Elizabeth "Betty" Barnard, and Sir Carmichael Clarke. The "D" victim is named George Earlsfield, but the police assume the killer intended to kill a Mr. Roger Downes. But that didn't tip the police that the motive of killings didn't have anything to do with the alphabet...
- Awesome Mc Coolname: Invoked. Cust's mother named his son after two great conquerors, Alexander the Great and Napoléon Bonaparte, in hopes that he'd grow up to be someone important.
- Beneath Notice: A breakthrough in the case is made when Poirot realizes that a door-to-door salesman had visited each victim's home. Nobody initially made the connection, or even remembered it, because "he wasn't the sort of man you'd notice".
- 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 the murderer doesn't deserve an easy death.
- Bluffing the Murderer: Franklin Clarke confesses after Poirot mentions he left fingerprints 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.
- Connect the Deaths: Used as a red herring—the killer only wanted to murder one person, and created the "alphabet name" scheme to create a pattern where one didn't exist.
- Criminal Mind Games: The killer definitely leans this way, but it's not a primary motive.
- Darker and Edgier: The BBC adaptation has a police force openly hostile to Poirot (at first), even getting a warrant to search his apartment, questioning his past, and with an openly racist organisation featuring as a background element.
- Fall Guy: Alexander Bonaparte Cust. The murderer even manages to trick Cust himself into believing that he is guilty (see The Killer in Me.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Within the book itself, Poirot uses the metaphor of a roulette wheel to explain his belief that sooner or later, "black always changes to red"—in other words, luck will always run out. As the team heads out to investigate in Dorchester, Poirot, who is spinning such a wheel, happily cries that red has come up.
- Some subtle but very effective foreshadowing is supplied by a psychiatrist whom Scotland Yard consults: the psychiatrist happily wonders how will the killer deal with the letter 'X' - it'd be rather difficult to find a person with the initials X.X. living in a town the name of which starts with an X in England. Readers will see this as a small bit of characterisation, an absent-minded scientist focused only on his field. It's actually a hint that the murderer never intended to carry his theme all the way through the alphabet. He only wanted to kill 'C' and planned on stopping after 'D' (who was really a random victim killed to throw the police off the scent), so he didn't need to come up with an X victim.
- When suggesting ways to get the waitress Milly Higley to tell them what she knows, Poirot suggests that Donald Fraser flirt with her. When the latter rejects this, Franklin Clarke offers to "try his hand" with her instead, saying that he has wide experience in the area. Later, it's revealed that that was exactly what he did with Betty Barnard, flirting with her in order to lure her into a spot where he could kill her.
- Early in the book, Hastings mentions offhand that most of the crimes he and Poirot see are "private crimes", between family members and such, rather than the apparently "public" crimes of ABC. Later on, it's revealed that the true crime was between brothers over inheritance, and the others were committed to conceal that this was, indeed, a very "private crime."
- Gold Digger: Lady Clarke most probably rightly 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 is 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.
- Hidden in Plain Sight: The murderer is really only interested in killing his brother, the "C" victim, and so conceals that crime among a string of murders. He even joins Poirot's "team" of people associated with the victims, meaning he was in the room with the group all along. Poirot lampshades it: "When do you notice a pin least? In a pincushion. When do you notice a murder least? When it is part of a series of murders."
- Inheritance Murder: The murders are ultimately an elaborate case of this. The murderer is currently his brother's heir and decides to kill him before he can remarry and perhaps have a son. The other murders are to divert attention away from him as a suspect.
- 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. (Although Poirot suggests the victim was asleep when he was stabbed.)
- 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.
- Malaproper: Poirot.
- 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 correctly assumed that someone in the cinema would have a last name beginning with "D," making it appear as though ABC made a mistake.
- Napoleon Delusion: Referenced by Poirot when speaking of the killer.
- 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.
- Red Herring: There's a Serial Killer who nicknames themselves A.B.C. There's also a suspicious character who not only has A.B.C. as their initials, but has been at the murder locations during the time of the murder. Of course, they're just a scapegoat used by the actual killer to cover their tracks.
- Serial Killings, Specific Target: The killer's intended victim was Sir Carmichael, 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 last initial of A in a town beginning with A, then a young woman named B in a B location, and an elderly man named C in a C town.
- 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 be committing 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.