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Literature / The ABC Murders

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Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be...

A madman, mon ami, is to be taken seriously. A madman is a very dangerous thing.

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 Napoleon 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".
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  • 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 he 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.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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 is also a suspicious character who not only have A.B.C. as their initial and has been in the murder locations during the time of the tragedy. 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 commit 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.

The 2018 BBC adaptation provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: This adaptation's Poirot is a tortured soul who's career is at a low point and who's faith is severely damaged, even going so far as to avoid confession out of a belief that he's unworthy of communion.
  • Adaptational Backstory Change: In the novels and every other adaptation, Poirot was a detective on the Brussels police force before he came to England as a refugee during World War I. In this series, while Poirot still claims to be a former policeman, his stated backstory is revealed to be a lie. Poirot was a priest in the Belgian countryside who watched all his parishioners burned to death by invading German troops. The guilt stemming from not being able to save their lives led him to renounce priesthood and reinvent himself as a detective when he came to England, so that he would be able to bring justice to other victims.
  • Adaptation Distillation: No messing about with a cinema and an innocent fall guy in the BBC adaptation - the alleged 'mistake' the ABC killer makes is to kill the person in the same room as Dexter Dooley, the supposed fourth victim. The victim is not painted in a bright light before or after the event either, unlike the completely innocent person in the novel or the ITV adaptation.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Happens to a lot of characters. Betty Barnard in the book was a flirt, but in this version we see her as a cruel and manipulative woman. Her boyfriend, Donald Fraser, who was merely described as 'jealous' in the book but was otherwise a pleasant chap, is here a sexist control freak. Thora Grey, who is merely accused of being a Gold Digger in the original, is depicted as an actual one in this version, in addition to being intensely arrogant.
  • Adapted Out: Hastings in the 2018 BBC version. Presumably to heighten Poirot's feelings of isolation in keeping with the overall tone of the adaptation.
    • Mary Drower, Alice Asher's niece in the novel, is also nowhere to be found.
  • Age Lift: Played with in Poirot's case. His age in the novels has been ambiguous due to a degree of Comic-Book Time being applied to the series, however David Suchet was 46 when he portrayed the character in the original adaptation. In this version, he is portrayed by a 65 year old John Malkovich.
    • The Clarke family - Sir Carmichael, Lady Hermione and Franklin - are all markedly younger than they were in the novel and original adaptation.
    • Alexander Bonaparte Cust is also significantly younger in this version.
  • Asshole Victim: In the BBC adaptation, Betty Barnard is mourned by her parents...and nobody else - the few scenes she appeared in make the viewer glad that it is all but stated she is going to die. Even her fiancee is having tea with her mother shortly after the event, which Poirot thinks is a bit much. Subverted in the final episode when Betty's mother and fiancee try to convince Betty's sister Megan to marry the fiancee, who had dumped Megan in the first place in favour of the more glamorous Betty, for their own very obviously selfish reasons. Megan later has a flashback of Betty telling her she did her a favour by stealing her boyfriend and that one day Megan will realise that. As Megan then packs her suitcase and sneaks out of the house using the same route Betty used to use it looks like she was right.
    • Also, the risque comic who dies in Dexter Dooley's place is shown being deliberately dickish and interferes with Dexter's ventriloquist dummy.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Cust is apparently paying his landlady's daughter for something. It is highly implied to be sex, as she is strongly indicated to be providing such "extras" to other male tenants. It isn't, she is digging her heels into his back to the point of drawing blood.
  • Bilingual Bonus: One so subtle it might be a translation error. In the flashback to Poirot's arrival in Britain he gives his profession in French as "gendarme" - a uniformed, stereotypically not very bright, protector of public order. A Francophone police detective proud of his intellect would describe himself as a "policier" or "agent de police", and be insulted to be called a "gendarme". This might be a deliberate clue that he was never really a police officer.
  • Create Your Own Villain: A somewhat downplayed example. While Franklin Clarke's primary motive was murdering his brother for the latter's title and wealth, he was also driven by his obsession with Poirot and a desire to be the perfect Arch-Enemy to the famous detective - an obsession that was sparked of by an evening he spent at a dinner party where Poirot played a murder game.
    • Poirot downplays Franklin's argument though. He instead compares Franklin to tinder- someone who'd kill eventually, but Poirot acted as a trigger. Considering how Franklin's deranged plot and how he admits he probably wouldn't be able to stop killing even when the murder of his brother was obscured, Poirot has a point.
  • 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. Plus all the Adaptational Jerkassery above.
  • Death by Adaptation: Inspector Japp in the 2018 BBC series. In the novel he's in charge of the investigation, in the series he's retired and drops dead of a heart attack at the end of a brief scene with Poirot. (Given that he's played by Kevin Mc Nally it's pretty much a case of Death by Cameo.)
    • Also Cust. In the book, his blackouts and headaches are caused by epilepsy stemming from a wartime head injury, and he ends the book alive and well and with renewed confidence in himself. In the adaptation, he has an inoperable brain tumour, and we last see him comatose and not expected to regain consciousness before he dies.
  • Deconstruction: Of the classic Poirot story, and more generally, of the kind of Cozy Mystery that Agatha Christie and other 'Golden Age' writers were famous for. Malkovich's Poirot was indeed once a celebrated detective who hob-knobbed with the wealthy, much like the character in the novels - but he did so largely by being an entertainer and playing 'murder games' at their country house dinner parties. Anti-immigrant sentiment, coupled with resentment over his constant showing up of Scotland Yard, has led to him becoming persona non grata among the police, who have adopted an openly hostile attitude towards him. Even the media, and public opinion, has turned against him, and his detective practise has been running out of steam. Of course, some of this changes. See Reconstruction below.
  • Evil Counterpart: The ABC killer explicitly wants to be this to Poirot. He dresses like Poirot, and commits murders in places that Poirot has previously visited - taking pleasure in watching Poirot try to catch him.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting: Averted. Unlike most Christie works and adaptations, this mini-series highlights the rampant socio-economic anxiety and xenophobia of the real-life 1930's.
  • Just Train Wrong:
    • In the London Underground scene towards the end of episode 2, the train is obviously the 1972 Tube Stock train kept at the disused Aldwych station for such filming purposes, with its large window panes and brushed-aluminium finish, neither of which would have been seen on any train running in the 1930s.
    • In the scene in episode 3 with Cust being chased across the railway tracks, there are some mildly unconvincing CGI trains, including a loose-coupled freight train hauled by an express passenger locomotive which would not have been seen on such lowly work in real life.
  • Mysterious Past: Poirot's past is touched on in the BBC adaptation - or rather, the extreme lack of information on it. The Inspector points out there is no information on Poirot's life and police career in Belgium at all, and that lack of information cost the now deceased Japp his reputation when he vouched for Poirot. Its is eventually revealed that Poirot was in fact a priest, who lied about his profession when he came to England and decided to become a detective, having witnessed the slaughter of all his parisioners by the invading German troops.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Some early publicity strongly implied that Poirot would be accused of committing the murders himself. In the serial, Crome accuses him of being a charlatan, and some xenophobic press and members of the public accuse him of intentionally obstructing the investigation, but he's never accused of being the killer.
  • Reconstruction: Poirot is eventually hired to investigate the case by a wealthy aristocrat, Franklin Clarke, just like in the "good old days". He gradually earns the trust and grudging respect of Inspector Crome and forms a new partnership with him, reminiscent of his old partnership with Inspector Japp. In fact, in the end the murderer reveals that part of his motivation was to 'revive' and 'restore' Poirot to his former glory by being a Worthy Opponent to him.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: Hastings is nowhere to be found and Japp is written out early on, meaning Poirot has no friends with whom he can play off of or lighten the atmosphere in this adaptation.


Example of: