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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).

Frank Tashlin directed a rather loose film adaptation titled The Alphabet Murders in 1965, with Tony Randall as Poirot and Robert Morley as Hastings. 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, The Alphabet Killer, or the real life Alphabet murders.

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...
  • Answer Cut: One chapter ends with the Assistant Commissioner wondering where Cust is "at this exact moment." The first sentence of the next chapter has Cust standing outside a greengrocer's.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Invoked. Cust's mother named his son after two great conquerors, Alexander the Great and Napolťon 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: The murderer 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.
  • Continuity Nod:
  • 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.
  • Detective Mole: After the third murder, Poirot puts together a group to solve the murders, consisting of himself, Hastings, and one or two people close to each of the victims. One of these is Franklin Clarke,the murderer.
  • Dumbass Has a Point: After the third ABC letter arrives late, having been wrongly addressed, Hastings wonders if it was misaddressed on purpose. Inspector Crome dismisses the idea, convinced that a serial killer wouldn't break their pattern for any reason, and Hastings doesn't think about it any further, but Poirot eventually realises the killer did intend for this, because they wanted to ensure the "C" murder would go off without a hitch.
  • Fall Guy: Alexander Bonaparte Cust. The murderer even manages to trick Cust himself into believing that he is guilty.
  • 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.
    • 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. Her husband, Franz was also a handsome young man while he's a pathetic drunken wretch in the present.
  • The Killer in Me: Alexander Bonaparte Cust has frequent black-outs, and believes that he had committed the murders unaware during those blackouts.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Hastings describes to Poirot what sort of murder would be good to investigate. What he actually describes is the formula for most Agatha Christie novels.
    Hastings: "One of the beautiful girls, of course, must be unjustly suspected—and thereís some misunderstanding between her and the young man. And then, of course, there must be some other suspects—an older woman—dark, dangerous type—and some friend or rival of the dead manís—and a quiet secretary—dark horse—and a hearty man with a bluff manner—and a couple of discharged servants or gamekeepers or somethings—and a damn fool of a detective rather like Japp—and well—thatís about all."
    • Hastings also says that the Never One Murder trope keeps mystery novels lively.
  • 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. (And in fact in this book there are four murders.)
  • 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-Flag Recreation Material: Played with, as the material in question is outwardly innocuous. Franklin Clarke proudly admits to rereading his favorite children's book by Edith Nesbit. However, it's one of the clues that make Poirot suspect him, since it has long been figured out that the killer has a playful, boyish disposition. Not to mention that the book turns out to be The Railway Children, and the murder spree is railway-guide-themed?
  • 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.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Poirot bluntly states that the reason Donald is dreaming of Megan is that Megan is taking the place of her freshly murdered sister in Donald's heart. He then advises Donald to go for it!
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out: Cust remembers a famous quote, which is actually from narrative poem Pippa Passes: "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world."
  • Smokescreen Crime: The villain decided to murder his rich, childless, soon-to-be-widowed brother, whose name and city of residence both begin with the letter C. To hide this fact, the villain first murders people whose names and cities match A and B, respectively.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead: When he talks to Megan Barnard, Poirot picks up on how she described her sister to Hastings and encourages her against it, telling that it's of little practical importance to him. "Death, mademoiselle, unfortunately creates a prejudice. A prejudice in favour of the deceased." [...] I should like to find someone who knew Elizabeth Barnard and who does not know she is dead! Then, perhaps, I should hear what is useful to me - the truth." Megan eventually responds by describing her sister as "an unmitigated little ass!"
  • Take That!: After examining the first murder scene, Poirot notes that they are not in a Sherlock Holmes story, and the killer was not so considerate as to smoke a cigarette that could be identified from the ashes at the crime scene, and then step in the ashes with shoes bearing a unique tread pattern.
  • 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.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: according to Alexander Bonaparte Cust, "...My mother was very fond of me. But she was ambitious- terribly ambitious. That's why she gave me those ridiculous names...."