“They probably look like mods or rockers or beatniks or whatever they call these chaps nowadays with the long hair and the dirty fingernails. … You never know which sex they are, which is embarrassing.” Some critics who generally admire Christie—for example, Robert Barnard in his book A Talent to Deceive—rate this effort poorly in part because, from their perspective, the author tries and fails miserably to render life as it is lived by young people in the Swinging London of 1966. On this view, for which the foregoing quotation might provide a case in point, Christie betrays a hopelessly Edwardian sensibility that undermines her bid to freshen up an otherwise standard Hercule Poirot adventure. Yet the speaker here is not Christie in her narrative voice but rather a fellow named Sir Roderick Horsefield, whom she depicts throughout the novel as a ridiculous old fool. What critics fail to see (not just in this instance but in many other instances, too) is the sly irony that Christie brought to much of her fiction. Is she poking fun at the social and sartorial habits of the young? To be sure. But, at the same time, she is cocking an amused eye at the all-too-predictable bigotries of the old, among whom she no doubt would include herself. For a 76-year-old woman, she displays a remarkably zestful curiosity about the changing world around her, and that quality (though not always perfectly modulated) places this book a notch or two above par for her late work.
The phrase “third girl” refers to the practice by which young women in London share living quarters: One girl rents a flat and invites a second girl to join her, and then, to make the rent affordable, they advertise for a third tenant. In this way do the worlds of disparate young women collide in the great metropolis. The events in this tale swirl about one such flat in a building called Borodene Mansions. Living there are Claudia Reece-Holland, a crisply efficient secretary to a businessman in the City; Frances Cary, who works in a Bond Street art gallery and dabbles in making her own art; and Norma Restarick, an unkempt waif who holds some kind of job with an interior decorator. One morning, the latter woman visits Poirot (though neither he nor readers yet know who she is) and indicates that she “might” have committed a murder. Although she rejects his offer to help—he’s just “too old,” she says—he starts making inquiries that quickly reveal a welter of odd circumstances related to Norma, her family, and her hip young associates. Those circumstances involve episodes of real or apparent violence but not, until late in the day, a clear case of murder. But that day does arrive, and Poirot is ready for it.
The novel Third Girl, which effectively inaugurates the last decade of Christie’s writing life, evinces a few modest signs of the author’s loosening grip on her craft. The focus of action shifts in pell-mell fashion from Poirot to Ariadne Oliver, his scatter-brained crime-writer friend, and on occasion to some of the key players in the drama. Such narrative choices leave the impression that Christie lacks confidence both in her star detective and in her own power to keep the story on track. To generate a mystery plot, she remixes a variety—indeed, too large a variety—of motifs and stratagems from earlier, more path-breaking tales. About midway through the book, Poirot offers an implicit critique of this approach. “Enfin, it is too much!” he utters to himself. “Now we have espionage and counterespionage. All I am seeking is one perfectly simple murder.” But here, too, bemused self-mockery helps to compensate for some of the author’s diminished prowess. On the whole, moreover, the final concoction goes down pleasantly enough, and it contains enough bits of clever misdirection to summon memories of Christie’s finest moments.