Death in the Clouds is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company on March 10 1935 under the title of Death in the Air and in UK by the Collins Crime Club in the July of the same year under Christie's original title. The US edition retailed at $2.00 and the UK edition at seven shillings and sixpence (7/6). The book features the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and Chief Inspector Japp.
Poirot's focus is upon a wasp that has been seen in the compartment and which provided evidence for the original theory of the cause of death. Without explaining himself, he asks for a detailed list of the items in the possession of the passengers, and finds an incriminating clue: Norman Gale, a dentist who has seemingly never been in the area of the plane where the victim was killed, and has no apparent motive for committing the murder, had an empty matchbox and a lighter. He appears to be the killer, but how can he have committed the murder, when he was apparently in conversation with Jane Grey (the novel's effective heroine) throughout the flight? And why would he have committed the crime? And why were there two coffee-spoons in the victim's saucer?
Madame Giselle is suspected of using blackmail to ensure that her clients pay up, so any one of the passengers could either have owed her money or feared exposure. Equally, Madame Giselle had an estranged daughter who inherits her considerable estate: could one of the female passengers be this heiress? Much of the novel focuses on the pursuit of this line of enquiry, with the passengers coming under suspicion in turn. Special attention is given to Mr. Clancy, a detective novelist who enables Christie to include the same sort of parodies of her craft achieved in other novels through the character of Ariadne Oliver.
The only other suspect who proves of material significance is, however, the Countess of Horbury, whose maid has been called into the compartment during the flight where she would have had the perfect opportunity to commit the crime. When this maid is revealed to be none other than the victim's heir, Anne Morisot, it seems that she must be the murderess. But the maid was only on the flight by accident, having been asked to be there at the last moment. Moreover, the death of Anne Morisot from poison on the boat-train to Bologne leaves no clear suspect.
Poirot reveals in the denouement that Norman Gale is none other than Anne's new husband, and that his plans - almost certainly including the eventual murder of Anne herself - have been laid well in advance. He brought his dentist's jacket on board and - in the apparently innocuous moments that he has gone to the toilet - changed into this jacket in order to pose as a steward. Under the pretence of delivering a coffee-spoon to Miss Giselle he has walked up the aisle and stabbed her with the poisoned thorn. As Poirot puts it: "No one notices a steward particularly." Gale's intention had been to frame the Countess, and the blowpipe that is found behind Poirot's seat would have been found behind hers had they not switched seats at the last moment.
Not content with solving the mystery, Poirot makes a romantic match by pairing off Jane Grey with the younger of the archaeologists.
The Times Literary Supplement of July 4, 1935 summarised thus: "Any of the other nine passengers and two stewards could be suspected. And all of them were, including Clancy, the writer of detective stories, whom the author evidently enjoys making absurd. It will be a very acute reader who does not receive a complete surprise at the end.
The Times in its main paper gave the book a second review in its issue of July 2, 1935 when they described its plot as "ingenious" and commented on the fact that Christie had evolved a method of presenting a crime in a confined space (with reference to The Mystery of the Blue Train and Murder on the Orient Express) which "however often employed, never loses its originality.
Isaac Anderson in The New York Times Book Review of March 24, 1935 began his column by saying, "Murder by poisoned dart, such as primitive savages blow from blow-guns, ceased long ago to be a novelty in detective fiction, and murder in an airplane is by way of becoming almost as common as murder behind the locked doors of a library, but the combination of poisoned dart and plane is probably unique. Not that such minor matters are of the slightest consequence to the reader; the main thing is that this is an Agatha Christie story, featuring Hercule Poirot, who is, by his own admission, the world's greatest detective." He concluded, "This is a crime puzzle of the first quality, and a mighty entertaining story besides.
In The Observer's issue of June 30, 1935 "Torquemada" (Edward Powys Mathers) started his review by saying, "My admiration for Mrs. Christie is such that with each new book of hers I strain every mental nerve to prove that she has failed, at last, to hypnotise me. On finishing Death in the Clouds, I found that she had succeeded even more triumphantly than usual." He concluded, "I hope that some readers of this baffling case will foresee at least the false denouement. I did not even do that. Agatha Christie has recently developed two further tricks: one is, as of the juggler who keeps on dropping things, to leave a clue hanging out for several chapters, apparently unremarked by her little detective though seized on by us, and then to tuck it back again as unimportant. Another is to give us some, but by no means all, of the hidden thoughts of her characters. We readers must guard against these new dexterities. As for Poirot, it is only to him and to Cleopatra that a certain remark about age and custom is strictly applicable. But might not Inspector Japp be allowed to mellow a little, with the years, beyond the moron stage?
An admirer of Christie, Milward Kennedy of The Guardian began his review of July 30, 1935 by saying, "Very few authors achieve the ideal blend of puzzle and entertainment as often does Agatha Christie." He did admit that, "Death in the Clouds may not rank with her greatest achievements, but it is far above the average detective story." He finished by saying, "Mrs. Christie provides a little gallery of thumb-nail sketches of plausible characters; she gives us all the clues and even tells us where to look for them; we ought to find the murderer by reason, but are not likely to succeed except by guesswork.
A review in the Daily Mirror of July 20, 1935 concluded, "We leave Poirot to figure it all out. He is at it and in it, with his usual brilliance, till the end.
Robert Barnard: "Exceptionally lively specimen, with wider than usual class and type-range of suspects. Scrupulously fair, with each clue presented openly and discussed. Note Clancy the crime writer, and the superiority of French police to British (no signs of insularity here).
In Chapter 21, Poirot refers to a case in which all the suspects were lying, an allusion to Murder on the Orient Express.
An adaptation for television starring David Suchet was broadcast in 1992 as part of the series Agatha Christie's Poirot. The screenplay followed the book closely except that in the adaptation there was only one archeologist and in the end Poirot does not match Jane with him as mentioned in the novel.
The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in six instalments from February 9 (Volume 207, Number 32) to March 16, 1935 (Volume 207, Number 37) under the title Death in the Air with illustrations by Frederick Mizen.
In the UK, the novel was serialised as an abridged version in the weekly Women's Pictorial magazine in six instalments from February 16 (Volume 29, Number 736) to March 23, 1935 (Volume 29, Number 741) under the title Mystery in the Air. There were no chapter divisions and all of the instalments carried illustrations by Clive Uptton.
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