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Setting: Alderbury House is based on Christie’s Greenway House in Devon, including the garden layout and battery.
Plot Development: According to Christie’s notebooks, part of plot was inspired by the Borden murders in the USA in 1892 for which Lizzie Borden was tried and acquitted. It was a situation where there were only 5 people in the house so the field of suspects was very small. Her notes also indicate she initially planned for the murder to be a shooting, not a poisoning.
Recurring items: The poison “coniine” referenced throughout the book is from spotted hemlock (also known as poison hemlock - latin name is ‘conium maculatum’). Christie demonstrated her solid knowledge of poisons as coniine as it is most soluble in cold alcohol.
Plato’s description of Socrates’s death in the Phaedo - one of his best known writings - is brought up numerous times. In Phaedo, Plato describes how Socrates was sentenced to death and made to drink poison hemlock (coniine). After drinking it, Plato describes the effect as “Socrates walked about, and presently, saying that his legs were heavy, lay down on his back”. Christie clearly pays homage to this scene in the novel.
Chapter Specific Items:
Book 1, Chapter 4: States Richard Crale was an admirer of Kingsley, which accounts for why he named his son ‘Amyas’. Christie is referring to the book “Westward Ho!” by Charles Kingsley, written in 1855, based on the adventures of the privateer (pirate) Amyas Preston (named Amyas Leigh in the novel) who sets sail with Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh to battle the Spanish. Of note also, is this novel is initial set in Devon.
Book 1, Chapter 5: Christie uses the expression ‘“dog-in-the-manger” attitude’. A metaphor I was not familiar with. It refers to an old Greek fable about a dog who lied in a stable, stopping the horse from being able to eat the grain. Thus it now is used to describe someone who spitefully stops other from having something of use to them, but is of no use to that person.
Book 1, Chapter 5: References “Schedule 1 of the Poisons Act”. The Pharmacy and Poisons Act of 1933 divided poisons into two schedules. Schedule 1 listed poisons that could only be sold by a registered pharmacist, while Schedule 2 poisons could be sold by licensed retailers.
Book 1, Chapter 6: References Dr. Crippen who killed his wife. Dr Hawley Crippen was an American homeopath and medicine dispenser who moved to England in 1897 where he continued to dispense medicines. His wife, Cora, disappeared and parts of abody found in his cellar were deemed to be hers, with tests showing she was poisoned. He was hanged in 1910 and became of one England’s most infamous killers.
Book 1, Chapter 7: Referenced ‘valerian’ that attracts cats. Valerian is a root with effects on cats that are similar to catnip. The plant valerian is a tall flowering herb. Also, their is a reference to atropine, which similar to belladonna, is extracted from deadly nightshade (see: A Caribbean Mystery for this drugs use in a crime!).
In this chapter, this is also the description of the painting that is a central theme in this book: “A girl in a canary yellow shirt … sitting on a grey wall .. against a blue sea”. It appears to allude to the dust jacket used on Christie’s (as Mary Westmacott) book “Unfinished Portrait” published 9 years earlier, which also has story lines that include a painter & a woman considering suicide. Is it possible that this dust jacket (and the book) had some influence on the plot lines in Five Little Pigs?
Book 1, Chapter 8: Poirot comments about someone definitely being ‘roast beef’ - as in this little pig ate roast beef. It should be noted that in the french language, calling an english person a ‘rosbif’ (roast beef) has been a derogatory term (more recently a racial slur) since the 1850s.
In this chapter Christie includes this quote: “And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay and follow thee my Lord through the world”. This quote is from Shakespeare’s famous balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2.
Book 1, Chapter 9: Poirot visits Miss Williams’ flat. On the wall Poirot see pictures of ‘Dante meeting Beatrice on a Bridge’ (by Henry Holiday, 1883), a blind girl on an orange (actually a globe) titled “Hope” (by George Watts, 1886), and a sepia copy of Botticelli’s “Primavera”. These images (attached) inform the reader of Miss Williams’ preference for classical style art. She confirms her dislike for Amyas Crale’s artistic style by saying even though they put his work in the Tate, they also put one of Mr. Epstein’s statues in their collection too. The attached image of his sculpture ‘Jacob and the Angel’ (1941) is in the Tate and thus I wonder if Agatha Christie is expressing her own distaste at this work which was likely a new addition as she was writing this book.
Book 3, Chapter 2: Poirot asks a Angela is she’s read Somerset Maugham’s “Moon and the Sixpence”. This is a fictional story of the life of an artist, based on Paul Gaugin, who leaves his family to focus on his art, written in 1919. Poirot may be implying Angela’s relationship with Amyas was similar.
I hope these insights are useful and enhance the enjoyment of an excellent Christie title. Do add any enhancements to these notes or point out things I may have missed.