Read The Thirteen Problems Online

Authors: Agatha Christie

The Thirteen Problems

The Thirteen
Problems

To Leonard and Katherine Woolley

‘Unsolved mysteries.’

Raymond West blew out a cloud of smoke and repeated the words with a kind of deliberate self-conscious pleasure.

‘Unsolved mysteries.’

He looked round him with satisfaction. The room was an old one with broad black beams across the ceiling and it was furnished with good old furniture that belonged to it. Hence Raymond West’s approving glance. By profession he was a writer and he liked the atmosphere to be flawless. His Aunt Jane’s house always pleased him as the right setting for her personality. He looked across the hearth to where she sat erect in the big grandfather chair. Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a
black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. She was knitting—something white and soft and fleecy. Her faded blue eyes, benignant and kindly, surveyed her nephew and her nephew’s guests with gentle pleasure. They rested first on Raymond himself, self-consciously debonair, then on Joyce Lemprière, the artist, with her close-cropped black head and queer hazel-green eyes, then on that well-groomed man of the world, Sir Henry Clithering. There were two other people in the room, Dr Pender, the elderly clergyman of the parish, and Mr Petherick, the solicitor, a dried-up little man with eyeglasses which he looked over and not through. Miss Marple gave a brief moment of attention to all these people and returned to her knitting with a gentle smile upon her lips.

Mr Petherick gave the dry little cough with which he usually prefaced his remarks.

‘What is that you say, Raymond? Unsolved mysteries? Ha—and what about them?’

‘Nothing about them,’ said Joyce Lemprière. ‘Raymond just likes the sound of the words and of himself saying them.’

Raymond West threw her a glance of reproach at which she threw back her head and laughed.

‘He is a humbug, isn’t he, Miss Marple?’ she demanded. ‘You know that, I am sure.’

Miss Marple smiled gently at her but made no reply.

‘Life itself is an unsolved mystery,’ said the clergyman gravely.

Raymond sat up in his chair and flung away his cigarette with an impulsive gesture.

‘That’s not what I mean. I was not talking philosophy,’ he said. ‘I was thinking of actual bare prosaic facts, things that have happened and that no one has ever explained.’

‘I know just the sort of thing you mean, dear,’ said Miss Marple. ‘For instance Mrs Carruthers had a very strange experience yesterday morning. She bought two gills of picked shrimps at Elliot’s. She called at two other shops and when she got home she found she had not got the shrimps with her. She went back to the two shops she had visited but these shrimps had completely disappeared. Now that seems to me very remarkable.’

‘A very fishy story,’ said Sir Henry Clithering gravely.

‘There are, of course, all kinds of possible explanations,’ said Miss Marple, her cheeks growing slightly pinker with excitement. ‘For instance, somebody else—’

‘My dear Aunt,’ said Raymond West with some amusement, ‘I didn’t mean that sort of village incident. I was thinking of murders and disappearances—the kind of thing that Sir Henry could tell us about by the hour if he liked.’

‘But I never talk shop,’ said Sir Henry modestly. ‘No, I never talk shop.’

Sir Henry Clithering had been until lately Commissioner of Scotland Yard.

‘I suppose there are a lot of murders and things that never are solved by the police,’ said Joyce Lemprière.

‘That is an admitted fact, I believe,’ said Mr Petherick.

‘I wonder,’ said Raymond West, ‘what class of brain really succeeds best in unravelling a mystery? One always feels that the average police detective must be hampered by lack of imagination.’

‘That is the layman’s point of view,’ said Sir Henry dryly.

‘You really want a committee,’ said Joyce, smiling. ‘For psychology and imagination go to the writer—’

She made an ironical bow to Raymond but he remained serious.

‘The art of writing gives one an insight into human nature,’ he said gravely. ‘One sees, perhaps, motives that the ordinary person would pass by.’

‘I know, dear,’ said Miss Marple, ‘that your books are very clever. But do you think that people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?’

‘My dear Aunt,’ said Raymond gently, ‘keep your beliefs. Heaven forbid that
I
should in any way shatter them.’

‘I mean,’ said Miss Marple, puckering her brow a
little as she counted the stitches in her knitting, ‘that so many people seem to me not to be either bad or good, but simply, you know, very silly.’

Mr Petherick gave his dry little cough again.

‘Don’t you think, Raymond,’ he said, ‘that you attach too much weight to imagination? Imagination is a very dangerous thing, as we lawyers know only too well. To be able to sift evidence impartially, to take the facts and look at them as facts—that seems to me the only logical method of arriving at the truth. I may add that in my experience it is the only one that succeeds.’

‘Bah!’ cried Joyce, flinging back her black head indignantly. ‘I bet I could beat you all at this game. I am not only a woman—and say what you like, women have an intuition that is denied to men—I am an artist as well. I see things that you don’t. And then, too, as an artist I have knocked about among all sorts and conditions of people. I know life as darling Miss Marple here cannot possibly know it.’

‘I don’t know about that, dear,’ said Miss Marple. ‘Very painful and distressing things happen in villages sometimes.’

‘May I speak?’ said Dr Pender smiling. ‘It is the fashion nowadays to decry the clergy, I know, but we hear things, we know a side of human character which is a sealed book to the outside world.’

‘Well,’ said Joyce, ‘it seems to me we are a pretty
representative gathering. How would it be if we formed a Club? What is today? Tuesday? We will call it The Tuesday Night Club. It is to meet every week, and each member in turn has to propound a problem. Some mystery of which they have personal knowledge, and to which, of course, they know the answer. Let me see, how many are we? One, two, three, four, five. We ought really to be six.’

‘You have forgotten me, dear,’ said Miss Marple, smiling brightly.

Joyce was slightly taken aback, but she concealed the fact quickly.

‘That would be lovely, Miss Marple,’ she said. ‘I didn’t think you would care to play.’

‘I think it would be very intersting,’ said Miss Marple, ‘especially with so many clever gentlemen present. I am afraid I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St Mary Mead does give one an insight into human nature.’

‘I am sure your co-operation will be very valuable,’ said Sir Henry, courteously.

‘Who is going to start?’ said Joyce.

‘I think there is no doubt as to that,’ said Dr Pender, ‘when we have the great good fortune to have such a distinguished man as Sir Henry staying with us—’

He left his sentence unfinished, making a courtly bow in the direction of Sir Henry.

The latter was silent for a minute or two. At last he sighed and recrossed his legs and began:

‘It is a little difficult for me to select just the kind of thing you want, but I think, as it happens, I know of an instance which fits these conditions very aptly. You may have seen some mention of the case in the papers of a year ago. It was laid aside at the time as an unsolved mystery, but, as it happens, the solution came into my hands not very many days ago.

‘The facts are very simple. Three people sat down to a supper consisting, amongst other things, of tinned lobster. Later in the night, all three were taken ill, and a doctor was hastily summoned. Two of the people recovered, the third one died.’

‘Ah!’ said Raymond approvingly.

‘As I say, the facts as such were very simple. Death was considered to be due to ptomaine poisoning, a certificate was given to that effect, and the victim was duly buried. But things did not rest at that.’

Miss Marple nodded her head.

‘There was talk, I suppose,’ she said, ‘there usually is.’

‘And now I must describe the actors in this little drama. I will call the husband and wife Mr and Mrs Jones, and the wife’s companion Miss Clark. Mr Jones was a traveller for a firm of manufacturing chemists. He was a good-looking man in a kind of coarse, florid
way, aged about fifty. His wife was a rather commonplace woman, of about forty-five. The companion, Miss Clark, was a woman of sixty, a stout cheery woman with a beaming rubicund face. None of them, you might say, very interesting.

‘Now the beginning of the troubles arose in a very curious way. Mr Jones had been staying the previous night at a small commercial hotel in Birmingham. It happened that the blotting paper in the blotting book had been put in fresh that day, and the chambermaid, having apparently nothing better to do, amused herself by studying the blotter in the mirror just after Mr Jones had been writing a letter there. A few days later there was a report in the papers of the death of Mrs Jones as the result of eating tinned lobster, and the chambermaid then imparted to her fellow servants the words that she had deciphered on the blotting pad. They were as follows:
Entirely dependent on my wife…when she is dead I will…hundreds and thousands…

‘You may remember that there had recently been a case of a wife being poisoned by her husband. It needed very little to fire the imagination of these maids. Mr Jones had planned to do away with his wife and inherit hundreds of thousands of pounds! As it happened one of the maids had relations living in the small market town where the Joneses resided. She wrote to them, and they in return wrote to her. Mr Jones, it seemed,
had been very attentive to the local doctor’s daughter, a good-looking young woman of thirty-three. Scandal began to hum. The Home Secretary was petitioned. Numerous anonymous letters poured into Scotland Yard all accusing Mr Jones of having murdered his wife. Now I may say that not for one moment did we think there was anything in it except idle village talk and gossip. Nevertheless, to quiet public opinion an exhumation order was granted. It was one of these cases of popular superstition based on nothing solid whatever, which proved to be so surprisingly justified. As a result of the autopsy sufficient arsenic was found to make it quite clear that the deceased lady had died of arsenical poisoning. It was for Scotland Yard working with the local authorities to prove how that arsenic had been administered, and by whom.’

‘Ah!’ said Joyce. ‘I like this. This is the real stuff.’

‘Suspicion naturally fell on the husband. He benefited by his wife’s death. Not to the extent of the hundreds of thousands romantically imagined by the hotel chambermaid, but to the very solid amount of £8000. He had no money of his own apart from what he earned, and he was a man of somewhat extravagant habits with a partiality for the society of women. We investigated as delicately as possible the rumour of his attachment to the doctor’s daughter; but while it seemed clear that there had been a strong
friendship between them at one time, there had been a most abrupt break two months previously, and they did not appear to have seen each other since. The doctor himself, an elderly man of a straightforward and unsuspicious type, was dumbfounded at the result of the autopsy. He had been called in about midnight to find all three people suffering. He had realized immediately the serious condition of Mrs Jones, and had sent back to his dispensary for some opium pills, to allay the pain. In spite of all his efforts, however, she succumbed, but not for a moment did he suspect that anything was amiss. He was convinced that her death was due to a form of botulism. Supper that night had consisted of tinned lobster and salad, trifle and bread and cheese. Unfortunately none of the lobster remained—it had all been eaten and the tin thrown away. He had interrogated the young maid, Gladys Linch. She was terribly upset, very tearful and agitated, and he found it hard to get her to keep to the point, but she declared again and again that the tin had not been distended in any way and that the lobster had appeared to her in a perfectly good condition.

‘Such were the facts we had to go upon. If Jones had feloniously administered arsenic to his wife, it seemed clear that it could not have been done in any of the things eaten at supper, as all three persons had partaken of the meal. Also—another point—Jones
himself had returned from Birmingham just as supper was being brought in to table, so that he would have had no opportunity of doctoring any of the food beforehand.’

‘What about the companion?’ asked Joyce—‘the stout woman with the good-humoured face.’

Sir Henry nodded.

‘We did not neglect Miss Clark, I can assure you. But it seemed doubtful what motive she could have had for the crime. Mrs Jones left her no legacy of any kind and the net result of her employer’s death was that she had to seek for another situation.’

‘That seems to leave her out of it,’ said Joyce thoughtfully.

‘Now one of my inspectors soon discovered a significant fact,’ went on Sir Henry. ‘After supper on that evening Mr Jones had gone down to the kitchen and had demanded a bowl of cornflour for his wife who had complained of not feeling well. He had waited in the kitchen until Gladys Linch prepared it, and then carried it up to his wife’s room himself. That, I admit, seemed to clinch the case.’

The lawyer nodded.

‘Motive,’ he said, ticking the points off on his fingers. ‘Opportunity. As a traveller for a firm of druggists, easy access to the poison.’

‘And a man of weak moral fibre,’ said the clergyman.

Raymond West was staring at Sir Henry.

‘There is a catch in this somewhere,’ he said. ‘Why did you not arrest him?’

Sir Henry smiled rather wryly.

‘That is the unfortunate part of the case. So far all had gone swimmingly, but now we come to the snags. Jones was not arrested because on interrogating Miss Clark she told us that the whole of the bowl of cornflour was drunk not by Mrs Jones but by her.

‘Yes, it seems that she went to Mrs Jones’s room as was her custom. Mrs Jones was sitting up in bed and the bowl of cornflour was beside her.

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