Five Little Pigs

Five Little Pigs

Dust-jacket illustration of the US (true first) edition with alternative title. See Publication history (below) for UK first edition jacket image with original title.
Author Agatha Christie
Cover artist Not known
Country United States
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Dodd, Mead and Company
Publication date
May 1942
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 234 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN 0-00-616372-6
Preceded by The Body in the Library
Followed by The Moving Finger

Five Little Pigs is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in May 1942 under the title of Murder in Retrospect[1] and in UK by the Collins Crime Club in January 1943 although some sources state that publication occurred in November 1942.[2] The UK first edition carries a copyright date of 1942 and retailed at eight shillings[2] while the US edition was priced at $2.00.[1]

The book features Hercule Poirot. The novel is notable as a rigorous attempt to demonstrate Poirot's repeatedly stated contention that it is possible to solve a mystery purely by reflecting upon the testimony of the participants, and without access to the scene of the crime. This was the last novel of an especially prolific phase of Christie's work on Poirot. She published thirteen Poirot novels between 1935 and 1942 out of a total of eighteen novels in that period. By contrast, she published only two Poirot novels in the next eight years, indicating the possibility that she was experiencing some frustration with her most popular character. Five Little Pigs is unusual in the way that the same events are retold from several standpoints.


Sixteen years after Caroline Crale has been convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas Crale, her daughter, Carla Lemarchant, approaches Poirot to investigate the case. Poirot embarks optimistically upon an unprecedented challenge, but soon fears that the case may be just as cut and dried as it had originally appeared.

Carla is engaged to be married but she is afraid that the fact that her mother killed her father will poison her husband's love for her, as he may fear that she has inherited a murderous tendency. Carla also remembers her mother would never lie to her to hide an unpleasant truth and her mother had told her she was innocent through a letter. That is enough for Carla but she wants Poirot to convince her fiance.

Carla's father, painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned with coniine, which had been extracted from poison hemlock by their friend and neighbor Meredith Blake, an amateur chemist, but subsequently apparently stolen from him by Carla's mother, Caroline Crale. Caroline confessed to stealing the poison, claiming she had intended to use it to commit suicide. The poison ended up, however, in a glass from which Amyas had drunk cold beer, complaining that 'everything tastes foul today.' Both the glass and the bottle of cold beer had been brought to him by Caroline. Her motive was clear: Amyas's young model and latest mistress, Elsa Greer, claimed he was planning to divorce Caroline and marry her instead. This was a new development; though Amyas had frequently had mistresses and affairs, he had never before shown any sign of wanting to leave Caroline.

Poirot labels the five alternative suspects "the five little pigs": they comprise Phillip Blake, Meredith's brother ("went to market"); Meredith Blake ("stayed at home"); Elsa Greer (now Lady Dittisham, "had roast beef"); Cecilia Williams, the governess ("had none"); and Angela Warren, Caroline's younger half-sister ("went 'Wee! Wee! Wee!' all the way home"). As Poirot learns from speaking to them during the first half of the novel, none of the quintet has an obvious motive, and while their views of the original case differ in some respects there is no immediate reason to suppose that the verdict in the case was wrong.

The differences are subtle. Phillip Blake's hostility to Caroline is overt enough to draw suspicion. Meredith Blake mistrusts him, and has a very much more sympathetic view of her. Elsa seems emotionally stunted, as though her original passion for Amyas has left her prematurely devoid of emotion, except for hatred for Caroline Crale. Cecilia, the governess, gives some insight into both Caroline and Angela, but claims to have definite reason for believing Caroline guilty. Finally, Angela believes her sister to be innocent, but a letter that Caroline wrote to her after the murder contains no protestation of innocence, and makes Poirot doubt Caroline's innocence for perhaps the first time.

In the second half of the novel, Poirot considers five accounts of the case that he has asked the suspects to write for him. These establish the succession of events on the day of the murder, and establish a small number of facts that are important to the solution of the puzzle. In the first place, there is a degree of circumstantial evidence incriminating Angela. Secondly, Cecilia has seen Caroline frantically wiping fingerprints off the bottle of beer as she waited by Amyas's dead body. Thirdly, there was a conversation between Caroline and Amyas, apparently about Amyas 'seeing to her packing' for Angela's return to school. Fourthly, Elsa overheard a heated argument between Caroline and Amyas in which he swore that he would divorce her and Caroline said bitterly, "you and your women."

In the denouement, Poirot reveals the main emotional undercurrents of the story. Philip Blake has loved Caroline but his rejection by her has turned this to hatred. Meredith Blake, wearied by his long affection for Caroline, has formed an attachment to Elsa, also unreciprocated. These are mere red herrings, though. Putting together the case that would incriminate Angela (she had the opportunity to steal the poison on the morning of the crime, she had previously put salt in Amyas's glass as a prank and she was seen fiddling with the bottle of beer before Caroline took it down to him; she was very angry with Amyas), he demonstrates that Caroline herself would have thought that Angela was guilty. Her letter to Angela did not speak of innocence, because Caroline believed Angela knew for a fact that she (Caroline) was innocent. This explains why, if Caroline was innocent, she made no move to defend herself in court. Moreover, many years ago Caroline while in a jealous rage had thrown a paperweight at baby Angela which had blinded her in one eye and left a permanent disfiguring scar on Angela's face. Caroline had always felt deeply guilty about this and therefore felt that, by taking the blame for what she thought was Angela's crime, she could earn redemption.

Caroline's actions, however, actually prove her innocence. By wiping the fingerprints off the bottle, she showed that she believed that the poison had been placed in it, rather than in the glass. Moreover, as she was seen handling the bottle there was no reason to remove her own fingerprints; she can only have been removing those of a third party.

Angela, however, was not guilty. All the evidence incriminating Angela can be explained by the fact that she had stolen valerian from Meredith's laboratory that morning in preparation for playing another prank on Amyas. (As she had described the theft of the valerian in the future tense Poirot realised Angela had never carried out the act; she had completely forgotten she had stolen the valerian on the morning of that fateful day).

The true murderer was Elsa. Far from being about to finish with Caroline, Amyas was entirely focused on completing his portrait of Elsa. Because Elsa was young she did not realise she was just another mistress, to be left as soon as she was painted. She took Amyas's promise 'to leave my wife' seriously. Amyas went along with this notion, to the short-term distress of his wife, so Elsa wouldn't leave before the painting was finished. Thus the half overheard 'see to her packing' did not refer to Angela's packing (why should Amyas do her packing with a wife and governess to see to such 'woman's work'?), but to sending Elsa packing. Caroline, reassured that Amyas had no intention of leaving her, was distressed at such cruelty to Elsa. She remonstrated with Amyas on a second occasion. Though Elsa falsely reported the gist of this conversation, she did mention that Caroline had said to Amyas 'you and your women', showing Poirot that in fact Elsa was in the same category as all of Amyas's other, discarded mistresses. After a disillusioned and betrayed Elsa overheard this conversation, she recalled seeing Caroline help herself to the coniine the day before and, under the pretence of fetching a cardigan, stole some of that poison by drawing it off with a fountain pen filler. She poisoned Amyas in the first, warm beer, and was then pleased to find that Caroline implicated herself still more seriously by bringing him another. (When Caroline brought Amyas a beer and he exclaimed that 'everything tastes foul today,' this not only showed that he had already had a drink before the one Caroline brought him, but he had had one which had tasted foul as well.)

Amyas's last moments are spent working on his painting of Elsa, while she sits posing for it. In the beginning he does not realise he has been poisoned, but as he gradually weakens he apparently realises it, because Meredith sees him give the painting a "malevolent glare". Poirot notes the unusual vitality in the face of the portrait and says, "It is a very remarkable picture. It is the picture of a murderess painted by her victim – it is the picture of a girl watching her lover die."

Poirot's explanation solves the case to the satisfaction of Carla and, most importantly, her fiancé. But, as Elsa forces him to admit, it cannot be proven. Poirot states that, although his chances of getting a conviction are slim, he does not intend to simply leave her to her rich, privileged life. Privately, however, she confides the full measure of her defeat. Caroline, having earned redemption, went uncomplainingly to prison, where she died soon after. Elsa has always felt that the husband and wife escaped together, and her own life has been empty since. The last paragraph of the novel underlines this defeat; "The chauffeur held open the door of the car. Lady Dittisham got in and the chauffeur wrapped the fur rug around her knees."


The "Five Little Pigs":

Literary significance and reception

Maurice Willson Disher's review in The Times Literary Supplement of 16 January 1943 concluded, "No crime enthusiast will object that the story of how the painter died has to be told many times, for this, even if it creates an interest which is more problem than plot, demonstrates the author's uncanny skill. The answer to the riddle is brilliant."[3]

Maurice Richardson was pleased to see the return of Poirot to Christie's works when he reviewed the novel in the 10 January 1943 issue of The Observer. He concluded, "Despite only five suspects, Mrs. Christie, as usual, puts a ring through the reader's nose and leads him to one of her smashing last-minute showdowns. This is well up to the standard of her middle Poirot period. No more need be said."[4]

J.D. Beresford in The Guardian's 20 January 1943 review, wrote: "...Christie never fails us, and her Five Little Pigs presents a very pretty problem for the ingenious reader". He concluded that the clue as to who had committed the crime was "completely satisfying".[5]

Robert Barnard: "The-murder-in-the-past plot on its first and best appearance – accept no later substitutes. Presentation more intricate than usual, characterization more subtle."[6] All in all, it is a beautifully tailored book, rich and satisfying. The present writer would be willing to chance his arm and say that this is the best Christie of all."[6]

Charles Osborne: "The solution of the mystery in Five Little Pigs is not only immediately convincing but satisfying as well, and even moving in its inevitability and its bleakness."[7]

References and allusions

Like One, Two, Buckle My Shoe before it and Hickory Dickory Dock after it, the novel is named after a nursery rhyme, usually referred to as This Little Piggy, that is used by Poirot to organise his thoughts regarding the investigation.

Hercule Poirot mentions the celebrated case of Hawley Harvey Crippen as an example of a crime reinterpreted to satisfy the public enthusiasm for psychology.

Romeo and Juliet are a constant theme in the book, starting with Jonathan reading from the play "If that thy bent of love...".

Jonathan also quotes from The Death of Chatterton, by William Holman Hunt: "Rose white youth, passionate, pale".

Coniine (in the story, specifically coniine hydrobomide, derived from the poison Hemlock) was indeed the poison with which Socrates took his own life, as described by Phaedo, and has indeed been used to treat whooping cough and asthma.[8] The "poisons act" referred to is the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933, and "Schedule 1" is part 1 of the associated Poisons List. Christie's professional background in poisons often shows in her works.

The painting that is hung upon the wall of Cecilia Williams' room, described as a "blind girl sitting on an orange", is by George Frederic Watts and is called "Hope". In it, a blind girl is featured with a harp which, though it has only one string left, she doesn't give up playing. The description is by Oswald Bastable, a character in E. Nesbit's children's book The New Treasure Seekers. The other identifiable prints are "Dante and Beatrice on a bridge", and Primavera by Botticelli.

Amyas has two paintings in the Tate. Miss Williams remarks disparagingly that "So is one of Mr. Epstein's statues".

When Poirot approaches Meredith Blake he introduces himself as a friend of Lady Mary Lytton-Gore, a character known from Three Act Tragedy. This case is later referred to by Poirot many years later, in Elephants Can Remember (published in 1972).

"Take what you want and pay for it, says God," is referred to as an "old Spanish proverb" by Elsa. The same proverb is cited in Hercule Poirot's Christmas. The proverb is mentioned in South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936) and in Windfall's Eye (1929) by Edward Verrall Lucas (1929).

The "interesting tombs in the Fayum" refers to the Fayum Basin south of Cairo, famous for Fayum mummy portraits.

Angela Warren refers to Shakespeare and quotes John Milton's Comus: "Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave".


1960 play

In 1960, Christie adapted the book into a play, Go Back For Murder, but edited Poirot out of the story. His function in the story is filled by a young lawyer, Justin Fogg, son of the lawyer who led Caroline Crale's defence. During the course of the play, it is revealed that Carla's fiancé is an obnoxious American who is strongly against her revisiting the case, and in the end, she leaves him for Fogg.


The cast of the 2003 version includes Rachael Stirling as Caroline, Julie Cox as Elsa, Toby Stephens as Philip, Aidan Gillen as Amyas, Sophie Winkleman as Angela, Aimee Mullins as Lucy, Marc Warren as Meredith, Patrick Malahide as Sir Montague Depleach, and Gemma Jones as Miss Williams.


Five Little Pigs was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4 in 1994, featuring John Moffatt as Poirot.

Publication history

Dustjacket illustration of the UK First Edition (Book was first published in the US)

The novel was first serialised in the US in Collier's Weekly in ten instalments from 20 September (Volume 108, Number 12) to 22 November 1941 (Volume 108, Number 21) as Murder in Retrospect with illustrations by Mario Cooper.


  1. 1 2 "American Tribute to Agatha Christie".
  2. 1 2 Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 15)
  3. The Times Literary Supplement, 16 January 1943 (p. 29)
  4. The Observer, 10 January 1943 (p. 3)
  5. The Guardian, 20 January 1943 (p. 3)
  6. 1 2 Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (pp. 85, 193). Fontana Books, 1990; ISBN 0-00-637474-3
  7. Osborne, Charles (1982): The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, Collins (London), p. 130
  8. "coniine".

External links

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