When you can say about an Agatha Christie book that the most interesting thing about it are its political allusions… you know you’re on dicey ground. Agatha Christie was, naturally, the master of the whodunnit, but here, she outdid herself – in a bad way. The plot is so convoluted and far-fetched that, upon its conclusion, it makes you shake your head – and not in amazement or acknowledgment. It’s a charade in the worst sense of the word: something you realize would never happen in the real world. I mean [SPOILERS ahead], setting up a string of appointments with a dentist just so you can murder a fellow patient? Come on… And the exact mechanism of committing the deed beggars belief even more.
Still, this is Agatha Christie, fairly early on in her writing career (as opposed to, say, her books from the 1960s), and as such, it’s next to impossible for her to be boring to read. Her writing style here in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is as sparse and economical as it can be. The pages of the book can be a bit disheartening to look at: practically nothing but terse dialogues. A snappy pace, then, and even though nothing much really seems to be happening throughout the book, you don’t feel like it’s dragging its feet, either.
But this also means that some of the essential ingredients of a top-notch Agatha Christie yarn are missing. Some reviewers see similarities between One, Two, Buckle My Shoe and Three Act Tragedy (released 6 years earlier), but I really don’t. Three Act Tragedy is an Agatha Christie masterpiece, whereas One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is anything but.
The best Christie books are also fine depicitions of human psychology, but I see next to none of it here – apart from Poirot’s moral qualms, only briefly sketched, when deciding whether his allegiance is primarily to nations or to individuals. (You will guess which of the two he prefers.)
The finest Christie books also feature a strong romantic element, but there is little of it here; two young couples are featured, but due to the two young men being despicable (each in a different way: one a strong right-winger, and the other an equally strong left-winger), readers are unlikely to feel engaged in the relationships.
Finally, the most delightful Christie novels are remarkable in portraying the eccentricities of genius detectives trapped in a commonplace world – be it Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. But once again, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is so pared down to bare essentials that the portrayal of Poirot appears to be reduced to him questioning the suspects and witnesses, with next to no diversions or opportunities for reflection.
I’ve only encountered a single snippet of classic Hercule Poirot dialogue in this book (in chapter 5):
“You’re an odd man, M. Poirot.”
“I am very odd. That is to say, I am methodical, orderly and logical – and I do not like distorting facts to support a theory – that, I find – is unusual!”
And so, what are we left with? The book’s most impressive feat is, possibly (and very surprisingly), Agatha Christie’s first open foray into the world of politics, if scholars of her work are to be trusted. The book, despite only being released in 1940, appears to have been written by the summer of 1939 at the latest, because there’s still no mention of World War II in it. That war would feature prominently in some of the later Christie books, such as the exquisite Poirot novel Taken at the Flood, but One, Two, Buckle My Shoe merely brings us the prelude to that global disaster.
Whereas Christie’s previous books could largely be said to have been taking place in a sort of historical vacuum, oblivious to whatever else might have been happening on the planet, it’s as if Christie slapped her writing desk around 1939 and said: “That’s it! I just can no longer pretend my characters don’t see what’s happening in Europe, in Britain’s closest proximity.” And so she wrote One, Two, Buckle My Shoe– an overtly political whodunnit. It was a good decision, but at the same time, you can see that this really isn’t Christie’s métier; she appears to lack her usual narrative aplomb when dealing with these subjects. And so, while Christie’s thrust into a new territory for her must be lauded, the results aren’t entirely satisfactory.
The atmosphere is thick and gloomy; you can almost feel the dark clouds gathering on the (European) horizon, not far away from Britain at all – as exemplified by the aforementioned two characters of young male suitors: each more fanatical than the other, though on the opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Agatha Christie appears to be terrified of both impending totalitarian evils of the late 1930s: Nazism and Communism. No real distinction is drawn by her between the two (and wisely so). Yet is One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, therefore, an unreserved celebration of the “conservative middle ground”, as exemplified by the financier Alistair Blunt? Not at all. When given the option to sacrifice his investigator’s ethos on the altar of safeguarding “our traditional order”, Poirot refuses. Frightening as it is, and sad as it may have made him, if Poirot wants to remain faithful to his principles, he must rescue one of the young extremists, and send an emblem of the Safe Old World Order to the gallows. Poirot only dares to make a single modest request:
In your new world, my children, let there be freedom and let there be pity… That is all I ask.
But this is anything but an exercise in history. The parallels between 1939 and 2018 are also frightening for us, the novel’s readers today. There was no Internet and no Facebook back in 1939, and no concept of “fake news”, I suppose (the original one or the one subverted by the current occupant of the White House). Yet some of the pronouncements by the two extremists in this 1939 novel sound very familiar; yes, you will encounter lots of such talk on today’s “alternative news sites”, and among conspiracy theorists.
Consider Poirot’s dialogue with the left-winger in chapter 5.VI, where the latter demands that the protagonists of the old system “have to go – they and everything they stand for!”. And who is to blame? “The old corrupt system of finance […] – this cursed net of bankers all over the world like a spider’s web. They’ve got to be swept away.” Oh, and in this context, it won’t surprise that the richest protagonist of the book is Jewish.
For once, Agatha Christie succeeded in sending chills down our spines primarily in a context that has nothing to do with the whodunnit in her book.