Cat Among the Pigeons is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on November 2, 1959, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in March 1960 with a copyright date of 1959. The UK edition retailed at twelve shillings and sixpence (12/6), and the US edition at $2.95.
It features Christie's Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who makes a very late appearance in the final third of the novel. The emphasis on espionage in the early part of the novel relates it to Christie’s international adventures (most notably They Came to Baghdad) and to the Tommy and Tuppence stories.
At the start of the Summer Term at Meadowbank School for Girls, there is no reason for Miss Bulstrode, the popular but aging Headmistress, to believe that the challenges facing her will be more than the occasional irate or inebriated parent. She scarcely listens when Mrs Upjohn, a parent, recognises someone that she sees from her wartime days in the intelligence service. But there is a killer at the school who does not wait long to strike.
The story flashes back three months to Ramat, one of the richest countries of the Middle East, where a revolution is about to take place. Prince Ali Yusuf gives a fortune in jewels, which he needs sent out of the country, into the safekeeping of Bob Rawlinson, his personal pilot and the only person he can trust. Rawlinson complies with the prince's request, apparently by concealing the jewels in the luggage of his sister, Joan Sutcliffe, who is travelling with her daughter, Jennifer. He is seen doing this by a mysterious and unnamed woman in the next room. Soon after, both Rawlinson and the Prince are killed in an airplane crash while attempting to leave the country. A number of people, including British Intelligence, get onto the trail of the jewels, and their attention focuses on Meadowbank School, where not only Jennifer, but also the prince's cousin and expected fiancée, Shaista, are studying.
There are several new staff at Meadowbank, including Adam Goodman (a British agent who has taken a job as gardener), Ann Shapland (Miss Bulstrode's new secretary), Angele Blanche (a new French teacher) and Grace Springer (a gym teacher). The butch and arrogant Springer annoys many with her unpleasant, uncompromising and self-centred attitude. At first Miss Bulstrode concentrates on which of two candidates she should appoint as her successor on retirement. On the one hand, there is Miss Vansittart, who would preserve her legacy, but is unimaginative and has no new ideas; on the other hand there is Miss Rich, a younger English teacher with lots of ideas but less experience. These deliberations are cut short, however, when Miss Springer is shot dead in the Sports Pavilion late at night and her body discovered by Miss Johnson and Miss Chadwick.
Following the murder, Inspector Kelsey interviews everyone and Adam Goodman reveals his true identity. Meanwhile, the attention of the reader is focused on Jennifer Sutcliffe's tennis racquet, which would be a suitable receptacle for the gems. She has been complaining that the racquet is unbalanced suddenly, and sends a letter to her mother asking for a new one. She swaps racquets (and, crucially, their name tags) with a friend, Julia Upjohn. When a strange woman arrives with a new racquet for Jennifer, she implies that it is a gift from her Aunt Gina and takes the old one (actually Julia's) for restringing. As Julia points out, though, Jennifer's aunt cannot have believed that Jennifer's racquet needed restringing, because Jennifer’s own racquet had just been restrung. Sure enough, Aunt Gina writes to say that she has not sent a new racquet.
During a weekend when many of the girls are at home with their parents, Shaista is apparently kidnapped by a chauffeur posing as the one sent by her uncle to take her home. That night there is a repetition of murder when Miss Chadwick is disturbed by torch light in the Sports Pavilion and Miss Vansittart is found dead there, having been apparently coshed. Many of the girls go home, but the resourceful Julia, who has been pondering the exchange of the racquets, takes her (really Jennifer's) racquet back to her room and discovers the gems in the hollowed-out handle. She hears someone at the door who turns the knob of the locked door. Julia is ready to scream at the top of her lungs but the person departs. The next day Julia flees the school to tell her story to Hercule Poirot, whom she has heard of through a friend of her mother. The police start to focus on the newcomer, Miss Blanche, but in fact she is not the murderer; instead, she knows who the murderer is, and makes an attempt at blackmail that backfires when she is also killed. With the school struggling to survive, the denouement has arrived.
Poirot reviews what the reader already knows, and then explains that Princess Shaista was an impostor: the real Shaista had been kidnapped much earlier, in Switzerland, and the apparent abduction was actually her escape from the school. She was the representative of one group of interests who, crucially, did not know where the gems had been concealed. The murderer, however, did know where the jewels were concealed and must have been in Ramat to see Bob Rawlinson hide them. Most of the teachers could not have been there … the exception was Eileen Rich, who was apparently sick at the time but was in fact in Ramat. Jennifer had even recognised her, although she remembered the woman she had seen as a fatter woman. (It later transpires that Miss Rich had been in Ramat for the delivery of an illegitimate child that was stillborn.)
Just as it seems that Miss Rich is the murderer, Mrs. Upjohn enters the room having been recalled from her holiday in Anatolia and identifies by face the woman who had the room next to Bob Rawlinson at the start of the book: Ann Shapland, who is well-known (in intelligence circles) as a rather mercenary and ruthless espionage agent. Ann Shapland draws a pistol and Miss Bulstrode steps in front of Mrs. Sutcliffe; Miss Chadwick does the same to protect Miss Bulstrode, and is fatally wounded.
It is revealed that Ann Shapland murdered Miss Springer, who caught her while she was searching the Sports Pavilion for the jewels, and Miss Blanche, who knew her secret and tried to blackmail her. The killing of Miss Vansittart, which was actually unpremeditated and for which Ann Shapland had a perfect alibi, was committed by Miss Chadwick, who came across Miss Vansittart, whom she disliked intensely, and coshed her from behind with a sandbag she was carrying for protection that night in a kind of temporary psychotic break. Miss Chadwick confesses before she dies that she imagined the removal of a potential successor would make Miss Bulstrode change her mind about retiring.
At the end of the book, Miss Bulstrode reconfirms her decision to make Miss Rich her eventual successor. Poirot turns over the gems to the enigmatic “Mr. Robinson” who, in turn, delivers them to the English woman who has been secretly married to Prince Ali Yusuf. One emerald is returned as a reward to Julia Upjohn.
- Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective
- Inspector Kelsey, the investigating officer
- Honoria Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank School for Girls
- Ann Shapland, Miss Bulstrode's secretary
- Elspeth Johnson, the matron
- Miss Chadwick, a long-serving and senior teacher who helped found Meadowbank
- Eleanor Vansittart, a senior teacher
- Eileen Rich, a teacher
- Grace Springer, a Games teacher
- Angele Blanche, a French teacher
- Miss Blake, a teacher
- Miss Rowan, a teacher
- Princess Shaista, a Middle-Eastern princess who was kidnapped while an imposter took her place at Meadowbank
- Julia Upjohn, pupil at Meadowbank and Jennifer's friend
- Mrs Upjohn, mother of Julia Upjohn
- Prince Ali Yusuf, hereditary Sheikh of Ramat
- Bob Rawlinson, British intelligence agent in Ramat
- Jennifer Sutcliffe, niece of Bob Rawlinson and pupil at Meadowbank; daughter of Joan and Henry Sutcliffe
- Joan Sutcliffe, Bob Rawlinson's sister and Jennifer's mother
- Henry Sutcliffe, Jennifer's father
- Colonel Ephraim Pikeaway, a senior figure in Special Branch
- John Edmundson, a member of the Foreign Office
- Derek O'Connor, a member of the Foreign Office
- “Adam Goodman” (aka Ronnie), an operative for Special Branch
- “Mr. Robinson”, a shadowy figure, of importance in international affairs
- Dennis Rathbone, Ann Shapland's boyfriend
- Briggs, the gardener
Literary significance and receptionModifier
Maurice Richardson of The Observer of November 8, 1959 said, "Some nice school scenes with bogus sheikhs sweeping up in lilac Cadillacs to deposit highly scented and busted houris for education, and backwoods peers shoving hockey-stick-toting daughters out of battered Austins. It's far from vintage Christie, but you'll want to know who." 
Robert Barnard: "Girls' school background surprisingly well done, with humour and some liberality of outlook. Some elements are reminiscent of Tey's Miss Pym Disposes. Marred by the international dimension and the spy element, which do not jell with the traditional detective side. Fairly typical example of her looser, more relaxed style."
References or AllusionsModifier
References to other worksModifier
In Chapter 17, III, of the novel, Julia tells Poirot that she has been told of him by Maureen Summerhayes, at whose rather dilapidated guest house he had been forced to stay during the case related in Mrs. McGinty's Dead.
The character of Miss Bulstrode is mentioned in a later Poirot novel with a strong school-girl plot, Halloween Party.
References to actual history, geography and current scienceModifier
In Chapter 13, II, of the novel, mention is made of popular British comedy actress Joyce Grenfell. In 1957, Grenfell had appeared in Blue Murder at St Trinian's, a comedy set in a girls' school with a plot that includes a jewel thief and a foreign prince.
Location of fictional Ramat is not revealed in the novel, but by some hints (proximity to Aden and mountains) it can be assumed that Ramat was one of numerous principalities of South Yemen which still existed at the time when the book was finished.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptationsModifier
A television adaptation of the novel for the series Agatha Christie's Poirot was broadcast on September 28, 2008, in the UK and on June 21, 2009 in the US. David Suchet once again reprised his role as Poirot and it also starred Harriet Walter as Miss Bulstrode, Natasha Little as Ann Shapland, Claire Skinner as Miss Rich, Elizabeth Berrington as Miss Springer, Katie Leung as Hsui Tai Wan, Raji James as Prince Ali Yusuf, and Adam Croasdell as Adam Goodman. The adaptation was written by Mark Gatiss and has several significant plot changes from the original novel, including:
- Instead of Rawlinson and the Prince being killed in a plane crash while attempting to leave the country, the pair die in a gallant shootout against overwhelming odds.
- Changing the primary murder weapon from a revolver to a javelin.
- Introducing Poirot at the beginning of the story as an old friend of Miss Bulstrode's, rather than two-thirds of the way through as in the novel.
- Eliminating the character of Miss Vansittart. The murder of Miss Vansittart, however, is kept loosely: in the adaptation, Miss Chadwick coshes Miss Rich, hoping that Miss Bulstrode will nominate her (Miss Chadwick) as her successor instead, but Miss Rich ultimately survives the attack.
- The addition of a subplot concerning Miss Springer's blackmail of another teacher; all in all, this version of the character was much more sadistic and bullying than the one in Christie's original story, whom she described as a "woman you could neither love or hate".
- Eliminating the murderer's attempt at stealing the jewels from Jennifer Sutcliffe by posing as a stranger with a new tennis racquet from her Aunt Gina; subsequently Jennifer is not the unobservant and uninterested character as in the novel. Another small fact related to the theme of concealed identity — a pregnant and hardly recognizable Miss Rich being in Ramat at the time of the revolution — is also left out of the adaptation, although Miss Rich was still pregnant and delivered a stillborn child during a leave of absence in the adaptation.
- Eliminating most of the novel's scenes set in Egypt and the British secret service due to time constraints.
- Moving the period of the story from the 1950s to the 1930s.
- 1959, Collins Crime Club (London), November 2, 1959, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1960, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), March 1960, Hardcover, 224 pp
- 1961, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 216 pp
- 1962, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 187 pp
- 1964, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 255 pp
In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in six abridged instalments from September 26 (Volume 106, Number 2771) to October 31, 1959 (Volume 106, Number 2776) with illustrations by “Fancett”.
In the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the November 1959 (Volume LXXVI, Number 11) issue of the Ladies Home Journal with an illustration by Joe DeMers.
- ↑ 1,0 et 1,1 Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
- ↑ 2,0 et 2,1 American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- ↑ The Observer November 8, 1959 (Page 23)
- ↑ Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie - Revised edition (Page 190). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0006374743
- ↑ Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers - Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON LD116.
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