84 pages 2 hours read

Agatha Christie

Crooked House

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1949

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Crooked House is a crime fiction novel by mystery writer Agatha Christie, and its title was inspired by the house in the nursery rhyme, “There Was a Crooked Man.” The novel was first published in the US in 1949 by Dodd, Mead, and Company, and in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in the same year. Crooked House is one of Christie’s favorites among her own work. The novel takes place in post-World War II England and tells the story of the poisoning murder of wealthy 85-year-old Aristide Leonides and his family, whose distorted relationships lead to all of them becoming suspects in the crime. The film adaptation stars Glenn Close and Gillian Anderson, and it premiered in 2017.

This study guide refers to the 1964 Pocket Books edition of Crooked House.

Plot Summary

Three Gables is a twisted and teetering building located in Swinly Dean, England. The overgrown cottage-style house is home to three generations of the Leonides family, including their wealthy patriarch, Aristide. An unscrupulous businessman who amassed his fortune through questionable practices, Aristide is enjoying his second marriage to Brenda, an attractive woman 50 years his junior. Though Brenda claims to love Aristide, the rest of the Leonides family thinks she is after his money.

Within the Leonides family, tensions are simmering. Roger and Philip, Aristide’s two sons, have a strained relationship. Eldest Roger is Aristide’s favorite and has inherited the family business, Associated Catering, but he lacks the financial acumen to keep the company afloat. Younger brother Philip, left to vie for scraps of Aristide’s attention, has developed a bitter and withdrawn temperament. Roger is married to Clemency, a practical and level-headed scientist, while Philip’s wife Magda is a dramatic and vain theater actress. Philip and Magda have three children: bright but strange Josephine, moody teenager Eustace, and kind, intelligent, and level-headed Sophia. Sophia is Aristide’s favorite child and the only one he credits with having a strong and balanced personality. Also living at Three Gables is Josephine’s nanny Janet and Edith de Haviland, Aristide’s elderly sister-in-law from his first marriage.

During World War II, Sophia goes to Cairo to work in the office of Foreign Affairs. There she falls in love with Charles Hayward, a young officer in the English diplomatic service. The two get engaged but agree to put off their marriage until after the war. On the eve of their reunion, Aristide is found dead at Three Gables of poisoning. The coroner ascertains that his insulin shot, administered daily by Brenda, was swapped out for his medicinal eye drops that contain the toxic chemical eserine. The entire Leonides family falls under suspicion, and reputation-conscious Sophia refuses to marry Charles until their name is cleared.

Charles’s father, Arthur Hayward, is the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard. Through his father and his connection to Sophia, Charles becomes involved in the investigation. He temporarily moves into Three Gables to assist with interviewing each Leonides family member. The prime suspects in the case are Brenda and the family’s live-in tutor Laurence Brown. Rumors of an affair between the two persist, but the investigation turns up little evidence.

Meanwhile, Charles learns about the complex relationships between Leonides family members. Aristide steered his descendants’ lives with a heavy hand, causing them to grow unhealthily codependent. All of them stand to gain financially from his death, so each has a reason to want him dead, but it’s soon discovered that Aristide duped them all into signing a fake will. Behind their backs, he left his entire fortune to Sophia, passing on his role as head of the family to her and forcing Charles to consider his fiancé as a suspect.

Throughout the investigation, Charles is drawn in by 12-year-old Josephine. She is lacking in social graces, but she nevertheless charms him with her advanced intelligence and determination to involve herself in the investigation. Josephine is obsessed with detective novels, haughtily claiming that the police are stupid and that she already knows the identity of the murderer. Josephine eavesdrops often and writes down her observations in a little black notebook which she guards closely. She refuses to tell Charles whom she suspects, as good detective novels never reveal the killer until the very end.

In the attic of Three Gables, Charles finds a stash of love letters between Brenda and Laurence, confirming their affair. They are arrested for the murder of Aristide, but while they are in custody, Josephine is nearly killed by a booby trap. Shortly afterward, another attempt is made on her life when powdered digitalin pills are mixed into a cup of hot cocoa meant for her. Instead, Josephine’s nanny drinks the cocoa and dies.

Now certain that a killer is still at large at Three Gables, Charles warns Josephine that her life might be in danger. Edith interrupts their conversation to take her great-niece into town for a soda. Hours later, news arrives that her car has been found at the bottom of a cliff, both Edith and Josephine dead on impact.

At Three Gables, Charles finds two letters from Edith. One is a suicide note addressed to the police at Scotland Yard, taking responsibility for both murders and clearing Brenda and Laurence’s names. The other, intended only for Charles and Sophia, reveals that Josephine is the true murderess. Charles finds Josephine’s little black notebook, which contains her firsthand accounts of the crimes. Josephine murdered her grandfather because he wouldn’t let her take ballet lessons, and her nanny because she spoke badly about her. Edith moves forward with a murder-suicide to stop Josephine from causing any more harm and to spare her from a lifetime in a mental institution.

Sophia and Charles mourn the fates of Edith and the “crooked child,” but are glad to leave Three Gables behind and begin their married lives free of scandal. As the novel ends, the surviving Leonides family members take their leave of the crooked house.

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