Hercule Poirot looked again at the invitation that had been delivered that morning. “M Poirot is invited to an At Home with the Duchess of Shows, Lady Ipex. 31st October 1937” it read and on the reverse, “New English Chateau, Chelmsley Wood, Warwickshire”. His brow wrinkled and the end of his carefully maintained moustache twitched. “Zis I cannot understand, but go I must.”
The drive to the chateau swept down from an elevated road past paddocks where one might leave a vehicle or horse for 12 guineas a day, on both sides, around a lake and to the imposing front of the chateau itself. The whole had been built by one of Capability Brown’s followers, Incapacity Green, whose star has somewhat faded in this century but who had previously been feted as an innovative and adventurous young landscape designer and architect. The chateau itself had 18 vast rooms, Halls according to the architect, and at one time the Ipex dynasty had occupied them all. In more recent years, this had become a dozen rooms in the newer part of the chateau, but now the Duchess had retired to a single vast Hall, and then only half of that.
Poirot had taken the train from London and had climbed into a charabanc with a number of other guests who had accepted the invitation. They were an extraordinary lot, from all parts of the globe including the United States and all parts of Europe, excepting Belgium. Poirot had hoped to fall into conversation with a fellow from Brussels or Antwerp with whom he might share a couple of Stellas, but it was not to be.
Everyone was presented with name badges and had to wait while an ornate ceremonial dance was performed by some natives of the South Seas, to judge by the extraordinary costumes they were wearing. There was polite applause though everyone was utterly mystified. They were then greeted by a dowdy woman who introduced herself as “Anne Former, companion and housekeeper to the Duchess of Shows.”
“I assure you that Lady Ipex, the Duchess, is quite fine, she is having a short rest and will be full of health in a while. She is undergoing some new treatments, but still we are expecting 20,000 guests over the next few days.”
Poirot’s face must have registered disbelief, or at least his facial hair did so. “Gentlemen, ladies, come in, make yourself at home and we will meet again at dinner.” With that a number of flunkies arrived to remove the luggage, though Poirot clung firmly to his valise like a freemason to the case housing his regalia. “Dinner is at 7 o’clock.”
At half past six, Poirot entered the library where an animated conversation was going on. A tall man with a strong South London accent and wearing a slightly worn suit, was explaining why his line of thinking would prevail. His name was Prince Wick, a honorary title conferred several generations ago, and was talking to an aristocratic German, Count Speedmaster von Heidelberg. A young American woman, HP Indigo by name looked on. She used to be slimmer than she now was, growing into what the US fashion houses call a B2 size gown. She remained desirable.
Poirot refused the offer of Prosecco (he drank only champagne not substitutes) and looked around the sparse shelves of the library. Scarcely Print in Action, he thought, when his line of thinking was interrupted by the furious ringing of the dinner gong. “Perhaps the vigour suggests that the soufflé has collapsed,” Poirot remarked. “Or maybe there is a problem somewhere.”
A short man dressed in a flashy à la mode suit dashed in. “I say! Someone has killed her!” and retreated just as rapidly as he had advanced. The occupants of the library followed him and at the bottom of the sweeping staircase, the Duchess of Ipex lay, blood seeping from beneath her wig and fancy clothes.
“Perhaps she fell,” said Poirot. “Why do you say that someone has killed her?” “Well I don’t think it’s usual to have a knife sticking out between one's shoulder blades,” the brash young man said. “Not good for the health, what!”
Poirot knelt by the prostrate body. “She does indeed appear to have been knifed in the back. But she has also been suffocated, there are indications of poison, and there seems to have been a little accident with a gun. Half her face is missing.
“It is clear to me that the Duchess did not die by accident. That is impossible. Someone here has killed Ipex.
“I wish to talk to you all to discover the means and motives of every one of you.”
The short flashily dressed man was the first to speak to Poirot. In a strong Bristolian accent he declared: “My friends just call me TPS,” handing Poirot a card that had a Telford address on it. “I was trying to help Ipex,” he continued. “Everyone loved Ipex, no one more than we did.”
“But Ipex evicted you did she not?,” said Poirot. “This must make you, how you say, mad as a dog that has lost its bone. Perhaps you wanted revenge, non?”
“Hey no,” TPS replied, “I’m very successful in Telford, love it there. Great facilities, everything. But hey, do you think we can come back here with Ipex gone?”
“Perhaps you can tell me where you were earlier this evening? You argued with Ipex did you not?”
“That was weeks ago. The Duchess wouldn’t listen. I wanted to help. Yes we would have shared the profits, but that housekeeper Anne Former would not let me anywhere near her. But tonight I was in my room, changing for dinner when I heard a crash, maybe a shot, and there she was at the bottom of the stairs.”
Anne Former was next in to face Poirot’s questions. “You have been housekeeper and guardian of Lady Ipex for 12 years, is that so?” he asked.
“And in that time, the Duchess has lost influence in the world. That is so?”
“That’s not my fault. The world crash ten years ago changed everything. The aristocrats from Europe, Japan, the USA stopped coming to see us, even though we had done great things for them in the past. Don’t you remember when that nice young man Benny Landa explained his wonderful new technology in this building at the end of the last century? These people have no gratitude, no breeding.”
“But it was your idea to take Ipex to London. That made the old lady quite unwell, I think,” Poirot said, twirling the end of one moustache and leaning forward.
Anne Former shifted uncomfortably. “But I have looked after her since. We have come back to the ancestral pile at the NEC, we have sent out the invitations and 20,000 people are coming,” she stammered.
“I don’t think so,” said the Belgian. “The decoration, it has not been done. You are living in one Hall. Maybe Ipex, she is suffering from malnutrition?”
“No I have done everything for Ipex. There are new dresses, I mean content. Everyone is coming I tell you.” And as her voice rose to a shrill scream she dashed out of his presence.
Next in was the tall German, Count Speedmaster von Heidelberg. He bowed. “You surely cannot suspect me?” he asked Poirot. “I suspect no one and I suspect everyone,” came the reply.
“You are an excellent sword player. It is important for someone from your city and I see you bear the scars from multiple cuts over the last decade,” Poirot continued. “Has this affected your relationship with Ipex?”
“It is true that for many years, the Duchess of Shows was very important to all of us in Germany, replied the Count. "She welcomed us, gave us space and together we built an intimate relationship. But troubles back home have restricted our ability to travel as once we did.”
“I believe that not only will you save costs now the Duchess has suffered the ultimate cut. Can you please show me your weapon, your blade,” said Poirot, thinking it might have been responsible for some of the incisions he had seen on the body of Lady Ipex.
“You will please excuse me, but I no longer have that as part of my luggage,” said the Count. "I know not where it might be.”
HP Indigo knocked on the door, tossing back a neat blonde bob as she made her entrance. “Move over old timer,” she said to the Count. “It’s time for youth to take charge.”
“Have you seen the Count’s weapon?” Poirot asked. “Why I don’t think so,” Ms Indigo drawled. “Can he describe it?”
“Long and thin and sharp like your tongue,” said the Count as he left the room.
“What was the nature of your relationship with Lady Ipex?” said Poirot, an eyebrow raised. “Perfectly good. I have supported her since '93,” said the young women. “Perhaps,” said Poirot, “but pray tell me about your Scoops and the appeal that these have. Do they not strike against her ladyship’s interests?”
“Why, Scoops are enormous fun and very popular with the young. We go off to places in America, Europe or Asia, get drunk, eat well and become partners if you understand me.”
“Perfectly,” said Poirot.
“I guess if people prefer to come Scooping with me, they may not want to come to the Duchess’s more staid affairs. That’s their business.”
“And if the Duchess were not here, then more people might come Scooping with you,” Poirot suggested.
“How dare you suggest that I had anything to do with her death. I have no idea how she drank the poison,” and with that HP Indigo swept from the room leaving a trail of scarf and whiff of heady perfume.
Just two more suspects then the little grey cells can get to work, Poirot thought to himself before his next visitor came in. This was another British gentleman, older and a little past his best compared to TPS. His greying temples and suit suggested a man whose income was no longer what it had been. He introduced himself as Wick, often known to his friends as Prince Wick because he came from the aristocratic Heseltine dynasty.
“You have shown keen interest in the affairs of Lady Ipex,” said Poirot. “But you have not been her strongest supporter, is that not so?” Wick nodded. “I will admit,” he said, “that I believed the time had come for her to step aside in favour of a new generation. My offspring Prince Wick LIV, (it is a very long established dynasty with an unimaginative choice of names, you understand), deserves his chance.
“I am not sorry the old lady has passed, but I had nothing to do with it. I was in the library having a pre dinner drink with that young American woman when we heard the commotion.”
“Might you consider that your failure to support the Duchess of Shows in her hour of need, might have broken her heart?” asked Poirot. “I can find evidence of only token support from someone who has taken much from Lady Ipex over the years.”
“If I had something to gain, then so did everyone else,” Wick was speaking slowly. “Perhaps you should ask what that German doctor has to hide.”
That German doctor was Dr Upa, a specialist in hernia operations. He ran a clinic alongside the Rhine in Dusseldorf which had become a popular destination, a place of pilgrimage for many of the four-colour set.
“You were afraid that your clients might prefer the spa that Lady Ipex was thinking of setting up here at the NEC, is that not so?” Poirot said. “With no competition from this country, your clinic can become even stronger, non?”
“Why should I care about Lady Ipex?” the doctor replied. “We were once friends, yes rivals, but we respected each other. I could never harm the Duchess.”
“Au contraire mon ami,” said Poirot. “It is clear that you have ambitions that extend east to China and beyond. The Duchess still represented a challenge to your ambitions, one that would not longer be there if she were not here.
“Now leave me. It is time to exercise the grey cells,” Poirot continued. With that he leaned back in his chair and fixed his eyes on a spot on the ceiling that only he could see.
Two hours later, everyone had gathered in the theatre, creating the sort of audience that those organising seminar content would have killed for. Only they didn’t.
Instead Poirot got up and looked around at the audience. They shifted uneasily in their seats. “There are two possible explanations for the death of Lady Ipex. You may decide which will be most credible after I have outlined my thoughts.
“It seems obvious that all of you had strong motives for wanting to eliminate the old lady. She was in the way for all of you. Two months ago I discover that each of you has received this invitation to come here today. You see your chance and with telegrams and carrier pigeons you are agreeing that an accident will help you all.
“You volunteer your roles: the Count will slash here; Anne Former will starve the Duchess; our American friend will stab her in the back and so on, poison from the not so good doctor with a shove down the stairs from our brash colleague from the West Country. In short you all had a hand in the death of Ipex.
“But there is another explanation. Lady Ipex, she is old and forgetful. She prepares to come to dinner, she has not been eating because of a stomach complaint and is weakened, dizzy, so mistakes a pistol for her powder spray and shoots herself. Instead of a medicinal brandy, she swallows poison then jerks and pushes her back into the knight in armour at the top of stair who carries a knife. She is holding a pillow to stop the bleeding but presses too hard and it stops the breathing and she falls down the stairs where we find the dead lady.
“It is clear to me, as the most famous detective in the world, so famous that Kenneth Branagh will play me in the movies, that this is the real explanation. Lady Ipex, Duchess of Shows, has died because of an unforeseeable sequence of accidents. Au revoir.”
Who killed Ipex? Hecule Poirot tackles a baffling case: the death of a dowager aristocrat. Can he uncover the murderers among a line up of suspicious candidates?
That's the best read we'll have all year, brilliant!