Tag Archive: Agatha Christie

Poirot and Elvira

Unlike Dorothy Sayers, who wrote an engaging  analysis of the Wallace murder in Liverpool, Agatha Christie is not usually thought of as a writer who was concerned, or drew direct inspiration from, “True Crime”. However, she did use actual criminality as a point of departure for several of her tales. The best known of these is the Lindbergh kidnapping (clearly discernible in “Murder on the Orient Express”). Others are explored in Mike Holgate’s “Agatha Christie’s True Crime Inspirations”. To me, the most interesting is “The Affair at the Victory Ball” (1923), an early Poirot case, with undeniable overtones of the Billie Carleton affair. This story concerning both cocaine and “fast” young women is one of the early fictional renditions of the set that Elvira was later to encounter.

Billie Carleton

Although not mentioned by Holgate, there is another Poirot story that may have been suggested by a real case – that of Elvira Barney. In her notebooks Christie writes,

“The Mares of  Diomedes

Old racing man – his “gals” very wild – one of them shoots someone – (Mrs.Barney?)”

The story. which appeared as “The Horses of Diomedes” in “The Labours of Hercules” (1947), is about rich young women and cocaine.

“One night, Poirot is telephoned for help by a young medical acquaintance, Dr Michael Stoddart. Going to the address given to him, Poirot finds Stoddart in one of the flats where a party had been taking place before the medical man got there. The flat is owned by a lady called Patience Grace and the party involved the use of cocaine. Mrs Grace had an argument with her boyfriend, Anthony Hawker, and she attempted to shoot him as he left the flat……Stoddart’s concern is for Sheila Grant whom he met at a hunt ball in the country. She is one of four daughters of a retired army general and there is every sign that Sheila and her three sisters are starting to go wild, getting into a bad set where the cocaine flows freely. Sheila was at the party, is still at the flat having just woken up and is feeling terrible after the high of the drugs.”  (from Wikipedia)

This does sound as if the germ of the plot was indeed the Barney case.

The original Horses of Diomedes fed on human flesh. In Christie’s version drugs and drug dealing fulfil the same function.

It has often been suggested that the mother and daughter, Lady Bess Sedgwick and the Honourable Elvira Blake, in Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel are partly based on Elvira, for which a case, albeit a tenuous one, can be made.

There is nothing comparable to A Pin to See the Peepshow, by F.Tennyson Jesse about Edith Thompson, or Cause Celebre, by Terence Rattigan about Alma Rattenbury, that derives from the Mews shooting. But, given the sheer weight of detective novels churned out in the 1930s and the publicity surrounding the trial, it would not surprise me if  other works of fiction utilised some aspects of the case.If anyone can confirm this, I’d be more than grateful.

More on fiction here  https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2012/03/13/fiction/


Elvira’s Delage and Albemarle Street

Among the items that the police catalogued in Elvira’s bathroom (see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/elviras-reading-matter/ ) was a business card from J.Smith and Co Motor Agents.  They operated from 28 Albemarle Street, Mayfair, and held the concession for the importation of the French luxury cars, Delage. Given Elvira’s love of her model and her regular scrapes and crashes, she was undoubtedly a very valued customer.

The Delage was a very apt car for Elvira to own. Everything French, to Elvira and many of her set, signified pleasure and panache. Paris, Cannes and Toulon were Elvira’s regular haunts and French style, in shows, fashion or design, was a matter of wonder and worship. The Delage cars were both fast and chic (as well as being reassuringly expensive). The car had come to prominence partly through a 1920s’ motor-racing rivalry with Hispano-Suiza (whose London agents were also in Albemarle Street) and partly through a series of seductive Art Deco adverts in the fashionable magazines of the day


J. Smith and Co. capitalised on this and, being situated where they were, were ideally placed to market the vehicles to Mayfair and Knightsbridge’s wealthy inhabitants. I don’t suppose their turnover was enormous but then it would not need to have been. Exclusivity was part of the charm.

I can’t be absolutely positive of this, but Delage cars do seem to have had a particular appeal for female drivers. Many of the photographs from the 1930s show the car next to a pretty young woman but, unlike the more familiar “cheesecake” models of the 1950s and 1960s, many of these women look as if they might actually own the car. The combination of privilege, social freedom and sexual independence discernible in these images is not , I think, accidental.

In England, some of these associations might be down to a woman whose exploits Elvira (a keen sports fan) would have certainly followed. About the time Elvira purchased her Delage, the Queen of Brooklands was the diminutive Kay Petre, then the best known female racing-driver in the country. In the early thirties, the much-photographed Petre drove a Delage.

Kay Petre (1903-1994)

Here are some more examples. The emphasis is on glamour and modernity in equal measure. The wealthy young woman in a sports car is a key iconic image of the inter-war years and Delage, who essentially fitted racing-car quality engines into luxury bodies, enthusiastically fed, and fed upon, that image.

The gender and class politics of the relationship between women and automobiles in the eras before mass car ownership are complex and fascinating. Machines and technology generally were then, as to a great extent they are now, seen as belonging to the male domain. Women in charge of powerful cars  presented a challenged a whole series of accepted hierarchies. This resulted in some very recognisable “new” stereotypes.On the one hand you have the “masculine women” – figures such as Elvira’s friends Joe Carstairs and Heather Pilkington – then you have the “Iris Storm” characters, whose taming of the “male beast”, the car, symbolised their own (hetero)sexual freedoms but also hinted at voraciousness and promiscuity. Funnily enough, Elvira can make claims to represent aspects of both “tendencies” These and other matters are discussed in two books on the history of women and the motor car

Eat My Dust -Early Women Motorists

The Car and British Society – Class, Gender and Motoring 1896-1939

I ought to mention that one aspect of Delage’s English advertising campaign was that the car was both fast and safe. In Elvira’s case, this obviously fell on deaf ears.

For more on Elvira and cars see https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/of-cars-and-car-crashes/ and https://elvirabarney.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/princess-karolyi-and-more-car-crashes/

Albemarle Street has other connections with Elvira, some actual and some coincidental. Staying with the motor trade for a moment, Sir Malcolm Campbell had a car sales venture there in the early 1920s, during which time one of his financial backers was Joe Carstairs.

The nightclub “Uncle’s” was situated in Albemarle Street. Known as “Nunky’s” to the Bright Young People, who  had an annoying fondness for infantilising the language, it was a favourite watering-hole of Charles Graves and he would have doubtless taken Elvira there during their ill-fated engagement.

Uncles Club 1929

An earlier sexual scandal, one which still resonated among Elvira’s friends, had started at the Albemarle club (No.13). This was where the Marquis of Quensberry left his calling card for Oscar Wilde (“the posing somdomite”), thus provoking the libel action which was to destroy Wilde’s career. Other literary connections could be found at Murray’s (No.50), publishers of Lord Byron and later John Betjeman.

Brown’s Hotel is also on the street (No.33). The remarkably unchanged Brown’s was the real-life inspiration for Agatha Christie’s  At Bertram’s Hotel  in which the murderer is a young woman named Elvira. All very psychogeographical, I feel.

Brown’s Hotel

UPDATE I’ve just come across these pictures of Josephine Baker. Baker was an artist much loved by the Bright Young People. Elvira saw her shows in Paris. The cars are, of course, Delages.