Originally written in 1930 as a three-act play, Black Coffee is adapted as a novel by Charles Osborne (Christie's biographer and well-known theater and opera critic). Black Coffee is classic Christie at her finest.
About the Author
Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and created the detective Hercule Poirot in her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). She achieved wide popularity with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) and produced a total of eighty novels and short-story collections over six decades. Twenty-four of Christie's best whodunits are now available from Black Dog & Leventhal as part of their bestselling hardcover Agatha Christie Collection.
Read an Excerpt
Hercule Poirot sat at breakfast in his small but agreeably cosy flat in Whitehall Mansions. He had enjoyed his brioche and his cup of hot chocolate. Unusually, for he was a creature of habit and rarely varied his breakfast routine, he had asked his valet, George, to make him a second cup of chocolate. While he was awaiting it, he glanced again at the morning's post which lay on his breakfast table.
Meticulously tidy as always, he had placed the discarded envelopes in one neat pile. They had been opened very carefully, with the paper-knife in the form of a miniature sword which his old friend Hastings had given him for a birthday many years ago. A second pile contained those communications he found of no interest -- circulars, mostly -- which in a moment he would ask George to dispose of. The third pile consisted of those letters which would require an answer of some kind, or at least an acknowledgement. These would be dealt with after breakfast, and in any case not before ten o'clock. Poirot thought it not quite professional to begin a routine working day before ten. When he was on a case -- ah, well, of course that was different. He remembered that once he and Hastings had set out well before dawn in order to --
But, no, Poirot did not want his thoughts to dwell on the past. The happy past. Their last case, involving an international crime organization known as The Big Four, had been brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and Hastings had returned to the Argentine, his wife and his ranch. Though his old friend was temporarily back in London on business connected with the ranch, it was highly unlikely that Poirot and he would find themselves working together again to solve a crime. Was that why Hercule Poirot was feeling restless on this fine spring morning in May 1934? Ostensibly retired, he had been lured out of that retirement more than once when an especially interesting problem had been presented to him. He had enjoyed being on the scent again, with Hastings by his side to act as a kind of sounding board for his ideas and theories. But nothing of professional interest had presented itself to Poirot for several months. Were there no imaginative crimes and criminals any more? Was it all violence and brutality, the kind of sordid murder or robbery which was beneath his, Poirot's, dignity to investigate?
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival, silently at his elbow, of George with that second and welcome cup of chocolate. Welcome not only because Poirot would enjoy the rich, sweet taste, but also because it would enable him to postpone, for a few more minutes, the realization that the day, a fine sunny morning, stretched before him with nothing more exciting in prospect than a constitutional in the park and a walk through Mayfair to his favourite restaurant in Soho, where he would lunch alone on -- what, now? -- perhaps a little pate to begin, and then the sole bonne femme, followed by --
He became aware that George, having placed the chocolate on the table, was addressing him. The impeccable and imperturbable George, an intensely English, rather wooden-faced individual, had been with Poirot for some time now, and was all that he wished in the way of a valet. Completely incurious, and extraordinarily reluctant to express a personal opinion on any subject, George was a mine of information about the English aristocracy, and as fanatically neat as the great detective himself. Poirot had more than once said to him, "You press admirably the trousers, George, but the imagination, you possess it not." Imagination, however, Hercule Poirot possessed in abundance. The ability to press a pair of trousers properly was, in his opinion, a rare accomplishment. Yes, he was indeed fortunate in having George to look after him.
"-- and so I took the liberty, sir, of promising that you would return the call this morning," George was saying.
"I do beg your pardon, my dear George,'' replied Poirot. "My attention was wandering. Someone has telephoned, you say?''
"Yes, sir. It was last night, sir, while you were out at the theatre with Mrs. Oliver. I had retired to bed before you arrived home, and thought it unnecessary to leave a message for you at that late hour.''
"Who was it who called?''
"The gentleman said he was Sir Claud Amory, sir. He left his telephone number, which would appear to be somewhere in Surrey. The matter, he said, was a somewhat delicate one, and when you rang you were not to give your name to anyone else, but were to insist on speaking to Sir Claud himself.''
"Thank you, George. Leave the telephone number on my desk,'' said Poirot. ``I shall ring Sir Claud after I have perused this morning's Times. It is still a trifle early in the morning for telephoning, even on somewhat delicate matters.''
George bowed and departed, while Poirot slowly finished his cup of chocolate and then repaired to the balcony with that morning's newspaper.
A few minutes later The Times had been laid aside. The international news was, as usual, depressing. That terrible Hitler had turned the German courts into branches of the Nazi party, the Fascists had seized power in Bulgaria and, worst of all, in Poirot's own country, Belgium, forty-two miners were feared dead after an explosion at a mine near Mons. The home news was little better. Despite the misgivings of officials, women competitors at Wimbledon were to be allowed to wear shorts this summer. Nor was there much comfort in the obituaries, for people Poirot's age and younger seemed intent on dying.
His newspaper abandoned, Poirot lay back in his comfortable wicker chair, his feet on a small stool. Sir Claud Amory, he thought to himself. The name struck a chord, surely? He had heard it somewhere. Yes, this Sir Claud was well-known in some sphere or other. But what was it? Was he a politician? A barrister? A retired civil servant? Sir Claud Amory. Amory.
The balcony faced the morning sun, and Poirot found it warm enough to bask in for a moment or two. Soon it would become too warm for him, for he was no sun- worshipper. "When the sun drives me inside,'' he mused, "then I will exert myself and consult the Who's Who. If this Sir Claud is a person of some distinction, he will surely be included in that so admirable volume. If he is not--?'' The little detective gave an expressive shrug of his shoulders. An inveterate snob, he was already predisposed in Sir Claud's favour by virtue of his title. If he were to be found in Who's Who, a volume in which the details of Poirot's own career could also be discovered, then perhaps this Sir Claud was someone with a valid claim on his, Hercule Poirot's, time and attention.
A quickening of curiosity and a sudden cool breeze combined to send Poirot indoors. Entering his library, he went to a shelf of reference books and took down the thick red volume whose title, Who's Who, was embossed in gold on its spine. Turning the pages, he came to the entry he sought, and read aloud.
AMORY, Sir Claud (Herbert); Kt. 1927; b. 24 Nov. 1878. m. 1907, Helen Graham (d. 1929); one s. Educ: Weymouth Gram. Sch.: King's Coll.: London. Research Physicist GEC Laboratories, 1905; RAE Farnborough (Radio Dept.), 1916; Air Min. Research Establishment, Swanage, 1921; demonstrated a new Principle for accelerating particles: the travelling wave linear accelerator, 1924. Awarded Monroe Medal of Physical Soc. Publications: papers in learned journals. Address: Abbot's Cleve, nr. Market Cleve, Surrey. T: Market Cleve 304. Club: Athenaeum.
"Ah, yes,'' Poirot mused. "The famous scientist.'' He remembered a conversation he had had some months previously with a member of His Majesty's government, after Poirot had retrieved some missing documents whose contents could have proved embarrassing. They had talked of security, and the politician had admitted that security measures in general were not sufficiently stringent. "For instance,'' he had said, "what Sir Claud Amory is working on now is of such fantastic importance in any future war-- but he refuses to work under laboratory conditions where he and his invention can be properly guarded. Insists on working alone at his house in the country. No security at all. Frightening.''
I wonder, Poirot thought to himself as he replaced Who's Who on the bookshelf, I wonder -- can Sir Claud want to engage Hercule Poirot to be a tired old watchdog? The inventions of war, the secret weapons, they are not for me. If Sir Claud --
The telephone in the next room rang, and Poirot could hear George answering it. A moment later, the valet appeared. "It's Sir Claud Amory again, sir,'' he said.
Poirot went to the phone. "'Allo. It is Hercule Poirot who speaks,'' he announced into the mouthpiece.
"Poirot? We've not met, though we have acquaintances in common. My name is Amory, Claud Amory--''
"I have heard of you, of course, Sir Claud,'' Poirot responded.
"Look here, Poirot. I've got a devilishly tricky problem on my hands. Or rather, I might have. I can't be certain. I've been working on a formula to bombard the atom--I won't go into details, but the Ministry of Defence regards it as of the utmost importance. My work is now complete, and I've produced a formula from which a new and deadly explosive can be made. I have reason to suspect that a member of my household is attempting to steal the formula. I can't say any more now, but I should be greatly obliged if you would come down to Abbot's Cleve for the weekend, as my house-guest. I want you to take the formula back with you to London, and hand it over to a certain person at the Ministry. There are good reasons why a Ministry courier can't do the job. I need someone who is ostensibly an unobtrusive, unscientific member of the public but who is also astute enough--''
Sir Claud talked on. Hercule Poirot, glancing across at the reflection in the mirror of his bald, egg-shaped head and his elaborately waxed moustache, told himself that he had never before, in a long career, been considered unobtrusive, nor did he so consider himself. But a weekend in the country and a chance to meet the distinguished scientist could be agreeable, plus, no doubt, the suitably expressed thanks of a grateful government -- and merely for carrying in his pocket from Surrey to Whitehall an obscure, if deadly, scientific formula.
"I shall be delighted to oblige you, my dear Sir Claud,'' he interrupted. "I shall arrange to arrive on Saturday afternoon, if that is convenient to you, and return to London, with whatever you wish me to take with me, on Monday morning. I look forward greatly to making your acquaintance.''
Curious, he thought, as he replaced the receiver. Foreign agents might well be interested in Sir Claud's formula, but could it really be the case that someone in the scientist's own household--? Ah well, doubtless more would be revealed during the course of the weekend.
"George,'' he called, ``please take my heavy tweed suit and my dinner jacket and trousers to the cleaner's. I must have them back by Friday, as I am going to the Country for the Weekend.'' He made it sound like the Steppes of Central Asia and for a lifetime.
Then, turning to the phone, he dialled a number and waited for a few moments before speaking. "My dear Hastings,'' he began, "would you not like to have a few days away from your business concerns in London? Surrey is very pleasant at this time of the year''
Black Coffee. Copyright (c) 1997 by Agatha Christie, Limited. Afterword (c) 1998 by Agatha Christie, Limited. All rights reserved. Published by St. Martin's Press, Inc. New York, NY