The story so far: Renowned detective Hercule Poirot and Inspector Catchpool have their Christmas plans derailed when Catchpool’s mother arrives, with a murder to solve. They go with her to Frellingsloe House to stay with the Laurier family. Mrs Laurier is concerned for the life of her husband as he is about to be a patient at the hospital where the murder took place.

December 20, 1931

The next morning I was roused by a loud rat-a-tat-tat. I opened the door to find Poirot waiting, letter in hand.

Without introduction he said: ‘Someone pushed this under my door. I thought it was you, but… it is addressed to “Monsieur Poirot and Inspector Catchpool”. It is from Arnold Laurier. In it, he describes the two leads he spoke of – the ones the police are not taking seriously.’

‘Why has he put them in a letter? I assumed he would have told you about them after I left the two of you alone earlier.’

‘He did not have the chance. Seconds after you went in pursuit of Vivienne Laurier, I became dizzy and excused myself.’

‘Dizzy?’ I did not like the sound of that. ‘Poirot, are you all right? You do not look entirely well, you know.’

‘Do not fuss, Catchpool. I am merely tired. In a moment I shall return to my room and sleep for one or two more hours.’

‘So Arnold wrote us a letter about his two leads, did he?’ I mused. ‘May I read it, please?’ He made no move to pass it to me. ‘All in good time, mon ami. Tell me: do you have anything to report? What did Vivienne Laurier say when you spoke to her?’

I knew pressing him for the letter would get me no further. ‘She strikes me as devoid of all hope,’ I told him. ‘It is odd. Now that you are here, why is she not confident that you will catch the killer?

The next morning I was roused by a loud rat-a-tat-tat. I opened the door to find Poirot waiting, letter in hand

‘She asked if I believed you would and I told her I did, but that did nothing to lift her spirits. Oh – she mentioned somebody called Mr Hurt-His-Head.’

‘You will read all about him in this letter.’ Poirot held it aloft but still did not pass it to me.

‘May I see it?’ I asked in a tone that I hoped sounded fresh and inspired, as if the idea of my reading it had only just occurred to me.

‘You may. Though first you will do me a favour, please. It will require going downstairs.’

I sighed. ‘You want me to check that Arnold Laurier is still breathing.’

Poirot nodded. ‘Did you hear the snoring last night?’ I had. ‘It has stopped. It occurs to me only now that it was suspiciously loud.’

‘It must be contagious, this belief that Arnold Laurier will be Stanley Niven’s murderer’s next victim,’ I said.

‘Very amusing,’ said Poirot. ‘I shall give you this letter to read as soon as you return, mon ami. I am sure you will find it as fascinating as I did.’

‘Do you believe that whoever killed Niven is here at Frellingsloe House tonight?’ I asked him.

At that moment, we both heard a woman’s voice: ‘Arnold? Is that you up there?’ It was coming from the floor below ours. It sounded like Vivienne. I heard a door open or shut; it was hard to tell which. I stepped out on to the landing. Poirot followed me.

Poirot meets Bea at her cottage

Poirot meets Bea at her cottage

‘There you are! What are you…? Is that thing clean?’

Yes, that was definitely Vivienne Laurier’s voice. She was not speaking to us.

Next, I heard Arnold: ‘Hello, dear. Did I wake you? I’m sorry. I was cold.’

‘Go, Catchpool,’ Poirot whispered, inclining his head. I knew what he meant, though I could scarcely believe it. He wanted me to see Arnold Laurier with my own eyes; both of us hearing him speak was apparently not evidence enough of his continued presence in our mortal realm.

‘It was him?’ Poirot asked when I returned to his side having crept down the corridor and seen Arnold for myself.

‘Of course it was him. You plainly believe him to be at great risk, and not only from his illness. Will you please tell me why?’

Poirot regarded me calmly. Maintaining his infuriating silence, he passed me Arnold Laurier’s letter without any further prevarication.

Dear M. Poirot,

‘Last night I did not have the chance to tell you about my lead in the matter of Stanley Niven’s death. It relates to Mr Hurt-His-Head. That is not his real name, which I believe is Burnett. He is a patient at St Walstan’s, and made an appearance on Ward 6 on the day Stanley Niven was killed. On the day I was too ill to attend the hospital with my family, Vivienne noticed a distinctive-looking man standing at the window of his hospital room on the other side. The man was Mr Hurt-His-Head. Unfortunately, Mr Hurt-His-Head suffers from a severe cognitive impairment which affects his linguistic skills.

‘Vivienne says she opened the door of my room and there, standing in front of her, was Mr Hurt-His-Head. This next part is corroborated not only by Janet, Jonathan, Maddie and Douglas but also by the nurse who was showing them my room – Nurse Zillah Hunt – and by our very own Dr Osgood. This patient, Mr Hurt-His-Head, said in an agitated tone of voice: ‘Son of man has no place to hurt his head.’

The story so far: Renowned detective Hercule Poirot and Inspector Catchpool have their Christmas plans derailed when Catchpool's mother arrives, with a murder to solve. They go with her to Frellingsloe House to stay with the Laurier family. Mrs Laurier is concerned for the life of her husband as he is about to be a patient at the hospital where the murder took place

The story so far: Renowned detective Hercule Poirot and Inspector Catchpool have their Christmas plans derailed when Catchpool’s mother arrives, with a murder to solve. They go with her to Frellingsloe House to stay with the Laurier family. Mrs Laurier is concerned for the life of her husband as he is about to be a patient at the hospital where the murder took place

‘And he kept declaiming those same words, though after a while he abandoned the first part and simply repeated, ‘To hurt his head! To hurt his head!’ over and over again, quickly and breathlessly. He reached out to Vivienne as if inviting her to grab his hands and commence a tug of war.’

‘Is it not a quote from the Bible?’ I asked Poirot.

‘With one significant difference,’ he said. ‘The correct quote is ‘The son of man has no place to lay his head’. Professor Burnett – Monsieur Hurt-His-Head – did not say that. He replaced ‘lay’ with ‘hurt’ a very short time after he had, in all probability, watched someone bring down violently a large vase upon the head of Monsieur Niven.’

The letter continued: ‘Inspector Mackle has been kind enough to check on Mr Hurt-His-Head at regular intervals. Yet he refuses to see sense and treat this episode as undoubtedly the best available lead in the investigation. Perhaps you will be able to persuade him to take it more seriously. It will be the great honour of my life to work with you in the service of clarity and justice.’

Yours with immense admiration,

Arnold Laurier

‘There’s a valuable lead if ever there was one. I don’t know about you, but I plan to tell Inspector Mackle that he would do well to –’

Non.’ Poirot cut me off. ‘You will say nothing to Inspector Mackle. I shall go alone to the police station and to the hospital.’

‘But –’

‘I have other plans for you, here at Frellingsloe House: among other things, the decorating of many Christmas trees.’ ‘What?’ I spat out the word in disgust. ‘What better way to contrive to be spoken to, perhaps confided in, by several members of this household, eh?

‘You are sure to pick up all sorts of interesting morsels. It makes no sense for both of us to be in the same place, mon ami. We must deploy our resources in the most effective fashion.

‘Here you will be ideally placed to find out about the Lauriers and the Surteeses, Dr Osgood and Felix Rawcliffe: their relationships, their secrets.’

I had assumed the car that came to collect Poirot that morning was sent by Gerald Mackle of the Norfolk police.

In fact, Poirot told me later, Mackle had not sent the vehicle; rather, he had driven it himself. And much to Poirot’s surprise they were not going to either the hospital or the police station.

‘Ah, I am taking you to meet Nurses Beatrice Haskins and Zillah Hunt. I promise you, you will want to hear what they both have to say.’

‘Then we are going to the hospital?’ This was acceptable, thought Poirot; it was on his list of places he planned to visit today.

‘No, we are not going there either,’ said Mackle. ‘We are going to Nurse Haskins’ home, where Nurse Hunt also lives. She is Nurse Haskins’ second cousin, you see.’

‘I would like to visit Ward 6 of St Walstan’s Hospital,’ Poirot maintained.

‘And you will,’ Mackle promised. ‘All in good time. I shall drive you there myself. But first I want you to hear what Nurses Haskins and Hunt have to say.

‘They agree with me, you see, that the killer must be one of the Niven relatives.’

‘Inspector, I must ask you to cease, immediately, all attempts to influence my opinion,’ said Poirot. ‘I intend to ask my own questions and form my own conclusions.’

‘Why, it hardly needs to be said, Mr Prarrow. This case has got ‘nearest and dearest’ written all over it.

Adapted by Katharine Spurrier from Hercule Poirot's Silent Night by Sophie Hannah (pictured)

Adapted by Katharine Spurrier from Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night by Sophie Hannah (pictured)

‘Who but the very closest of kin would hit a person over the head with an enormous vase – more than once – for no reason at all?’

I shall always remember December 20, 1931, as the day I made a valuable discovery: if you want to find out more about a person connected with a murder case, the traditional method of asking them questions about all the usual things – their relationship to the victim, for instance, or their whereabouts when the crime was committed – is significantly less effective than this lesser-known method: begin to decorate a Christmas tree in their vicinity.

This is what will happen. First, your quarry will approach and make casual conversation along the lines of ‘Good to see someone tackling the tree at last!’ Then they will start to suggest what you might do differently – ‘Oh, you’re putting that there? I would place it higher up, myself.’ Next, once you have implemented at least two of their recommendations (this part will require you to ignore your own aesthetic wisdom), they will start to talk freely about other matters.

Janet Laurier was the first to come and confirm this theory.

‘It’s sweet how excited Cynthia is that you’ll be with her for Christmas,’ said Janet. ‘But… you said at dinner last night that you do not plan to stay.’

‘No. Poirot and I will have left by then.’

‘I am not sure that is Cynthia’s understanding of the situation.’

‘Families,’ I sighed, forcing a smile. ‘They are a blessing and a curse.’ I bent down and moved things around inside the boxes, deliberately not looking at Janet. ‘Do you find it easy to forgive people?’ she said quietly. ‘I wish I did. Sometimes it is altogether too difficult. My brother-in-law, Douglas, is so venal and vile, as is my sister Madeline. He has corrupted her.’

I remembered that Maddie Laurier had told Poirot and me soon after meeting us that only her enemies called her Madeline.

‘I sometimes wonder how much he loves Arnold. Jonathan adores his father. It is hardly right that Jonathan and Douglas are each to get half of everything once Arnold is gone… it is Vivienne’s fault,’ said Janet impatiently.

‘Her stupid belief that fair and equal mean the same thing. Reprehensible woman! Both Douglas and Madeline are inordinately fond of her. They will make sure she wants for nothing as a widow. Madeline treats her as if she is her own mother. It must upset our real mother, Enid – though my sister doesn’t seem to care about that. I could tell you many tales of her and Douglas’s selfishness. But if I were like Madeline, if I cared only about myself?’ She let out a bitter laugh.

‘Why, then I would beg Arnold to die here at Frelly. But I care about his wishes, and Jonathan’s, so I say nothing of my true sentiments. I tell no one, no one at all, that I would secretly like Frelly to be forever ruined. Then I would be free.’

‘I am not sure I follow,’ I told her.

‘If Arnold were to die here, the house would become a place of sadness, sullied by tragedy. Only if this house were ruined could Jonathan be free of it.’

‘You want Arnold to die here at home because then Jonathan would view the house as tarnished and not devote the next few years to trying to save it,’ I summarised the situation as I understood it.

She nodded.

I had assumed the car that came to collect Poirot that morning was sent by Gerald Mackle of the Norfolk police. In fact, Poirot told me later, Mackle had not sent the vehicle; rather, he had driven it himself. And much to Poirot's surprise they were not going to either the hospital or the police station

I had assumed the car that came to collect Poirot that morning was sent by Gerald Mackle of the Norfolk police. In fact, Poirot told me later, Mackle had not sent the vehicle; rather, he had driven it himself. And much to Poirot’s surprise they were not going to either the hospital or the police station

I had barely made a start on the tree in the dining room when I heard a man’s voice: ‘Well, blow me down!’ It was Douglas Laurier, ‘Maddie, Inspector Catchpool is in here playing Cinderella – quite willingly, by the look of it.’

‘I am starting to enjoy it,’ I told him. It was true.

‘Golly, you’re a brick, Edward,’ said Maddie with a giggle following him in. The two of them seemed positively gleeful.

I laughed. ‘The secret is to resist the temptation to resent it.’

They decided to join me in my artistic creation. Untangling and destroying my vision as they went.

After a while Maddie’s face had taken on a more serious expression. ‘Inspector I am sorry if you have noticed that my sister and I are not exactly fond of each other,’ she said sadly. ‘We were once until she fell in love with Jonathan.

‘They met at our wedding. Some months later, she told me Jonathan had been courting. She said, ‘Maddie please tell me if you would rather I discouraged him. It might be peculiar for me to be romantically involved with your husband’s brother. I am not sure if I would like it, if situations were reversed’.

‘She described her own unease very vividly to me, ‘Surely the last thing one would want is for one’s sister to barge into the new life one has created. And I am not yet in love with Jonathan, so I can extricate myself without too much trouble’. I told her my preference would indeed be for her to choose a beau who was not my husband’s brother, but that she should almost certainly disregard my preference and think only about her own. Now, if Janet had set her sights on Douglas, that would have been a different matter. I had, and have, a legitimate claim to him, but there was no possible justification for my asking Janet to give up Jonathan for my sake. Even this she did not take well, ‘So you would prefer it if I gave Jonathan up,’ she said. ‘We do not, then, have your blessing?’

‘I thought she must have misunderstood. I said: ‘You have my blessing to do as you please and that is what you must do. I would disapprove if you did anything else’. But it was too late.

‘By admitting a preference for her falling in love with a man who was not my brother-in-law, I had betrayed her in the most appalling way and could never be forgiven. Janet pretended she had never said she would have hated it if Douglas and I had got together after she and Jonathan were already married. She lied calmly and brazenly, or that’s what I thought at first, anyway. I have come to realise that Janet simply does not remember anything that no longer suits her view of the world. If she wants something to be true, she convinces herself that it is. Your father’s will is the perfect example.’

‘Don’t mention Pa’s will in front of the inspector, my love. He might start to think Ma’s ridiculous notion is worth investigating after all.’

‘What notion?’ I asked.

‘Ma is convinced that someone at St Walstan’s wants to kill Pa,’ said Douglas, as casually as if he were describing the weather.

Three people looked in on me as I decorated the Christmas tree in Arnold Laurier’s study. The first person was the curate, Felix Rawcliffe.

A few seconds later, Dr Osgood walked in. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ he said. ‘Did I hear you talking to Rawcliffe a moment ago?’

‘He asked if I knew where Vivienne was.’ He had gone out of his way to come and ask me.

‘Did Felix tell you what he wanted her for?’

I shook my head.

The doctor surveyed the tree, ‘I don’t like the way you arranged the ornaments according to their colour’. Piece by piece, he destroyed my design and created something more predictable and mundane. ‘Have you had a chance to speak to Vivienne properly since you arrived yesterday?’

‘I spoke to her at some length before dinner last night.’

‘Did she…? Did the name of Felix Rawcliffe come up at all?’

‘No.’

The doctor surveyed the tree, 'I don't like the way you arranged the ornaments according to their colour'. Piece by piece, he destroyed my design and created something more predictable and mundane. 'Have you had a chance to speak to Vivienne properly since you arrived yesterday?'

The doctor surveyed the tree, ‘I don’t like the way you arranged the ornaments according to their colour’. Piece by piece, he destroyed my design and created something more predictable and mundane. ‘Have you had a chance to speak to Vivienne properly since you arrived yesterday?’

Dissatisfied by my answer he turned and left, leaving me puzzling over his question. Ten minutes later, my third visitor appeared – Jonathan Laurier, unsmiling and exuding an air of dissatisfaction.

‘Could you exert your influence with our infuriatingly stupid Inspector Mackle while you are here?’

‘In what direction?’

‘There is a lunatic man at the hospital who has been shouting about hurting people’s heads. He was standing in the corridor outside my father’s room, mere footsteps from Stanley Niven’s room, immediately after Niven was killed. Is it not obvious that he must be the murderer? He repeated his confession several times: ‘To hurt his head, to hurt his head’.’

‘Have you said this to Inspector Mackle?’ I asked.

‘Mackle heard a very different interpretation of events from my mother first. She claims this lunatic was scared, and was trying to warn her that my father would be killed next.

Until he arrived at the door of Duluth Cottage and found himself instantly cheered by its outward appearance, Poirot had not realised how low his spirits had sunk after 30 minutes confined to a small car with only Inspector Gerald Mackle for company.

Nurse Beatrice Haskins had a round, pink face, fair hair and a broad, generous smile. Her intelligent green eyes sparkled. She told Poirot he must call her ‘Bee’. Then she introduced Nurse Zillah Hunt, a blonde of about 30 who was wispy and ethereal.

‘I was saying to Mr Prarrow on the way here, ladies, that you and I are of one mind in the matter of Stanley Niven’s murder’, said Inspector Mackle. ‘I should like you both to tell our esteemed guest the same thing, if you don’t mind. He still needs some convincing that it must have been a member of the Niven family who did it.

‘Both of these ladies have told me right from the start, Mr Prarrow, that it cannot have been anyone on Ward 6 that day who killed Stanley Niven.’

Bee Haskins impressed Poirot with her first statement: ‘I will not say what must or must not have happened because I simply do not know. I do, however, know all the doctors and nurses at St Walstan’s. There is not a person working there who is capable of committing a deliberate, cold-blooded murder.’

‘Aunt Bee and I cannot imagine why anyone would want to kill him,’ said Nurse Zillah.

‘There must have been a mistake of some kind. They must have meant to kill someone else.’ Poirot thought immediately of Vivienne Laurier’s fear, reported to us by Dr Osgood, that Arnold Laurier would be the next victim. ‘I know the difference between a loving sibling and an unloving one,’ Bee Haskins said sharply.

‘Monsieur Poirot, Inspector Mackle and I are not of one mind about this murder.

‘Not at all. I am sorry, inspector, but I completely disagree with you.’

Nurse Zillah added: ‘So do I.’

‘Well, well.’ Mackle scratched the side of his face. ‘Fancy that.’

‘How was it established that the vase was the murder weapon?’ Poirot asked.

‘It had… it was apparent from the condition of the vase afterwards. There was blood on it.’

‘Time of death?’ said Poirot briskly.

Bee Haskins impressed Poirot with her first statement: 'I will not say what must or must not have happened because I simply do not know. I do, however, know all the doctors and nurses at St Walstan's. There is not a person working there who is capable of committing a deliberate, cold-blooded murder.'

Bee Haskins impressed Poirot with her first statement: ‘I will not say what must or must not have happened because I simply do not know. I do, however, know all the doctors and nurses at St Walstan’s. There is not a person working there who is capable of committing a deliberate, cold-blooded murder.’

‘Between two o’clock and ten minutes before three.’

‘And why could Monsieur Niven not have been killed before two or after ten minutes to three?’

‘Dr Osgood entered Stanley Niven’s room at ten minutes to three to give him his medicine,’ said Mackle. ‘Found him dead.’

‘And I saw him myself at two,’ said Bee Haskins. ‘I was accompanying Dr Wall on his rounds. But there is something that has never made sense, Monsieur Poirot.’

‘What is that, mademoiselle?’

‘The door,’ Nurse Bee said with a sigh. ‘It cannot have been open and closed at the same time.’

‘Do you mean the door to the hospital room of Monsieur Niven, mademoiselle?’ ‘No,’ said Bee Haskins. ‘The one next to it – the door to Arnold Laurier’s room… it’s a mystery Zillah and I cannot solve’.

‘Do not worry, mademoiselle. Poirot, he will solve the puzzle.’

‘As I said, I was accompanying Dr Wall on his rounds. Once we had looked in on all the patients on Ward 6 we then set off for Ward 7 which is across a courtyard facing Ward 6. One of the patients there is Professor Burnett.’

Monsieur Mal-de-Tête, Poirot thought to himself, but did not say.

‘Professor Burnett’s mind still works perfectly well, Monsieur Poirot, though admittedly it is impossible to know what thoughts it produces. Feelings always make themselves known, even when verbal expression fails. When Dr Wall and I visited Professor Burnett’s room on 8 September, he was not in bed where he usually is. He was standing by his window. As I stood beside him, I spotted Zillah across the courtyard, in the room on Ward 6 that is soon to be Arnold Laurier’s. I could see Zillah at the window, with a couple I now know to be Jonathan and Janet Laurier.

‘The others in the room I only registered as people in the background. I noticed immediately that Zillah looked ill at ease. And Jonathan and Janet Laurier looked angry and appeared to be speaking to Zillah in a harsh and unfriendly manner.’

‘I spotted Aunt Bee, too, standing by the window with Professor Burnett’, said Zillah, ‘I thought, ‘If only she were here. She would know what to do’.

‘Jonathan Laurier kept shouting at me and his wife was echoing everything he said. And then the other couple, Douglas Laurier and his wife started to list all the character flaws of Jonathan and Janet in such minute detail. It was horrible.’ Nurse Bee added: ‘Finally, when I saw Zillah perk up, I decided it was safe to move away from Professor Burnett’s window.

'As I said, I was accompanying Dr Wall on his rounds. Once we had looked in on all the patients on Ward 6 we then set off for Ward 7 which is across a courtyard facing Ward 6. One of the patients there is Professor Burnett.'

‘As I said, I was accompanying Dr Wall on his rounds. Once we had looked in on all the patients on Ward 6 we then set off for Ward 7 which is across a courtyard facing Ward 6. One of the patients there is Professor Burnett.’

‘But he stayed where he was and would not be talked back into his bed. And now, having set the scene for you, Monsieur Poirot, I will come to the point: I am certain –could not be more so – that the door of that room on Ward 6, Arnold Laurier’s room, was open while the worst of the row was taking place.’

‘Whereas I am positive that it was shut,’ said the younger nurse.

‘Aunt Bee and I have discussed it endlessly, as you can imagine. Neither of us can be persuaded out of our opinion.’

‘Now, though, I don’t think that was what the professor was watching’, continued Bee Haskins, ‘I think he witnessed the murder of Stanley Niven.

‘For somebody to lift a heavy vase in the air, more than once… why, he could easily have seen it.’

The sound of a telephone ringing made everyone jump, so immersed were they in the story.

Zillah Hunt excused herself and left the drawing room. A few moments later, she returned, wearing an anxious expression. ‘Oh, dear,’ she said. ‘It was Dr Osgood. He says you must return at once, Monsieur Poirot. Arnold Laurier is missing.’

© Sophie Hannah 2023

Adapted by Katharine Spurrier from Hercule Poirot’s Silent Night by Sophie Hannah (HarperCollins, £22). To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid to 06/01/2024; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.

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