An outbreak of apparent kleptomania at a student hostel is not normally the sort of crime that arouses Hercule Poirot's interest. But when he sees the bizarre list of stolen and vandalized items - including a stethoscope, some lightbulbs, some old flannel trousers, a box of chocolates, a slashed rucksack, some boracic powder and a diamond ring later found in a bowl of a soup - he congratulates the warden, Mrs Hubbard, on a 'unique and beautiful problem'. It is nevertheless not long before the crime of theft is the least of Poirot’s concerns.
Explanation of the novel's title
The title is taken, as are other of Christie’s titles, from a nursery rhyme: Hickory Dickory Dock. This is nevertheless one of her most tenuous links to the original nursery rhyme, consisting of little more than the name of a road.
Poirot’s solution of the petty thefts is unsubtle but effective: once he has threatened to call in the police, Celia Austin quickly confesses to the pettier amongst the incidents. She denies specifically: stealing Nigel Chapman’s green ink and using it to deface Elizabeth Johnston’s work; taking the stethoscope, the light bulbs and boracic powder; and cutting up and concealing a rucksack. Celia appears to have committed the lesser thefts in order to attract the attention of Colin McNabb, a psychology student who at first regards her as an interesting case study, and then – almost immediately – becomes engaged to her. Celia makes restitution for the crimes and is seemingly reconciled with her victims, but when she is discovered the following morning dead from an overdose of morphine it does not take the investigators long to see through attempts to make her death seem like suicide. Several of the original incidents have not been solved by Celia’s confession. Inspector Sharpe quickly solves the mystery of the stolen stethoscope during his interviews with the inhabitants of the hostel. Nigel Chapman admits to having stolen the stethoscope in order to pose as a doctor and steal the morphine tartrate from the hospital dispensary as part of a bet to acquire three deadly poisons. He claims that these poisons were then carefully disposed of, but cannot be sure that the morphine was not stolen from him while it was in his possession. Poirot turns his attention to the reappearance of the diamond ring, and confronts Valerie Hobhouse, in whose soup the ring was found. It seems that the diamond had been replaced with a zircon and, given the fact that it was difficult for anyone but Valerie to have put the ring into the soup, Poirot accuses her of having stolen the diamond. She admits to having done so, saying that she needed the money to pay off gambling debts. She also admits to having planted in Celia’s mind the entire idea of the thefts. Mrs. Nicoletis has been behaving very nervously, as if she were losing her nerve. One night someone gets her drunk and kills her. Poirot focuses his attention now on the cutting up of the rucksack. By comparing an example of the rucksack type destroyed with others, he identifies an unusual corrugated base, and suggests to the police that the rucksack may have been part of a clever international smuggling operation. The rucksacks were sold to innocent students, and then exchanged as a means of transporting drugs and gems. Mrs. Nicoletis had been bankrolling the organisation, but was not the brain behind...