The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme is continuing on its dangerous journey through the letters and today, we’ve arrived at “J.” Many thanks as ever to our guide Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping everyone on course. We’ve been having a delightful time thus far although I don’t even want to think about what this trip is doing to my TBR list. My contribution for today’s rest stop is Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp.
Japp is with Scotland Yard, so he gets involved in more difficult and serious cases. That’s how his path occasionally crosses that of private detective Hercule Poirot. In fact, their relationship seems to go back to the days when Poirot was a member of the Belgian police force.
One of the appealing things about Japp as a character is that he is a hard-working, professional, skilled cop. We don’t always follow all of Japp’s activities but it’s clear that he is good at what he does. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Japp works with Poirot to find the murderer of Marie Morisot, a Paris moneylender who did business under the name of Madame Giselle. The victim was poisoned while travelling by air from Paris to London, so the only suspects are Madame Giselle’s fellow passengers. Several of them have a motive for murder as it turns out, so Japp and Poirot investigate each of their backgrounds. In the end Japp’s police work uncovers something crucial about one of passengers. That fact links the murderer with the poison and shows what the motive was. When the murderer is revealed Poirot himself says,
“No, no. Japp deserves as much credit as I do.”
For Hercule Poirot to say that – and mean it – is a real statement about his estimation of Japp’s ability.
Another appealing aspect of Japp’s character is that he’s an ordinary guy. He works hard and does his job well. But he doesn’t solve cases through improbable coincidence or regular flashes of impossible brilliance. It’s easy to identify with him because he’s not particularly eccentric or unreachable. In fact, he’s more than once accused Poirot of having a “tortuous mind” and making cases harder than they have to be. It’s not that Japp is stupid or bumbling; quite the contrary in fact. And it’s to Christie’s credit that he doesn’t come off as idiotic or dense. Rather, he likes straightforward solutions to problems and it’s hard to blame him.
Japp’s straightforward approach to life is also appealing. He’s honest in the sense that he doesn’t take bribes and he is no respecter of position or wealth when it comes to catching criminals. In all seven of the novels in which he is featured (all of them Hercule Poirot adventures), the investigations involve suspects at the highest diplomatic and social circles. And while Japp is not a stereotypical “bullying cop,” he is willing to suspect even the bluest of blood, so to speak, of the crime. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Japp is in charge of investigating the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. The most obvious suspect is Edgware’s estranged wife, noted actress Jane Wilkinson. She’d been heard to threaten her husband and it was known that she wanted a divorce. What’s more, she was seen going into Edgware’s home just before the murder – she even gave her name to the butler. But when twelve other people swear that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time of the murder it’s clear that Japp and Poirot will have to look elsewhere for the criminal. And Japp’s not afraid to do so. He’s willing to consider Edgware’s own “well-born” family members as suspects as well as some other very “well-born” people who could have wanted Edgware dead. He’s also not afraid to question the alibi that Jane Wilkinson seems to have. He’s more interested in catching criminals than he is in currying favour.
In fact, Japp sometimes gets frustrated by the realities of social influence and departmental politics. For example, in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), he is assigned to investigate the shooting death of dentist Henry Morley, who was found dead in his surgery. At first there seems to be little motive for the murder. Morley didn’t have a fortune to leave, he didn’t seem to know anyone’s secrets and there seems no reason for a motive of revenge. But one of Morley’s patients on the fatal day was wealthy and very influential banker Alistair Blunt. Blunt is considered extremely important by the government and he’s made his share of political enemies. So the concern is that someone was trying to get at Blunt. The case gets even more complicated when another of Morley’s patients disappears. And then another dies. Japp and Poirot are working through the case as best they can when Japp is unceremoniously pulled from it. We can see his frustration about not being able to continue the investigation when he telephones Poirot to tell him about it:
“‘Well that’s been called off. Hushed up – kept mum…’ [Japp]
‘Orders from the ruddy Foreign Office.’
‘Is not that very extraordinary?’
‘Well, it does happen now and again.’
‘Why should they be so forbearing…?’
‘They’re not. They don’t care tuppence about ___. It’s the publicity.’”
Japp is pulled from this case but Poirot is not so he continues to look into the matter. And in the end he puts together the pieces of this puzzle.
Japp’s not a glory-seeker, and that also makes his character appealing. He doesn’t like to be wrong any more than anyone else does, but he admits it when he’s stumped on a case and he admits it when he’s wrong. In fact, as much as he admires Poirot – and he does – he dislikes Poirot’s lack of modesty about his detective ability. In Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, some of the suspects in the murder of Madame Giselle have been gathered and Poirot is preparing to give his account of the case and name the murderer. Japp says quietly to one of the suspects,
“Fancies himself, doesn’t he? Conceit’s that little man’s middle name.”
Japp isn’t blind to Poirot’s flaws, but he does respect his friend and he’s learned that Poirot is most often quite right about the killer.
And that’s what really seems to characterise Japp. He’s an intelligent, hardworking cop who is straightforward, honest and dedicated to his job. He’s also refreshingly free of the personal demons and home-life problems that are so much a part of some modern police detective characters. I have the feeling that if Japp were on the case of my untimely passing, it wouldn’t matter who was suspected – he’d keep going on the case until it was solved.