The imperious Mrs. Rowena Drake's annual Halloween party boasts a special guest, feisty detective novelist Ariadne Oliver. But while a storm rages in the dark night and the children of Woodleigh Common play at horror inside the stately Drake home, Joyce Reynolds, a universally disliked girl, announces that she once witnessed a murder. The adults dismiss her and Drake's vicious children ridicule her, but when she turns up face down in an apple-bobbing tub, her story of murder seems all too true.
Summoned by Oliver, who is now bedridden with a head cold, Hercule Poirot travels to Woodleigh Common in the company of rakish landscape gardener Michael Garfield to find the girl's killer. With the knowledge that "old sins cast long shadows," and the help of the spiteful crone Mrs. Goodbody, he delves into the small community's past gossip and plentiful scandals, revisiting a forgery, a stabbing, and relationships ranging from "deeply unsuitable" to secret. The great detective and his old friend Oliver put their heads together to solve the murder. In Belgium on Halloween, the serious sleuth explains, "it is the custom to light the candles in the memory of the dead, not to tell the stories macabre." But can Poirot unmask the killer before another innocent soul is extinguished, requiring that another candle be lit for the dead?
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
Mystery writer Ariadne Oliver is a guest of honor at the widow Rowena Drake's annual Halloween party in Woodleigh Common. She has accompanied her friend Judith, whose daughter, Miranda, is home sick with a cold. Presumably in order to impress the acclaimed writer, an unpopular young girl, Joyce Reynolds, boasts that she once witnessed a murder years ago. Joyce's claim is heard and dismissed by all those present: her strange brother Leopold, the imperious hostess Mrs. Drake, her spoiled, mean-spirited children Frances and Edmund, the local Reverend Cottrell, and the church organist, Miss Whittaker. But by the party's end, Joyce is found murdered in the library, drowned in an apple-bobbing bucket. Just as Ariadne's mystery-solving skills are needed, she succumbs to Miranda's cold. She calls on Poirot to investigate.
En route to Woodleigh Common, Poirot meets a friendly gardener, Michael Garfield, returning from time abroad to landscape Rowena Drake's famous garden. But his reception from Inspector Raglan is markedly colder; the local investigator is as dismissive of Poirot as he is of Joyce's claim, while even Joyce's own mother admits that the girl was a liar. Yet Poirot is convinced there is some truth in the girl's claim, and through the local gossip, Mrs. Goodbody, he learns of three fairly recent suspicious deaths in the village: a drowned schoolteacher Beatrice White; a lawyer's clerk, Lesley Ferrier, stabbed in the street; and a rich old lady, Mrs. Llewelyn-Smythe.
Rowena Drake, Mrs. Goodbody explains, inherited her fortune from her aunt Llewelyn-Smythe, though there had temporarily been some question of the inheritance when an amendment to the will named Olga Seminoff, the old lady's Russian au pair, the sole beneficiary. But the amendment to the will was soon revealed to be a forgery. Mrs. Drake received her inheritance, and the discredited Russian disappeared. Mrs. Goodbody elaborates that Lesley Ferrier, a lodger in the Reynolds house, was dating Frances Drake. Of Beatrice White, she notes that parents, including Joyce's mother, had campaigned to get rid of the teacher because of her close relationship with the church organist Mrs. Whittaker.
Consulting with Ariadne, Poirot agrees that Joyce wouldn't have made her claim had she really known who the murderer was or recognized the murderer at the party. At church, Poirot compliments Leopold's expensive watch, which the boy claims he'd bought with pocket money, before stating that he'd never really liked his sister. Michael Garfield makes friendly overtures to Judith and Miranda, though the mother ushers her daughter away, clearly wanting nothing to do with him. The Vicar confides that Joyce was indeed an embellisher and liar; still, Poirot observes, this doesn't mean that every story she told was untrue.
After discussing the disreputable clerk Ferrier with the lawyer, Mr. Fullerton, Poirot secures the forged amendment to the will from a bitter Inspector Raglan. Meanwhile, Ariadne remembers a detail from the party: Mrs. Drake had dropped a full vase during the snapdragon game, shattering it on the floor. The writer recalls that Rowena had dropped it because she saw something that startled her.
In the garden, Poirot finds Miranda perched in a favorite spot. The girl explains how she likes to observe nature there and watch things. She and Joyce used to share secrets.
Examining Ferrier's possessions, Poirot finds a document hidden in a frame behind a print — it is, he reveals to Fullerton, a near-identical copy of the forgery. Only, the forgery of the hidden document was a better job. Soon a more gruesome discovery is made: Leopold is found murdered, drowned like his sister, floating in the same pond where the schoolteacher had been found.
The tragic death prompts Rowena to reveal that she had in fact seen something startling: Leopold in the library, with a queer look on his face. A puzzled Poirot returns his focus to the first victim, Joyce, the reputed embellisher and liar. And suddenly he realizes that young Miranda is in terrible danger. Indeed, the girl has snuck out of her bed and is walking through the Drake estate garden, escorted by a masked, robed killer. The mask is removed — it is Michael Garfield. He sits Miranda down and revisits his proposal that she be sacrificed so that others, and Beauty, might live. When the reluctant girl hesitates in drinking his poisoned goblet, he attacks her. Only a strike from Poirot's cane as the detective arrives saves the girl. Police surround the desperate killer and wrestle him to the ground.
Later, assembled in Rowena's parlor, Poirot reveals that Joyce had appropriated Miranda's story of witnessing a murder. Years before, Miranda had seen Michael drag a body across the garden and bury it. The girl didn't know it was a murder; nor did she know that the body was that of Olga Seminoff. The Russian au pair was murdered not only because she had been made the true beneficiary of Mrs. Lllewelyn-Smythe's estate but because she knew that Michael and Rowena — lovers! — had poisoned the old woman. Indeed, Michael and Rowena had killed Rowena's husband, making it look like a hit-and-run, and when Olga confided her suspicions to Mrs. Llewelyn-Smythe, the old woman had disinherited her niece.
With knowledge of the new will, Michael and Rowena engaged the corrupt Lesley Ferrier to produce a substandard copy of the original amendment to the will and substitute that document in order to discredit the inheritance and frame Olga for forgery. Confronted by Olga, Rowena stabbed her. Michael then murdered Ferrier, who knew too much. But the carnage didn't end there: Rowena, apparently the only one who believed Joyce's claim, murdered the girl. Leopold, who witnessed Rowena ushering Joyce into the library at the party, allowed his silence to be bought, until the murderers ensured his ultimate silence.
And the insane Michael Garfield? He only ever loved his one true obsession, the garden. He had never really loved Rowena or even Judith, who had hidden from him the truth about Miranda, the girl he tried to kill: she was his daughter.