When cleaning woman Mrs. McGinty dies from a brutal blow to the back of her head, suspicion falls on her shifty tenant, James Bentley. Yet something is amiss and Superintendent Spence, who was responsible for arresting Bentley, has grave doubts about his guilt and approaches the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot for assistance.
Poirot travels to the small village of Broadhinney to investigate and meets the inhabitants, all of whom present veneers of normality. Also staying in Broadhinny is an acquaintance of Poirot's, crime writer Ariadne Oliver. Poirot uncovers a link to two brutal crimes from many years before and soon has the realization that someone in the village has a secret they are willing to kill to keep.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
James Bentley is convicted of the murder of cleaning woman Mrs. McGinty in the village of Broadhinny. An officer with unanswered questions calls Poirot in on the case.
In Broadhinny, Poirot finds an acquaintance, Mrs. Oliver, working with playwright Robin Upward. Mrs. Oliver is staying with Robin and his mother, while Poirot is housed in the crumbling house owned by the Summerhayes family.
Poirot discovers that Mrs. McGinty bought a bottle of ink before her death with the likely intent of writing a letter. At her home, he finds a recent Sunday Comet newspaper with an article cut out.
Poirot acquires the article, which inquires about the whereabouts of two women — Lily Gamboll and Eva Kane. Gamboll, only a child, had been convicted of murdering her aunt. Kane had been the lover of Alfred Craig and governess to his children. Craig had been convicted of murdering his wife. Kane had fled and was believed to have had a daughter. Gamboll vanished after her release from juvenile care.
Poirot surmises that Mrs. McGinty might have recognized one of the photographs and visits Pamela Horsfall, the writer of the article. She seems less than concerned with facts, but says she had received a letter from Mrs. McGinty, who claimed she knew the whereabouts of one of the women in the article.
Back in Broadhinny, Poirot meets the residents who employed Mrs. McGinty — Guy Carpenter, a local MP, his wife Eve, Dr. Rendell and his wife Shelagh. Poirot knows he is getting somewhere when he is pushed under a train, fortunately saved at the last moment.
Poirot surmises that there are three women who are the right age to be Lily Gamboll or the daughter of Eva Kane — Mrs. Summerhayes, Mrs. Carpenter and Mrs. Rendell. Only Mrs Upward is the correct age to be Eva Kane herself — but she is apparently confined to a wheelchair and has a son, not a daughter.
During a cocktail party, Poirot shows the photographs of Gamboll and Kane from the newspaper. Mrs. Upward claims to recognize Gamboll.
That evening, when Mrs. Oliver and Robin are at the theater, Mrs. Upward is murdered. The evidence suggests the killer was a woman. A witness had observed a woman entering Mrs. Upward's house.
The next day, Mrs. Summerhayes admits to visiting Mrs. Upward the previous night, although no one had answered the door. Later, it is revealed Mrs. Upward had separately invited Shelagh Rendell and Eve Carpenter over the night of her murder, but both didn't go.
Poirot visits Bentley in prison to discuss Maude Williams, a colleague of Bentley's and someone he had liked. Bentley tells Poirot he suspects Mrs. McGinty thought Mrs. Upward was connected to the Sunday Comet article.
Back at the Summerhayes manor, Mrs. Summerhayes barges in and pulls the contents out of a drawer. Poirot cleans up, and finds a photograph of Eva Kane with the words "My Mother" inscribed on the back. Notably, Poirot had checked the drawer earlier and the photograph had not been there.
The following day, Poirot gathers the people of Broadhinny and turns his attention to Robin Upward.
Robin is Eva Kane's son. (The Sunday Comet posited incorrectly that Kane's child was a girl.) As an adopted son of Mrs. Upward, Robin knew that any scandal might upset his position in her household. Mrs. McGinty was murdered because she had discovered and confronted Robin with the photograph.
When Mrs. Upward recognized the photograph of Eva Kane, she misled Poirot into thinking that it was the other photograph to which she had reacted so she could confront Robin.
Anticipating this, Robin invited three convenient female suspects to her house that evening. He killed his mother while Mrs. Oliver waited in the car. He planted evidence suggesting that the murderer was a woman and then, on the way to the theater, pretended to call his mother. Instead, Robin impersonated Mrs. Upward and made the three calls to Mrs. Carpenter, Mrs. Rendell and Mrs. Summerhayes. Days later, in a bid to incriminate Mrs. Summerhayes, Robin planted the photograph in her drawer.
More secrets of those living in Broadhinny are uncovered; Eve Carpenter had worked as an exotic dancer. Maude Williams was the daughter of Alfred Craig, and Eva Kane was her governess. Williams was the woman seen entering Mrs. Upward's house the night of her murder. She had intended to kill Mrs. Upward, but discovered that she had already been murdered and fled. Mrs Rendell, who suffers from neurosis, was the person that had tried to push Poirot onto the railway tracks. She feared that Poirot had come to investigate her husband, who was believed to have assisted in the suicide of a number of terminally ill people.
Outside the courts, Maude Williams greets Bentley who has been cleared and released for the murder of Mrs. McGinty.