The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie read by Joan Hickson

Starring Marina Gregg…

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From the oldest inhabitants to the newest of newcomers in the new housing development, all of St Mary Mead is agog. Gossington Hall has been sold, and the buyer is the famous movie actress Marina Gregg and her fourth – or is it fifth? – husband, film producer Jason Rudd. The villagers’ first chance to see the star up close is when Marina hosts a charity event in support of the St John’s Ambulance Society. While most of the villagers are restricted to attending the fête in the grounds of the Hall, a select few are invited to join Miss Gregg inside for cocktails. One of these lucky people is Heather Badcock, local representative of the Ambulance Society and lifelong fan of Marina Gregg. In fact, it’s while she’s boring Marina with a long story about how they met once before long ago that Mrs Badcock is taken suddenly ill, and then dies. Mrs Bantry, the previous owner of the Hall, witnesses the whole thing and rushes off to relay the story to her old friend, Miss Jane Marple…

First published in 1962, this is one of the later Christie stories, at the tail end of her own golden age, just before the quality of her books began to show serious decline. There is a bit of rambling and repetitiveness in this one, but not too much, and the portrayal of the changes to the village and a very elderly Miss Marple coping with modern life are great. I always feel that in these later books especially, Christie used Miss Marple as a conduit through which to muse on her own reactions to ageing and the changes in society.

Marina Gregg was played by the beautiful and much-married Elizabeth Taylor in the 1980 film, opposite a marvellous performance from Kim Novak as Lola Brewster, her rival and now to be her co-star. This is a bit of a deviation from the plot of the book but the two women ham it up for all they’re worth and make the parts so much their own that now, when I read the book, it’s them I see in the roles. I always felt that Marina’s life mirrored Elizabeth Taylor’s own scandalous (for the time) life, and wondered if Agatha Christie had had her in mind while writing. However, wikipedia tells me Christie probably had a different actress in mind, but Marina will always be Elizabeth Taylor to me! (Do not look this up on wikipedia if you intend to read the book, as it is a major plot spoiler.)

Inspector Dermot Craddock is assigned to the case. He already knows Miss Marple from a previous case so has no hesitation in discussing this one with her and seeking her assistance in understanding the locals. It’s good to have Mrs Bantry back too – one of my favourite occasional characters. I find it a little sad to see Miss Marple quite so old and physically frail in this one, although her mind is still as sharp as ever. But the star is the star – Marina Gregg’s personality and presence dominate the book, and Christie gives an excellent and credible portrayal of the mixture of egocentricity and vulnerability of this woman, always on show, never able to be scruffy or rude, loved by so many but unable to find true happiness in her private life.

….“She’s suffered a great deal in her life. A large part of the suffering has been her own fault, but some of it hasn’t. None of her marriages has been happy except, I’d say, this last one. She’s married to a man now who loves her dearly and who’s loved her for years. She’s sheltering in that love, and she’s happy in it. At least, at the moment she’s happy in it. One can’t say how long all that will last. The trouble with her is that either she thinks that at last she’s got to that spot or place or that moment in her life where everything’s like a fairy tale come true, that nothing can go wrong, that she’ll never be unhappy again; or else she’s down in the dumps, a woman whose life is ruined, who’s never known love and happiness and who never will again.”
….He added dryly, “If she could only stop halfway between the two it’d be wonderful for her, and the world would lose a fine actress.”

The plot is great, with one of Christie’s best motives at the root of it. It is fair play but I’d be amazed if anyone gets the whole thing – the who perhaps would be possible, but the why is brilliantly hidden in plain sight. One of my pleasures in re-reading these Christies is knowing the solution and so being able to spot how cleverly she conceals the real clues among the red herrings. She hardly ever cheats and it’s a joy to see a mistress of the craft at work. And, of course, Joan Hickson is, as always, the perfect narrator for the Miss Marple books. Great stuff!

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The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The perfect dinner guest…

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A group of friends meet regularly for dinner and one night the conversation turns to mysteries. They agree that over the next few weeks they will each take turns at telling of a mystery they were involved in, but before they reveal the solution they will let the group see if they can solve it. They are a diverse group, well positioned to understand the depths to which human nature can descend – a policeman, a lawyer, a clergyman, an artist and a novelist. The sixth is less likely to have much insight, or so her friends assume, being an old maid who has spent her entire life in the quiet backwater of an idyllic English village. Her name is Miss Jane Marple…

I listened to this collection narrated by the wonderful Joan Hickson and as always she does a superb job. Each story comes in at roughly half an hour long, so they’re the perfect length for a bedtime listen, or for more active people, for the evening walk! I’d come across one or two of the stories before in anthologies, but I thought they actually worked better collected in this way, since you begin to get a feel for the personalities of the regular diners. Miss Marple, of course, takes centre stage, waiting each time for everyone else to get it wrong or confess themselves baffled, before drawing on her experience of life or village parallels to reveal the true solution. Halfway through, the diners change although the format remains the same – now we are in the company of Colonel and Mrs Bantry back in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead. Since Mrs Bantry is one of my favourite occasional characters in the novels, it was an added bonus having her in a few of the stories here.

The quality varies as is usually the case in short story collections, but I enjoyed them all, and thought some of them were excellent. Sometimes it’s possible to see how Christie used the kernel of one of these stories later, turning it into the basis of the plot of a novel, and that’s fun for the Christie geeks among us. Here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Blood-Stained Pavement – this is told by Jane, the artist in the group. It’s set in Rathole in Cornwall, which is clearly based on the real Mousehole, then as now a magnet for tourists. Christie builds up a wonderfully creepy atmosphere by telling of the village’s many legends of the days of Spanish invasions. In the present day, Jane sees blood dripping from a hotel balcony to the pavement beneath, and describes how that became a clue in a murder mystery. This has a lot of similarity to the murder method in Evil Under the Sun, which meant I solved it for once! But it’s different enough to still have its own interest.

Ingots of Gold – another Cornish story, this time related by Raymond, novelist and Miss Marple’s nephew. It has to do with shipwrecks and missing gold, and the fun of it is in the way poor Raymond, who always has a tendency to patronise his old Aunt Jane, is brought down to size by her insight.

The Idol-House of Astarte – told by Dr Pender, the clergyman in the group. The members of a house party decide to have a costume party in a grove near the house, known as the Grove of Astarte. The story here is decidedly second to the spine-chillingly spooky atmosphere Christie conjures up – she really is excellent at horror writing when she wants to be. Dr Pender feels evil in the air and is inclined to put it down to supernatural causes, but Miss Marple knows that the supernatural can’t compete with the evil humans do to each other…

The Blue Geranium – told by Colonel Bantry. Another one that has a spooky feel to it, this tells of Mrs Pritchard, the wife of a friend of the colonel’s. She’s a cantankerous invalid who has a succession of nurses to look after her. She also enjoys fortune-tellers, until one day, a mysterious mystic tells her to beware of the blue geranium, which causes death. This seems to make no sense at first, but when the flowers on Mrs Pritchard’s bedroom wallpaper begin slowly to turn blue one by one, her terror grows. This has a really unique solution, based on Christie’s knowledge of poisons and chemistry, but it’s the atmosphere of impending doom that makes it so good. Again this reminded me in some ways of one of the novels but I can’t for the life of me remember which one… anyone?

I’m not always as keen on Christie’s short stories as her novels but I really enjoyed this collection, I think because Hickson’s narration brought out all the humour and spookiness in the stories so well. A perfect partnership of author and narrator!

 

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A Caribbean Mystery (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie narrated by Joan Hickson

You can take the woman out of the village…

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Miss Marple’s kind nephew Raymond has sent her on a vacation to St Honoré to soak up some sunshine after she’s been unwell. She’s staying at the Golden Palm resort, filled with visitors from around the world though the plot sticks pretty much to the Brits and Americans. One visitor, Major Palgrave, likes to tell long rambling stories of his colonial days and Miss Marple makes the perfect audience. As a genteel lady of a certain age, she has perfected the art of making gentlemen believe she’s listening avidly while in reality she’s pursuing her own thoughts or counting the stitches in her knitting. But when Major Palgrave suddenly dies, Miss Marple is convinced that it’s connected to a story he was telling her about how he once met a murderer. If only she’d been paying more attention! Struggling to recall the details and also feeling a little out of her element so far from home, Miss Marple realises that she can still use village parallels even amongst these strangers – human nature, she finds, is the same everywhere…

While I don’t consider this to be one of Christie’s very best, it’s still a very entertaining mystery and the exotic setting gives it an added interest, although (like many tourists) Miss Marple never sets foot outside the resort so we get very little feel for what life for the real islanders may be like. Another of the residents is Mr Rafiel, an elderly invalid with a grumpy temper. At first inclined to dismiss Miss Marple as a gossipy old woman, he finds she stands up to him more than most people and comes to respect her insight, so that gradually they begin to work together to find the truth. The other residents, including Mr Rafiel’s staff, become the pool of suspects and Miss Marple knows that her only investigatory tool is the art of drawing people out through conversation. Happily people do love to gossip so she soon has plenty of background on the potential suspects, although she has to sift through conflicting stories to get to the truth.

Agatha Christie was long before political correctness, of course, and I see from other reviews that some people think her portrayal of the islanders is racist. I don’t, but that may be because of my age. It seems to me that Christie speaks as respectfully of the black characters as of the white – her dialect sounds a bit clunky, perhaps, and she comments, though not disparagingly, on different customs, but surely we can still do that, can’t we? Mind you, I’ve also seen reviews calling the Miss Marple books ageist – baffled – and sexist – baffled again. She was merely reflecting the society in which she lived. (I am glad I’ve lived most of my life in an era when people weren’t scrutinising every word and expression looking for reasons to be perpetually outraged. It must be so exhausting.)

This time I listened to the audiobook narrated by Joan Hickson, whose portrayal of Miss Marple I love. However, it must be said that she can’t do Caribbean accents at all and her islanders therefore come over as kind of caricatures and rather off-putting to modern ears. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been an issue when she recorded the book but I think modern listeners would expect something that sounded a little more authentic. This is one case where reluctantly I’d definitely recommend reading rather than listening.

Agatha Christie

An enjoyable book, particularly for readers who have been disappointed previously to find that Miss Marple doesn’t always have a big role in the books she’s in. In this one, she’s very definitely the central character and we’re given access to her inner thoughts, not just about the crime, but about ageing and about life in general. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always seen Miss Marple as Ms Christie’s alter-ego in these later books (it was published in 1964, when Christie would herself have been 74), and so I always feel we’re getting a bit of insight into her view of modern society – not always “woke”, I grant you, but always true to her age and time.

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The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie

Enter Miss Marple…

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Colonel Protheroe is one of those men nobody likes, so when he’s shot dead in the vicar’s study the list of suspects is long. He’s a bullying husband to his second wife, Anne, an overbearing father to Lettice, his daughter, a tough magistrate meting out harsh judgement to the criminal classes of St Mary Mead, antagonistic to anyone whose morals he deems to be lax, and an exacting churchwarden, always on the look out for wrongdoing amongst the church officials and congregation. In fact, it was just earlier that very day that the vicar had remarked that anyone who murdered the colonel would be doing the world a favour!

The police are suitably baffled, but fortunately there’s an old lady in the village, with an observant eye, an ear for gossip, an astute mind and an unerring instinct for recognising evil… Miss Marple! Relying on her lifetime’s store of village parallels, she will sniff out the real guilty party while the police are still chasing wild geese all over the village green…

The narrator in the book is the vicar, Leonard Clement, and he and his younger and rather irreverent wife, Griselda, give the book much of its humour and warmth. It’s Miss Marple’s first appearance and she’s more dithery and less prone to Delphic pronouncements than she becomes in some of the later novels. This is her as I always picture her (I suspect it may have been the first one I read) and is the main reason I never think the actresses who play her do so with quite enough of a fluttery old woman feel to the character. Here, she’s a village gossip who watches the ongoings in the village through her binoculars under the pretence of being an avid bird-watcher, and the Clements joke about her as a nosy busy-body, always prying into the lives of her neighbours. As the book goes on, Leonard finds himself investigating alongside her, and gradually gains an appreciation of the intelligence and strength of character underneath this outward appearance, as does the reader.

Challenge details:
Book: 24
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1930

The plot is very good, with as much emphasis on alibis and timings as on motives. Because Colonel Protheroe was such an unpleasant man, the reader (like the characters) doesn’t have to waste much time grieving for him. The suspects range from the sympathetic to the mysterious, from the wicked to the pitiable, as Christie gradually feeds their motives out to us. She shows the village as a place where no secret can be kept for long from the little army of elderly ladies who fill their lives excitedly gossiping about their neighbours. But while some of them are always getting the wrong end of the stick and spreading false stories, Miss Marple has the insight to see through to the truth. In his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards has placed this novel in his The Great Detectives section, and Miss Marple rightly deserves to be there. But he could as easily have put it in his Serpents in Eden category, for its classic portrayal of hidden wickedness beneath the idyllic surface of an English village.

Agatha Christie

Inspector Slack also makes his first appearance in this book – a dedicated officer, but one who is always jumping to hasty conclusions. He never stops to listen to people properly, and is brash and a bit bullying, and oh, so dismissive of our elderly heroine! A mistake, as he will discover when she reveals all towards the end!

I love this book and have read it about a million times. So it was a real pleasure to listen to the incomparable Joan Hickson’s narration of it this time – I find listening to Christie on audiobook brings back a feeling of freshness even to the ones I know more or less off by heart. Hickson gets the warmth and humour of the books, and gives each character a subtly distinctive voice, though never letting the acting get in the way of the narration. She does the working-class people particularly well, managing to avoid the slight feeling of caricaturing that can come through to modern readers in the books.

Great stuff!

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A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

Party games…

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When a mysterious notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, the villagers don’t take it very seriously.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

The prevailing feeling is that this is a rather odd invitation from Miss Letitia Blacklock, owner of Little Paddocks, perhaps to some kind of murder mystery evening. So all her friends decide to show up at the appointed time. Miss Blacklock knows nothing about it but, being a sensible woman, she realises the villagers are likely to descend on her and makes preparations for a little drinks party anyway. Once everyone is assembled, a shocking event occurs and the end result is that a man lies dead. It’s up to the police, ably assisted by Miss Marple, to find out who he was and why he died…

This has always been one of my favourite Christies, mainly because I thinks she excels herself in both plotting and characterisation. It also has one of the best beginnings, as Christie ranges round the village introducing us to all the characters by means of telling us which newspapers they routinely have delivered. Newspapers in Britain have always been such an indicator of class, social position, education, political standpoint; and Christie uses this brilliantly to very quickly telegraph (no pun intended) the social mix of the village.

Published in 1950, this is post-war Britain, and the first chapter gives us a little microcosm of British middle-class society of the time – old soldiers, the traditionally rich fading into genteel poverty, the new business classes taking over as the wealthy ones, women beginning to find their place in the workforce, people displaced from their original homes forming a mobile and fluctuating population, so that even in villages neighbours no longer know all the long histories of their neighbours – now people have to be judged on what they choose to reveal of themselves. Anyone who thinks Golden Age crime fiction has nothing much to say about society should read this chapter and think again. Christie, of course, understood totally that crime fiction is first and foremost an entertainment though, so all this information is transmitted with warmth and humour, and all in the space of a few hundred words. Many modern crime writers would probably take 150 pages, bore us all to death, and still not produce anything half as insightful…

Agatha Christie

There is one aspect of the book I don’t enjoy and that’s the treatment of Mitzi, Miss Blacklock’s foreign maid. A war refugee from Eastern Europe, she is portrayed with a kind of cruel casualness – her anxiety dismissed as hysteria, her horror stories of her life in the war dismissed as either exaggeration or with an attitude of contempt for her not having the British stiff upper lip. It’s odd, because this book also has some of Christie’s kindest and most moving characterisations – poor old Bunny, Miss Blacklock’s companion, who shows us all the tragedy of the genteel poor at that time, and the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, never openly described as lesbian, but portrayed with great sympathy and warmth.

I’m not going to give any details of the plot for fear of spoilers. However, this is entirely fair play – not only are all the clues in there, but Miss Marple kindly summarises them all towards the end to give us one last chance to solve it for ourselves. I’ve read this one so often over the years that I know whodunit and why and now I can more or less anticipate the clues before we get to them, but I think I was suitably baffled first time I read it. Even knowing how it all works out, I still find it an immensely enjoyable read, allowing me to admire Christie’s skill at its remarkable height.

Joan Hickson

This time around I listened to the wonderful Joan Hickson narrating it. She really is perfect for the Miss Marple books. Her old-fashioned accent is just right, and she completely gets the tone of the books – the mixture of tragedy and humour, the sympathy for human foibles and weaknesses, the little romantic interludes. In this one she made me laugh with the younger characters and moved me to tears with Bunny’s story (I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Bunny – she’s one of my favourite Christie characters). Marvellous stuff – the ideal partnership of author and narrator. Highly recommended.

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Film of the Book: Murder, She Said (4.50 from Paddington)

Directed by George Pollock (1961)

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From the book review of 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie:

When Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

murder-she-said-gallery

As soon as the delightful title music of Ron Goodwin starts up, it’s clear this is going to be a fun romping version of Agatha Christie’s story. Apparently Christie disliked these Margaret Rutherford adaptations, and I can see why. They are not what you would call faithful to the originals and Miss Marple is not the sedentary observer of human nature we all know and love. But for once I don’t care – the films are brilliant and just as entertaining as the books, if in a different way. Murder, She Said was the first of the four Miss Marple movies in which Rutherford starred and, despite some major changes, actually sticks fairly closely to the basic plot of the book. As the series went on the divergences from the books grew ever wider and the final movie, Murder Ahoy!, wasn’t even based on any of the books at all.

First of all, poor Elspeth McGillicuddy has been cut completely, as has housekeeper and assistant sleuth, Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Now it’s Miss Marple herself who sees the murder through the train windows. When the police fail to find a body, Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell) tries to persuade Miss Marple that she must have seen a couple… ahem… honeymooning, as he so delicately puts it. On Miss Marple pointing out in no uncertain terms that, spinster she may be, but she can still tell the difference between a bit of “honeymooning” and strangulation, Inspector Craddock subtly suggests that she must be dotty.

murder-she-said-inspector-craddock

So Miss Marple, after consulting her close friend Mr Stringer (who is played by Margaret Rutherford’s real-life husband Stringer Davis), decides that they should investigate themselves. After a lovely scene of these two rather, shall we say, mature people searching the railway tracks, Miss Marple gets herself employed as the new housemaid at Ackenthorpe Hall – Rutherford Hall in the book, and changed to prevent confusion over the coincidence of the house sharing the same name as the star of the film. Why they changed Crackenthorpe to Ackenthorpe defeats me though, as does the fact that Miss Marple apparently now lives in Milchester rather than St Mary Mead…

murder-she-said-railway-tracks

While the purist in me is shaking her head disapprovingly about these wholesale changes, I do understand them. Unlike Poirot, often Miss Marple doesn’t have a huge role in the books, tending to perform her miracles somewhat in the background of the action. She doesn’t really investigate as such – she merely listens and applies her knowledge of human nature to get to the truth. In this book, Lucy Eyelesbarrow is the central character with only occasional appearances from Miss Marple herself. But if you’ve booked the wonderful Margaret Rutherford to star in your movie, you want her pretty much in every scene, or else you might find yourself lynched by an angry mob of disgruntled Rutherford fans… including me! So this version of Miss Marple carries out all the investigative work herself, helped only a little by Inspector Craddock and the ever-faithful Mr Stringer.

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The cast is a nice line-up of British character actors of the period, plus a few up-and-coming stars of the future in bit parts. James Robertson Justice guest-stars as grumpy old Mr Ackenthorpe, and his exchanges with new housemaid Jane are total comic joy. Muriel Pavlow is excellent as poor put-upon Emma, Mr Ackenthorpe’s daughter. The various Ackenthorpe brothers are an unpleasant bunch, as they are in the book too, and all played by well-known faces even if the names are less familiar to me – Thorley Walters, Conrad Phillips and Gerald Cross, with Ronald Howard as brother-in-law Brian Eastley. For reasons unknown (to me), an American actor, Arthur Kennedy, plays Dr Quimper and I must say I find his American accent a bit discombobulating amongst all these Brits. A youngish Richard Briers appears in a tiny role, and who should pop up as the daily cleaner at Ackenthorpe Hall but the woman who would later in her career become the definitive Miss Marple – our very own Joan Hickson! There’s a lovely bit where she gets chased by a goat…

murder-she-said-joan-hickson

In the book, I loved the interplay between the two boys, Alexander and his friend Stodders, and the various adults. Stodders has been ruthlessly done away with in the same mass culling that took Elspeth and Lucy. But Alexander is delightfully played by Ronnie Raymond. (Wondering whatever happened to him, I checked it out and IMDb informs me he quit acting and became an undertaker! I kinda wish I hadn’t checked now…) In the film, he’s an arrogant, cheeky little so-and-so who quite frankly would benefit from a swift kick up the pants, but Jane soon gets him onside and he becomes a kind of assistant sleuth. He and Rutherford work beautifully together and provide much of the film’s humour.

murder-she-said-alexander

Just to add to the general jollity, the film throws in some light-hearted mild horror elements – people hiding behind curtains, storms and thunder, lights going out at unfortunate moments, and a gardener of the scowling sinister variety. Because of the disappearance of Mrs McGillicuddy, the ending is changed (though the solution is not), and builds up to a tense face-off between Miss Marple and the murderer. As Inspector Craddock points out, she’s a very brave lady!

murder-she-said-torch

OK, OK, I know Christie fans are probably gnashing their teeth right now, but honestly, it’s so much fun! Try to forget that the real Miss Marple is unlikely to disguise herself in dungarees! Ignore the unlikeliness of her possibly having romantic inclinations towards dear Mr Stringer! Go along with the idea of her creeping about the grounds in the middle of the night with a torch, searching for corpses! In fact, just try to put out of your mind that it’s got anything to do with the book at all and enjoy it for what it is – a great British comedy thriller starring one of the finest comedy character actresses of all time. You surely won’t regret it…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It kinda breaks my heart to choose from these, so…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

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THE BOOK!

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AND THE FILM!

* * * * *

This post is part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. Do pop through to find links to all the great Poirot posts from yesterday, and check back with them over the next couple of days for links to today’s Miss Marple posts, and tomorrow’s posts on anything else Agatha Christie related.

AgathaChristie

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

24-carat Golden Age…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

4.50 from paddingtonWhen Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple. Miss Marple knows Mrs McGillicuddy is a sensible woman with no imagination, so believes that she saw exactly what she claims. Feeling too old and unfit to snoop around herself, Miss Marple asks Lucy Eyelesbarrow to hunt for the body and so Lucy takes a job at Rutherford Hall…

This book gets a little criticism for not really having many clues or much actual detection element in it. It’s never quite clear how Miss Marple arrives at the solution, other than her extensive knowledge of human nature. That’s not to say that the solution is unclear; it isn’t – it makes perfect sense. But the route to it isn’t as well defined as Christie’s usual.

But regardless, this is still one of my favourite Christie books. I love Miss Marple as a character, even more than M Poirot and his little grey cells, and she’s on top form in this one. She gives us some nice village parallels to shed light on the characters of the suspects; she twinkles affectionately at both young Inspector Craddock and Lucy; she does a bit of gentle match-making; and she gives us some classic Delphic pronouncements that leave the reader as beautifully baffled as the other characters.

Miss Marple put down her knitting and picked up The Times with a half-done crossword puzzle.
“I wish I had a dictionary here,” she murmured. “Tontine and Tokay – I always mix those two words up. One, I believe, is a Hungarian wine.”
“That’s Tokay,” said Lucy, looking back from the door. “But one’s a five-letter word and one’s a seven. What’s the clue?”
“Oh, it wasn’t in the crossword,” said Miss Marple vaguely. “It was in my head.”

For me, one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome. The dearly-departed’s relatives always take a stoic attitude to the death of their parents/spouses/siblings/children which, while it might not be altogether realistic, is certainly considerably more enjoyable than two hundred pages of descriptions of grieving, sobbing, wailing and general tooth-gnashing. In Christie novels, the emphasis is on entertainment – a mystery and a puzzle to solve, rather than an attempt to harrow the soul.

Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said
Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said

Apart from Miss Marple herself, there are two things that make this one particularly entertaining. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a great character – a strong, independent young woman, making a success of her life in this post-war world. With the difficulties of getting domestic servants, she has seen an opportunity for herself in being the ultimate housekeeper, and is hugely in demand by ladies everywhere who need help in running their homes. She can and does demand exorbitant wages and never stays anywhere for more than a few weeks, but during those weeks she makes life wonderfully carefree for her employers. So Emma Crackenthorpe of Rutherford Hall jumps at the chance to have her at a reduced rate for a while, to help out with her elderly old curmudgeon of a father and her assortment of brothers and brothers-in-law when they descend on the house en masse for a visit. And it’s not long before several of these men have recognised Lucy’s unique attractions…

Jill Meager as Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the Joan Hickson version
Jill Meager as Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the Joan Hickson version

Then there are the two boys, Alexander, the son of a deceased Crackenthorpe sister, and his friend Stodders, both visiting during the school holidays. These two remind me a little of Jennings and Derbyshire, (if you haven’t read the Jennings and Derbyshire books, you really must! Or listen to the audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry – joyous stuff!), or perhaps like terribly polite and well brought up versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. No counselling for these children! No, indeed! When a corpse is discovered, they don’t get traumatised, they get out there looking for clues! In which pursuit they are aided and abetted by a bunch of adults who seem to think it’s quite normal, healthy even, for boys their age to be fascinated by all things murderous. When did we become the wussy, wimpy society of today, molly-coddling our children and trying to keep all of the world’s nastiness away from them?

“Please, sir, can we see the body?”
“No, you can’t,” said Inspector Bacon… “Have you ever seen a blonde woman wearing a light-coloured dyed squirrel coat anywhere about the place?”
“Well, I can’t remember exactly,” said Alexander astutely. “If I were to have a look…”
“Take ’em in, Sanders,” said Inspector Bacon to the constable who was standing by the barn door. “One’s only young once!”
“Oh, sir, thank you, sir.” Both boys were vociferous. “It’s very kind of you, sir.”

Oh, I’m sorry… let me jump off my soapbox and get back to the book…

agatha_christie
Agatha Christie

Wonderfully entertaining, full of humour, great plot even if the clues aren’t quite fairplay, and a little bit of possible romance to spice things up. (For people who’ve already read it – in fact, the romantic sub-plot is one of the things I like most about the book – I still haven’t decided. Have you? I know which I hope for though. Now, isn’t that almost Marple-ishly Delphic?)

Miss Marple is one of the sleuths selected by Martin Edwards for his list of Ten Top Golden Age Detectives – an essential inclusion!

I shall be reviewing the Film of the Book this Saturday as part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. I do hope you’ll pop back – the event should be loads of fun!

classics club logo 2
This is Book 1 of my Classics Club list.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Affair at the Bungalow by Agatha Christie

Never trust a woman…

 

Goodness! I realised that the surely undisputed Queen of Golden Age Crime hadn’t made an appearance in this little classic detective series yet – what an omission! So here we go with a Miss Marple special for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

The Affair at the Bungalow
by Agatha Christie

 

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

 

“I’ve thought of something,” said Jane Helier.

Her beautiful face was lit up with the confident smile of a child expecting approbation. It was a smile such as moved audiences nightly in London, and which had made the fortune of photographers.

This story comes from the collection The Thirteen Problems. The format of each of the stories is that a group of friends meet for dinner, and that each of them takes a turn at telling of some mystery they have come across in real life and challenging the others to solve it. On the evening that this story is told, the dinner is being hosted by Mrs Bantry. Amongst the guests is Jane Helier, a beautiful but somewhat dim-witted actress, and she tells the assembled company of a strange thing that once happened to her ‘friend’…

Everyone made encouraging but slightly hypocritical noises. Colonel Bantry, Mrs Bantry, Sir Henry Clithering, Dr Lloyd and old Miss Marple were one and all convinced that Jane’s ‘friend’ was Jane herself. She would have been quite incapable of remembering or taking an interest in anything affecting anyone else.

Margaret Rutherford as the most unlikely Miss Marple ever - but great fun!
Margaret Rutherford as the most unlikely Miss Marple ever – but great fun!

Jane tells of a time when she was appearing in theatre in a riverside town. One night, the local police ask her to come to the police station to identify a young man whom they are holding. Leslie Faulkener is an aspiring playwright and had been thrilled to receive a letter, purporting to be from Jane, inviting him to come and discuss a play he had sent to her. On turning up at the address specified – a bungalow in the same riverside town – the parlour-maid took him through to the drawing-room where a spurious ‘Jane Helier’ offered him a cocktail and began to talk about his play. The real Jane is somewhat huffed that he didn’t immediately see through the deception, but she comforts herself modestly with the reflection that…

Anyway, he described this woman as tall and fair with big blue eyes and very good-looking, so I suppose it must have been near enough.

Poor Leslie drank the cocktail and remembered nothing more until he woke up dazed and confused, lying in the road beside a hedge. Next thing he knows, he has been picked up by the police who tell him that he is suspected of burglary. It appears that the bungalow is the secret love-nest of a big city financier and a well-known actress, to whom Jane gives the pseudonym of Miss Mary Kerr, and that some priceless jewels have been stolen. The police had received a phone call, apparently from the mistress of the house, saying that Leslie had been seen leaving the bungalow via a window. However Miss Kerr later denies making the call and, when he sees the real Jane Helier, Leslie admits that she was not the woman he met in the house. The question is – who stole the jewels and why did they go to the trouble of creating this elaborate deception?

Julia McKenzie - great actress and a fine Miss Marple, but oh, how they messed up the stories...
Julia McKenzie – great actress and a fine Miss Marple, but oh, how they messed up the stories…

The various guests consider the case and come up with several suggestions, but none that fully explain all of the facts. Eventually they turn to Miss Marple, but even she confesses herself at a loss. Until, that is, a comment from Dr Lloyd puts her in mind of Mrs Pebmarsh, one of her famous village parallels…

“Mrs Pebmarsh? Who is Mrs Pebmarsh?”

“Well -” Miss Marple hesitated. “I don’t know that she really comes in. She’s a laundress. And she stole an opal pin that was pinned into a blouse and put it in another woman’s house.”

There! That makes it all perfectly clear, doesn’t it? No, the other guests didn’t think so either, but Miss Marple merely remarks cryptically that women must stick together, whispers a comment for Jane’s ear only, and takes her leave. When Jane tells Mrs Bantry the rest of the story later, it’s no surprise to learn that Miss Marple has worked the whole thing out. Which is more than I did!

* * * * *

This is a lovely little story, only about 20 or so pages but beautifully complicated and told with all of Christie’s usual skill. There’s lots of humour in it, mainly at the expense of the egotistical Jane Helier, but it’s affectionate humour. And for fans, an appearance by Mrs Bantry is always a special treat – she’s one of my favourite recurring characters in the Miss Marple stories, and in this one she’s on top form, coming up with at least half a dozen possible solutions, each one more far-fetched than the last. I’m not convinced it’s totally fair-play – the reader is given one fairly crucial piece of information only as the solution is revealed, but it would be possible to work out the who and how, if not the why. It doesn’t matter though – it’s light and fun and a pleasure to read, proving again that Agatha Christie was a mistress of the short story format just as much as the full-length novel.

Ahhh! Finally! The definitive Miss Marple... the late, great Joan Hickson
Ahhh! Finally! The definitive Miss Marple… the late, great Joan Hickson

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(No online link this week, I’m afraid – I couldn’t find a legal one. But the story is available as a Kindle single or as part of The Thirteen Problems collection.)

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie read by Joan Hickson

Excellent reading of a classic mystery novel…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the moving fingerThis is my top favourite of all of Agatha Christie’s stories, and this reading by the marvellous Joan Hickson is pretty much perfect.

Although this is a Miss Marple tale, she doesn’t in fact appear until the last quarter of the book. The story is told in the first person by injured airman Jerry Burton who, accompanied by his sister Joanna, has moved to Lymstock to recuperate in the peace and quiet of village life. But there’s no such thing as peace in a Christie village. Spiteful gossip, anonymous letters, jealousy, resentment and murder – not quite what the doctor ordered. However, as always with Christie, there’s plenty of humour, likeable lead characters and a little bit of romance. And when the vicar’s wife finally calls in Miss Marple to act as an ‘expert in wickedness’, we know she’ll dig the truth out from under the pile of red herrings that Christie has carefully strewn in our path.

joan hickson

Listening to Joan Hickson is like being read to by a favourite grandmother. This is a straight reading – she doesn’t ‘act’ the various parts, but her tone is full of expression and her rather old-fashioned accent is perfect for the period of the novel. Sometimes when listening to an audio book I find my attention wandering a bit – but not with this one. Ms Hickson sucked me in (despite the fact that I know the book so well) and held my attention throughout. She brings out the lightness and humour that make Christie’s mysteries such a pleasure and her obvious affection for the book is contagious.

An excellent reading of one of the very best of classic mystery novels. I downloaded it from Audible but it’s also available on disc, with a running time of 5hrs 39mins. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – the disc set doesn’t appear to be available in the US.