Like many of Agatha Christie’s stories of the 1940s, A Murder is Announced is set firmly in the time that it was written (1947-9), with every character in it affected in one way or another by common features of the post-WW2 period in the UK: the rationing of everything, and the difficulties of finding one’s way and place in a hugely-changed world, whether as a refugee, demobbed soldier, ex-land girl or whoever.
Underlying the story, however, there are also elements driven by the angels and demons of the author’s own childhood that add hugely to its quality.
A combination of the two creates a picture of a village way of life (in Chipping Cleghorn) that is unrecognisable from that described in her earlier stories.
Village Life in King’s Abbott
Dr James Sheppard, the narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (published in 1926), includes a brief chapter “Who’s Who in King’s Abbott”. He describes it as very much like any other village where the hobbies and recreations can be summed up in one word, ‘gossip’.
Everyone knows everyone else; Ackroyd has lived there all his life and is the heart and soul of our peaceful village, and everyone is very fond of his son Ralph. Houses have maids and under-gardeners, fishmongers and butchers have delivery boys, and the village grapevine is in full operation, enabling the doctor’s sister Caroline to know everyone’s business without leaving her home.
The First World War had come and gone but village life remained much the same.
Village Life in Chipping Cleghorn
Twenty-four years later, that picture would be unrecognisable.
The knock-on effects of the Second World War – troops returning after years away, deserters roaming the countryside, refugees, rationing, shortages and the shrinkage of empire – are pivotal to the plot and the background of almost every character in it.
During and following the War, most households had had to learn to manage without servants and butchers without boys. Straitened means meant that previously well-to-do people had had to sell up and leave, or downsize households that their families had lived in for generations, as Miss Marple explains:
If King’s Abbott’s Caroline Sheppard had wanted to know what was happening in Chipping Cleghorn, she would have had to get a copy of the North Benham News and the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette – the old grapevine had gone.
Such a village, where no-one really knows who other people are, provides a setting that allows Agatha Christie to explore in more detail one of her common themes : How do you really know who someone else is?
The household at Little Paddocks, the scene of the crime, consists almost entirely of refugees of one sort or another who have settled there since the end of the War. Mitzi, the cook, is an actual refugee from the post-war horrors of Central Europe, whereas the others – Mrs Haymes, Dora Bunner, Patrick and Julia Simmons – could be classed as economic refugees scrounging off the householder, Miss Blacklock. Two of them are twins (‘Pip and Emma’) who do not even recognise each other.
Miss Blacklock herself is also in hiding: Dora Bunner is the only person who knows who she really is, but is happy to collude with her in concealing her identity.
Among the neighbours who drop in on the day for which the murder had been announced, four, the Swettenhams and the Easterbrooks, are themselves refugees of a kind – from a shrinking British Empire.
The one person that Miss Marple can be sure is who they say they are, is the vicar’s wife Bunch, but then Bunch is her god-daughter.
Open Doors and Shortages
Although no-one can be quite sure who anyone else is in Chipping Cleghorn, everyone is happy to leave their doors wide open when they go out. This might seem strange at first, and the police cannot understand it.
The houses, however, were left open not as a sign of mutual trust – no-one had anything worth taking anyway. Open doors enabled the village’s own version of the post-war black market to function, and it is the one thing that everyone in the village does know about.
Everyone was forced to collude with each other as they coped with the shortage of every essential, from food to fuel to clothing.
Strictly speaking, such a black market means that just about every person in the village is breaking the law, something it is difficult to imagine the redoubtable Mrs Price-Ridley, Miss Wetherby and Miss Hartnell doing in days gone by.
As Inspector Craddock realises, it is the Chipping Cleghorn ‘open door policy’ that allows the murderer to get hold of the weapon, and to smuggle Rudi Scherz into Little Paddocks to perform his comedy before he is shot with it.
One thing Craddock fails to grasp is the implication of the central heating being left on at Little Paddocks when it wasn’t really necessary. It is mentioned by every visitor because, at a time of coupons for every necessity, they clearly each found it worthy of comment that vital fuel was being squandered in such a way.
That proves to be the key to unlocking the mystery.
Agatha Christie and Identity
This book was Agatha Christie’s 50th, and only one of many that has characters concealing their identity or stealing someone else’s, but that is a theme that runs right through this story.
The question is asked of every character: ‘How do we really know who this is?’ Agatha Christie’s interest in such a question, and its answer, goes back to her early childhood.
From the age of about 6, Agatha Christie had a recurring nightmare featuring someone she called The Gunman:
“The gun was part of his appearance … that of a Frenchman in grey-blue uniform, powdered hair in a queue and a kind of three-cornered hat, and the gun was some old-fashioned kind of musket.” 1
In her dreams, this Gunman would appear at a normal tea-party at home, happily joining in the conversation; only Agatha knew who he really was. Sometimes she would look into the face of her sister or mother at the party and realise that it was actually the Gunman looking back at her.
The childhood Gunman nightmare left its traces in the adult. In 1926, Agatha Christie was alone and vulnerable after her mother’s death. She was also on the verge of a breakdown as she cleared her mother’s effects from Ashfield, her childhood home. One day, her then-husband Archie visited from London.
She describes recalling
… that old nightmare of mine – the horror of sitting at a tea table looking across at my best-loved friend, and suddenly realising that the person sitting there was a stranger.
In fact, Archie had come to tell her that he loved someone else, and this tips her over the edge. Agatha went into hiding, running away to a place where no-one would know her. There, for eleven days, she herself adopted a false identity, using the surname of Archie’s lover.
Her second husband, Max Mallowan, served in North Africa during WWII, and she had similar fears that she would not know him when he returned after a long period on duty. Thankfully, she did, and the Gunman was perhaps finally put away for good, but the possibility that people were not who they seemed to be continued to inform her plotting.
Old School – Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd
Apart from the vicar and his wife, the only people in Chipping Cleghorn about whom there are no doubts as to their identity are Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd. These are two late middle-aged ladies who have long been living together in a loving relationship.
Hinchcliffe is the strong character, with ‘a short man-like crop and weather-beaten countenance’. She is fiercely protective of the ‘fat and amiable’ Murgatroyd. These two characters had been gestating in Agatha Christie’s mind for half a century.
She had not been to school as a young girl and had few friends of her own age, so she invented her own pretend-school for girls, known simple as The School. She populated it initially with young girls around her own age (6-11), and kept developing them in her imagination well into adulthood. Each had a specific character, and the first she invented were Ethel and Annie.
Ethel was … clever, good at games, had a deep voice and must have been rather masculine in appearance. Annie … was shy and nervous and easily reduced to tears… She clung to Ethel, who protected her on every occasion …
“Ethel never married but lived in a small cottage with the gentle Annie – very appropriate, I think now: it’s exactly what they would have done in real life.1
Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd are, unlike most of the other characters at Little Paddocks on the night of the murder, amusingly and sympathetically portrayed. Also, unlike everyone else, no-one seriously questions who they are.
That is because Agatha Christie knew exactly who they were – she had been carrying them around in her head since the age of 10, and she treats them with great care. Most of the characters populating her books were based on people she spotted on buses or in cafes, about later whom she could not care less. It is therefore rare in her books that genuine grief at the passing of another is depicted, but it is in this one:
Nobody offered Miss Hinchcliffe sympathy or mentioned Miss Murgatroyd’s death. The ravaged face of the tall vigorous woman told its own tale, and would have made any expression of sympathy an impertinence.
The presence of these two genuine Agatha Christie characters, whom she loved and knew so well, helps lift this story up to a different level from most of the others.
After the murderer has been apprehended, two of the ex-suspects get engaged to be married, but even so there is little likelihood that everything in Chipping Cleghorn will be settling back to normal, as is usually the case with a swigatha.
For one thing, in the wake of the Second World War there was no ‘normal’ to settle back into, and in any case Hinchcliffe for one would forever be haunted by the ghost of her friend.
1 All these quotes are taken directly from Agatha Christie, An Autobiography. She also relates how her sister Madge would play a game, pretending to be another, older sister who was mad and lived in a cave:
‘You know who I am, don’t you dear? I’m your sister Madge. You don’t think I’m anyone else, do you? You wouldn’t think that …’
I used to feel indescribable terror. Of course I really knew it was only Madge pretending – but was it? Wasn’t it perhaps true? That voice – those crafty sideways glancing eyes. It was the elder sister.