THE BOOK Fontana 1972 pp 189
Tom Adams’ cover shows a couple of elements dropped from a body as it is being dragged to be placed in the sarcophagus depicted behind them. The PAN cover speaks for itself. Neither speaks particularly eloquently to this reader.
Elspeth McGillicuddy is travelling on a train out of Paddington, on her way to stay with her friend, Jane Marple, when she sees a woman being strangled on another train that briefly runs alongside hers.
She reports it to the police, but they can find no trace of a body either on a train or a railway line, and dismiss her unlikely story. Miss Marple knows her friend is telling the truth; she applies her mind chronotopically1 to the problem of the missing body and finally realises how and where it must have been disposed of: in the huge grounds surrounding Rutherford Hall.
She persuades Lucy Eylesbarrow, a brilliant freelance purveyor of domestic labour, to apply for a post at the Hall and find the body …
This is one of those large-family plots at which Agatha Christie excelled. There is quite a mix of characters.
The family patriarch is Luther Crackenthorpe, a completely self-centred monster who offers the hired help his hand in marriage. Luther is cared for by his daughter Emma – likeable, honest and slightly down-trodden by the rest, but the central figure in the story nevertheless.
Her brothers Alfred, Cedric, and Harold are classic figures from the Christie family sagas (see also the Abernethies in After the Funeral, the Lees in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and the Cloades in Taken at the Flood). They represent the usual combination of the stuffed shirt, the shifty and the arty, and each makes a proposal to the hired help in a manner that reflects this.
Their brother-in-law Bryan Eastley is an ex-RAF officer still struggling to cope with peacetime (twelve years after the end of WWII). He also presses his attention on the hired help.
His young son Alexander has had to assume the adult role in the family, following his mother’s death; he too tries to arrange a marriage for his father, i.e. with the hired help, the person responsible for so many delicious meals.
Alexander is staying at the Hall with his friend James Stoddart-West. They are indulged hugely by the investigating authorities, given that they appear to be aged about eleven. There are not many children visible in Agatha Christie’s stories, but these two fit in well in this one.
Emma’s suitor is Dr Quimper, to all intents and purposes a decent, hard-working pillar of the newly-formed NHS. He has no time for Emma’s parasitic brethren, and is eventually given the opportunity to show it!
The hired help is, of course, Lucy Eylesbarrow. We see almost everything through her eyes but don’t really get to know her. At the end of the book it is implied that she is going to take up one of the surviving wider Crackenthorpe family offers, but it is not obvious to the reader which one.
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
Jane Marple reacts to her guest’s claim to have seen a murder being committed:
True to the precept handed down to her by her mother and grandmother – to wit: that a true lady can neither be shocked or surprised – Miss Marple merely raised her eyebrows and shook her head …
This book was written in 1957; in 1958-9 there was to be an Ashes series in Australia. Swigatha was very keen on cricket, and would have known that:
‘What about it, Stodders?’
‘Good-oh!’ said Stoddart-West.
‘He isn’t really Australian,’ explained Alexander courteously. ‘But he’s practising talking that way in case his people take him out to see the Test Match next year.’
Two young boys are allowed to see the decomposed body of a murdered young woman lying in a sarcophagus:
‘Take ’em in, Sanders,’ said Inspector Bacon to the constable who was standing by the barn door. ‘One’s only young once.’
‘Only young once’ indeed. So the two young boys are also ushered in to hear the gory details at the inquest:
‘We came on our bicycles,’ said Stoddart-West. ‘The policeman was very kind and let us in at the back of the hall. I hope you don’t mind, Miss Crackenthorpe,’ he added politely.
‘She doesn’t mind,’ said Cedric, answering for his sister. ‘You’re only young once. Your first inquest, I expect?’
Inspector Craddock considers Bryan Eastley (twelve years after the end of hostilities):
‘Now they find life tame. Tame and unsatisfactory. In a way, we’ve given them a raw deal. Though I don’t really know what we could do about it. But there they are, all past and no future …’
Presumably the Crackenthorpe boys would also have been called up to serve in the same war, but one doubts that Cedric would now be finding life ‘tame’ …
Here is a typical piece of Agatha Christie – not her opinion at all but put into the mouth of the local doctor (Morris) to expose the widespread, somewhat ridiculous insularity that pertained in the UK at the time:2
‘Ah well, I dare say he’d have lived to regret it if he had married a foreign wife.’
Here is another typical piece of Christie – a fantastic economy in the outlining of character, studded with a dry wit:
‘I don’t really like air travel. I never have. Makes me nervous.’
‘Saves a lot of time,’ said Harold.
Lady Alice Crackenthorpe did not answer. It was possible that her problem in life was not to save time but to occupy it.
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
This story, like many of the later Christies, has an absolutely brilliant opening but tends to meander somewhat after then. There are plenty of different types of character, and their inter-action is always interesting. The question at the end about who Lucy will marry is an intriguing one, and is left satisfyingly unanswered.
But the solution does not ring true: the villain is a likeable, hard-working man who has a genuine affection for Emma; even so, he poisons her! Of all the places to conceal a body, the grounds of a house with which the villain is closely associated would also seem a strange choice. The idea of a tontine motive for the subsequent deaths of the family members seems to have been inserted simply to pad things out. How Miss Marple came up with the idea for this motive is a mystery in itself.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Stoddart-West presumably went off to the Ashes series with his family (to witness a 4-0 drubbing by Australia). Agatha Christie hinted later that the Crackenthorpe to win Lucy Eylesbarrow’s affection would have been Cedric. A sequel that focused on their life together would have been very interesting.
The first film adaptation featured Margaret Rutherford playing Miss Marple (and, in effect, Elspeth McGillicuddy and Lucy Eylesbarrow). It is one of the better Rutherford Marples and very watchable, but the best adaptation I have seen is, yet again, one of the BBC’s Hickson Marples.
It manages to make more sense of the plot: Miss Marple relying less on divine guidance to work out the motive and more on the Crackenthorpe family solicitor’s hints. The character of Lucy Eylesbarrow is given free rein and Jill Meager steals the show. Unfortunately for her, in this adaptation she ends up with the incredibly dull Bryan Eastley rather than the louche Cedric …
There was also a TV version produced by ITV’s misleadingly-named Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series that somehow manages to inject Noel Coward into the story.
1 Miss Marple uses a combination of Ordnance Survey maps and railway timetables to work out where and when the crime had taken place, and what opportunities had presented themselves to the murderer to successfully dispose of the corpse before the train stopped.
This aspect of the novel was the subject of a presentation during the Agatha Christie Conference at Lady Cavendish College, Cambridge in 2017 entitled Old Ladies on Trains: The Inherently Chronotopic Nature of Miss Marple’s Detection in 4:50 from Paddington. Great title! Who could resist?
2 I think there must be room in this world for an analysis entitled Doctors in the Stories of Agatha Christie; she does not usually give them a good press, it seems to me.