THE BOOK Fontana 1970 pp 158
Tom Adams’ cover captures the key moment in the whole story in more detail than one might normally expect. Shall say no more! It’s a beautiful book, still in good condition some 50 years later; and, yes, it has been read a few times.
‘Dear Raymond’, Miss Marple’s nephew, has packed her off to a hotel in the West Indies to help her recover from a bout of pneumonia. While there, she finds herself being entertained by the old Colonial bore Major Palgrave.
Her attention drifts until she realises that he is relating a story about an unconvicted serial killer.
The following morning, the major is found dead in his chalet, and Miss Marple finds herself regretting that she had not paid him more attention. For it soon becomes apparent that the serial killer is staying at the hotel …
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
In spite of the blurb on the back of the Fontana edition, most of the people staying at the hotel are much of a muchness, and are almost interchangeable. They are not an attractive bunch.
For example, there are four friends, Greg, Lucky, Edmund and Evelyn, who always holiday together; their love-lives seem interchangeable but it is difficult to remember or care who is doing what with whom and why.
Those people who are seen to be, or feel, out of their class, or financial depth, such as the masseur Jackson, are ignored, even despised by most. But not by Miss Marple …
One of the more interesting characters is the black maid, Victoria: competent, beautiful and charming, if somewhat immoral. She becomes one of the victims of the killer, but it is not clear whether this is because she told the killer what she had seen or was indulging in blackmail.
One of the themes that crops up again and again in Agatha Christie’s Marple books is “How can one ever really know who anyone is?’ Especially when in a hotel crammed with guests who all behave the same.
Eventually Miss Marple finds a guest whom she respects – the amoral cripple Rafiel – which enables her to make progress and prevent the final murder. It is obvious who Rafiel is.
We are treated to an extract from the latest of (dear) Raymond West’s (clever) novels:
‘Do you mean that you’ve had no sexual experience at ALL?’ demanded the young man incredulously. ‘At nineteen? But you must. It’s vital.’
The girl hung her head unhappily, her straight greasy hair fell forward over her face.
‘I know,’ she muttered, ‘I know.’
He looked at her, the stained old jersey, the bare feet, the dirty toe nails, the smell of rancid fat … He wondered why he found her so maddeningly attractive.
Miss Marple wondered too!
Raymond West explains to Aunt Jane who’ll be looking after her house while she is away:
‘He’ll look after the house all right. He’s very house proud. He’s a queer. I mean – ‘
He had paused, slightly embarrassed – but surely even dear old Aunt Jane had heard of queers.
Miss Marple meets Victoria Johnson.
The black West Indian girl smiled and said Good Morning as she placed the tray on Miss Marple’s knees. Nice natures, all these girls, and a pity they were so averse to getting married. It worried Canon Prescott a good deal. Plenty of christenings, he said, trying to console himself, but no weddings.
The owner of the hotel explains the plight of Jackson:
‘Well, how shall I put it – it’s difficult for him socially. People are so damn snobbish – there’s no-one here of his class. He’s better than a servant – and below the average visitor – or they think he is. Rather like the Victorian governess.’
Miss Marple consoles the supposedly dying Rafiel that his will to live is not odd.
‘When you’re young and strong and healthy, and life stretches ahead of you, living isn’t really important at all. It’s young people who commit suicide easily, out of despair from love, sometimes from sheer anxiety and worry. But old people know how valuable life is, and how interesting.’
Rafiel is talking here about Esther Walters, and throws an interesting light on the social standing of school-teachers at the time:
‘For one thing, there’s class distinction. She’s just a cut above him. Not very much. If she was really a cut above him it wouldn’t matter, but the lower middle-class – they’re very particular. Her mother was a school-teacher and her father a bank-clerk. No, she won’t make a fool of herself over Jackson.’
Rafiel considers black workers, a century after emancipation.
‘They’ve both worked like blacks, though that’s an odd term to use out here, for blacks don’t work themselves to death at all, as far as I can see. Was looking at a fellow shinning up a coconut tree to get his breakfast, then he goes to sleep for the rest of the day. Nice life.’
SWIGATHA RATING 5/10
I enjoyed this book hugely as a boy, but on returning to it in adulthood I found it rather bland. As with too many of Agatha Christie’s later books, it has a great beginning, but tends to drift after that. It is a good 34 pages short of her usual 192 pages but still seems to drag a bit.
One thing in its favour – it is the best version of the ‘staring over my left shoulder’ clue that she had been using ever since The Man in the Brown Suit in 1924. So, it’s a shame that the cover of the version I read just about screams this book’s answer to it.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Miss Marple returned home. Five years or so later she finds out that Rafiel has died, and soon after that she is contacted by his solicitors with a letter from him. This forms the beginning of the novel Nemesis, which had been Rafiel’s nickname for her in this Caribbean mystery.
There was a 1980s film starring Helen Hayes (which I have yet to see) and a BBC adaptation that was one of the Hickson Marples. This latter is very well cast, with the great Frank Middlemas as Palgrave and the equally fine Donald Pleasance as Rafiel.
The plot is a bit slight to carry over two hours, so the producers inserted a bus-trip taken by Miss Marple to meet Victoria’s aunt. They discuss Persian roses and the joys of Stockport. It’s the best scene in the film, followed by another where Miss Marple attends Victoria’s funeral.