THE BOOK Fontana 1964 pp 192
The cover features the first painting created by Tom Adams for Fontana. It depicts the immediate aftermath of the murder announced for 6:30pm – bullet-holes, dead violets and blood. There are the usual 192 pages in this book – a very standard Christie length! Some might say that it would have benefited from being ten pages shorter, but Agatha Christie was very meticulous about the number of words that constituted her novels: for her the ‘right length’ of a detective story was 50,000 words.
An announcement in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette proclaims that a murder will take place at the home of Miss Blacklock. Curious villagers gather there at the appointed time expecting some kind of parlour game but a murder duly takes place.
Miss Marple had been staying at the hotel where the victim (Rudi Scherz, a receptionist) worked, and she contacts the police to tell them what she suspects about him. She then invites herself to the vicarage at Chipping Cleghorn, the home of Bunch Harmon, vicar’s wife and Miss Marple’s god-daughter, to investigate for herself.
The book was published in 1950, and the writing clearly reflects post-war realities in Britain: shortages, rationing, the black market, displaced persons and people reduced to slender means.
This story has an unusually rich cast of characters (or suspects). Miss Blacklock’s home provides a haven for a variety of ‘refugees’ – either genuine ones, such as Mitzi the cook, or economic ones, including Dora Bunner, Patrick and Julia Simmons, and Mrs Haymes. Miss Blacklock herself proves to be in hiding, and the police grow (justifiably) suspicious that no-one in the house, or village, is who they proclaim themselves to be.1
The character of the murderer is most unusual for a swigatha, in that she is hugely upset at the enormity of what she has done, especially the murder of her only friend. We are not told what happens to her afterwards but can only presume that her remorse will not save her from being hanged.
Also unusual in this context are the characters of Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, two ladies living together in a loving relationship. Both are sympathetically, even movingly, treated.
Here is Miss Marple on the medical profession:
“I always feel that the young doctors are only too anxious to experiment. After they’ve whipped out all our teeth, and administered quantities of very peculiar glands, and removed bits of our insides, they then confess that nothing can be done for us. I really prefer the old-fashioned remedy of big black bottles of medicine. After all, one can always pour them down the sink.”
Agatha Christie was also unconvinced: doctors do not get a good press in many of her books. And here Miss Marple explains the character of the murderer, an echo in some ways of Caroline Sheppard’s analysis of her brother’s character in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:
“Weak and kindly people are very often treacherous. And if they’ve got a grudge against life it saps the little moral strength that they may possess.”
Here’s an interesting take on post-war Britain, not one we often hear – the local view on the death at Miss Blacklock’s:
“An’ that sort of thing wouldn’t ‘ave ‘appened afore the war. Deserters, that’s what it is. Desperate men roaming the countryside … ”
Miss Blacklock defends Mitzi, displaying the kindly instincts that were later to betray her:
“Please don’t be too prejudiced against the poor thing because she’s a liar. I do really believe that, like so many liars, there is a real substratum of truth behind her lies. I mean that though, to take an instance, her atrocity stories have grown and grown until every kind of unpleasant story that has ever appeared in print has happened to her or her relations personally, she did have a bad shock initially and did see one, at least, of her relations killed. I think a lot of these displaced persons feel, perhaps justly, that their claim to our notice and sympathy lies in their atrocity value and so they exaggerate and invent.”
SWIGATHA RATING 8/10
On re-reading it, I realised that this is one of the more impressive Christie books. It is well-set, and the original idea (to invite all the neighbours round when you’re planning to kill someone) is a great way to kick it off. The knock-on effects of WWII on village life are well-integrated into the story and there are genuine elements of tragedy in it.
The villagers who take up the invitation to the murder are not quite sure if they have actually been invited or not, and in their awkwardness each of them make the same inane observations. One of these is that it is unusual for the central heating to be on. This proves to be a crucial clue, and Agatha Christie manages to repeat it three times on the same page, and yet still hide it in plain sight by virtue of including it in a comic passage.
Unfortunately, there is a fatuous passage towards the end of the book, leading to the attempted murder of Mitzi, which detracts from the quality of the rest of it. Christie must have been 3,000 or so words short!
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Bunch Harmon re-appears in a later short story (Sanctuary) set in her parish church. Dermot Craddock, the investigating officer and godson of Sir Henry Clithering, Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, re-appears in later Marple stories such as 4:50 from Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. By the latter, he is referring to Marple as ‘Aunt Jane’, an assumption also made by others with no actual blood connection to her.
There was a superb, brilliantly cast BBC version from 1984 featuring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. It stays very true to the book, and the pivotal scene with Marple and Dora Bunner in the café is so atmospheric – the actors play off one another brilliantly. John Altman’s musical arrangements are also, as ever, excellent.
A later adaptation for ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, featuring Geraldine McEwan, is also well-cast and one of the best in the series (admittedly that is not saying a great deal).
A stage adaptation was written by Leslie Darbon and has been staged all over the world. Here is a version produced by Singaporean Bengalis.
1 See also this page Who’s Who in Chipping Cleghorn