THE BOOK Fontana 1969 pp 192
Tom Adams’ cover is one of my favourites. To explain the relevance of the image – commissioner, bullet, chocolate – would give too much away about the plot.
The other images are taken from the BBC ‘Miss Marple’ episode. The first shows the wonderful Caroline Blakiston as Bess Sedgwick; underneath is a still taken following her car crash, one which demonstrates that the director was well-acquainted with Adams’ cover painting.
The legend on the title page inside reads: “At Bertram’s Hotel FEATURING MISS MARPLE THE ORIGINAL CHARACTER AS CREATED BY AGATHA CHRISTIE”. This is a dig at the Marple films, current at the time, that featured Margaret Rutherford in the title role and bore little resemblance either to her character or her stories.
‘Dear Raymond’, Miss Marple’s nephew, has (once again) paid for her to go away, this time to spend a fortnight at a favourite hotel in London that she had visited as a child. Miss Marple is initially delighted to be back, and marvels at how little has changed. Then she begins to feel uneasy – over the course of fifty years, some things should have changed.
Her unease proves to be justified when Canon Pennyfather, one of the guests, disappears. Murder follows …
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
The guests at Bertrams are a mix: a plethora of retired clergymen, impoverished old county ladies and ex-Army officers on the one side, and rich American tourists on the other. The former are there to provide the atmosphere that the latter seek – My dear, it just is Olde Englande – and so are given preferential rates.
The hotel staff are all perfectly cast, from the Jeeves-ian master-of-ceremonies Henry to the Lemon-esque Miss Gorringe on the front desk.
Into this mix are added members of the dysfunctional Sedgwick family – the daredevil Bess, one of her (many) ex-husbands, her troubled daughter Elvira, whom Bess had disowned, and a racing driver who is having a fling with both of them.
This book was written at a time of huge change in the UK. At one point, Elvira’s guardian Colonel Luscombe rails against these long-haired Beatles or whatever they call themselves, but Miss Marple / Agatha Christie’s view is that change is healthy; stagnant ponds, on the other hand, are very unhealthy.
One irony is that the American visitors to Bertrams are looking for an England that no longer existed, oblivious to the fact that most of the post-war cultural changes in the UK had been inspired by imports from their own shores, in the form of rock and roll music, fast food, cinema and commercial TV.
Colonel Luscombe is Elvira’s guardian. Not exactly the doting parent type:
His wife had died in childbirth and the baby, a boy, had been brought up by his wife’s family whilst an elder sister had come to keep house for him.
There is an interesting and unusually frank exchange with Elvira as he tries protect her from her mother. Maybe the author has put something of herself into it:1
‘It’s not always a happy thing to have a wonderful person for a mother.’
‘You don’t like speaking the truth very much, do you? But I think what you’ve just said is the truth.’
Here Miss Marple reflects on societal change since the Great War and a world that has disappeared (‘can’t get the servants’). She realises that Bertram’s must be a fake:
All these elderly people – really very much like those she remembered when she stayed here fifty years ago. They had been natural then – but they weren’t very natural now. Elderly people nowadays weren’t like elderly people then – they had that worried harried look of domestic anxieties with which they are too tired to cope, or they rushed around to committees and tried to appear bustling and confident …
What Miss Marple overlooks is that she herself fits in perfectly to the Bertrams mise-en-scene. Even so, she is not nostalgic for the past:
‘I learned (what I supposed I really knew already) that one can never go back, that one should not ever try to go back – that the essence of life is going forward. Life really is a One Way Street, isn’t it?’
Elvira tells Chief Inspector Davy that she was the intended victim:
‘Someone tried to kill me … Someone … they shot at me … If it hadn’t been for him – ‘
She pointed down at the motionless figure at her feet.
Seasoned AC readers’ antennae would leap into life at this point.
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
This book came with me when I went to stay with my French cousins when I was 13. It was a memento of home, very English, and I still have a great affection for it. Reading it again, it was still very enjoyable, especially the superficially cosy scenes set in the hotel. But, of course, the author manages her usual trick of pulling the whole carpet from under her readers’ feet with the un-cosiest denouement imaginable.
Although its setting was an Edwardian-style hotel, the book was very much of its time (1964-5), with references to the Beatles and motor-racing, and a plot that in part echoes the Great Train Robbery of 1963.
Unfortunately, I have to mark it down slightly. For no less than the fourth time, a woman at the heart of the story claims that someone’s been trying to kill her, and for the fourth time they prove to be the murderer.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Miss Marple returned home, for a well-earned six-year rest.
Directed by Mary McMurray, BBC’s Miss Marple series served the book well, and, like Bertram’s own staff, every part was perfectly cast, especially mother and daughter (Caroline Blakiston and Helena Michell).
1 I wonder whether this is a reflection on how difficult some aspects of author’s huge fame must have been for her own daughter, Rosalind. There is also an echo of Bess Sedgwick in the way that the Christies went on a round-the-world trip when she was two, leaving her behind, and maybe also in the famous disappearance. There is no supporting evidence for this, but I do wonder.