THE BOOK Fontana 1971 pp 192
The hardback first edition cover refers to the pink woollen scarf that Miss Marple was wearing when she announced herself to Jason Rafiel as ‘Nemesis’ in A Caribbean Mystery. This book was a ‘Christie for Christmas’ present in 1971, and has worn well.
Tom Adams’ cover for the paperback reflects the body of a young girl buried under a collapsed greenhouse, but what looks like a red camellia is a strange choice to represent the rampant white-flowering Russian vine (polygonum baldschuanicum) that was planted over her.
The dedicatee is ‘Daphne Honeybone’, the author’s private secretary at the time.
Miss Marple receives a post-mortem commission from Jason Rafiel, a man who had helped her prevent a murder in the Caribbean a couple of years previously. She has been hired to bring about justice in the case of a crime long unsolved.
She is given no other indication, apart from a ticket for a coach tour, but she has confidence in Rafiel’s planning, so she accepts her commission and joins the tour …
The coach tour proves to be a journey into the past. All of the characters on the coach that are unconnected with that past fade almost immediately into the background, and we are left with a small cast to progress the plot:
- Professor Wanstead, a home office pathologist
- Miss Temple, the retired head of a girls’ school
- the enigmatic Misses Cooke and Barrow, who seem to be following Miss Marple everywhere
- the three Bradbury-Scott sisters, Clotilde, Anthea and Lavinia, feeling trapped in their family home like characters out of Chekhov.
In the background are the ghosts: Rafiel himself, Verity Hunt and Nora Broad, plus Michael Rafiel, who is serving a life sentence for Verity’s murder (the fate of Verity and Nora echoes a similar plot-line in an earlier Marple story, The Body in the Library).
Then there is Miss Marple herself. Unusually, she is the central character in a Marple story. Everything is seen through her eyes, and her thought processes are made clear – again and again, in some cases. But she is a very old lady, and the repetition does not jar as it does in some of the other Agatha Christie books of the period.
She has only one clue to work with, provided by Miss Temple: that Verity died of ‘Love’. But there are many variations within that particular emotion …
QUOTES AND ATTITUDES
A quotation from Longfellow comes to her mind when Miss Marple reads of Jason Rafiel’s death:
Ships that pass in the night, and speak to each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness
Miss Marple presumes that will be the last she hears of him, but the ‘signals’ and ‘a distant voice in the darkness’ are to continue from beyond the grave.
Miss Marple has a dream:
‘I was talking to someone, not anyone I knew very well. Just talking. Then when I looked, I saw it wasn’t that person at all I was talking to. It was somebody else. Very odd.’
This is another manifestation of Agatha Christie’s childhood nightmares about ‘The Gunman’1, who could assume the character and face of others at will, and no-one else could see him. Consciously or not, Agatha Christie has put a lot of herself, far more than usual, into the Miss Marple that appears in this book:
Miss Marple had never quite succeeded in abandoning her Victorian view of foreigners. One never knew with foreigners. Quite absurd of course, to feel like that – she had many foreign friends from various countries. All the same …
Miss Marple may have had many foreign friends from various countries but over the previous forty years of stories they had never been mentioned, nor the countries where they lived. Agatha Christie, on the other hand …
Miss Marple considers the Three Sisters:
They were what Miss Marple would have called in her youth by the now obsolete term ‘ladies’ – and what she once recalled calling ‘decayed ladies’. Her father had said to her: ‘No, dear Jane, not decayed. Distressed gentlewomen.’
Her own description turns out to be more appropriate than her father’s correction.
1971 was clearly still a perilous time for young girls. An old man in a churchyard delivers a verdict on the young girls buried in it.
‘Silly girls, I call most of ’em. And their mums haven’t got time to look after them properly nowadays – what with going out to work so much.’
Most of ‘em! How many young girls were buried in that churchyard?
The 1970s saw a long-overdue dawn of feminism in the UK. This comment by Professor Wanstead would have raised eyebrows even in 1971, but both it and similar lines elsewhere are leading the reader up the garden path:
‘Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be.’
Everything is turned on its head when the truth is revealed.
Gentle humour is such an important element of Agatha Christie’s writing. Here is one of my favourite examples:
‘He had six camels, the boys father, she said, and a whole troop of horses, and she was going to live in a wonderful house, she was, with carpets hanging up all over the walls, which seems a funny place to put carpets.‘
Miss Marple on the thick line between love and hate:
‘No,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I think hate would die out. You could try and keep it up artificially, but I think you would fail. It’s not as strong a force as love,’ she added.
Archdeacon Brabazon comments on the relationship between Verity and Michael:
‘Young women like bad lots. They always have. They fall in love with bad lots. They are quite sure they can change them.’
It reminds me of the hopeful bridal Wedding Vow: Aisle Altar Hymn … but Brabazon believed that Verity would have done so.
This was to be the last Jane Marple story that the author wrote. And what an appropriate exit she is given:
‘Mr Rafiel would have liked me to have fun,’ said Miss Marple. She went out of the door.
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
Robert Barnard’s summing up of this story ends: ‘All the usual strictures about late Christie apply.’2 For once, I do not agree with him. Unlike the other ‘murders in the past’ stories written around this time, this plot is coherent and there are very few unfollowed-up loose ends.
The opening idea was (once again) original and inspired: an invitation from beyond the grave to investigate something that gives no information about it.
The editing is still somewhat shoddy, but I enjoyed re-reading it, and it stands head and shoulders over both the books that preceded it and those which followed.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
One may presume that Rafiel’s money meant that Jane Marple was no longer dependent on her nephew, ‘dear Raymond’, who had paid for the Caribbean trip where she had met him (and paid for many other of her holidays). She was now going to have some fun.
One of her earlier cases, Sleeping Murder, was published later, after the author had died, and later still some short stories, Miss Marple’s Final Cases, appeared.
But those had been written many years before. This was Marple’s final appearance, and it is appropriate that her last act was to leave the room.
The BBC adaptation in 1987 is excellent, and I have to say that it improves the original. The main way that it achieves this is by its introduction to the heart of the story of two people ‘down on their luck’: Michael Rafiel and Lionel Peel, Miss Marple’s godson.
Michael has not been jailed for life in this production, but is living, penniless, among down-and-outs in London. Lionel is a new character, one who has been thrown out of his home by his wife, and taken sanctuary with his godmother. She takes him on the coach tour with her, and it proves to be the making of him. The scene where Lionel and Michael meet at the end is a memorable one.
The cast is very strong on every level, from the eerie Bradbury-Scotts and magisterial Miss Temple to the flustered coach tour guide Madge; from Nora’s gin-soaked grieving mother to Rafiel’s quietly-amused solicitors, Broadribb and Schuster. A delight, and a wonderful adaptation: there were changes made, but they all made sense.
By contrast, I draw a veil over the ITV 2007 production, which has Verity in a nun’s sanctuary and – oh, forget it.
1 Agatha Christie An Autobiography:
Sometimes, as we sat around a tea-table, I would look across at a friend, or a member of the family, and I would suddenly realise that it was not Dorothy or Phyllis or Monty, or my mother or whoever it might be. The pale blue eyes in the familiar face met mine – under the familiar appearance. It was really the Gunman.
2 Robert Barnard A Talent to Deceive