Sleeping Murder

John Bennett as Erskine
BBC Miss Marple

THE BOOK  Fontana  1978 pp 192

Tom Adams’ scope for this cover was limited by the demands of the publisher, who wanted a Marple memorial that included large text and her knitting.1

Unlike most of the Fontana paperbacks I have from the 1960s, but like most of their paperbacks from the mid-70s, my edition is coming apart a bit.

THE STORY 

Newly-wed orphans Gwenda and Giles Reed are house-hunting in Devon. Gwenda believes that she has found the perfect place, and they buy Hillside, but when they move in she is haunted by the feeling that she knows the house very well, too well. A visit to a performance of The Duchess of Malfi shocks her into a memory of a murder that she had witnessed there as a young child. Fortunately, Miss Marple is sitting beside her in the theatre …

This story was written at some time in the 1940s-1950s (it is not very clear when, exactly2) and locked away in a vault, to be published as a Marple swansong after the author’s death.

CHARACTERS  

The characterisation in this book is not memorable. The newly-weds are charming, intrepid etc but it takes some believing that two young orphans (Gwenda is 21) would be able to buy a huge house with a large garden in Devon.

The most interesting characters in the story are Gwenda’s father, Kelvin Halliday, and his wife Helen; both are long dead but come very much alive via descriptions by others.

Helen’s supposed suitors (Messrs Fane, Erskine and Affleck) are very succinctly described – e.g. Walter Fane, ‘the ghost of a spider’ – but none of them really seems to have much of a motive for murder and they each disappear from the memory once they have left the page.  

It is a slightly strange book, because it does not seem to be set in any particular time (i.e. whenever it was written). Most of the swigathas written during the late 1940s and early 1950s, which this one presumably was, either reference World War II in some way, or the privations that followed it, or the introduction of the Welfare State, or the establishment of the National Health Service, or all four: not this one. Maybe this was deliberate, given that the story was going to be locked away until sometime after the author’s death.

QUOTES AND ATTITUDES

One thing, however, that does come across as very much of the time that the book was written are the Little Englander prejudices expressed.

Mr Galbraith considers the Jellaby-esque Elworthys, previous owners of Hillside:

“Elworthys – that’s it – pack of women – sisters. Changed the name – said St Catherine’s was Popish. Very down on anything Popish – used to send out tracts. Plain women, all of ’em – took an interest in niggers – send ’em out trousers and bibles.”

Here is another character very down on anything Popish:

‘Robert is in the Army.’ Mrs Fane sniffed. ‘Married a Roman Catholic,’ she said with significance. ‘You know what that means!’

The maid Lily comments about her fellow-servant, the Swiss nursemaid Léonie:

‘That Layonee, she was a bit stupid like all foreigners, couldn’t understand proper what you said to her – and her English was something awful.’

There are many Lily Kimbles still around the UK today, wondering why silly foreigners can’t speak English properly. Léonie’s English may not have been perfect, but Lily’s French would have been non-existent; Agatha Christie’s French was pretty good, and this is another example of her gentle ribbing of Anglo-Saxon attitudes. Another one is Mr Kimble’s reply:

‘”Don’t you pay no attention to foreigners, my girl,” I said. “One and all they’re liars. Not like us.”‘

Dr Kennedy confides to Giles that people should know their place:

‘I’m old-fashioned, young man. In the modern gospel, one man is as good as another. That holds morally, no doubt. But I’m a believer in the fact that there is a state of life into which you are born – and I believe you’re happiest staying in it.’

Maybe Giles might have pointed out to him that one man was held to be as ‘good as another’ in the ancient gospels too.

SWIGATHA RATING  6/10 

The identity of the villain is not a huge surprise, given their presence in the story and the shallowness of the other characterisations within it. What was a surprise to me on re-reading was that there were (at least) four victims on that villain’s conscience – I could only remember two.

This is an ok-to-middling Agatha Christie, just begging for a good adaptation that fleshes out the minor characters a bit (which it got).

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

Although this book is subtitled Miss Marple’s Last Case, chronologically her final case was actually Nemesis in 1971. She re-appeared in 1979, when some old short stories featuring her were published with an equally misleading title (Miss Marple’s Final Cases).   

ADAPTATIONS  

There was an excellent BBC adaptation for its Miss Marple series in 1987. It was very faithful to the original text, but gave the suitors and Halliday’s servants more of a share of the limelight. The casting director did a superb job: the minor parts are beautifully played, with John Bennett hugely sympathetic as the put-upon Erskine and Frederick Treves the opposite as Helen Kennedy’s brother.

There was also another, inferior version made in 2006 for ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series which is ‘not really pretending to be true to the original’.3  

NOTES

1 Tom Adams Agatha Christie Cover Story

2 John Curran Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.
The legend had been that this book was written during the Blitz (as Hercule Poirot’s own swansong Curtain had been) but Dr Curran proves, from the references to it in the notebooks, that it must have been a few years later than that.

3 Mark Aldridge, Agatha Christie on Screen