THE BOOK Fontana 1967 pp 192
This is one of the most evocative covers (front and back) for me. I used to love the almost-quotes from the text on the back cover, and this is one of the very best. What a great job to have!
The book’s title is inspired and the image is of the Lady of Shallot. The crack’d glass and wide eye are also items of wonder. Who wouldn’t want to buy a second-hand book that looked like this? Strangely, Tom Adams was not pleased with this cover, because he didn’t think his image of the Lady did the original Waterhouse picture justice. She does look a bit insipid, but I think that adds to its ghostly air.
The book is dedicated to ‘Margaret Rutherford, in admiration.’ Miss Rutherford had portrayed Miss Marple for the first time the year before1, but it would be safe to say that the author’s admiration had been generated more by her appearances in British comedy films of the 1950s and her stage performances than her Marple outings.
Gossington Hall, once home to the Bantrys but now owned by the film actress Marina Gregg and her director husband Jason Rudd, is hosting a fête is aid of St John’s Ambulance. At a reception for special guests inside the Hall, one of the St John’s volunteers, Heather Badcock, dies when her drink is poisoned.
The following day, Mrs Bantry hurries round to her friend Jane Marple’s cottage to give her own personal eye-witness account of the events surrounding Mrs Badcock’s death …
CHARACTERS AND ATTITUDES
St Mary Mead in 1962 is hardly recognisable from the village portrayed 30 years before in the first Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage. The Development, a new housing estate being built there, is one of the main characters in the book. Miss Marple decides to acquaint herself with it, and is relieved to find that the people there are much the same characters as those that populated the old village.
There is a decided lack of hankering after the past in this story. The cheerful character of Cherry Baker epitomises the overall atmosphere, though she does have a disconcerting habit of referring to the Hall butler Guiseppe as ‘the wop’.
The characters of the ‘film set’, on the other hand, are somewhat wan, with the exception of Jason, with his mournful clown’s face, ‘laughing at something terribly sad, that no-one else has seen’, and Marina, who has received the shock of her life at the fête. Otherwise, Hailey Preston, Ardwyck Fenn and Lola Brewster make no impression, and Rudd’s PA Ella Zielinsky is not convincing at all.
One of the strengths of Agatha Christie was her ability to sum someone up in a sentence. Her characters are sometimes described (and sometimes rightly) as one-dimensional, but she can hit the bull’s-eye. Here is a classic Christie one-liner, a description of a character to which no more need be added:
Miss Hartnell’s house was still there, and also Miss Hartnell, fighting progress to the last gasp.
Miss Marple braves The Development:
Mothers came out on doorsteps calling to their children, who, as usual, were busy doing all the things they had been told not to do. Children, Miss Marple reflected gratefully, never changed.
Here is an example of Christie’s brilliant economy and clue-handling:
‘I shouldn’t drink any more,’ said Marina. ‘I’ve had three already.’ But she accepted the glass.
Miss Marple remembers Alison Wilde, prototype of Heather Badcock:
‘She was the sort of person who tells you what they have done and what they have seen and what they have heard. They never mention what any other people said or did. Life is a kind of one-way track – just their own progress through it. Other people just seem to them like – like wall-paper in a room.’
What a great description that is.
Adoption in Agatha Christie’s time was somewhat different to current practice. Rather than an option for orphans or children in care, it seems to have been the practice to adopt children from poor backgrounds to give them a leg up in life; the impact of that on a child was a theme that Agatha Christie returned to a few times. Miss Marple doesn’t approve:
‘In one case a mother, with a lot of children and very little money to bring them up in this country, wrote to her, and asked if she couldn’t take a child. There was a lot of very silly sentiment written about that. About the mother’s unselfishness and the wonderful home and education and future the child was going to have.’
Adoptee Margot Bence confirms Miss Marple’s analysis:
‘She sold me because she was a damn’ silly woman who thought I’d get “advantages” and “education” and have a wonderful life.’
Very similar sentiments are expressed by Maureen Summerhayes in Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Finally, some things in St Mary’s Mead have not changed:
One of the mysteries of St Mary Mead was what made the vicar remember certain things – only outstripped by the greater mystery of what the vicar could manage to forget.
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
This is a lovely BOOK, and very enjoyable to read, for the most part. The pivotal moment – Marina Gregg freezing in shock at her own party, and the reason behind it – is a brilliant idea. All the clues are fairly placed, but the sideshows, including one which has a character ringing up each suspect and telling them ‘I saw you do it’, are unconvincing padding.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
This was Miss Marple’s final appearance in St Mary Mead; for the rest of her career she went on her travels …
There have been a few2 – a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson as Marina and Jason, a Japanese and an Indian film adaptation, and two versions for UK TV.
As is usually the case, the version produced by BBC TV with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple beats the rest hollow; it takes so much more care with the story. The ITV version and Hollywood film are very watchable, however, and the various Marinas – Clare Bloom, Lesley Duncan and Elizabeth Taylor – all register convincing shocks as their mirrors crack.3
1 Murder She Said (1961)
2 Agatha Christie on Screen, Mark Aldridge
3 Clare Bloom and Elizabeth Taylor had one other thing in common, apart from their ability to look frozen; they were both admirers of the actor Richard Burton, and in both cases the admiration was returned!