THE BOOK Fontana 1967 pp 188
Although there are no actual mirrors involved in the plot, Tom Adams cover is a clever one that suggests the piano that was being played while the guns were going off, and a hint of the importance of what was outside.
The older cover gives the impression that Miss Marple is depicted on it, although it could as easily refer to her old friend, Carrie Louise.
The book is dedicated to Agatha Christie’s grandson, Matthew Prichard.
The sisters Ruth van Rydock and Carrie Louise Serrocold are very old friends of Jane Marple. Carrie-Louise lives at Stonygates, a charitable young offenders’ institution run by her latest husband, Lewis, and financed by the Gulbrandsen Trust that had been established by her first. Ruth is convinced that there is something seriously wrong going on there and is worried for her sister’s safety. She cannot put her finger on where the danger lies, and urges Miss Marple to go down and investigate.
While she is there, Carrie Louise’s stepson, Christian Gulbrandsen, arrives unexpectedly to see Lewis on Trust business. The following day he is shot dead.
Stonygates is inhabited by 250 juvenile delinquents, plus a host of members or adopted members of Carrie Louise’s somewhat chaotic family, including Walter and Gina Hudd, the Restarick brothers and Mildred Strete. There is also the splendidly-named juvenile psychologist Dr Maverick.
Walter Hudd is an American ex-serviceman, and it is noticeable that he is treated more sympathetically than Americans in previous swigathas. This may be because Agatha Christie’s house, Greenway, had been requisitioned for use by the US Navy during World War II, and she was very impressed by the people who used it.1
The two most interesting characters are Carrie Louise and her husband Lewis.
Lewis is a visionary, genuinely in love with his wife, who wants to do anything he can to give young offenders a new start in life. Apart from his wife, no-one in his extended family really believes in what he is trying to do. It emerges that his eventual plan is a somewhat fantastic one – raising enough money to set up an island colony where errant juveniles can be transported to establish and create a society of their own.2
Carrie Louise is a very unusual character for these stories. She is seen by everyone (including Miss Marple) as someone with her head in the clouds, unaware of what is really going on, someone to be protected from the wickedness of the world. In reality, she has a very good idea of what is actually happening, and is oblivious to the conjuring tricks being perpetrated on everyone else. It is only when Miss Marple considers Carrie Louise’s opinions seriously that she stumbles on the truth.
Everyone (bar Carrie Louise herself) is convinced that someone is trying to poison her. In most Agatha Christie books, it is a golden rule that characters who seem to keep having narrow escapes from death usually turn out to be the killer; not in her case.
Walter Hudd feels out of place and confides in Miss Marple:
‘They’re rich, these people. They don’t need dough – they’ve got it…. They’re rolling in dough.’ He paused and sat, deliberating. ‘I understand being poor. There’s nothing much wrong with it, if you’re young and strong and ready to work. I never had much money, but I was all set to get where I wanted. I was going to open a garage … I talked to Gina about it. She listened. She seemed to understand. I didn’t know much about her. All those girls in uniform, they look about the same. I mean, you can’t tell from looking at them who’s got dough and who hasn’t.’
Carrie Louise discusses her only child with her friend:
‘Perhaps’, suggested Miss Marple, ‘Mildred had cause not to be happy?’
Carrie Louise said quietly:
‘Because of being jealous? Yes, I daresay. But people don’t really need a cause for feeling what they do feel. They’re just made that way. Don’t you think so, Jane?’
Lewis and Miss Marple discuss Walter Hudd (the author speaks?):
‘He hasn’t fitted in here – no. He’s no interest or sympathy for what we’re trying to do. But, after all, why should he? He’s young, crude, and he comes from a country where a man is esteemed by the success he makes of life.’
‘Whilst here we are so very fond of failures,’ said Miss Marple. Lewis Serrocold looked at her sharply and suspiciously.
‘Foreigners can never understand why we’re so proud of Dunkirk. It’s the sort of thing they’d prefer not to mention themselves. But we always seem to be almost embarrassed by a victory – and treat it as though it weren’t quite nice to boast about it. And look at all our poets! The Charge of the Light Brigade, and the little Revenge went down in the Spanish Main. It’s really a very odd characteristic when you come to think of it!’
Miss Marple drew a fresh breath.
“What I really mean is that everything here must seem rather peculiar to Walter Hudd.’
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
This is a pretty average Christie, with rather more of her views about heredity intruding than is to my personal taste. The identity of the killer is pretty obvious if you read the pages dealing with the murder closely, and it does to a degree follow the golden rule!
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
1952 was a busy year for Agatha Christie – apart from They do it with Mirrors and Mrs McGinty’s Dead, it also saw the publication of one of her Mary Westmacott novels and the completion of the stage-play The Mousetrap. Maybe it was too busy – the attraction of writing plays for the theatre was such that, after 1953, she restricted herself to one crime novel per year for the rest of her career. Thus, while the decade saw the appearance of 12 crime novels, she also completed no fewer than 9 stage plays and a radio play – some going for a woman in her 60s.
There have been 3 adaptations so far – one for American TV in the 80s, one for BBC in 1991 and one for ITV in 2009.
The BBC ‘Hickson Marples’ version struggles heroically with the holes in the plot (apart from the actual murder, nothing much happens for most of the book). Big names (Joss Ackland and Jean Simmons) take on the roles of the Serrocolds, and a greater emphasis is placed on the Hudds’ relationship. Unusually, the two Restarick brothers are played by brothers in real life.
As ever, Joan Hickson shines throughout; it was to be her last performance as Miss Marple (well, she was 85!). All the Marple novels had by then been covered, and as for the short stories, she had read them as talking books.
1 Agatha Christie, An Autobiography:
I cannot speak too highly of the Americans, and the care they took of our house … Ever since the war, relations of some officer or other who was at Greenway have come along to see where their son or cousin or whoever was stationed.
2 This fantastical idea echoes a passage, also from Agatha Christie’s Autobiography, in which she considers what to do with the wicked:
The best answer we ever found, I suspect, was transportation. A vast land of emptiness, peopled only with primitive human beings, where man could live in simpler surroundings.