Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Doctor (Back Cover)
This is my first re-read of my blog and is my entry into Past Offences’ Crimes of the Century Monthly Challenge. This is also a Miss Marple adventure I have a soft spot for. It begins with Elspeth McGillicuddy witnessing a man strangle a woman on a moving train which is opposite to her own. Being disbelieving by the ticket collector she tells her old friend Miss Marple about it. But with no body being found by the police it seems like Miss Marple will have her work cut trying to prove her friend’s story. Her first lead is an old house near the railway line, Rutherford Hall, which is owned by Luther Crackenthorpe. Miss Marple sends an ally, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, into the house to work as domestic help, whilst she herself goes to stay nearby at the home of a former maidservant.
Luther Crackenthorpe is an elderly invalid who lives with his unmarried daughter Emma. He also has three living sons (another, Edmund died during WW2 and he also had another daughter named Edith who died 5 years ago). Cedric is a painter abroad, whilst Alfred is the black sheep of the family always involved in shady deals and Harold is a city financier, married to an earl’s daughter. Edith’s son Alexander and his father Bryan Eastley also stay at the Hall from time to time. After a few surreptitious walks, Lucy eventually achieves the goal Miss Marple gave her: to find the body, eerily though fittingly hidden in a sarcophagus (in a barn) Luther had sent home from European travels in his youth. At first the family say they do not recognise the woman who is found, but a few tell-tale signs suggest at least Emma knows something or thinks she does. Eventually she reveals to DI Craddock from Scotland Yard (an old friend of Miss Marple’s) a piece of family history. During the war Edmund had written home that he was going to marry someone called Martine. Yet shortly afterwards he was killed in action. Did the marriage take place? Where is Martine? Yet only recently has Emma received a communication from Martine and a meeting at Rutherford Hall is arranged. But it comes to nothing as Martine never arrives. Was it Martine or an imposter? Why did they never get back in touch? Or is just all a big red herring?
It is surmised that the killer must have had inside knowledge of the Hall, yet why would a family member hide the body there, a place which would put suspicion immediately upon them. The male members of the family are the focus of Craddock’s investigation, whose alibis are not all that they should be. Yet as Craddock finds out more about the family, including Luther, the tyrannical family patriarch and the will his father left him with, leaves Craddock thinking that the crime he is investigating is ‘the wrong murder.’ Of course Miss Marple is not fazed, but how many people will be left standing by the time she finally reveals the solution?
Although it is the men in this story who receive the most attention from the police, it was the female characters which attracted my notice.
Elspeth is simultaneously a reliable and sensible yet comic character, the most unlikely person to witness a crime. In many ways she is a dowdy thrifty elderly woman, who the ticket collector deems is not first class carriage material: ‘His eye swept her masculine-looking pepper and salt tweed coat disparagingly.’ She is also the victim of ageism in a way as when she reports to the ticket collector the murder she saw, he is dismissive of her story, leading Elspeth to think that:
‘There were, she supposed vaguely, a lot of elderly women travelling around, fully convinced that they had unmasked communist plots, were in danger of being murdered, saw flying saucers and secret space ships, and reported murders that had never taken place. If the man dismissed her as one of those.’
When thinking about her initial role in the story I thought that it was the sort that is often given to younger women in more thriller type novels, and some of the language reflected this such as when she is said to be ‘a strong-nerved woman, but she shivered.’ Although she is described as ‘a sensible woman, able to tell a story clearly; not… an over-imaginative or a hysterical woman,’ when she is around Miss Marple her more comic side comes out as in comparison to the sharpness of Miss Marple’s mind she comes across as a bit more bumbling.
One of the main things I took from this novel about Miss Marple was her concern over her age and state of health, which she thinks are barriers to her sleuthing. She even wonders whether she is too old and too tired for it: ‘I’m too old for any more adventures.’ But like Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon films, (not a comparison I thought I would be making) she doesn’t call quits but carries on. I also enjoyed her unflappability when informed of what Elspeth saw: ‘True to the precepts handed down to her by her mother and grandmother – to wit: that a true lady can neither be shocked nor surprised – Miss Marple merely raised her eyebrows and shook her head…’ It is descriptions like this which really help to make Miss Marple feel like a real person. A sense of duality can also be found in other descriptions of Miss Marple such as, ‘everybody in St. Mary Mead knew Miss Marple; fluffy and dithery in appearance, but inwardly as sharp and as shrewd as they make them’ and ‘though in speech Miss Marple was woolly and diffuse, in mind she was clear and sharp.’ It is this duality which makes her such a good sleuth as the criminals are never suspicious of such a seemingly doddery old woman, who is also described as being ‘dispassionate… like a general planning a campaign or an accountant assessing a business.’ These descriptions also give a sense of ruthlessness, which also comes out in Miss Marple’s attitudes towards crime and criminals.
Lucy’s initial description does seem too good to be true, making her some sort of wonder woman even. Despite taking a ‘First in Mathematics at Oxford’ her love of money and of people ‘with minds less brilliant than her own’ lead her into becoming an expert housekeeper/ domestic worker who builds up such a reputation that she can demand high prices for her services, which home owners can have for 2-4 weeks maximum. Although the demand for her is so high that she has the power to pick and choose her jobs on personal likes and dislikes. This is definitely a more powerful form of domestic labour – no woe begotten Florence or Edith here and in some ways Lucy is a character which redefines and evaluates domestic work. For example when reproofing Cedric for calling her a ‘Skivvy’ she describes herself as ‘Household Help, a Professional Domestician, or an Answer to Pray, mainly the latter.’ The following description does make her come across as being on par with Mary Poppins and I did wonder whether Christie was deliberately trying to be exaggerative or spoofing of character references:
‘Lucy Eyelesbarrow did everything, saw to everything, arranged everything. She was unbelievably competent in every conceivable sphere. She looked after elderly parents, accepted the care of young children, nursed the sickly, cooked divinely… soothed habitual drunkards, was wonderful with dogs.’
It is not surprising that Craddock says ‘she scares the life out of me, she’s so devastatingly efficient. No man will ever dare to marry that girl.’ Earlier I mentioned her love of money and her preference for less intelligent company and what struck me about this is that if you described someone like that you would initially think they are less likely to be a nice person. So I suppose I do find it hard to square these elements of her with her behaviour in the rest of the book, where she is shown to be genuinely caring of people like Alexander.
Emma definitely takes on the role of the put upon daughter and sister, yet characters such as Dr Quimper and Craddock seem to think there is more to her as Quimper says ‘she’d have been a success as a wife and mother’ and she is a ‘clever woman, no fool’ and Craddock says ‘women such as this were often underrated. Behind their quiet exterior they had a force of character, they were to be reckoned with.’ Yet to be honest I didn’t find that side of her, she remains from the beginning to the end of the book as a rather inept, put upon and anxious person, who doesn’t really compare well with women like Lucy.
Rutherford Hall where most of the story takes places interested me. It is described as an ‘anachronism out of the past,’ something which is emphasised by the sarcophagus I think, which can be seen to symbolise the demise and out of date-ness of big homes or estates. In 1950s Britain they are more of a burden than a pleasure. Unlike Downton which has a string of staff, Rutherford Hall prior to Lucy’s arrival is maintained through rather inefficient daily help. Moreover, Cedric unwittingly reinforces the outmoded nature of the Hall when he likens the recent crime ‘a strange young woman has got herself killed in the barn,’ to ‘a Victorian melodrama’ and in fairness there are some parallels between the crime and the 19th century melodrama Maria Marten (based on a real crime). Moreover, when reading this book I also found there was another character who seemed outmoded to current times and struggling to keep up and that was Bryan Eastley, who finds civilian life hard after his intense experiences as a RAF pilot in WW2: ‘He had not gone on, but had been passed by in the passage of years’ and he himself says ‘it’s a difficult sort of world… to get your bearings in… [that] one hasn’t been trained for it.’
‘Are we investigating crime, or are we match-making?’
In and amongst the sleuthing, Lucy is also faced with various marital and business propositions and in fact the reader is left wondering where Lucy’s romantic interests lie. Miss Marple has her own ideas, but there is a part of me which questions whether Lucy would want to settle down, especially with any of the men on offer. It is evident Bryan is interested in her but it is obvious this would be an uneven relationship. She is too competent for him and the fact he is said to have ‘dog-like attention’ in Lucy’s presence and the word ‘obeyed’ is used three times in quick succession in regards to Bryan in his first encounter with her, clearly suggests who would wear the trousers in that relationship. I can see why in the ITV adaptation they pepped up Bryan’s character a bit. Moreover, I think some of the male contenders are not meant to be taken seriously such as the elderly Luther who makes the occasional advance. It is suggested that some of the propositions towards Lucy are means for the male characters to suss her out, but I also think Christie may have been playing around and even parodying the trope of the love interest in crime fiction, by giving Lucy almost a surfeit of suiters.
On the whole I enjoyed this book a lot, especially in terms of characterisation, as even the minor characters are well drawn and created. I also liked the initial setup of the crime on the train as well. Due to Miss Marple being more in the background, her solution can feel like it has been whipped out of a hat, but I think Christie just about gets away with it, as the solution does fit the crime really well and for the first time reader the killer is a good surprise and the engaging narrative voice moves the story along well.