In terms of my re-reading project, I have pleasingly managed to reach my goal of re-reading two books from my list a month and to be honest after my last two reads which were duds, I needed an author and a story that I could rely on.
As many of you will no doubt know the book begins with an unusual advert being placed in the local paper of Chipping Cleghorn, announcing that there will be a murder taking place that very night, at 6:30 in fact, at Little Paddocks, home of Letitia Blacklock. She also has an old school friend, two cousins and a local lady assistant gardener living with her as well. Some of the most curious villagers decide to go across that night, believing it to be some kind of theatrical joke. It’s just awkward that Letitia Blacklock says they know nothing about it, so the room is full of expectation and anticipation when the half hour chimes and all the lights go out. A masked individual enters the living room doorway, their flashlight dazzling those in the room and a gun is fired several times, yet the corpse is an unexpected one to say the least. After the initial police interviews there is a plausible enough case put together, but DI Dermot Craddock is not convinced. Something is not right, but then of course Miss Marple has not yet arrived on the scene or has she?
Unlike the previous novel in the Miss Marple series, The Moving Finger, our famous amateur sleuth, gets much more of a prominent role and dare I say, a legend of her sleuthing skills is beginning to formulate, especially with her groupie Sir Henry Clithering, (ex-Commissioner of Scotland Yard), singing her praises at every possible opportunity:
‘She’s just the finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in a suitable soil […] remember that an elderly unmarried woman who knits and gardens is streets ahead of any detective sergeant. She can tell you what might have happened and what ought to have happened and even what actually did happen! And she can tell you why it happened!’
‘…it’s my own particular, one and only, four starred Pussy. The super Pussy of all old Pussies’
Steady on Sir Henry! It is no wonder that Miss Marple in her humility and modesty is a bit embarrassed by it all: ‘Sir Henry is always too kind. He thinks too much of any little observations I may have made in the past. Really, I have no gifts – no gifts at all – except perhaps a certain knowledge of human nature.’ And it was in passages like this that I was reminded of Miss Marple’s tendency to use superlatives and qualifiers in her own speech. The superlatives especially have the effect of universalising the remarks she makes, which can also be found when she explains why she should start asking questions: ‘But I’m afraid that we old women always do snoop. It would be very odd and much more noticeable if I didn’t.’ Whilst most of the characters believe Miss Marple to be what she appears to be, we begin to get comments here and there which indicate a much deadlier internal character, such as when Craddock thinks of her as ‘dangerous as a rattlesnake,’ whilst Julia thinks she ‘is the prying kind. And a mind like a sink, I should think. Real Victorian type.’ One thing I did notice on this re-read, which I hadn’t noticed before is Miss Marple’s admission of having read a Dashiel Hammett novel! Not a mental image I can readily conjuror up.
But of course there are many other characters in this novel worth the reader’s consideration and I particularly enjoyed Christie’s method of opening the book, using the types of newspapers the characters read and their initial responses to the murder advertisement as conduits for revealing personality and relationship dynamics. Something else I hadn’t really noticed the first time round when I read this was how many dim, fluffy brained women there were in this book. I say many, it is in fact 4, but it still seems a lot more than I remember. Yet I think the fluffy brained characters serve a number of roles in this book, they are victims, unintentional discoverers and speakers of the truth, as well as essential for continuing the mystification of the central crime. However there are definitely many other female characters who have their heads screwed on, including the languid and aloof Julia who Christie gives a cracking line to when the inspector asks her to tell him about last night:
‘Last night? Oh, we all slept like logs. Reaction I suppose.’
The younger generation in this novel are definitely much more self-contained, so in many ways they come across as quite enigmatic until the end of the book. With such a mixture of characters or should I say suspects, I think Christie does a wonderful job of creating scenes of social comedy, my favourite being when everyone is pretending they have popped into Little Paddock for a general chit chat, but Mrs Harmon, the vicar’s wife, bluntly and honestly asks, ‘When does the murder begin?’ The building up and shedding of artifice in this scene is delightful.
One character which I think might divide people is Mitzi, the ‘refugee lady help.’ On the face of it she can be seen as a caricature, albeit, a qualified one, which may put some people off. But having pondered over this issue I think Christie goes beyond any stereotypes she might be intentionally or unintentionally creating when it comes to Mitzi. In fact I would say that the characters in various ways admit to struggling to understand Mitzi fully. Language difficulties do not help and equally Christie comments on the theatricality of Mitzi’s demeanour. Is this in some way a barrier or self-defence mechanism? There’s the sense of her circumstances and her past trauma having altered who she really is. After all she is a domestic help, yet in her home country had gained academic qualifications. So maybe she was not in her right sphere and it is nice that Mitzi seems to be moving on when it comes to the end of the book. I’d like to think she moved on to something better. In the end I don’t think Christie demonises or white washes Mitzi as a character. She is given faults but then understandable reasons soon follow on the heel of them. The novel of course is also trying to convey the various reactions native English characters have towards the new influx of migrants. Not all of these are kind, but their inclusion in the book does not mean they are therefore naturally endorsed.
As fellow blogger, Brad has talked about, this is one of Christie’s novels which says a lot about the post war period, with its new complexities and changing times and how everyone was or was not adjusting to them. A lot of this theme is condensed into the issue of staff and the difficulty of obtaining and keeping them. This may seem snobbish, but it is also a clever way of discussing the theme, as it brings it right into the homes of Christie’s characters and personalises it to boot. The flexible nature of identity is also another way Christie comments on the changing time. Yet again such comments have a certain universal ring to them in the way she talks about country homes being bought by weekenders and how communities know far less about each other than they did before:
‘that’s really the particular way the world has changed since the war […] Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them […] And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.’
Some of these comments could be easily lifted and placed into modern society and still apply quite well.
Before closing this review, which has already overrun, I think it only right to comment on the mystery plot itself. The opening premise is one of Christie’s best in my opinion and the plethora of clues she can throw at the reader, yet the reader is none the wiser, astounds me. These clues come in all shapes and sizes, from the physical, too easy to miss words and phrases, to Miss Marple’s parallels with people she knows in St Mary Mead. During this re-read there were many times in the opening chapters where I wanted to have a face palm moment, as I realised the long list of clues Christie was putting at the disposal of her readers, even ones which are repeated later on, but I still missed them completely on my first read. The only bone of contention that I have with this book is the trapping of the killer. This scene seemed very amateurish in comparison to the rest of the story and it didn’t work for me. However I can see why it won first place in the Puzzle Doctor’s Best Marple novel polls and it is still a book I can heartily recommend.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Set in a village