Today we have something different on the blog – A Buddy Read, which means I am joined by fellow blogger Rekha, who writes the Book Decoder blog. We decided for our joint discussion to examine Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery (1964), which is the 9th novel to feature Christie’s series sleuth Miss Marple. It is a re-read for both of us, though I think it is fair to say our memories were a little woolly! Our discussion took place in three stages, with the first section covering chapters 1-10, the second section chapters 11-20 and then the final section covers the remaining chapters. The first two stages are designed to be spoiler free, but if you haven’t read the book, I would advise not reading the third segment.
Part 1: Chapters 1-10
Rekha: I am doing a buddy read on another of Christie’s works: The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories. My blog buddy discussed something which kinda made sense. In most of Christie’s novels, women play quite a significant role – either negative or positive. In the book that we are currently discussing, until now, all the women we have come across are portrayed in a negative way. One’s jealous while the other wants to take revenge but finally loses her mind. Maybe this has something to do with a negative person’s (woman) influence on Christie’s life. Maybe a mother or a nasty aunt or someone. Nasty mother-in-law perhaps. Lol. What do you think?
Kate: I think my response would be a more qualified one. I don’t feel Christie has all her female characters be either all good or all bad in her texts. Characters tend to be less black and white and reside much more in the ambiguous grey middle ground. Jealous and superficial ones often come up, as do those who love a good gossip, (not forgetting Miss Marple of course), but I think in this book female characters such as Miss Prescott, Esther Walters, Molly Kendal and Victoria, are shown, to varying degrees, more favourably, though not without their weaknesses. And I love how varied these female characters are, coming from different walks of life and age groups.
Rekha: Coming back to A Caribbean Mystery, it had been ages since I read a Miss Marple story. I am going to be honest here and say she’s not my favourite sleuth. Well, this is mainly influenced by my own life- nosy people and gossip – is something that I detest.
Kate: I also differ from you in that I love Miss Marple as a character, which is probably because I wrote about her for my degree dissertation and in some respects, she reminds me of my maternal grandmother, (in a good way), who I really loved being with. Your comments have certainly got me thinking about the gossip angle, as like you I don’t enjoy gossip or nosiness in my real life, yet somehow when it is used in the books to investigate crime, I don’t regard it in the same way. Strange! I also find in the Miss Marple tales that Christie revaluates the role and value of gossip. There is more than one kind of gossip in the books and the form Miss Marple’s takes is revealed to be an important investigative tool and alongside this there is a empowering of the idea of females in community and in communication with one another sharing information. Male characters can often be excluded from this circle and we find that in this book, as Miss Marple and Miss Prescott wait until the latter’s brother is out of the way before they really begin to talk about the people at the hotel. I love the passage this is mentioned in as I find the way it is described quite amusing:
‘and there was no doubt that Miss Marple and Miss Prescott found it less easy to take their back hair down in a good gossip when the jovial Canon was of their company.’
Given Miss Marple’s age and social status gossip and conversation are invariably her main detecting tools. She is not going to be taking casts of footprints nor conducting policeman-like interviews! Conversation as a tool or weapon comes up a lot in Miss Marple’s thoughts, in this book and in the likes of Nemesis. One passage from A Caribbean Mystery, which particularly struck me was this one:
‘But this morning Miss Marple lay thinking soberly and constructively of murder, and what, if her suspicions were correct, she could do about it. It wasn’t going to be easy. She had one weapon and one weapon only, and that was conversation […] Old ladies were given to a good deal of rambling conversation. People were bored by this, but certainly did not suspect them of ulterior motives.’
I love how the phrase ‘one weapon and one weapon only’ adds a sense of drama and tension, which feels more fitting with a James Bond novel! I would go as far as saying that because it seems so antithetical for an elderly spinster to be an amateur sleuth, Christie uses imagery of incongruity to echo this.
I also found myself comparing the garrulous ramblings of Major Palgrave with those of Miss Marple. I wonder whether Christie is trying to show how women can be better than men at using conversation more skilfully, (and not in such a way that they get bumped off!) Perhaps also superior conversational skills are needed to solve this case, given how much the suspects misremember the many stories Major Palgrave told them.
Rekha: Miss Marple drowning in her own thoughts as Major Palgrave goes yak yak about his adventures was funny. The murder story he’s about to tell her manages to capture her attention but he stops midway as he sees someone. I was thinking it could be Hillington or Dyson. But it could very well be Jackson. Since I don’t remember the ending of this story, let me enjoy the mystery and not try to remember who’s the culprit.
Kate: I agree, as I find it entertaining how the narrative emphasises how boring and disagreeable Major Palgrave is as a holiday companion, with his endless stories, yet Christie turns it all around when it seems that something he has said is a key to a killer’s identity. Boy does Miss Marple wish she had been listening more closely! You can imagine her mentally kicking herself for this lapse of attention. However, this moment of failing actually makes her seem more human and we can relate to similar times we have had where someone is talking to us and our minds are completely elsewhere.
Sometimes Christie goes for unpleasant victims such as Simeon Lee in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas or Mrs Boynton in Appointment with Death, but this time around Christie has gone for a seemingly unimportant victim: a lonely overly talkative old man. The sort who normally is little cared for or given proper notice and who is perhaps representative of an era that was rapidly fading. He is also one of those more unusual victims in that he becomes a victim less due to factors in his own life and more because of what he knew, (a motive usually assigned to secondary deaths in mysteries, where a butler or maid has seen something). In this respect I was reminded of the first death in Towards Zero.
Rekha: She’s brought out human nature really well, don’t you think? Like, Mrs Walters – her boss is always rude to her and yet she doesn’t mind. Maybe because she has to feed her family? Or, the bugger pays her quite a decent salary, so she chooses to ignore his words?
Kate: I think it is probably a combination of several factors. She is a widow who needs the money to support her child, but also in the text it shows that she is very disinterested in Mr Rafiel’s harsh words, seeing it as a way for him to let off steam about his physical infirmities. She doesn’t seem to take it personally, with his unkind words just bouncing off her. I also enjoyed how Mr Rafiel is quite dismissive of Miss Marple, deeming her to be an annoying ‘old hen,’ yet he soon realises that there is a lot more going on in her head than knitting patterns!
Rekha: Miss Marple as an ‘annoying old hen’ – Nobody bothers to ask why she’s being so nosy and nobody can tell her to ‘mind her business’. Respect for the old lady and all that. This gives her the advantage to poke, prod and find clues. Miss Marple is so nosy. But in a good way. The poor thing only wants to find out why the Major was killed. Then there is the missing photograph.
Kate: The photograph element is one Christie had used in earlier stories, with Mrs McGinty’s Dead being the one that immediately springs to mind. The missing photograph is key to the mystery getting off the ground, as it is the one tangible thing which suggests that the Major’s death may not have been natural. It also gives her the opportunity to use her camouflage as an old spinster, as she can easily spin the lie to the doctor about the Major having one of her photographs. Given the nebulous beginnings of this mystery I think Miss Marple is the sleuth for the job as she is more suited to a case in which she can quietly squirrel information from those around her. This is not a case that the police could immediately jump into.
The mystery does not begin with a big bang or a quick flurry of events. It has a slower run up, with little pieces of the jigsaw gradually filling in, though the relatively short chapters keep the pace moving along nicely. It takes a few steps to receive greater confirmation that the Major did not suffer from high blood pressure and that the medication for such was added to his bathroom. Yet for me this gives the story a greater sense of verisimilitude. The conversational focus of the book also allows Christie to cause a great deal of misdirection over who the Major was referring to in his story of the serial killer. I felt this trope of the killer with a formula, paralleled with Evil Under the Sun, in some respects.
I also just wanted to touch upon another aspect of the novel’s exposition, aside from the Major’s ramblings. I think Christie captures well the sense of how times were changing, yet underneath much was remaining the same. This is evidenced in Miss Marple’s own thoughts:
‘It was a routine with which she was well acquainted. The locale varied […] the pattern was essentially the same.’
In conjunction with this idea we also have Raymond, Miss Marple’s nephew, being said to ‘always trying to bring her up to date.’ Yet I love how Miss Marple turns things upside down, tackling directly the theme of sex, pointing out, how in earlier times sex was talked about less, but she believes enjoyed more! Christie then goes onto ape and parody a then “modern” novel, which Miss Marple can’t see herself finishing!
Rekha: I think this might have something to do with the novels that were out back then. Correct me if I am wrong. I haven’t read any British Mystery Classics that objectify women. I cannot say the same about American Mystery Classics though. In the 1950s and so on, women were portrayed as a sex symbol. Some TV series like Peter Gunn and Mick Hammer and others – sleazy blouses and whatnots, women are objectified; books too have a certain amount of sleaze. Maybe, Miss Marple couldn’t see herself finishing a ‘modern novel’ was a jibe at the American Mystery classics?
Kate: I don’t think Christie was poking fun at American mysteries specifically. I think her parody is more general and concerns the ‘modern novel’, non-genre specific, more widely. Part of this referred to and made up ‘modern novel’ is quoted in the text and it has the female character acting forlorn and depressed as she has yet to gain any sexual experience. And the point Miss Marple then makes is that sex in the ‘modern novel’ is delivered as a duty or something you are obliged to do at the earliest opportunity, to seem normal, rather than something you actually want to do and enjoy. I certainly don’t think Christie was focusing on loose women or wearers of sleazy blouses, as in the made up excerpt the female character is wearing a ‘stained jersey’ has ‘dirty toenails’ and smells of ‘rancid fat.’ I don’t think any of Mike Hammer male protagonists would be interested!
Rekha: I missed a point yesterday. There seems to be some sort of confusion about who’s who. Mrs Dyson was mistaken to be Mrs Hillington until someone corrected Miss Prescott. Hmm! Something’s fishy here!
Kate: Ah! But is it a fish which will lead to the truth or is it merely a red herring?
Part 2: Chapters 11-20
Kate: This section felt quite episodic for me, as the narrative takes us around different groups of people and between chapters 11-15 we don’t even see Miss Marple at all! However, I think the reader is able to find out more background information this way, with couples or people talking about their private issues with another person. This felt like a more naturalistic way for us to discover certain things. It would take too long and would become quite repetitive if Miss Marple had to fish everyone’s secrets out of them. Though I wonder if this has a knock-on effect for the solution…
Rekha: I did not realise that Miss Marple was missing in these chapters until you pointed it out. Yes, I agree with you. It would have been repetitive, (and boring,) if Miss Marple had to poke and prod secrets out of these people. On the whole, it was pretty good, don’t you agree? Mr Dyson’s true colour’s come out – the guy has a thing for the ladies, young or old. Molly’s been going through some issues. Then comes the talk between the Dysons (Mr and Mrs.) I felt there was more to it when Mrs Dyson asks her husband to stay and not go back to England. She gave out some sinister vibes – like, she was planning to harm Evelyn or something – revenge, perhaps??
Kate: As you show, in these chapters when Miss Marple is not around, we get to see the other hotel guests in a more suspicious light; Evelyn in particular. The case begins to widen out more too. Another effect of the episodic nature of this section is that a small series of events concerning Molly and her mental health are allowed to build up – although I’m not sure whether seasoned mystery fiction fans will buy into her rapid mental disintegration. Is its rapidity meant to point us in the direction of the mystery’s solution? Does it also make us discount Molly as a suspect – being a too obvious unlikely suspect? Or maybe it is a sneaky double bluff? I imagine on a first read a reader would be far less sure as Christie is known for her surprises.
Rekha: In the first ten chapters that we discussed, when Victoria speaks to Molly about the blood pressure pills, Molly acts strange. I thought Molly had something to do with it. Her rapid mental disintegration in the next few chapters gave stronger indications towards Molly’s involvement in the murder – this might very well be a red herring, or the reader is purposely meant to think on these lines. Having said this, Molly falls ill in the latter part of the story. She’s overdosed on sleeping pills – and she’s trying to avoid Evelyn. Also, on the beach, Evelyn and Molly have a talk – I felt Evelyn was purposely filling Molly’s mind with unnecessary thoughts about family history of mental illness – Brainwashing the poor thing! Her episodes of blackouts make her doubt on herself and they make the reader believe that her blackouts might have something to do with Major Palgrave’s murder.
Blackmail never ends well, does it? Victoria saw it coming, I suppose. She was warned by her partner and she paid no heed to his advice. Poor girl! She spoke to Mr Dyson about it, didn’t see. Then, Dyson told his wife about the chat he had with Vic. One of the two must have killed her, then! (Mrs Dyson’s planned something for Evelyn so…)
Kate: Yes, Christie certainly has the reader shifting from suspect to suspect in this one! When Miss Marple finally emerges in the narrative again, we get a Miss Marple who is ready to do battle! We’re told she is outwardly looking quite harmless and serene, yet underneath that she is in a ‘militant mood.’ The combative theme is picked up later when it is said that Miss Marple was missing ‘her usual allies.’ However, I enjoy how her unlikely ally is Mr Rafiel. It is through talking with him that we finally get to see a little of what Miss Marple is thinking about the case. The idea that there is a murder still to come creates a sense of urgency.
Rekha: I too enjoyed the tête-à-tête she has with Mr Rafiel. He might be rude at times, but I liked him. Sweet old fella. A bit too proud of himself but as Miss Marple says, Gentlemen do not like to be told they are wrong lol. I completely forgot about it – as Palgrave was murdered, I thought the ‘wife-killer’ fella did it so that he wouldn’t be identified when he murders his wife. Miss Marple thinks the same too – the actual murder is yet to happen. I still have my doubts on Mrs Dyson, though. And Evelyn too, she had something to do with Molly’s overdose, I suppose.
Miss Marple also goes through a low phase – until she sees Jackson peering through the window. She wonders if people are who they say they are – this includes the Canon and Miss Prescott. The poor thing must be afraid of something – she’s come alone and there have been two murders already. Plus, Mr Rafiel asked her to be careful. Not flirty perhaps, but I found it funny when Mr Rafiel winks at Miss Marple and she’s kinda furious about it. She doesn’t wink back. Hahaha!
Kate: It is also great to see Miss Marple hold her own with Mr Rafiel, though sometimes she draws her fire – much to the reader’s amusement, such as when Mr Rafiel says that Miss Marple could hardly know much about murder and then the narrative says:
‘In this assumption, as Miss Marple could have told him, he was wrong. But she forbore to contest his statement. Gentlemen, she knew, did not like to put right in their facts.’
We also get the entertaining moment where Rafiel thinks it ought to have been him who was the murder victim, as so very often, especially in classic crime, the victim is a rich elderly man.
Rekha: I had this thought – why is Miss Marple a spinster? Why didn’t she marry? There must be a reason, right? The man she loved was killed in the war or something. Christie’s other detectives have/had a love life. Tommy and Tuppence; Poirot was heart-broken when that Russian lady leaves him.
Kate: We’re never given a specific reason about Miss Marple’s choice to not marry, (I don’t think?), but in this story, I forget the chapter, she recalls being interested in a young man. However, her father was so positive about him and welcomed him into their home all the time, that her interest in the young man rapidly waned. All the approval made him dull!
Part 3: Chapters 21 – 26
Rekha: What an ending! I was right in guessing Kendal as the murderer. I also thought Evelyn and Mrs Dyson had something to do with the murder but let’s not talk about it.
I thought Molly was acting. Even Miss Marple doubts Molly – she was supposed to be sleeping but she’s awake.
Jackson!!! I didn’t like him at all. Snoopy guy! I was shocked when Miss Marple requests Mr Rafiel to send Jackson along. It was contradictory of sorts when Jackson stopped Tim – they were friendly and all, so I was hoping that Jackson wouldn’t stop Tim. But money plays a major role here, I suppose. Esther Walters and Tim – my, my, never did I ever think of it!
Kate: I had completely forgotten about Esther’s love for Tim. It doesn’t quite come out of nowhere, but it is well hidden. Near the end of the book Esther is quite catty about Molly, which is one indicator that she is on Tim’s side. The fact her money is mentioned a few times, also means she would be an ideal new wife for Tim, once he had successfully bumped Molly off.
Rekha: Now that you say it, it does feel like Esther-Tim love was well hidden. I did not understand why she acted weird when she spoke to Miss Marple about the murderer and “Molly’s” hand in it (or not in it) – this was before the revelation, of course. The money angle is correct but until one connects Esther and Tim, there’s no clue as to Tim being the murderer.
Evelyn – I still don’t like her. Neither did I like it when Mr Dyson spoke rudely to Miss Marple (on the beach). I think – all these negative characters – Dysons and Hillingdons- they were purposely portrayed in such a way so that readers will have difficulty in playing detective.
Kate: True and perhaps these were the sort of people Christie expected readers to encounter when on similar holidays! I admit this is a book in which there are fewer characters to get attached to.
Rekha: The ending was good. Miss Marple stopped a murder from happening. But the characters involved- didn’t like them much. Although, giving it a second thought, Jackson and Evelyn were helpful, though they were snoopy or selfish or rude. Molly’s disappearance – I didn’t see that coming. But we were given a clue before, weren’t we – blonde hair. Molly’s is natural while Mrs Dyson dyed her hair blonde. So, the dead body on the beach was no shocker – when Miss Marple finds out who it is.
Kate: Yes, I think most readers will remember the conversation had about Mrs Dyson’s hair, so that episode is less shocking than it probably should be. Whilst there is a lot of conversation in this book, there is also a great deal of repetition when it comes to what information is talked about, (especially in the second half of the story). The blonde hair chat consequently stands out a bit more in the narrative.
Rekha: I agree. He said/she said – makes the story a tad boring. When Miss Marple touched the blonde hair of the body, I knew it wasn’t Molly who was lying dead – no shocker there, I suppose.
The hint was plainly stated before. Mr Rafiel was all cheeky at the end. I found this particular piece dialogue by him very funny.
Kate: The epilogue is rather delightful. Miss Marple gets quite the send-off, almost like royalty. I actually googled the Latin phrase Mr Rafiel uses in his farewell to Miss Marple and apparently it comes from the work of Suetonius, (cue flashback to A Level Ancient History), and it means: ‘Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you.’ It is a nice acknowledgement of Miss Marple’s powers and status as sleuth, but it is also a comment tinged with sadness, reminding us that mortality is never far from us – as of course Mr Rafiel is a dying man and his next appearance in the Christie canon will be from the grave so to speak. Then again quite a few endings in the Miss Marple novels carry this sombre note. A Pocket Full of Rye springs to mind – even in sleuthing victory, Miss Marple is aware of the loss that has happened.
Rekha: “And it was then,” said Mr Rafiel, “that you decided to play Nemesis, eh?” He leaned back suddenly and roared with laughter. “It’s a damned good joke,” he said. “If you knew what you looked like that night with that fluffy pink wool all around your head, standing there and saying you were Nemesis! I’ll never forget it!”
Kate: I love that moment in the story too, and it is another example of what I would call an image of incongruity. Miss Marple as a Nemesis, an avenger after justice, is not what you expect.
Rekha: I imagined Joan Hickson wearing a fluffy pink wool cap.
Kate: A little like this?
Rekha: Haha! You are right-on with Joan Hickson and the fluffy pink wool.
Kate: In this book, Nemesis and Sleeping Murder the endings all see Miss Marple having her own version of a standoff with the killer. In Nemesis and A Caribbean Mystery, she has younger assistants to help her in this, which is where Jackson comes in. She needs someone who can overpower Tim. Though I admit Jackson’s entry into the role as sleuth’s assistant was a bit too sudden for my liking.
Rekha: He was supposed to be the bad guy – or at least, someone who isn’t supposed to be on Miss Marple’s side lol! I missed the point about Major Palgrave’s false eye. We were told about it, weren’t we? One of his eyes was weird – the Spanish lady also mentions it and yet Miss Marple, (and I,) couldn’t connect the dots. Tim and Molly were close-by when the Major spoke of the wife-killer. This was almost ignored until Miss Marple remembers it at the end of the story.
Kate: Yes, during the re-read I was mentally at points shouting at Miss Marple: Remember the eye! Remember the eye! Following on from this I feel the second half of the book is more loosely plotted. Christie has a lot of suspects to get around and so she has little time to spend with any of them, so the consistent building up of Molly’s mental distress draws the reader’s eye quite sharply. The psychological element of the case is well established, so the final solution satisfies on that account. However, when it comes to actual cluing, I feel Miss Marple has to make quite a few leaps to get the end solution. What do you think about this?
Rekha: I totally agree with you. The second part was repetitive at times and a tad boring too. It is not just the characters, even I was a little confused about who’s who – Mrs Dyson and Mrs Hillingdon. Both the ladies were alike in some way though they were very different.
Though we were given all the clues, the long suspect list and their side-stories made it difficult for the reader to play detective. Somewhat of an abrupt ending? Like, so many things are happening around and out of nowhere, Miss Marple has a light-bulb moment.
Kate: Despite Miss Marple requiring the odd light bulb moment, as you say, and the fact this is not Christie’s best clued novel, I still think it contains a lot of her sneaky talent in misdirecting the reader. The first moment is that great setup in the book, of the Major’s conversation. When we finally realise how important it is, how it hints at a killer at the hotel, our attention is directed to look at the wrong set of suspects. Namely because of the Major’s false eye, which you’ve mentioned. Furthermore, Christie emphasises this red herring by having Miss Marple make a mistake, inaccurately remembering that the Major ‘had looked […] behind her right shoulder to be accurate.’ Another strong bit of misdirection in the first half of the book is directed towards Tim Kendal. He is consistently depicted as a worrier, which I think initially puts us off our guard with him, as it doesn’t make him seem like a likely killer, psychologically. However, in the second half of the book Christie somewhat dismantles this. Is this a title you would recommend? What would your final rating be?
Rekha: I think 3 is a low rating for this book while 4 might be a bit on the higher side. 3.5, perhaps? For someone who’s new to mystery classics, this might be an interesting book – they might say they did not see ‘the twist’ coming. I personally wouldn’t have liked this as my first Miss Marple read. But this might have to do with the choice of sleuth – I find her a tad slow. Having said that, there are few of the Miss Marple titles that I have really liked. (Don’t remember the title of this one: the murder happens in St Mary’s Mead. There’s a lot of discussion about Miss Marple’s maid. Pocket Full of Rye and 4.50 from Paddington were pretty interesting too.) What about you? What would be your rating? Would you recommend this book?
Kate: When I first read this book, I gave it a 4/5, but think on a second reading that rating is a little high, like you suggest. A 3.75/5 would be more fitting I think – after all I am fonder of Miss Marple than you are. Readers who haven’t read as many mysteries will probably find this book more surprising, yet at the same time I don’t feel it is the best introduction to Miss Marple, which you too point out. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend putting it straight to the top of the Christie TBR pile, I certainly wouldn’t place it at the bottom with the likes of Postern of Fate or Passenger to Frankfurt. It still has lots of delightful aspects and entertaining moments.
So over to you. Is this a favourite of yours? Or is it one you can’t bear to re-read again?