This is a late Christie which I have always felt I enjoyed more than others. It has certainly received its fair share of criticism when commentators such as The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review have opined that: ‘Miss Christie’s idea is intriguing, but the plot ambles so slowly and all involved so talky that the book can safely be recommended only to insomniacs.’ I don’t think these cited weaknesses are inaccurate, but my memory of the book definitely didn’t peg it as a replacement for Nytol. Consequently, I was curious as to what I would make of it upon a re-read, having not read it for over a decade. It is the penultimate Miss Marple novel, as Sleeping Murder (written earlier) was published posthumously. However, to many Christie fans Nemesis has seemed like the true final case. It thematically feels more like an ending.
SPOILER WARNING – The remainder of this post contains information which contains spoilers for those who do not already know the ending.
‘A letter from beyond the grave. One last request. An unsolvable crime.
When Miss Marple receives a letter from the recently deceased millionaire Jason Rafiel, she’s not sure what to make of it. Knowing her deductive skills, he challenges her to solve a crime. If she does so, she will inherit £20,000. The only problem is that he has failed to mention who was involved, or where, and when the crime was committed. Jane Marple is intrigued.
Never underestimate Miss Marple.’
One of the biggest things to hit me when reading the opening for this mystery, is how Miss Marple focused it is, a shift we see starting to happen consistently in the 1950s novels onwards (A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) being an exception). In earlier Miss Marple novels, the focus at the start tends to be centred on the narrator and them introducing us to the setting/locals or upon the person who finds the body. Instead with Nemesis we commence with Miss Marple’s routine and the everyday things which annoy her. The main irritation looked at is the change in newspaper content:
‘the daily paper that she had nicknamed ‘the Daily All-Sorts’, this being a slightly satirical allusion to the fact that her paper, the Daily Newsgiver, owing to a change of proprietor, to her own and to other of her friends’ great annoyance, now provided articles on men’s tailoring, women’s dress, female heart-throbs, competitions for children, and complaining letters from women and had managed pretty well to shove any real news off any part of it but the front page, or to some obscure corner where it was impossible to find it.’
In addition, Christie goes on to write that: ‘Miss Marple being old-fashioned, preferred her newspapers to be newspapers and give you news’ and she also mentions how even The Times had changed its formatting! I wondered whether this grievance was one Miss Marple’s creator shared.
Me being me I wondered to what purpose this scene was being used. What effect was it trying to create? And the conclusion I came to was that it intended to present Miss Marple as being a relic, someone who is stuck in the past and not in harmony with the current state of things. This partially surprised me as in other Miss Marple reads such as The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, I noted how Miss Marple had been more accepting of the need for change. So, following on from that thought I wondered if perhaps the newspaper grievance was being used to emphasis how disconnected Miss Marple is socially:
‘Having turned the paper over as usual to the births, marriages and deaths, Miss Marple thought to herself, as so often before. “It’s sad really, but nowadays one is only interested in the deaths!” People had babies, but the people who had babies were not likely to be even known by name to Miss Marple. If there had been a column dealing with babies labelled as grandchildren, there might have been some chance of a pleasurable recognition.’
Nevertheless, I felt this sad picture of Miss Marple interestingly contrasts with her activities in the rest of the book. Perhaps in a way amateur sleuthing is her gateway into living with more vitality. The sarcastic Miss Marple of the ending is noticeably different to the Miss Marple of the opening character who reveals a reduced confidence in her own memory.
The newspaper topic is also utilised effectively as a vehicle for mentioning the death of Jason Rafiel. Miss Marple’s diminished memory also becomes more apparent with the unveiling of this news as when her mind is turning over the subject of Rafiel, her recollections are limited and repetitive, despite it not having been many years since she met him (1-2 years??). In particular, I noticed some repetitive phrasing in her recollections:
‘He was a strong man, an obstinate man – a very rich man.’
‘Nobody resented his being rude, though. She remembered that also. They didn’t resent his being rude because he was so rich. Yes, he had been very rich.’
‘Mr Rafiel had been very rude to him sometimes. He had never seemed to mind. And that, again, of course was because Mr Rafiel was so rich.’
These examples come from one half of a page of text and as others have said before me, this is instance where an editor probably needed to do some work.
However, once Miss Marple finally stops considering his bank balance, she interestingly considers the similarities between the two of them:
‘Surely,’ said Miss Marple, aghast at an idea that had come into her mind, ‘there can’t be a bond of ruthlessness between us?’
Was she, Jane Marple – could she ever be – ruthless?
‘D’you know,’ said Miss Marple to herself, ‘it’s extraordinary, I never thought about it before. I believe, you know, I could be ruthless…’
Miss Marple’s capacity for ruthlessness is an idea which is built upon during the opening and closing of the novel. A key effect of this quality within Miss Marple is to demonstrate how it does not match with the stereotypes associated with her external appearance and manner. For example, Cherry Baker (who I initially wrote down as Cherry Bakewell!) says to her:
‘Seeing you with your wool and pretty things you knits and all that – anyone would think you were gentle as a lamb. But there’s times I could say you’d behave like a lion if you was goaded into it.’
This is the type of statement which aims to elicit shock or surprise and even Miss Marple is said to have ‘looked a little doubtful’ when Cherry Baker shares it with her.
The device of using contrasts also crops up in other ways in the story. The inclusion of Miss Marple’s physical feebleness and her creeping mental wooliness, among other things, suggests this is a mystery about getting older and aging (as is Postern of Fate (1973)). Nevertheless, I would say several of the chapter headings in the book belie these personal limitations and present Miss Marple in a more active way: ‘Code Word: Nemesis’, ‘Miss Marple Takes Action’, ‘Miss Marple Makes a Visit’ and ‘Miss Marple Has Ideas’. The first of these chapter examples does not refer to Miss Marple directly, but it felt things like code words are more commonly associated with thrillers and the world of espionage, a world that Miss Marple seems rather incongruous to, given its emphasis on action. Yet, as many a Christie fan will tell you, Miss Marple is fully aware of what impressions her physical appearance gives, and that she is more than capable of using this to her own advantage. Using stereotypes such as ‘old maids’ being ‘notoriously inquisitive’ she is able to mislead and disarm those she talks to, and it enables her to gain much more information. In this particular story I loved how she stage manages a meeting with Esther Walter outside a supermarket and invites herself around for tea – an action which in someone younger might have aroused suspicion.
Her deceptive appearance, is one of the things which crops up in a passage in which Miss Marple contemplates:
What qualifications had she got? ‘What qualities have I got that could be useful to anyone for anything? said Miss Marple. She considered herself with proper humility.
Here is the list she comes up with:
- Asks questions,
- Fits an older female demographic which is ‘expected to ask questions’ and which makes ‘the habit of snooping’ ‘seem perfectly natural’.
- Part of a demographic termed by Miss Marple as ‘an old pussy’, which stereotypically lacks distinctiveness, due to there being ‘so many old pussies, and they’re all so much alike.’
- Is ordinary and
- Gives the appearance of being scatty.
As Miss Marple sums up this is all ‘very good camouflage.’ How well do you score on Miss Marple criteria list?
To begin with Agatha Christie intrigues us as to what Jason Rafiel wants Miss Marple to do, as his first letter to her presents no tangible leads to follow up, yet I think Miss Marple’s initial actions are quite sensible, given her lack of information. The case is given some direction by Rafiel putting Miss Marple on the coach trip and ensuring she is invited to stay at the Glynne/Bradbury-Scott household. Moreover, it is nice initially to see Miss Marple feeling and guessing her way into the case:
‘And since she had been sent on this coach tour, one at least of those fifteen passengers must be of importance in some way. either as a source of information or someone concerned with the law or a law case, or it might even be a murderer. A murderer who might have already killed or one who might be preparing to kill. Anything was possible, Miss Marple thought, with Mr Rafiel!’
At this stage the case could go in a number of directions, and we can laugh with Miss Marple, as she laughs at herself when she comes up with fantastical scenarios of which coach passenger she is meant to make contact with:
Richard Jameson? That was the thin architect. Miss Marple didn’t see how architecture could come into it, though it might, she supposed. A priest’s hole perhaps? One of the houses they were going to visit might have a priest’s hole which would contain a skeleton. And Mr Jameson, being an architect would know just where the priest’s hole was. He might aid her to discover it, or she might aid him to discover it and then they would find a body. ‘Oh really,’ said Miss Marple. ‘What nonsense I am talking and thinking.’
However, as I said above this is great initially, but one of the biggest weaknesses of the book is that Miss Marple is left with too little to go on, for far too long and for not any meaningful purpose. I came away with the feeling that Rafiel made the case harder than it had to be for Miss Marple, especially given the stakes involved – the potential releasing of his son from prison. Personally, I think Rafiel could have risked being more direct and straight forward with her, as I don’t feel Miss Marple would have been too biased by knowing about Michael Rafiel and the death of Verity Hunt. In fact, she can only make any head way once she learns about their existence. Unsurprisingly, it takes her much longer to get going and to get looking in the right direction because of this delay.
Moreover, I felt like the cold case of Verity Hunt’s murder is more obvious to the reader than it is to Miss Marple, who once the case has been mentioned, takes a while to decide that this is the case Jason Rafiel wants her to investigate and I would say it takes the death of Elizabeth Templeton to really convince Miss Marple to pursue that angle. It surprised me how many different people have to mention Verity and/or Michael before Miss Marple goes “Yes this is the case to look at”. Part of me wondered what the story would have been like if Professor Wanstead, Miss Marple and Elizabeth Temple had been brought together directly at the start and had been allowed to share their information, before planning a line of enquiry. The Tuppence and Tommy Beresford method, you might say. Yet it seems like Christie wanted the book to follow different lines, an almost fuzzier version of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934).
That said, you can feel and share Miss Marple’s frustration when Professor Wanstead initially prevaricates over what he can or cannot tell her. This is easily 100 pages into the book, and you can just imagine Miss Marple thinking to herself: “Will someone just tell me something!!” Ultimately, he does share everyone knows and there is no discernible reason why he shouldn’t have done so in the first place. Due to the lack of or delayed overt guidance Miss Marple does not visibly regard Glynne/Bradbury-Scott sisters as people on her suspects list. She regards them more as sources of information and she seems more fixed on the idea of another man having killed Verity. It is only by repeatedly going backwards and forwards between the Golden Boar Hotel and the Glynne/Bradbury-Scott household that she manages to ditch that idea.
In keeping with Miss Marple’s acknowledgment of her diminished memory, during the investigation process she is far less sure of herself, than she is in other novels. Several times she feels like she is not getting anywhere, or not asking the right questions to the right people. I would also add here that she comes across as a more vulnerable sleuth too, as at times she is unnerved:
There was a melancholy here in this house, thought Miss Marple. It was impregnated somehow with sorrow – a sorrow that could not be dispersed or removed since it had penetrated too deep. It had sunk in… She shivered suddenly.
Perhaps this change in demeanour is because she is kept in the dark about the nature of the case for so long. In addition, I think Miss Marple postulates theories a lot more in this novel, than she does in her other cases. However, once Nemesis reaches the 75% mark, she rapidly changes tack and suddenly shoves all her ideas up her sleeves and acts mysteriously.
When the narrative does swing its attention to Glynne/Bradbury-Scott household, I think Christie does demonstrate some of her old flair for misdirection and cluing, although this demonstration is not sufficient to make this a brilliant puzzle (that side of things runs out of steam and the story cycles through a lot of conversations which say the same thing). However, let’s take a look at what red herrings and clues there are in the story…
- The killer is ruled out to begin with by Miss Marple herself as she believes Clotilde Bradbury-Scott ‘would have made a magnificent Clytemnestra – she could have stabbed a husband in his bath with exultation. But since she had never had a husband, that solution wouldn’t do. Miss Marple could not see her murdering anyone else but a husband – and there had been no Agamemnon in this house.’ Yet Miss Marple makes this judgement before she has any idea about the case she is looking into and arguably Jason Rafiel’s extreme reticence actually causes her to make some pre-judgements. If she knew about Verity beforehand maybe she would have looked at Clotilde differently.
- On her visit to the Glynne/Bradbury-Scott household, Miss Marple is shown the fallen down greenhouse and the Polygonum Baldschuanicum which overruns it. It is a quick growing plant, which gets its own chapter heading. Miss Marple says it is ‘very useful really if one wants to hide any tumbledown building or anything ugly of that kind.’ From this we are clearly meant to deduce that it could also hide a body. I think this is quite an obvious clue, but maybe others would disagree.
- Christie provides us with a red herring suspect, Anthea Bradbury-Scott. In the beginning I think she is a more subtle and reasonable red herring, as we see her do things such as ‘steer’ Miss Marple ‘away’ from the greenhouse area. Unfortunately, due to the lack of suspects generally (other than the actual killer, who prevents the greenhouse area being renovated), Anthea becomes a weak and unlikely murderer.
- Witnesses say that they saw a person in brightly coloured clothes near the boulder which fell on Elizabeth Templeton and killed her. Miss Marple outwardly shares how the noticeable clothing was intentional. The killer wanted the clothes to be noticed and for assumptions to made about the person wearing them i.e. someone not like the killer when they are dressed normally. This is not a bad clue as it gives Miss Marple something tangible to follow up when she notes that Anthea took a parcel to the post office after the murder. Perhaps this clue is a little obvious, but it does point us back to the Glynne/Bradbury-Scott household. I think in this story there is so little suspicious activity to latch on to. The coach party is not likely to contain the killer, as we spend so little time with them. Therefore, the reader’s attention is more concentrated on the Glynne/Bradbury-Scott residence due to the lack of alternatives.
- Miss Marple has several conversations in which Nora Broad is mentioned, another girl who goes missing at the same time as Verity. For the keen Christie fan this should remind them of another mystery Christie wrote, several decades previously and with that reminder the killer is even easier to spot. For those lacking that information I think the more wayward “boy mad” demeanour of Nora, as reported to Miss Marple by various people, is meant to get us thinking about the body which was identified as Verity. This body had the face smashed in to prevent easy identification and was also said to be pregnant at the time. I think at this point we are meant to figure that the body is not Verity’s but Nora’s and with that we wonder where Verity is and why Clotilde mis-identified her. The fact the body is dressed in her clothes, the face is so visibly attacked, and that Clotilde was so upset after the identification all contribute to why suspicion does not fall on her sooner.
- Another small clue is Clotilde’s reaction when Miss Marple casually mentions Verity’s name. Clotilde is said to look ‘not at Miss Marple but across the room in the direction of the window.’ I felt this was an indicator of her looking out at the greenhouse where she knows the body is buried. However, this is not something Miss Marple overtly picks up on as she said to be ‘impressed by the aura of grief that came from her.’ In contrast we have Anthea whose reaction is described as ‘quick, excited, almost pleasurable.’ Moreover, when the body was identified as Verity all those years ago one witness says: ‘I thought she had a kind of pleased look as though she was – yes, just pleased.’ This is more fuel for the red herring idea that Anthea is the killer, but I don’t know how convincing it is.
I think Miss Marple does go rather “zero to hero” in this book, spending so long in the story having no idea what she is supposed to be doing, to then suddenly knowing everything and keeping all her ideas to herself. The “zero to hero” effect is exacerbated by Miss Marple spending so long in the dark. A lot of time is lost that way. Nevertheless, one thing I was puzzled by was that despite the fact Miss Marple would have known the identity of the killer by this point, 40 pages from the end, the narrative is still voicing her idea that Clotilde would only kill her husband and that since she is not married, she therefore cannot be the murderer in the current scenario. This seemed disingenuous to me.
Like in Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), with Nemesis we have another unlikeable wronged man, who must be proven innocent. But Michael Rafiel is even more unpleasant than James Bentley, there is no sugar-coating Michael, nor whitewashing him. He is repeatedly seen as a bad lot, with a lengthy criminal record, and even Miss Marple thinks it will be hard for him to ever go completely straight and avoid criminality in the future. The Joan Hickson adaptation (which is my favourite series) interestingly tries to soften the image of Michael, having him live as a homeless down and out. I wonder if this is to give a sense that he has redeemed himself.
The mystery concludes with the classic Miss Marple trap, although the role of Miss Cooke and Miss Barrow as guardian angels hired by Rafiel to protect her, is rather ham fistedly thrown in. During my re-read I felt there was change in the nature of Miss Marple’s explanation. It seems longer, cyclical and there is a real emphasis on Miss Marple’s feelings, without any recourse to village parallels. This seems different to her previous solution explanations, which I felt had more tangible pieces of information in. Interestingly, though she probably has her most professional and “important” audience listening to her explanation. It escaped my first reading, or at least my memory, that she explains the case to Professor Wanstead, the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, the Governor of Manstone Prison and the Home Secretary – all seated in the Public Prosecutor’s Office. This type of audience seemed unusual to me, but then it occurred to me that who else would be appropriate to explain the case to.
Earlier in the book when considering the three sisters i.e., the three women in the Glynne/Bradbury-Scott household, Miss Marple recalls a recent production of Macbeth that she saw with her nephew. She says to him that if she ever produced that play, she would have made ‘the three witches quite different. I would have them three ordinary, normal old women. Old Scottish women. They wouldn’t dance or caper. They would look at each other rather slyly and you would feel a sort of menace just behind the ordinariness of them.’ I was reminded of this description at the end of Nemesis when Miss Marple’s audience members reveal what they thought about her. To me these comments suggest that Miss Marple herself managed to take on her own interpretation of one of Macbeth’s witches. For example, one man says: ‘That old lady gives me the creeps,’ whilst another says she was ‘so gentle – and so ruthless’ and a third man said that Miss Marple was ‘the most frightening woman I ever met’. All three descriptions fit in with the menace that miss Marple says the three witches should achieve as characters.
One of my favourite parts of this mystery is very last couple of pages when Miss Marple goes to arrange to receive her reward money from Jason Rafiel’s solicitors. She is determined to spend her reward and she is adamant she will have it in her current and not her savings account. One of the solicitors, disapproving of this plan says:
‘You could ask your bank manager’s advice, you know Miss Marple. It really is – one never knows when one wants something for a rainy day.’
And I just love the sass in Miss Marple’s reply:
‘The only thing I shall want for a rainy day will be my umbrella,’ said Miss Marple.
What better note to finish on!
Rating: 3.75/5 (This is a higher rating than a book with these kinds of weaknesses would normally get, but I think there was enough enjoyment through the characters (especially Miss Marple) in this re-read that these issues were compensated for, to a degree. In particular I think Miss Marple’s character and nature of her sleuthing is better able to carry the story and its structural deficiencies. She does a much better job of this than Tuppence and Tommy Beresford who do not pull off in their cold case in Postern of Fate.)
P. S. Whilst Christie’s cluing powers and knack for structuring her mysteries is not at its heights in this story, I still feel she has a good eye for insightful but concise descriptions, such as this one of Professor Wanstead:
Across the aisle from Miss Marple was a big man with square shoulders and a clumsy-looking body, looking as though he had been carelessly assembled by an ambitious child out of chunky bricks. His face looked as though nature had planned it to be round but the face had rebelled at this and decided to achieve a square effect by developing a powerful jaw.
See also: John, the Puzzle Doctor, JJ, Brad and Jose have also reviewed this title.
For me Nemesis is the best of Christie’s late career. It is an imperfect book for the reasons you state and it certainly sags in the middle.
Nevertheless, this is the only Christie amongst the last ten books that she wrote that I re-read. I find the motive and the fiendish culprit inspired and relatively unique in detective fiction. Plus Miss Marple is present from start to finish and the ending when the killer is revealed and caught is fun.
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I hadn’t thought about it until now but I agree you are right with this being the best of the last Christie books. The consistent presence of Marple really helps.
Despite the flaws in later Christie books, I do often love them and this is a particular favourite. And I did enjoy Cooke and Barrow!!
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Yes this is probably the best late book (excluding Curtain and Sleeping Murder which were written earlier) – you can see much more of the old Christie spark in this one, even if the flame flickers quite a bit.
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I recall not caring for this but it’s been so long since I read it that I have no real idea why. I’d like re-read it but wasn’t sure I wanted to pay $13.49 for a Kindle book I wasn’t thrilled with the first time around.
Forty-eight hours later I suddenly remember that I have a paperback edition of Nemesis sitting on my book shelf. [Insert facepalm]
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Phew! Glad you avoided needing to splash out on an expensive Kindle version. I am surprised it was that expensive.
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[…] was another Christie novel that I re-read in April (the third being Nemesis (1971)) and with this one I read a physical copy. What impressed me the most with this re-read was […]
Since Miss Marple’s age and failing health is a key part of this story, I wonder if the repetitions are meant to indicate that she is gradually becoming the fluffy and confused old lady she has pretended to be for so long?
I agree it’s not one of Christie’s stronger novels, but it is one I love reading. I love some of the characters, I love the way extreme old age is portrayed so positively, and I love Miss Marple’s (and Mr Rafiel’s) passion for justice, even when the recipient of their efforts is somewhat unworthy.
I also love the way Christie never tries to whitewash or sugarcoat wrongdoing. It’s interesting to see how often tv adaptations of her novels either turn criminals into ‘misunderstood rough diamonds’ or into lunatics. It seems that people today are happy to acknowledge good but are much less willing to admit that evil exists than were those of Christie’s generation!
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Yes I would agree that Christie did not whitewash wrongdoing and this theme becomes more pronounced in her later books, particularly the Marple ones. I noticed something similar for the character of Edmund in the Narnia books. Just started watching the BBC 1990s adaptation of one The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and unlike in the modern times film adaptation, Edmund is just allowed to be a horrible child! There isn’t a need to present him as someone who is put about or ganged up on. So far he is not given any sympathetic qualities.