And so I begin my quest to find the appropriate book to introduce the great Agatha Christie to a group of fourteen year old young ladies at my school. If you want a little more background, then this post explains all. I’ve also created a page summarising my reviews of Christie’s work – I hadn’t actually realised how many I’ve reviewed to date. Well, brace yourself, there’s a lot more coming…
So, to A Caribbean Mystery, picked as it is one of the few Miss Marple stories yet to be televised in ITV much-maligned, IMHO, series Marple. Jane Marple has been packed off to a Caribbean resort for some much needed recuperation by her nephew, and, needless to say, she is a little bored. She’s not even paying much attention when old Major Palgrave, blethering on about the good old days in India, switches to talking about a photograph of a wife-murderer that he was given. Just as he is about to produce it, he catches his breath as he sees something – or someone – over Miss Marple’s shoulder. He hurries off without producing the photograph and guess what – he’s dead by morning. Everyone seems to think it’s high blood pressure… except no-one is quite sure who said that he had high blood pressure in the first place.
So, away from the sanctity of the English village, can Jane Marple bring her powers to bear and sort out the guilty secrets that virtually everyone in the hotel seems to possess…
It’s a weird resort in some ways – on paper, it seems to be busy, but Miss Marple only seems to meet about ten different people. It’s almost as if she’s in an Agatha Christie novel…
OK, that point’s rather picky and unfair. Let’s have a look.
A lot of the Christie books that I’m reviewing, I’ve read before and so I’m going in knowing who the murderer is. I usually have forgotten most of the rest of the details of the plot, but I do have a memory for the guilty party. It’s a bit annoying, but it doesn’t spoil the fun, as you can look for the clues instead.
Or the lack of them, in this case. It mostly hinges around a misunderstanding of a very early situation and I don’t think you’re given quite enough info to realise what has happened. Think I have to be vague about that bit… and on top of that, how loud exactly was the Major talking at the time?
The other niggle is the fact that given the murderer seems to have got away with it at least twice before, they are exceptionally clumsy in this case and once you see which way the wind is blowing, plot-wise, I think it’s pretty obvious from early on, who the guilty party is. It’s quite a short book, so maybe – and this is pure speculation – the original intention was for that part of the plot to be a distraction for the real murderer of Palgrave, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
Having said that – it’s an excellent read. When you know what’s going on, you get a chance to appreciate Christie’s simply but evocative writing style. The characters have a life of their own, especially Miss Marple and Jason Rafiel, who will make a posthumous appearance in the later Nemesis. Maybe some of the suspects are a little underdeveloped – with a little more page-time, maybe they could become serious red herrings – but I’d forgotten how even average Agatha Christie beats most of her competition hands down. Recommended.
Unfortunately, Dame Agatha does hit the “young people today” button a little too hard in the opening chapter. The paragraphs that begin:
Jane Marple has acquired quite a comprehensive knowledge of the facts of rural life…
A friend who was writing a book wanted a quiet place in the country…
both, while simply being a sign of the times, rather than a deliberate attempt at being offensive, would probably generate discussions that I certainly don’t want to get into.
A bit of a shame, but I think, mystery-wise, while this is a suitably normal Christie plot, it is, perhaps, a bit too straightforward. I want something that shows her real cleverness, even when she’s not stretching the genre. Luckily, there’s one such book coming up soon…
Fair enough Steve – this is very much later Christie in a fairly relaxed mould. Enjoyable but not all that memorable either. I would argue that BERTRAM’S HOTEL might make moire sense potentially in that she makes a point of how looking to the past can not only be a trap but potentially something to be exploited.
No fond memories of Bertram’s basically because it had so little Marple in it. Perhaps a more mature reader (i.e. modern me) might enjoy it more.
Well, yes, true enough – mind you, in my recollection at least, Miss Marple is mostly notable by her absence in her own novels, especially when compared with Poirot, though he seemed to appear later and later as the series went on into the 50s and 60s (let’s just agree to ignore the 70s …)
Well, Miss Marple often goes missing for a few chapters, but usually she’s still involved, just sitting, knitting and thinking off page – I think that At Bertram’s Hotel is the exception. Poirot’s absences tend to be ones where the plot toddles along and then he shows up to sort things out. Sad Cypress and After the Funeral spring to mind, but The Clocks is the worst example, by a long way.
As for the 70s… I have fond, if nebulous, memories of Elephants Can Remember and Third Girl. I must revisit these soon.
THIRD GIRL is definitely 60s – and as for ELEPHANTS, er, OK, if you say so, but I thought it was pretty bloody awful actually …
The Marple book I was especially thinking of was 4.50 FROM PADDINGTON where she seems to be deliberately excluded in many ways from the narrative …
It’s been a long time since I read Elephants… so it’s entirely possible I’m completely misremembering – to be fair, no-one else seems to have a good word for it either.
4:50 is one where it’s possible that Marple was added at a later date, as they do seem to provide a convenient alternate detective, very much (although not to the extent of) The Clocks, but I still felt that she was a part of the story, unlike the Poirot case.
Yes, I didn’t mean that she was necessarily extraneous to it as much as she just doesn’t appear or do a lot in it …
I’m not sure if I’ve actually read this one. I’ve definitely seen the Hickson adaptation a few times, though. In fact I have quite a strong memory of the funeral scene from the Hickson adaptation from when I was about four.
Assuming they didn’t completely change the plot, this strikes me as one of those ones where Christie’s taken an idea that might fill a good-ish short story and spread it very thin. Plenty of authors get away with that (Rex Stout springs to mind) but it’s hard not to always be thinking of earlier Christies where there were lots of ideas jostling for attention.
AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL is just forty kinds of crazy… It’s so weird in its tone, theme, plot and structure that I find it difficult to form many opinions about it.
Yeah it may be best to leave ELEPHANTS alone and keep your fond, nebulous memories alive :). But then what do I know? There was someone on the Carr forum who genuinely picked POSTERN OF FATE as their favourite Christie!
Haven’t read that one either – and no plans to, either.
You know, re-reading Elephants is starting to sound like a challenge…
I think the issue with A Caribbean Mystery, plotwise, is that you know the murderer’s MO from the start and hence, when someone is clearly the target, it sticks a flashing arrow over one character’s head. There could have been a couple of fixes – apart from the one I mentioned of having a separate killer for Palgrave, Christie could have mimicked Mrs McGinty’s and given the Major two or three stories that could have all applied.
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