Mrs Bantry’s day begins with the maid announcing hysterically that there is a body in the library. This seems unlikely but when Colonel Bantry goes downstairs he finds it to be true.
It is quickly established that the dead girl is Ruby Keene, a dancer at a local hotel. She had recent become the favourite of a wealthy elderly man who planned to adopt her, which put the rest of his family’s noses out of joint and provides the police with a number of suspects to investigate. Things become even more confused when a second murder occurs.
Miss Marple is motivated to help solve the case in order to remove the shadow of suspicion from the Bantrys. This theme that it is possibly more important to identify a killer to prevent injustice to the innocent than to serve justice on the guilty is a recurring theme through Christie’s work including “The Four Suspects” from The Thirteen Problems.
She does her best work in deciding which of a group of schoolgirls should be given the third degree, an interrogation which she conducts herself with the same determination and ruthlessness of George Smiley.
Despite a plethora of policeman, it is Miss Marple with a woman’s eye, who is able to solve the case.
In the latest episode of the highly recommended The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast, Dan talked about the experience of reading Hercule Poirot’s Christmas on a train and having to finish it in the station as the need to know what had happened was so strong. I definitely experienced something similar the first time I read this as I can strongly remember finishing reading it whilst waiting at a bus stop on the way to church.
Overall a classic Christie and better than Miss Marple’s debut novel The Murder at the Vicarage which is probably why it was chosen as the first story to be filmed in the excellent Joan Hickson series.
Recurring character development
Is, or has been, involved with the Sunday School, Brownies, and Guides and is on the committee of the local orphanage.
Signs of the Times
Based on the age of a baby, this is set within two years of The Murder at the Vicarage and that book must therefore be set several years after it was published (see references below), making this likely to be set c.1935.
The Bantrys have a butler, a cook, a chauffeur, and no less than three housemaids.
Mrs Bantry has been reading the fictitious “The Clue of the Broken Match”.
Peter Carmody reads all the detective stories and has the autographs of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and H. C. Bailey.
George Bartlett drives a Minoan 14, as do eight other guests of the hotel, it being the popular cheap car of the year.
When Harper is told that a body has been found in a burnt out car he says “Don’t tell me we’re going to have a Rouse case now!” Alfred Rouse was tried and executed in 1931 for the murder of a (still to this day) unknown person who he burned to death in his own car. The case inspired a number of detective stories including J. J. Connington’s The Four Defences.
Miss Marple likens the relationship between Jefferson Conway and Ruby Keene to that of King Cophetua and the Beggar Girl. This was originally a 16th century ballad that told the story of how an African king who had previously had no interest in women fell in love at first sight with the beautiful beggar Penelophon.
Miss Marple feels that the case is of a type that may never be solved like the Brighton trunk murders. Two unrelated murders involving bodies found in trunks occurred in Brighton in 1934. Only one lead to a trial in which the accused was found not guilty though he did confess to his crime just before he died in 1976.
Mark Gaskell refers to Hugo McLean as “Alias William Dobbin” because of his faithful devotion to Adelaide Conway is like that of Captain Dobbin to Amelia Sedley in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”.
Mark Gaskell sings “But she is in her grave, and, oh, the difference to me!” This is from William Wordsworth’s 1798 poem “She Dwelt Amon the Untrodden Ways”.
Mention is made of a “Bergner part”. Elisabeth Bergner (1897-1986) was an Austrian-British actress best known for playing the role of Gemma Jones in “Escape Me Never” on both stage and screen.
Miss Marple quotes “to make assurance doubly (actually “double”) sure” which is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Sir Henry ends the evening before the denouement by quoting “And so to bed” which is how Samuel Pepys often concluded his diary entries.
References to previous works
Sir Henry Clithering refers to “Death by Drowning” the last of The Thirteen Problems.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “How – Crime involved fire/arson”.
Christie’s genius is in being able to re-package the same ideas in different guises which only becomes apparent in retrospect. Here we have an alibi established by a body being deliberately wrongly identified, with a couple working in tandem; a scenario which is almost exactly the same as one of her earlier novels. Indeed the key line “And all these girls with their make-up and their hair and their nails look so alike” is so reminiscent of observations made in that earlier book.
What Else I’ve Been Reading
Rocket to The Morgue by Anthony Boucher – Sisters Ursula and Felicitas (the Jay and Silent Bob of detective fiction) return in this sequel to Nine Times Nine. It is entertaining but not as good as its predecessor. Written under his H. H. Holmes pseudonym he was able to bring himself as Tony Boucher in as one of the witnesses to murder.
The American Gun Mystery by Ellery Queen – an ageing rodeo rider is shot dead in an arena under the eyes of thousands of spectators and yet no one knows who did it or what happened to the murder weapon. The reveal is surprising but unlikely and I actually came close to finding the murder weapon only I was a little extreme in my ideas.