#58 – 4.50 from Paddington

“Oh, Jane,” she wailed. “I’ve just seen a murder!”

True to the precepts handed down to her by her mother and grandmother – to wit: that a true lady can neither be shocked nor surprised – Miss Marple merely raised her eyebrows and shook her head, as she said:

Most distressing for you, Elspeth, and surely most unusual. I think you had better tell me about it at once.”

During the short time that her train was running alongside another, the blind opposite popped open, allowing Mrs McGillicuddy to have seen the back of man as he strangled a woman. Neither the railway authorities nor the police are interested in her story, particularly when no body is discovered.

Miss Marple however knows that Elspeth McGillicuddy is the last person to have invented such a scenario and determines that she will try to find out the truth of the matter.

With information gathered from various sources she is able to reconstruct the crime and finds that there is one area where a body may have been disposed of, near to Rutherford Hall. She persuades super servant Lucy Eyelesbarrow to take a position there with instructions to search the neighbourhood for a corpse, which she duly finds.

These opening chapters are the strongest aspect of the book – Miss Marple is very Inspector French-like in her method of checking train timetables and embarking on several journeys herself to figure out how a body could have been removed from the train unseen.

We then move into a typical Christie family situation when the men of the Crackenthorpe family all assemble at Rutherford Hall and the police investigate whether anyone has any knowledge of who the dead woman may be.

The story moves upon nicely until we get to a pair of somewhat unnecessary late murders before a set-piece denouement which is almost as good as the opening scene but the identity of the killer comes straight from Miss Marple’s intuition and their motivation has been made known to the police but not really hinted to the reader. And whilst coincidence often plays a role in GAD fiction, there is a massive one involved here, which surely could have been handled better.

Interestingly, Miss Marple feels too old for any more adventures and takes a back seat in proceedings, so she must get a second wind when she later takes a trip to the West Indies and then traipses round the country on a coach tour – perhaps the spirit of Nemesis has a rejuvenating effect!

Recurring character development

Miss Marple

Her current maid is described as “elderly”.

Makes her own cowslip wine.

Her nephew Raymond West had retained Lucy’s services to look after Miss Marple when she was recovering from pneumonia. He has two sons; David, the younger, works for British Railways.

She is often invited to the vicarage for Christmas dinner. This is still home to the Clements who were central characters in “The Murder at the Vicarage”.

Her handwriting is “spiky and spidery and frequently underlined”.

Supports capital punishment, at least in this case, and laments that is has been abolished. This is not strictly true as the Homicide Act 1957 allowed for the use of the death penalty for six types of murder, one of which was committing two murders on separate occasions in Great Britain.

Signs of the Times

The murder takes place on Friday 20th December which places the start of the story in 1957, the year of publication. The investigation takes place in January 1958, so when Alexander talks about Stoddart-West’s parents taking him out to see the Test match in Australia next year, he is referring to the 1958-59 Ashes series, which England would go on to lose 4-0.

Alfred Crackenthorpe worked for the Ministry of Supply during WWII. This ministry was created in 1939 to co-ordinate the supply of equipment to all three forces of the British military. It was abolished in 1959.

References to previous works

The business at Little Paddocks is mentioned a number of times which was documented in “A Murder is Announced” and there are some vague spoilers towards the end of this book about that case.

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