St Mary Mead is all a-flutter when film star Marina Gregg rents Gossington Hall and they all turn out when she opens the gardens for the benefit of the St John Ambulance Association. It is there that Heather Badcock is poisoned, an unlikely target for murder it would seem – until it is revealed that she was not the intended victim.
The book begins with Miss Marple’s open imprisonment in her own home by the well-meaning Miss Knight, a companion paid for by nephew Raymond as following a nasty case of bronchitis Dr Haydock has said “she must not go on sleeping alone in the house with only someone coming in daily”.
However she manages to trick Miss Knight into going shopping for all sorts of things that couldn’t possibly be available and she sneaks out to the Development, a new estate adjoining the village and in a short time manages to sow a seed of a doubt in the mind of a fiancée and then have a fall which leads her to meet the soon to be unlucky Heather.
This framing of the story as society continues to change from the old to the new was something I had forgotten, being more familiar with the story from the Angela Lansbury/Elizabeth Taylor film.
Due to her accident, Miss Marple is not on the scene of the crime, and so has to rely on the witness testimony to piece together what has happened.
A fine book with one of the best motives Christie ever used.
Recurring Character Development
Her uncle had been a Canon of Chichester Cathedral and she had been to stay with him in the Close as a child.
She would be very old by now, at least if she is still alive, according to Chief Inspector Craddock. He calls her Aunty as a joke.
Her husband, the Colonel, died some years ago, so she sold Gossington Hall, and moved into the East Lodge.
Signs of the Times
Mr Toms’ basket shop has been replaced by, oh horror, a supermarket. “You’re expected to take a basket yourself and go round looking for things,” says Miss Hartnell. Eventually we have ended up doing the bagging ourselves as well with self-service checkouts before things have gone full circle and now we can have our food once more delivered to the door, not by the butcher’s boy or the baker’s boy but by a representative of a national corporation.
Miss Marple passes some sinister looking young men who she takes to be Teds. The term Teddy Boys, to refer to those who dressed like the dandies of the Edwardian period of the early 20th century, had been coined in 1953.
As Miss Marple is having trouble knitting, Dr Haydock suggests that she should unravel “like Penelope”. To put off suitors in the long absence of her husband Odysseus, she weaved a burial shroud for his father, promising to remarry once it was finished, but each night she unwound it.
Hailey Preston’s views are reminiscent of those of Dr Pangloss. Professor Pangloss appeared in Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759).
Cherry refers to Haigh “who pickled them all in acid”. John Haigh (1909-49) was a convicted fraudster who decided that to avoid future imprisonment he should kill his victims to prevent them reporting his crimes. He dissolved the bodies of at least six victims in acid, wrongly believing that he could not be tried for murder in the absence of a body.
Miss Marple refers to a book by Richard Hughes about a hurricane in Jamaica. This is “A High Wind in Jamaica” (1929) also known as “The Innocent Voyage”.
References to previous works
Mention is made of events from “The Body in the Library” and “Murder at the Vicarage”. The Reverend and Mrs Clement must have left St Mary Mead as she now gets a Christmas card each year from Griselda.
Craddock refers to the “Tuesday Night Club” the group that appeared in “The Thirteen Problems”.
The motive is devastating -and in light of the current pandemic very relevant – and yet is well hidden because of the implication that it is what Marina Gregg saw that is key:
“I mean, I don’t believe she’d even heard what Mrs Badcock was saying. She was just staring with what I call this Lady of Shalott look, as though she’d seen something awful. Something frightening, something that she could hardly believe she saw and couldn’t bear to see”
Christie has used the “look over the shoulder” before and would use it again, but here it is the look here that is irrelevant in a sense because Marina heard all too clearly what Heather said.
It is a neat touch that Heather met Marina twice at events for the St John Ambulance Association, a medical organisation committed to helping people, and yet it was fatal for them both.
I like the fact that in this book Miss Marple can protect a vulnerable Gladys, something she couldn’t do in “A Pocket Full of Rye”.