Gwenda Reed, newly married and newly arrived in England, impulsively buys a house in the seaside town of Dillmouth. Aspects of it seem to be familiar to her: where she instinctively feels there should be a door between the drawing room and the dining room, a builder tells her that one has been plastered over and when she imagines a flowered wallpaper, one with those exact colours is found inside a bedroom cupboard. Slightly perturbed she belatedly accepts an invitation from her husband’s cousins in London and this brings things to a head when she screams and runs out of a performance of “The Duchess of Malfi”.
Fortunately the cousins are Raymond and Joan West and Miss Marple is also staying with them. Gwenda tells her all that has happened, explaining that at the line “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young” she pictured someone saying the line standing over the body of a dead woman in the house she now owns. By discussing Gwenda’s memories of sailing from India to New Zealand when a young child, Miss Marple identifies a discrepancy which implies Gwenda went on more than one boat. So by a remarkable coincidence , which Miss Marple just glosses over by saying that they do happen (Gideon Fell would have said ” We’re in a detective story – of course coincidences happen), Gwenda has bought the same house that she stayed in for a short time as a very young girl. Which means that if her memories of the door and wallpaper are real, then so is that of a murder that no one has suspected for eighteen years.
Miss Marple warns her to let sleeping murder lie but Gwenda is determine to find out who the woman was and who killed her, with deadly consequences.
Miss Marple is on fine form, inveigling herself into the Reeds’ investigation, using her connections to get invited to tea by relations of suspects, and inventing a missing gingerbread recipe to track down a servant from the time of the crime.
The mystery itself is nothing special but it would have been a treat to those reading it at first publication as it was written much earlier and deliberately held back to be published posthumously and would have been an improvement on Elephants Can Remember and Postern of Fate.
A fitting place to end the Christie novels is with a quote that sums up Miss Marple’s philosophy of detection:
“You believed what (the murderer) said. It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.”
Signs of the Times
Though described on the cover as Miss Marple’s Last Case nothing within it means that it has to be considered to have taken place after “Nemesis”. The events of “The Moving Finger” are mentioned so it takes place after that but Colonel Bantry is still alive and he had been dead for some years at the start of “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side”. In a new edition of the Miss Marple novels which feature spines that when put in order show St Mary Mead, Harper Collins have put it after “The Moving Finger” and before “A Murder is Announced” which fits with the time Christie actually wrote it. In his recent Facebook comments about this David Brawn pointed out that the fact that John Gielgud appears in the production of “The Duchess of Malfi” that Miss Marple, the Wests, and the Reeds go to see, cements the story in 1945 (April at the Haymarket Theatre to be specific). However as Kelvin Halliday and Helen Kennedy married on Friday 7th August that would have occurred in 1925 or 1931 and it would have to be the latter as 19 years later the Second World War has clearly finished. Unfortunately there is a later reference to Saturday 17th August which I think is meant to be a year after the wedding (at most two years) and that doesn’t occur in any of 1926, 1927, 1932 or 1933.
At this time did most New Zealanders refer to “England” as “Home” as Christie asserts on the first page?
In her confusion at finding the floral wallpaper that she had previously described Gwenda thinks “Dunne, Experiment with Time – seeing forward instead of back…” “An Experiment with Time” is a 1927 book by J. W. Dunne deals with precognitive dreams that he had personally experienced and his theory of why they happened.
Miss Marple responds to Dr Haydock’s suggestion of a tonic by saying “Easton’s syrup is always very helpful”. This was a syrup of iron phosphate with quinine and strychnine – sounds delicious!
Calcutta Lodge smells of beeswax and Ronuk. The latter was a furniture and floor polish, the name being an anglicised version of an Indian word meaning “brilliance”.
Mrs Mountford has pictures of the King, Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret Rose.
References to previous works
A lady at the sanitorium says “Is it your poor child, my dear…behind the fireplace but don’t say I told you” similar wording to that used by Mrs Lancaster in “By the Pricking of Thumbs”.