Rating: four out of five
Year or Publication: 1964
Motive for Murder: Wealth
Plot: Mr.Rafter is not an amiable fellow; the nearly octogenarian English man speaks in a forthright manner, barks orders and does not care less for small talks with the guests in Golden Palm Hotel. But he is very rich.
When a guest dies mysteriously, it is to him Miss Marple turns to; after all there is more than one can do when they have money in their hands. Then a maidservant is stabbed and she knows too well that another life is in imminent danger.
Meanwhile, rumours have it that Lucky Dyson married her husband Greg just over a month after the demise of his first wife, Gail. Prior to her death Lucky was Gail’s carer during her illness. More importantly, Lucky was in charge of the other’s medicine. Gail’s death results in Greg having inherited a vast fortune. Did Greg have nothing to do with Gail’s death?
Time is essential as Lucky is found drowned in the small hours.
The clear blue sky and the peaceful surrounding of the imaginary St. Honore do not put Miss Marple’s mind at ease any more. Thousand miles away from England, she feels alone. Not only does she try to find a murderer among the hotel guests but also a dangerous killer who already got away with his crimes. Moreover, who would trust her saying that Major Palgrave was about to show her a snapshot of a murderer earlier in the day before he died?
Enter Mr. Rafter, an unlikely partner in crime. Miss Marple sees a shrewd mind and wealth beyond his rude addressing that come handy. The rest is a collaboration of minds as they compare notes and take actions against someone who blends himself well among the guests.
The plot sees Christie’s attention to detail and her mastering the art of gossiping. The opening chapter is intriguing although it appears to be a mere dialogue between two hotel guests. Its significance lies on the fact that Major Palgrave is then killed and it is to Miss Marple to whom he spoke.
Furthermore, what makes the scene tickle readers’ ‘little grey cells’ is how stories spread through the grapevines and more importantly gossiping is part of human nature – not women’s in particular. Then Major Palgrave does it; yet as a character he is an unreliable voice. To Mr. Rafter there is no mentioning about the snapshot and he is quite sure about it.
The Major’s death apparently is the reason to believe in some truths in his tales. Then Miss Marple’s inquiry into the questionable photograph comes to nothing, for there are not any images among the Major’s personal items.
And how about Victoria Johnson’s story? The maidservant notices that a bottle of tablets for high-blood pressure is in the Major’s room a day after his death. For she is not aware of it before. Besides, she knows to whom it belongs. Is that what triggers her killing? Or perhaps her seeing the opportunity to blackmail the murderer?
Knowledge can be such a dangerous thing, especially the one which comes with the full realisation long after it is done. To my mind the subplot on the Dysons goes well as a reference to the actual murderer plus the confession of an accessory (see Clues).
What holds the story is the dynamic between Miss Marple and Mr. Rafter. Splendid as it is, it is also comical. On the one hand is a disabled man bound in the wheelchair, who does seem eccentric at face value but generous at heart. On the other is an ‘old pussie’ who is able to put aside her feelings and make ‘allowances’ to the other’s forthright manner. (see the dialogue in the right box).
Esther Walters comes into the scene; a loyal secretary who knows how to handle her employer. You will see later why I have chosen her as The Most Fascinating Character; partly because she represents a sort of woman that is a world apart from the glamorous Lucky Dyson or the quiet intelligent Miss Preston. Nonetheless, there is more about her than just being a secretary to a millionaire.
As regards to the twists in the plot, Lucky Dyson’s death will remind readers to Cora Lansquenet (After The Funeral). For at first Dyson is perceived as another woman –the intended victim- due to similar height and build, until Miss Marple notices Dyson’s hair colour. As for Lansquenet, nobody realises that it is not her until Helen Abernethie realises the way the other turns her head in the wrong way.
In terms of the ending, it reminds me of the similar scene in A Murder Is Announced in which Miss Marple’s ‘little game’ is put in order. Mr. Rafter’s valet, Arthur Jackson, plays part in it although –again, surprisingly- he befriends the murderer. As the curtain falls in which a cunning plot is revealed, there is a lot of similarities about it compared to Patrick Redfern’s (Evil Under The Sun) and Michael Rogers’s (Endless Night).
-Major Palgrave does not have problems with his blood pressure
-The murderer removes a snapshot of himself from the Major’s wallet
-Edward Hillingdon is an accessory to the murder of Gail Dyson, Greg’s first wife
-Mr. Rafter grants £50,000 for Esther Walters in his will
-Lucky Dyson was meeting Arthur Jackson on the beach at the time she was murdered
-Arthur Jackson’s snooping in the Kendals’ room results in his suspicion about Molly’s face cream
Cast of Characters:
-Arthur Jackson (English, Mr. Rafter’s valet and masseur)
-Inspector Daventry (a constable in Jamestown)
-Colonel Edward Hillingdon (Evelyn’s husband)
-Esther Walters (Mr. Rafter’s secretary)
-Evelyn Hillingdon (Edward’s wife)
-Canon Jeremy Prescott (English)
-Joan Presscott (English, the Canon’s sister)
-Dr. Graham (a retired doctor in the island)
-Greg Dyson (American, who writes on butterflies, Lucky’s husband)
-‘Lucky’ Dyson (American, Greg’s second wife)
-Molly Kendal (English, Tim’s wife, who runs the hotel with her husband)
-Tim Kendal (English, Molly’s wife)
-Mr. Rafter (an English millionaire, who vacations in St. Honore every year)
-Dr. Robertson (the young doctor in the island)
The Most Fascinating Character: Esther Walters
She is a widow who is employed by Mr. Rafter as his secretary. She follows his annual holiday to Caribbean and tends to his whims and tantrums. Although her employer is frequently rude to her, she does not seem to take notice and simply carries on her duties. Perhaps it is the generous salary and Mr. Rafter’s paying of her daughter’s school fee that make her bear his treatment.
To Miss Marple Mr. Rafter explains who Walters is as follows:
” She’s a good girl. First-class secretary, intelligent, good-tempered, understands my ways, doesn’t turn a hair if I fly off the handle, couldn’t care less if I insult her. Behaves like a nice nursery governess in charge of an outrageous and obstreperous child. She irritates me a bit sometimes, but who doesn’t?
There’s nothing outstanding about her. She’s rather a commonplace young woman in many ways, but I couldn’t have anyone who suited me better. She’s had a lot of trouble in her life. Married a man who wasn’t much good. I’d say she never had much judgement when it came to men. Some women haven’t. They fall for anyone who tells them a hard luck story. Always convinced that all the man needs is proper female understanding. That, once married to her, he’ll pull up his socks and make a go of life! But of course that type of man never does.
Anyway, fortunately her unsatisfactory husband died, drank too much at a party one night and stepped in front of a bus. Esther had a daughter to support and she went back to her secretarial job. She’s been with me five years. I made it quite clear to her from the start that she need have no expectations from me in the event of my death. I paid her from the start a very large salary, and that salary I’ve augmented by as much as a quarter as much again each year. However decent and honest people are, one should never trust anybody. That’s why I told Esther quite clearly that she’d nothing to hope for from my death. Every year I live she’ll get a bigger salary. If she puts most of that aside every year—and that’s what I think she has done—she’ll be quite a well-to-do woman by the time I kick the bucket. I’ve made myself responsible for her daughter’s schooling and I’ve put a sum in trust for the daughter which she’ll get when she comes of age. So Mrs. Esther Walters is very comfortably placed. My death, let me tell you, would mean a serious financial loss to her.”
As for Miss Marple, she notices that Walters is a kind of woman without sex appeal (in Miss Marple’s young days the other is someone that ‘lacks come-hither in her eye’). The one who would not make a man turns his head and will be flattered when one does.
Be that as it may, Walters is a dark horse. She is a decent woman that will not make a pass at a woman’s husband and leers at a ‘potential.’ She craves for attention nevertheless and she falls for one as soon as it is bestowed upon her. And who wouldn’t, having learnt that she will inherit £50,000 upon the death of Mr. Rafter – sooner or later?
Conversations between Edward and Evelyn Hillingdon:
“I helped her to commit a murder—”
The words were out. There was silence. Evelyn stared at him. “Do you know what you are saying?”
“Yes. I didn’t know I was doing it. There were things she asked me to get for her—at the chemist’s. I didn’t know—I hadn’t the least idea what she wanted them for. She got me to copy out a prescription she had . . .”
“When was this?”
“Four years ago. When we were in Martinique. When—when Greg’s wife—”
“You mean Greg’s first wife—Gail? You mean Lucky poisoned her?”
“Yes—and I helped her. When I realised—”
Evelyn interrupted him. “When you realised what had happened, Lucky pointed out to you that you had written out the prescription, that you had got the drugs, that you and she were in it together? Is that right?”
“Yes. She said she had done it out of pity—that Gail was suffering—that she had begged Lucky to get something that would end it all.”
“A mercy killing! I see. And you believed that?”
Edward Hillingdon was silent a moment, then he said: “No—I didn’t really—not deep down. I accepted it because I wanted to believe it—because I was infatuated with Lucky.”
“And afterwards—when she married Greg—did you still believe it?”
“I’d made myself believe it by then.”
“And Greg—how much did he know about it all?”
“Nothing at all.”
“That I find hard to believe!”
Edward Hillingdon broke out: “Evelyn, I’ve got to get free of it all! That woman taunts me still with what I did. She knows I don’t care for her any longer. Care for her? I’ve come to hate her! But she makes me feel I’m tied to her by the thing we did together.” Evelyn walked up and down the room then she stopped and faced him.
Major Palgrave talking to Miss Marple:
“Lots of chaps talking at the club one day, you know, and a chap began telling a story. Medical man he was. One of his cases. Young fellow came and knocked him up in the middle of the night. His wife had hanged herself. They hadn’t got a telephone, so after the chap had cut her down and done what he could, he’d got out his car and hared off looking for a doctor. Well, she wasn’t dead but pretty far gone. Anyway, she pulled through. Young fellow seemed devoted to her. Cried like a child. He’d noticed that she’d been odd for some time, fits of depression and all that. Well, that was that. Everything seemed all right. But actually, about a month later, the wife took an overdose of sleeping stuff and passed out. Sad case.” Major Palgrave paused, and nodded his head several times. Since there was obviously more to come Miss Marple waited. “And that’s that, you might say. Nothing there. Neurotic woman, nothing out of the usual. But about a year later, this medical chap was swapping yarns with a fellow medico, and the other chap told him about a woman who’d tried to drown herself, husband got her out, got a doctor, they pulled her round—and then a few weeks later she gassed herself. Well, a bit of a coincidence—eh? Same sort of story. My chap said: ‘I had a case rather like that. Name of Jones—(or whatever the name was)—What was your man’s name?’ ‘Can’t remember. Robinson I think. Certainly not Jones.’ Well, the chaps looked at each other and said it was pretty odd. And then my chap pulled out a snapshot. He showed it to the second chap. ‘That’s the fellow,’ he said. ‘I’d gone along the next day to check up on the particulars, and I noticed a magnificent species of hibiscus just by the front door, a variety I’d never seen before in this country. My camera was in the car and I took a photo. Just as I snapped the shutter the husband came out of the front door so I got him as well. Don’t think he realised it. I asked him about the hibiscus but he couldn’t tell me its name.’ Second medico looked at the snap. He said: ‘It’s a bit out of focus—but I could swear—at any rate I’m almost sure it’s the same man!’ Don’t know if they followed it up. But if so they didn’t get anywhere. Expect Mr. Jones or Robinson covered his tracks too well. But queer story, isn’t it? Wouldn’t think things like that could happen.”