Notes On Sleeping Murder

Rating: Four out of five

Year of Publication: 1976 (posthumous)

Motive for Murder: Jealousy

Plot:

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster was first staged in 1614.

Gweena Reed suddenly screams as The Duchess of Malfi draws to a close. Some words in the scene awaken a memory deep in her mind. Beforehand, a series of peculiar occurences happen in the house she recently bought on the south coast of England.

One night, as she looks down the stairs in the dark, she sees the image of a woman. A pair of strong hands are around the woman’ neck; her face becomes blue and contorted. Such fills Gweena with terror that the next day she leaves Hillside to stay with her husband’s cousin in London.

As she recounts her experience to Miss Marple, it is clear to the elderly woman what Gweena has told her are recollections of a murder. As a result, Gweena and Giles Reed then embark on a journey to find who killed this woman despite warnings to leave well alone.

Dangers lurk as the newly-married couple talk to people about what happened eighteen years ago. But someone does not like their raking up the past: someone who says the same words as Gweena heard in the theatre.

Highlights:

Published posthumously,  Sleeping Murder is Miss Marple’s last case. It concerns  a young woman who was the sole witness to a premeditated murder. Unbeknown to Gweena Reed, she bought the house where the murder took place and where she used to live as a child.

Her character will jog readers’ memories towards Carla Lemarchant (Five Little Pigs). If it was her late mother’s letter which brought about Carla’s hiring of Poirot, it is another story to Mrs. Reed. For she actually saw the murder when she was three and therefore her recollections are confused and do not make sense at first. Moreover, she is somewhat unsure about finding out further about her stepmother’s death. It is actually Giles Reed who seems to precipitate matters.

It is almost a perfect crime the murderer has got away with for many years. The only flaw in the plan is the presence of a child witness. The little Gweena is not asleep when she is supposed to be and looks through the banisters as the murderer strikes. The same happened to Elspeth McGiliCuddy (4.50 From Paddington) who sees a murder on the train. Like Elspeth, Gweena only sees the back of the murderer.

Here the issue of childhood trauma is discussed with a degree of sensitivity. Christie approaches it using the “zoom-out” technique in writing ,with her descriptions from the protagonist’s point of views.  What initially seems to be a ghost story in a haunted house turns out to be a far more serious matter. Consequently, before her meeting with Miss Marple in Raymond West’s house in London, Gweena’s thoughts and feelings guide readers.

Of equal merit is Christie’s observation of the male characters, ranging from a supportive husband to an old bachelor filled with jealousy of his much younger sister. Some of these men become suspects due to their being on the spot on the day of the murder.

There are two of them who intrigue me most. Firstly, Giles Reed. He is an ideal husband who believes his wife’s stories wholeheartedly and further on becomes involved in the investigation. Secondly, Foster, the gardener at the Reeds’ house; the one who drinks more tea than he does his work.

On the one hand, Giles appears to lead the initiatives during the search. His remarks often make a mockery of Gweena’s statements. On the other, Foster might not be up to scratch with his work but provides important information, having attended the garden over the years. If anything, both men do not talk to each other, so have very different versions of events. It is Gweena who is able to extract information from old Foster.

Halfway through it becomes apparent that Giles’s comments border on arrogance (see Clues). In fact, he considers that Foster rambles on about irrelevancies. Little does Giles understand the value of the other’s words. Well, not until it dawns on him why Miss Marple has temporarily employed the ex-gardener of James Halliday on the pretext of helpinf Foster.

The subtle conflicts between the men and what readers might learn from them, are the craft in Christie’s writing I have come to admire. More importantly, the context and who says what needs to be right as well.

As often occurs in her work, there are quite a few references to earlier cases.  Dr. Haydock (The Murder At The Vicarage) appears as Miss Marple wants him to prescribe her with a “seaside treatment” in a certain place. Further on, she visits Dolly Bantry (The Thirteen Problems/Body In The Library) to obtain the address of her ex-cook who opens a Bed & Breakfast in the seaside town Miss Marple is going to visit.

It is worth looking at how Miss Marple gets what she wants. To the doctor she is forthright and adamant in helping the Reeds to solve the murder. She says ‘..I’m worried about those two. They’re very young and inexperienced and much too trusting and credulous. I feel I ought to be there to look after them.’ As to Colonel Arthur Bantry’s wife, she does a little gossiping first before changing the subject to the ex-cook. Yet nothing passes her lips about the case.

Nonetheless, it bothers me there is a mention of Colonel Melrose (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Isn’t it supposed to be Colonel Melchett that Miss Marple might have acquainted with?

It is not so much about the murky details of the crime that matter but the emotional disturbance that lingers.  In the end, Gweena discovers her late stepmother’s murderer in the same way Elspeth McGiliCuddy does – the reconstruction of the crime. It frightens her very much, yet she bounces back. Yet it is the self-controlled cook Mrs. Cocker, who is deeply affected by the discovery of bones underneath the mint plants. For she picks the leaves on a regular basis.

The Twists:

-Kelvin Halliday was admitted to Saltmarsh House, an asylum, before he died.

-James Kennedy received two letter from Helen Halliday after she had left Dillmouth for France and Italy.

-Dr. Penrose believed that Kelvin Halliday was not a suicidal person

-Lily Kimberly recalled that the clothes packed in Helen Halliday’s suitcase were wrong for the season.

-Leonie, the Swiss nursemaid, saw something out of the window late at night on the day Helen Halliday disappeared

Two phone calls from an unknown person to Jack Afflick and Walter Fane to come to Hillside after four pm on Thursday

Cast of Characters:

Alison Danby (Gweena’s aunt, her mother’s sister who raised her in New Zealand)

Colonel Arthur Bantry (Dolly’s husband, Miss Marple’s old friend)

Mrs. Cocker (the cook at Hillside)

Dolly Bantry (Miss Marple’s old friend)

Edith Pagett (the ex-cook at Hillside)

Mrs. Fane (Walter Fane’s mother)

Foster (a long-standing gardener at Hillside)

Dr. Haydock (St. Mary Mead’s doctor, Miss Marple’s old friend)

Mrs. Hengrave (the previous owner of Hillside)

Giles Reed (Gweena’s husband)

Gwenda Reed, nee Halliday (Kevin Halliday’s daughter)

Helen Halliday (Gweena’s late stepmother, James Kennedy’s stepsister)

Dr. James Kennedy (Helen Halliday’s stepbrother)

Jack Afflick (Helen’s admirer)

Jane Marple

Major Kevin Halliday (Gweena’s father, Helen’s husband)

Lily Kimberly, nee Abbots (the ex-housemaid at Hillside)

Manning (Dr. James Kennedy’s ex-gardener)

Dr. Penrose (the psychiatrist at Saltmarsh House)

Major Richard Erskine (Helen’s admirer)

Walter Fane (Helen’s ex-fiance; the son of a solicitor)

The Most Fascinating Character: Walter Fane

The son of a local solicitor falls in love with the young Helen Kennedy as soon as he has set eyes on her coming back to live with her stepbrother in Dillmouth. He adores her but she only thinks him as a dear friend.

Miss Marple’s first impression of him is ‘a gentle quiet-looking person, slightly diffident and apologetic in manner’. Gweena Reed thinks that she sees ‘a rather tired-looking man of about fifty, with a gentle, nondescript face.’ Moreover, she likens him to a spider in the middle of a cobweb outside his office thinking ‘not the fat juicy kind of spider who caught flies and ate them. A ghost spider.’

He goes to India to try his hands on the tea-planting business. Helen follows him as his fiancé but then changes her mind. She decides to come back to England asking her brother to send her money for her fare.  On the boat she meets Kevin Halliday and marries him in London.

Walter’s business venture does not come to fruition. When he arrives back in Dillmouth he finds out that Helen is now a married woman. He seems to accept it matter-of-factly and moves on to continue his father’s law practice.

He shocked his mother once. She confides in Miss Marple that when he was little he hit her elder brother Robert with a poker until Robert lost consciousness.  The trigger was that he smashed a model aeroplane Walter constructed over days on end. The incident has played on Mrs. Fane’s mind as she could not see it coming from her quiet and gentle son.

Such powerful rage resembles a similar incident between Sobek and Yahmose in Death Comes The End. According to Hori, Sobek, bigger and taller than his elder brother, hits Yahmose’s head with a stone. ‘It dangerous! I tell you, it is dangerous!’ shouts their mother at Sobek when she has stopped him.

Similar as both incidents might seem, they are not entirely the same. For Sobek’s mother repeats the word ‘dangerous’ as an emphasis to the consequence – not the action itself. On the other hand, Walter’s mother means it literally and might suggest the fact that her son could be a dark horse.

Intriguingly, Mrs. Fane recalls the incident to a stranger like Miss Marple. Why? Also, her account contradicts Gweena Reed’s; her thinking of Walter as a ghost spider. Who is one to believe? A young woman’s impression or a mother?

Clues:

Edith Pagett:

[to Giles and Gweena Reed and Miss Marple ]

‘No matter what anybody says. She [Hellen Halliday] was as nice as could be to me always. I’d never have believed she’do what she did do. Took my breath away, it did. Although, mind you, there had been talk…’

[later on, recalling Helen Halliday’s words as Edith Pagett overhears her]

‘I’m afraid of you…I’ve been afraid of you for a long time. You’re mad. You’re not normal. Go away and leave me alone. You must leave me alone. I’m frightened. I think, underneath, I’ve always been frightened by you…’

Giles Reed:

[to his wife]: ‘ I don’t believe it. You could have dreamt about monkeys’ paws and someone dead – but I’m damned if you could have dreamt that quotation from The Duchess of Malfi.’

Gweena Reed:

[to Miss Marple]

‘It’s true that I seemed to know right away just where everything was- the kitchen and the linen cupboard. And that I kept thinking there was a door through from the drawing-room to the dining-room. But surely it’s quite impossible that I should come to England and actually buy the identical house I’d lived a long time ago?’

James Kennedy

[to Giles and Gweena]:

‘..The link between us, you see, was Helen. I was always very fond of Helen. She’s my half-sister and very many years younger than I am, but I tried to bring her up as well as I could. The right schools and all that.But there’s no gainsaying that Helen – well, that sge never had a stable character. There was trouble when she was quite young with a very undesirable young man. I got her out of that safely. Then she elected to go out to India and marry Walter Fane. Well, that was all right, nice lad, son of Dillmouth’s leading solicitor. He’d always adored her, but she never looked at him. Still, she changed her mind and went out to India to marry him. When she saw him again, it was all off. She wired to me for money for her passage home. I sent it. On the way back, she met Kelvin. They were married before I knew about it. I’ve felt, shall we say, apologetic for that sister of mine. It explains why Kelvin and I didn’t keep up the relationship after she went away.’

Kevin Halliday [his words in a diary]:

Did she give me drugs in my food? Those queer awful nightmares. Not ordinary dreams…living nightmares…I know it was drugs…Only she could have done that…Wy?…There’s some man…Some man she was afraid of…      

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