Rating: 3.5 out of five
Year of Publication: 1934
Motive for Murder: Identity
Plot: Robert Jones is miraculously survived when traces of eight gram of morfia was found in his beer. Beforehand, Bobby received an unusual letter offering him a job in South America for a thousand pounds a year.
Prior to the poisoning, the clergyman’s son never related the incident with his having found a man at the bottom of the cliff. He died shortly afterwards and was identified as Alex Pritchard. ‘Death by accident’ was then concluded at the inquest. Nonetheless, no sooner has Bobby seen a photograph of a woman’s on Marchbolt Weekly Times than he realises the reason behind an attempt of his life. For it is not the same photograph he noticed having fallen from the deceased’s pocket while he was staying with the dead body.
As soon as Frankie heard about the news of her old friend, she came immediately to visit him. As he points out to her about the photograph issue on the paper, plans are laid to investigate the matter. Some people want Bobby out of the picture owing to his knowing the original photograph. Moreover, Pritchard was pushed off the cliff. Hence, murdered. Yet,who is the woman in the photograph anyhow? Why did Pritchard keep it?
Before he died Pritchard said to Bobby, ‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’
As the sun setting over Marchbolt, a fictional Welsh seaside town, in autumn, a body of a man’s lies at the bottom of the cliff. He moaned as Bobby’s golf ball hit him inadvertently. As Bobby approaches, he realises that the man is already dying.
In another scene he bumps into Frankie on a train the next day in London. Lady Frances Derwent is introduced and saves her old friend’s face in the first-class carriage he has been mistakened to get into. Two friends met each other again after some time, subtle criticism as regard to English class society remind readers about the uneasiness Bobby endured towards a ‘Lady.’ Of equal merit, their meeting bear similarities to Tommy and Tuppence’s after the Great War (The Secret Adversary).
In Christie’s world, romance and crime parallels despite differences in the names, setting and personalities of the characters. Furthermore, in her books that were published in the thirties the theme recurs and another heroine here is particularly created. Frankie comes after Emily Trefusis (The Sittaford Mystery, 1931) and more or less she is the new ‘Bundle’ without a father who is ‘forced’ to be involved in politics.
Frankie’s father, Earl Marchington, remains in the background. More importantly, this father and daughter theme sounds to reflect Christie’s relationship with her beloved mother Clara. The dynamics shown between Bundle and the Earl speak volumes of their mutual affection, which might resemble Christie and Clara’s to one another. Perhaps, it had to be a father for Christie; a sign of yearning of the more from her late father.
As for Bobby’s relationship with his father, the Vicar of Marchbolt, it is fascinating that in the difficult time, ie. economy going belly up, the frustration of a parent towards their grown-up son/daughter is similar. Reverend Jones’s fourth son returns to live in the Vicarage after his deciding to quit the Navy and trying his hands on a garage business. Likewise, in the current situation in the UK, some parents must put up with her adult children still staying at home in their late twenties as a result of their salary cannot afford to pay for the deposit of a flat/house.
In the authoress’s thirties’ books, I understand that in the non-Poirot/Marple books the plot is rather full of suspense and twists. One situation moves to another fastly, as if riding a roller-coaster. On the one hand, it keeps the excitement to readers. On the other, it usually leaves no room to ponder over the order of events and names. Be that as it may, conversations between the characters are equally intriguing and polished with quiet humour and ‘polite sarcasm’ – if the latter term exists.
‘My dear, as soon as I heard about you, I tore back. It’s most exciting to have a romantically poisoned friend,’ said Frankie. ‘I don’t know whether morphia is so very romantic,’ said Bobby reminiscently.
Be that as it may, the incident has become a turning point for Bobby. Gone is his lack of confidence; his posing as Frankie’s driver, who has been in Melroway Court following her ‘accident’ takes their relationship to the next level. Drifting apart, each then has found another partner in crime; Frankie to Bassington-frenches and Bobby to Moira Nicholson, the woman in the photograph.
What is most intriguing personally is the identity of the dead man (see The Most Fascinating Character). Information about him is provided on a need-to-know basis while the very truth is guarded right until the end. There are some contrasting views on him; red herrings and rumours are thrown in along the way. At any rate it is a work of guess on the part of the readers, for they have to decide for themselves which one to believe: a non-local on a walking holiday caught up by fog or a Canadian detective in the hunt of a wanted criminal? Plus, is Alex Pritchard his real name?
The most curious character is Dr. Nicholson, Moira’s husband. He runs an institute for psychiatrically patients called The Grange. Further development leads to Bobby and Frankie’s suspicion towards the Canadian psychiatrist and especially when his love to Sylvia Bassington-ffrench is revealed. Naturally, he has a motive to silence Moira and Sylvia’s husband so he can marry her. Most significantly, Sylvia’s husband, Henry, is a morphia addict. Dr. Nicholson has been asking for her permission to treat Henry in The Grange. Yet, can he be trusted, if the treatment fails and Henry will die? Had it happened, the chances were that the doctor would not be blamed. Thus, two sides of a coin about Dr. Nicholson: a really good psychiatrist or a man madly in love with another man’s wife?
Having considered the above matters, Christie was brilliant in terms of double-meaning in a phrase or sentence; the mind game in motion. What I appreciate most is her tying the loose ends well. And sometimes applying an element of surprise, such as a suggestion for Frankie to ask Roger Bassington-ffrench as to why he did replace the photograph in Pritchard’s pocket.
On the contrary, I wonder if the subplots could have been simplified; Frankie’s fake accident, Bobby’s dressing up as a lawyer and a cunning thief with multiple identities are rather fun. Christie’s fondness to plays gives way to these. What raised my eyebrows were John Savage’s will and Badger came to the rescue for Bobby and Frankie. Does it occur to anyone’s mind that Bobby’s old pal went to Oxford and therefore had known Roger Bassington-ffrench in his youth?
Also, the occurrence in Tudor Cottage where Frankie and Bobby are detained by ‘Dr. Nicholson’is superfluous. For it is very similar to Bundle and Bill Eversleigh in a Seven Dials Pub. I mean; do the protagonists have to be coshed in the head and fainted before they realise how much they like each other?
As the saying goes “less is more.”
Lastly, after the second reading, the ending I believe is rather flat. The villain’s letter to Frankie and Bobby explaining the whole scheme might reveal who really is the protagonist anyhow. After all, it is not Frankie and Bobby but the criminal; live and free in a country untouched by the law.
-Roger Bassington-ffrench replaces the photograph of a woman’s in Alex Pritchard’s body after Bobby left
-Franky has orchestrated a motor accident near the residence of Bassington-ffrenches’s Merroway Court in Hampshire
-The photograph of a woman’s on the piano at Merroway Court is the same as the one Bobby saw in Pritchard’s pocket
-Bobby meets the woman in the photograph at the Grange
-Moira Nichoilson admits that she knew Alan Carstairs to Bobby
-Roger tells Frankie why he replaced the photograph from Pritchard’s pocket
-Roger hears Frankie said ‘Bobby’ over the telephone (whilst she was supposed to call her driver)
– Henry Bassington-ffrench does not commit suicide in his room
-Moira disappears from the Grange after Henry’s death
– Mrs. Robertson’s maiden surname, the Vicar’s housemaid, is Evans
Cast of Characters:
Alex Pritchard/Alan Carstairs (the deceased)
Amelia Cayman(nee Pritchard, the deceased’s sister)
Badger Beadon (Bobby’ friend)
Lady Frances Derwent (a.k.a. Franky, the daughter of Earl Marchington, Bobby’s childhood friend)
George Artbuthnot (the doctor Frankie ‘hires’ for the ‘accident’ at Melroway Court)
Gladys Roberts (nee Evans, the ex-parlourmaid at Tudor Cottage and now works at the Vicarage)
Dr. Jasper Nicholson (Moira’s husband, a Canadian psychiatrist who runs The Grange, near Merroway Court)
Leo Cayman (Amelia’s husband)
Henry Bassington-ffrench (Sylvia’s husband, Tommy’s father and Roger’s brother)
Earl Marchington (Frankie’s father)
Moira Nicholson (the wife of Dr. Nicholson)
Reverend Jones (the Vicar of Marchbolt, Bobby’ father)
Mrs. Rivington (who came to Merroway Court with her husband Colonel Rivington and Alan Carstairs)
Robert Jones (a.k.a. Bobby, the fourth son of Reverend Jones, Frankie’s childhood friend)
Roger Bassington-ffrench (who stays with the dead body after Bobby left, waiting for the police to come)
Sylvia Bassington-ffrench (Henry’s wife, Roger’s sister-in-law)
Dr. Thomas Thorndyke (the village doctor, Bobby’s opponent in playing golf)
Tommy (the Bassington-ffrench’s seven-year-old son)
Inspector Williams (of Marchbolt police)
The Most Fascinating Character: Alan Carstairs
In the book he is a dead man; his last words become the title of the book. The sentence is uttered before his last breath, of which Bobby heard.
Following the inquest, Amy Cayman and her husband identify him as Mrs. Cayman’s brother Alex Pritchard. It is the name Carstairs was known at the beginning while an accident is perceived as the cause of the death. Nobody smells a rat until Bobby’s beer is poisoned. Further on, Franky’s staying with the Bassington-ffrench and her hostess, Sylvia, mentions about a Canadian guest, Alan Carstairs, who came with the family’s friend the Rivingtons prior to Carstairs’s death.
Bobby’s interviewing Mrs. Rivington about Carstairs’s affair in England. During the interview Mrs. Rivington said that Carstairs seemed upset after returning from Melroway Court and was asking a lot of questions about the people there and at The Grange.
If anything, Carstairs strikes the chord with Colonel Race (The Man In The Brown Suit) for their being discreet and good-looking. Race also was on the hunt of a crook on board a ship liner to South Africa.
Carstairs’s involvement began having received a telegraph from John Savage. He was on a voyage and told Carstairs that he had met a ‘nice lady.’Savage was a man of wealth and the cunning female thief whom he liked then lured him into her trap. He was seduced but unfortunately quite sane not to give a portion of his vast fortune to the woman.
Nonetheless, Carstairs was alarmed and set off to find Savage’s whereabouts in England. Meanwhile, she and her crime gang concocted a plan to make Savage alter his will on her favour. He did not. One of the gang then ‘became’ him lying on his death bed after summoning his lawyer and modified the will nevertheless. The real Savage had been drugged and possibly killed after the lawyer was gone.
Interestingly, Carstairs’s presence was unbeknown to the gang until he turned up at Melroway Court. In the book there are no further details regarding the history between Savage and Carstairs. For instance, how well did Carstairs know Savage? In what capacity Carstairs hunted the gang – in his personal capacity as Savage’s friend or as – something else?
If it is clear that Race is rumoured to be connected with the Intelligent Service, Carstairs’s profession is in the dark. From the description I deduce that he might have been a policeman or a private investigator. Probably, a Canadian lawyer as in The Clocks?
What do you think?
Bobby and Franky’s conversation in a convalescent home:
B:‘There’s a flaw there.’
F: ‘Why? You were the only person who saw that photograph. As soon as Bassington-ffrench was left alone with the body he changed the photograph which only you had seen.’
B:’No, that won’t do. Let’s grant for a moment that that photograph was so important that I had to be “got out of” the way, as you put it. Sounds absurd but I suppose it’s just possible. Well, then, whatever was going to be done would have to be done at once. The fact that I went to London and never saw the Marchbolt Weekly Times or the other papers with the photograph in it was just pure chance- a thing nobody could count on. The probability was that I should say at once,”That isn’t the photograph I saw.” Why wait till after the inquest when everything was nicely settled?’
F: ‘There’s something in that.’
B: ‘And there’s another point. I can’t be absolutely sure, of course, but I could almost swear that when I put the photograph back in the dead man’s pocket Bassington-ffrench wasn’t there. He didn’t arrive till about five or ten minutes later.’
F: ‘He might have been watching you all the time.’
B: ‘I don’t see very well how he could…’
Conversations between Bobby (as a fake junior lawyer) withMrs. Rivington:
(after Alan Carstairs going to Merroway Court and then was noticed to be upset about something)
B: ‘Was there a party? Did he meet any of the neighbours?’
R: ‘No, it was just ourselves and them. But it’s odd your saying that -’
R: ‘Because he asked a most frightful lot of questions about some people who lived near there.’
B: ‘Do you remember the name?’
R: ‘No, I don’t. It wasn’t anyone very interesting – some doctor or other.’
B: ‘Dr Nicholson?’
R: ‘I believe that was the name. He (Carstairs) wanted to know all about him and his wife and when they came there – all sorts of things. It seems so odd when he didn’t know them, and he wasn’t a bit a curious man as a rule. But, of course, perhaps he was only making conversation, and couldn’t think of anything to say. One does do things like that sometimes.’