Rating: 3.5 out of five
Year of Publication: 1965
Motive for Murder: Wealth
Motive for Crime: ‘Adventure’
Canon Pennyfather has missed his flight to Lucerne on November 19th, having mixed up the date. He decides to go back to Bertram’s where he still keeps a room at the hotel. As he opens the door past midnight, it astounds him to see something very strange but familiar. Two days later he is reported missing by his housekeeper.
Miss Marple notices that a fellow guest has developed a habit of greeting a number of guests wrongly; either she thinks she has known a face but they do not recognise her or she hardly makes of their presence in the Old World Charm of the hotel. The latter is the case of Lady Bess Sedgwick, of whom the guest has known since she was a girl. Lady Sedgwick’s staying is extraordinary, given as a celebrity she would have been anywhere but Bertram’s.
Ladislaus Malinowski’s flamboyant appearance but moreover is his enquiring about the aforementioned famous woman. Miss Marple feels uncomfortable when she happens to spot Malinowski on separate occasions with Lady Sedgwick and a young pretty girl, Elvira Blake. It makes her wonder.
The Irish Mail Train Robbery in the early hours of 20th makes a big headline on the papers and brings Chief-Inspector Davy attention to Bertram’s. For a witness has described a man whose appearance seems to have matched with the missing canon. Meanwhile, at 3 am the female sleuth sees Pennyfather’s back as he leaves his room and goes down the stairs. ‘Why haven’t you told anyone this before?’ asks Davy. ‘Nobody asked me,’ she replies.
What connects a respectable London hotel, Malinowski, the clergyman with a robbery at a grand scale?
In the swing sixties’ Britain, London is a different world. To Miss Marple the capital, as busy as ever, has changed. Yet the memories of her having come with her aunt as a young girl fill her with great excitement. Is Bertram’s still there? It comforts her to realise that time seems to stand still within the walls of the hotel – a short walk away from Piccadilly Circus. Quite miraculously so, in her view, that things remain the same.
Christie was in her mid-seventies when the book was published. Her character might have been much older than her yet a keen observer to her surroundings. Furthermore, she appears to take a back seat from crime during her fortnight stay. There is not much about sleuthing until a day before she checks out; not until she is approached by Chief Inspector Davy (whom will be referred as ‘Father’) about the disappearance of Canon Pennyfather.
Nonetheless, it is the creation of Lady Bess Sedgwick (see her history in Clues) that is intriguing. Her portrayal as a ‘modern woman’ distinguishes her from the authoress’s previous female characters first and foremost. She is rebellious and her adventure with men (three times married) is not to be found in Anne Beddingfield, Tuppence Beresford, Bundle and Lady Francesca Derwent. Besides, Lady Segwick has a daughter whose custody is with her late ex-husband Lord Coniston.
Be that as it may, she is envied by many and could have been a symbol of women liberation. I wonder if she might have been a ‘hot-headed feminist’ as Ariadne Oliver although politics does not seem to interest Sedgwick. When her path is crossed with an ‘old pussy’ Miss Marple in the hotel lift, little did I realise where it would have led to.
‘Father,’ a soon-to-be-retired Scotland Yard man in the last leg of his career reminds me of detective Len Harper who investigates the murder of Melissa Young in the BBC’s drama What Remains. There is unfortunately very little about the Inspector’s private life but his investigating a missing clergyman. Sounds a next-to-nothing task, does it? Just like Harper who comes back to the flat a number of times, ‘Father’ turns up with his enquiries which eventually puts a very efficient hotel receptionist Miss Gorringe (see The Most Fascinating Character) not at ease. His insistence to dig into the finance and the actual owner of the hotel brings him to Mr. Robinson, of whom he helps Thomas Beresford to clarify the identity of a murdered British agent (see Notes On Postern of Fate).
Bearing in mind that the book was written before the Second Wave of Feminism at the end of sixties, it occurs to me a similar ‘liberating’ character to Lady Sedgwick in Anna Wulf, Dorris Lessing’s protagonist in The Golden Notebook (1962). Is it appropriate to compare the two, given the difference in genre and the respective authoress’ style of writing?
I believe so. Putting aside both factors, age and personality and readers might see that both Christie and Lessing wrote about progressive women. More significantly is their worries, insecurities and being unhappy. Arguably, both Wulf and Lady Sedgwick also share those issues.
Wulf’s writer block and her disillusion towards Communism sound to mirror Lady Sedgwick’s want for different adventure. She more or less is her forties like Lessing’s. Christie’s character has a daughter she hardly knows while Lessing’s daughter, Jean, was looked after by her father after Lessing running away in fear of motherhood. Such is also the case with Sedgwick, who believes that it is for the best that her daughter Elvira Blake should know very little about her mother.
The above details can simply be coincidences; yet both Sedgwick and Wulf, regardless their social standing and free-spirited mind, still have to deal with the fact that they are mothers after all.
The subtleties of language Christie has deployed in comparison to Lessing’s lively and ‘brave’ descriptions on women are intriguing. Lessing was born in the same year with Christie’s only child and therefore the softer and wiser Christie about the expanding roles of women in the society. Lessing’s ‘fiery’ tone might have attracted a band of young women in their search of identity nevertheless. By the same token, readers might notice equivalent sparks in the novels Christie wrote in the thirties’ and forties’ era. Yet, it fascinates me to think of whether Christie read Lessing’s novel and vice versa.
Lastly, this is the last book of Miss Marple Christie wrote. Hence the reminiscences and the clash between the new and old world order. To her loyal fans whom have grown old with the authoress, the topic of change would have been a sentiment shared by many. On the other hand, the younger generation may perceive the lengthy depictions of places and people as arduous, if not boring. And therefore the ball is over to you, readers, as to which side you prefer. Mind, it has nothing to do with age.
– Miss Marple mistakens someone else as Canon Pennyfather
– Elvira Blake finds out what happened between Lady Bess Sedgwick and Michael Gorman in Ballygowlan
– Elvira Blake says to ‘Father’ and her mother about the first attempt of her life in Italy
-Lady Sedgwick has a change of heart about her relationship with her estranged daughter
Cast of Characters:
Superintendent Andrews (of Scotland Yard)
Lady Bess Sedgwick (Elvira’s estranged mother)
Mr. Bollard (a jeweller at Bond Street where Elvira goes to repair her watch)
Bridget (Elvira’s friend)
Colonel Derek Luscombe (Elvira Blake’s guardian)
Dr. Edmund Whittaker (a scholar at SOAS, Canon Pennyfather’s acquaintance)
Elvira Blake (Lady Sedgwick’s daughter)
Chief Inspector Fred Davy (of Scotland Yard, known as ‘Father’)
Miss Gorringe (the hotel receptionist)
Henry (the hotel butler)
Mr. Humfries (the hotel manager)
Ladislaus Malinowski (a motor car racer, Lady Sedgwick’s accomplice and Elvira’s lover)
Inspector McNeill (of Scotland Yard)
Mrs. McRae (the canon’s housekeeper)
Michael Gowan (Lady Sedgwick’s first husband)
Canon Pennyfather (a hotel guest, who misses a Biblical conference in Lucerne)
Archdeacon Simmons (the canon’s missing)
Richard Egerton (Elvira’s lawyer)
Robert Hoffman (a financier, with his brother Willhem own Bertram’s hotel)
Mr. Robinson (who gives the chief inspector the names of the owner of the hotel)
Sir Ronald Graves (Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard)
Rose Sheldon (the hotel chambermaid)
Lady Selina Hazy (Miss Marple’s acquaintance, a hotel guest)
Dr. Stokes (an ex-medical doctor, who examines the canon at Milton St. John)
Mrs. Wheeling (who finds the canon having been dumped at Mill St.John)
The Most Fascinating Character: Miss Gorringe
Years of experience at Bertram’s make Miss Gorringe know all the clientele by heart, particularly the regulars. She greets every guest with the manner that suits each and every one’s social standing and distances herself from them. Needless to say, she does her role extremely well.
Her look is described as ‘frumpy but respectable; frizzled yellowish hair (old-fashioned tongs, it suggested), black silk dress, a high bosom on which reposed a large gold locket and a cameo brooch.
This efficient quiet woman understands the hotel like the back of her hands. Bertram’s is her life and doubtless she stays as her salary is more than satisfactory.
Nevertheless, there is not much about her details; age, forename, nationality and her life before Bertram’s. Did she start after the hotel’s refurbishment in 1955, which then has rendered it to its old glory? Did she come to Britain as a refugee? Was she Austrian, German or Swiss? Was she Jew or half English? Does she always have a blameless life, not having, for instance an illegitimate child or involved in a robbery? Be that as it may, her English sounds natural without a tinge of foreign accent in it.
Initially, Canon Pennyfather’s missing does not bother her. She answers ‘Father’’s enquiries promptly and tactfully. To the younger Detective-Inspector Campbell she even scolds him like a school mistress when the other has expressed his hesitation about a small matter, albeit having implied that she might not have done her job properly.
It is of interest that she seems to have a soft spot to Henry the butler. I guess she falls for him. ‘I don’t know what we should do without Henry,’ she says to ‘Father’ with feeling. ‘He really is wonderful. He sets the tone of the place, you know.’
Then it is not quite the same when ‘Father’ returns a week afterwards after the canon has been found. She is beside herself and the police disconcert her. To what extent has she realised what has become of Bertram’s?
What fascinates me is that her demeanour does not suggest that she has been involved with the crime dealings at the hotel. Nonetheless, I believe she knows quite a few things. Or perhaps she is so ignorant and shields Henry and Mr. Humfries as any loyal subordinates would have done.
The shooting of Michael Gorman in front of the hotel eventually rattles her. Does it disturb her as she might have lost her job or because of her ‘little’ part in the gang?
It is difficult to say whether she is an accessory to crime. For her fate is not discussed nor is the hotel. Again, over to you, readers.
Lady Selina Hazy to Jane Marple:
‘Extraordinary girl. Known her ever since she was a child. Nobody could do anything with her. Ran away with an Irish groom when she was sixteen. They managed to get her back in time – or perhaps not in time. Anyway they bought him off and got her safely married to old Coniston – thirty years older than she was, awful old rip, quite dotty about her. That didn’t last long. She went off with Johnnie Sedgwick. That might have stuck if he hadn’t broken his neck steeplechasing. After that she married Ridgway Becker, the American yacht owner. He divorced her three years ago and I hear she’s taken up with some Racing Motor Driver – a Pole or something. I don’t know whether she’s actually married or not. After the American divorce she went back to calling herself Sedgwick. She goes about with the most extraordinary people. They say she takes drugs…I don’t know, I’m sure.’
Chief Inspector Davy (CID)’s conversation with Lady Bess Sedgwick (BS), in the presence of Miss Marple:
CID: ‘…I mean how much did the death of Michael Gorman upset you?’
BS: ‘I was very sorry about it. He was a brave man.’
CID: ‘Is that all?’
BS: ‘What more would you expect me to say?’
CID: ‘You knew him, didn’t you?’
BS: ‘Of course. He worked here.’
CID: ‘You knew him a little better than that, though, didn’t you?’
BS: ‘What do you mean?’
CID: ‘Come, Lady Sedgwick. He was your husband, wasn’t he?’
BS: ‘You know a good deal, don’t you, Chief Inspector? I hadn’t seen him for –let me see – a great many years. Twenty – more than twenty. And then I looked out of the window one day, and suddenly recognised Micky.’
CID: ‘And he recognized you?’
BS: ‘Quite surprising that we did recognize each other. We were only together for about a week. Then my family caught up with us, paid Micky off, and took me home in disgrace. I was very young when I ran away with him. I knew very little. Just a fool of a girl with a head full of romantic notions. He was a hero to me, mainly because of the way he rode a horse. He didn’t know what fear was. And he was handsome and gay with an Irishman’s tongue. I suppose I really I ran away with him! I doubt if he’d have thought of it himself. But I was wild and headstrong and madly in love. It didn’t last long….The first twenty-four hours were enough to disillusion me. He drank and he was coarse and brutal. When my family turned up and took me back with them, I was thankful. I never wanted or hear from him again.
CID: ‘Did your family know that you were married to him?’
CID: ‘You didn’t tell them?’
BS: ‘I didn’t think I was married.’