Rating: four out of five
Year of Release: 25th November 1952
Motive for Murder: Revenge
It is the first day Monkswell Manor opens its door for the guests. The newly-married Giles and Mollie Ralstons’ business venture is about to prove its worthwhile. Five guests are present amidst the heavy snow; four have booked their rooms in advance. The last guest, an Italian man, turns up after he abandons his car which has been stuck in the snowdrift. Nonetheless, he is not the last to come as a detective sergeant knocks the door later in the evening to investigate a murder case. Afterwards, the snow storm makes the road impassable.
Mrs. Maureen Lyon was strangled in her home in Paddington, London, a day before. The main suspect is a man wearing a dark overcoat, light scarf and a soft felt hat. Police’s attention is drawn to the guest house as two people therein are linked to the death. What relates the demise of a middle-aged woman and a child abuse case at the Longridge Farm nearby?
The next day, a guest is found dead in the lounge after lunch.
Act I: Scene 1 The Great Hall at Monkswell Manor. Late Afternoon
Scene 2 The same. The following day after lunch
Act II: The same. Ten minutes later.
Time: the present
Eight people confined in a house- the Ralstons, five guests and a police man- strangers to one another, or so they thought. The plot deploys Christie’s often-quoted adage in her books: old sins have long shadows. Hence the motive of the crime: revenge. More importantly is not just one, but three targets. Two of them have been ‘done.’
Over ten years before Mrs. Lyon and her husband lived in the Longridge Farm fostering three children: James (little Jimmie), George and Katherine. They were abused under the farmers’ care and Jimmie died from starvation as a result. After being released and the Lyons were imprisoned, the other two were then separated; the girl was adopted and has been known to live abroad whilst George stayed in England and had another foster parent.
Years later the Lyons were released from jail. The husband has died already but the wife was not, not until she was tracked down and recently killed.
In ‘Tape-Measure Murder’ (Miss Marple’s Final Cases) the female sleuth must think of a clue that will put the murderer on the crime scene. Much to Inspector Slack’s astonishment, she suggests that the stabbing of Mrs. Spenlow is an ‘old-fashioned crime.’ The clue? A pin on Constable Palk’s top, the first person arrived to examine the body.
In the play an old habit known intimately only by another person gives away the murderer’s identity. Something which is rather difficult to realise by the audience, given its subtleness and other red-herrings that follow. All the same, the killings have been carried out owing to the circumstances of a tragic event occurred dated years beforehand.
It is said that Christie was affected by Dennis O’Neill’s death in the hands of the Goughs whilst his two other brothers, Terence and Tom were miraculously survived. In the reality, despite only spent six years in prison, the Goughs died naturally and Tom pinpoints the downside of foster care in A Place Called Hope. In Christie’s world, however, the dramatisation highlights the extent of the emotional scars for the siblings concerned and the survivor’s guilt; George in this case.
What interests me nevertheless is the mental health issue Christie seemed to bring up: that George’s feeling as a failure to have protected his younger brother is left untreated. Perhaps the possibility of it was not likely to be addressed by the Social Services. Moreover, he might have been told to forget, forgive and move on whereas his anger and frustration remain unresolved.
Who is ‘George’ in the play? Readers, that for you to seek the answer (and please do not spoil it in your comments). More significantly to my mind is Christie’s having addressed such a case in her power as a household name. Bearing in mind that she had the first-hand experience of grief for the loss of father at a tender age, I suppose this was the case dear to her heart. In hindsight, she might have felt the desperation of Christopher Wren (see The Most Fascinating Character) about the passing of his mother. In her biography the authoress writes that her father’s demise was the end of childhood, which only emphasises the impact on her.
As for the killer, his psychopath character makes him want to wipe off everyone in connection with the case. Hence his knowing of the whereabouts of the retired magistrate who matched him and his siblings with the Lyons and the young school teacher of whom Jimmie pled for help before his death.
When the curtain fell at St. Martin’s Theatre, I left West End with a lingering thought: what will happen to the murderer? Will he stand the trial and charged for his crime? Or will he be shut in a psychiatric ward on the grounds of ‘diminished responsibilities’?
It intrigues me that the play is the one which suggests openly about child abuse and the criticism towards foster system in the UK. For in her books Christie does not elaborate the future of the children who become orphans following the crime and most importantly about their mental health. Take the examples of the Christows’s children (see Notes On The Hollow), Carla Le Marchant (Five Little Pigs), Celia Ravenscroft (Elephants Can Remember) and the two-year-old Betty Sprot (N or M); they would all grow up without their parents. What will become of them? It is good to know that little Betty is adopted by Tuppence Beresford and Le Marchant has had a loving relative in Canada. Nonetheless, Terence Christow is thirteen when his parents are dead and I can see the smart but insane George in the other child. The chilling words of George’s no doubt in Act II rekindles my thought: ‘“I’ll kill them all when I’ve grown up.” That’s what I said to myself. Because grown-ups can do anything they like.’
Be that as it may, the unmasking of George takes more than resentment and pain. For there is also jealousy, an ungrateful old woman who criticises her host at every opportunity and an Army deserter who checks in under an assumed identity. Also, a wife who does not tell her past to her husband for her trying to forget all about it. And how about an ex-Army officer who lies about his presence? Not to forget the Italian, the unexpected guest.
On the whole, the longest-running play in London’s West End serves as a bitter reminder of a catalogue of child abuse still happening at present.
-Miss Casewell recognises her estranged brother’s habit of twirling his hair in a special way
– Mollie Ralston is the young teacher to whom Jimmie wrote before his death
Cast of Characters:
Guests at Monkswell Manor:
Mrs. Boyle (a retired magistrate)
Christopher Wren (a young architect)
Miss Casewell (English, who live abroad)
Major Metcalf (a retired army officer)
Mr. Paravicini (Italian, the unexpected guest)
The Ralston (Giles and Mollie, the proprietors of the guest house)
Detective Sergeant Trotter
The Most Fascinating Character: Christopher Wren
‘Call myself Christopher Wren? It just amused me. And then they used to laugh a t me at school and call me little Christopher Robin. Robin-Wren-association of ideas. It was hell being at school.’ He tells Mollie Ralston when they are alone in the lounge in Act II. Furthermore, he acknowledges of his being a deserter and just like the murderer, he was put in foster care following the passing of his mother.
He opens up to Mrs. Ralston shows a lonely personality that has behaved ‘silly’ to the eyes of other guests and Mollie’s husband. Mrs. Boyle sums him up as ‘a singularly ill-mannered and neurotic young man’ after his poor joke that she would have felt his hands on her throat. Giles wants him to be away from his wife for fear of Wren being the murderer.
His presence in Monkswell Manor might be his having been on the run since he left the Army. For what he has done, regardless the motive, is considered as a serious crime and must be prosecuted. It is highly likely that he has escaped from his captors so far -until when? What will become of him after Mrs. Boyle’s killer is revealed? Will Mrs. Ralston give Wren away to the authority?
It fascinates me that Wren was in the war. Did he enlist himself or was it part of the deal towards the crime of which he had been accused? Readers might recall Ian Mc Ewan’s Atonement and James Folliat in Dead Man’s Folly (see the Notes). In the latter book, the ‘bad son went to war to atone his sins and was reported to have been killed in action. Whereas Robbie Turner has agreed to serve in the Army after being falsely charged with the rape of a young girl, what actually is Wren’s circumstances (or whoever he is)?
At any rate his life story opens a window of another story of the shadows of the War.
Act Two: conversation between the murderer (B) and a guest (A)
A: ‘Georgie, Georgie, you know me, don’t you? Don’t you remember the farm, Georgie? The animals, that fat old pig, and the day the bull chased us across the field. And the dogs. (She crosses to Left of the sofa table).
A: ‘Yes, Spot and Plain.’
A: ‘Yes, Kathy – you remember me now, don’t you?’
B: ‘Kathy, it is you. What are you doing here?’ (He rises and moves to Right of the sofa table).
A: ‘I came to England to find you. I didn’t recognize you until you twirled your hair the way you always used to do.’ (B twirls his hair) Yes, you always did it. Georgie, come with me. (Firmly) You’re coming with me.’
B: ‘Where are we going?’
A: (Gently, as if to a child)‘It’s all right, Georgie. I’m taking you somewhere where they will look after you, and see that you won’t do any more harm.’
(A exits up the stairs, leading B by the hand. C switches on the light, crosses to the stairs and looks up).