Rating: 4 out of 5
Year of Publication: 1952
Motive for Murder: Wealth
Ruth Van Rydock has a premonition about her sister. But she can only trust Jane Marple to investigate the matter. While persuading her old school friend to take up the case, Van Rydock has written to their friends Carrie Louise about the sleuth coming to stay at Stonygates.
‘I tell you I don’t know,’ says Van Rydock to Miss Marple. ‘And that’s what worries me. I’ve just been down there- for a flying visit. And I felt all along that there was something wrong. In the atmosphere –in the house –I know I’m not mistaken…’
Miss Marple hasn’t time to put up her feet; a few days after her arrival the murderer strikes. Carrie Louise’s stepson is found dead at his desk – a revolver nearby. Two other bodies follow with their heads crushed by stage counterweights.
In the meantime, an allegation of Carrie Louise’s being poisoned is revealed. Much as the sleuth wishes not to involve her friend in the investigation, Miss Marple can’t see other way to solve the murders without Carrie Louise. And she has to be quick: before the killer strikes again.
‘We’re all mad, dear lady. That’s the secret of existence. We’re all a little mad.’
Dr. Maverick to Miss Marple
It’s a full house at Stonygates, Carrie Louise’s home. Not only does she live with her daughter, her granddaughter and her husband, her two stepsons, but also non-family members which consist of psychiatrists and ex-young offenders. For the Victorian Mansion is used as a rehabilitation institution running by Lewis Serrocold, Carrie’s third husband.
Carrie is the opposite of Van Rydock; the rich and glamorous Ruth versus a demure and introvert younger sister. On the one hand, Ruth believes that the other ‘has lived right out of this world’ as well as has a tendency to marry a ‘crank’ – men with ideals. On the other hand, Carrie Louise thinks highly of men with ideas of giving back to the society and a noble cause.
Things seem normal when Miss Marple arrives. Carrie Louise is the same personae the other has known for fifty years. The sleuth notes that ‘Carrie Louise seems secure, remote at the heart of a whirlpool- as she had been all her life.’
The next day brings a drastic change with the appearance of Christian Guildbrandsen, Carrie Louise’s stepson from her first husband. His presence delights Mildred his half sister, but triggers a chain of events which results in his being murdered.
In Carrie Louise Christie creates a unique protagonist. Everything revolves around her. People who live under the same roof call Carrie differently. Christie steers her readers to rely on the authority of the sleuth’s memories in understanding Carrie.
Interestingly, Christie challenges readers to question the credence of Miss Marple’s views about the other. Is she right about Carrie Louise being in her ‘dreamy world’? The sleuth becomes fascinated towards Carrie’s opinions on certain suspects which look ambiguous and even raise doubts if her judgement is sound. Only towards the end does Miss Marple begin to realise that her perception about Carrie Louise is highly influenced by Ruth’s. Then Miss Marple admits of her knowing very little about Carrie Louise.
Meanwhile, Christie draws attention to Mildred Sete (see The Most Fascinating Character). Her simmering anger and jealousy to her attractive niece Gina Hudd makes Mildred instantly a suspect. Gina’s mother is adopted and she dies when Gina is small (along with her husband). Carrie Louise adores her only granddaughter and has taken up the responsibility of being Gina’s guardian.
In Inspector Curry, Christie conjures up an intelligent but playful police officer. He likes saying remarks without thinking further about the impacts on others. His comment about a stage performance to Alex Restarick gives readers clues to the motive of Restarick’s being murdered shortly afterwards. ‘…The illusion is in the eye of the beholder, not in the self itself. That, as I say, is real enough, as real behind the scenes as it is in front.’
Little does Curry realise Restarick’s having an Eureka moment because of the above words. For it’s become clear in his mind how Christian’s murder have been cleverly done. If only he would’ve known how dangerous his knowledge had been.
What’s more, Christie puts her sleuth in an awkward situation. She is the last person to speak to Alex Restarick before his body and Ernie Gregg’s are found. Moreover, she does nothing after Restarick tells her about Inspector Curry’s remark (See Clues).
Furthermore, it is rather unusual for Miss Marple’s being in the wrong stick of judgment about people. For at the beginning she criticises Carrie Louise ‘being up in the clouds’ about Stephen Restarick -Alex’s brother- falling head over heels to Gina. Only towards the end does Miss Marple realise her misinterpreting her host’s responses and undermining her views on some issues.
What does not alter is the sleuth’s firm confidence to handle the investigation alone. Of which is a contrast to Ariadne Oliver when she begs –orders, to be precise- Hercule Poirot to come immediately to Nasse House (see Notes On Dead Man’s Folly).
As for the motive of the murderer, Christie gives hints at it in the first two chapters which have a touch of of The Shawshank Redemption (1993) and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1936). In my second reading I chuckle at the thought of Ruth lays out all facts that is ample for Christie’s avid readers to guess whodunit. Mathew Prichard, should you read this, would you concur?
For it is not uncommon Mathew’s grandmother plots as she writes. In a number of her books she places the perpetrators right from the beginning. Her most famous book, the cardinal of a criminal novel, is an exemplary example.
Anyhow, I enjoy the merging of the sub-plots into a neat denouement. Edgar Lawson, Ernie Gregg and Walter Hudd play their respective parts – the supporting actors, if you like – to make the book a very good show. An incorrigible liar, an ex-con and a foreigner are perfect ingredients for a not-too-gruesome crime story.
Last but not least, I’d like to comment Rosie Powell’s review of They Do It With Mirrors : ‘….I did not find the setting of a Victorian manor converted into a home for delinquent boys that intriguing. I suppose one has to blame Christie for creating this setting in the first place. I suspect that she was out of her league…’
I beg to differ. Christie puts forward a question on the efficiency of such an institution – ahead of her time. Yet she expresses her disagreement lightheartedly through Ruth’s comparison between charity and fashion. ‘Well, there’s a fashion in philanthropy too. It used to be education in Gulbrandsen’s day.But that’s out of date now. The State has stepped in. Everyone expects education as a matter of right – and doesn’t think much of it when they get it! Juvenile Deliquency – that’s what is the rage nowadays…’ Bearing in mind it is ‘spoken’ by the American Mrs. Van Rydock …
Nevertheless, I agree with Powell that Christian’s murder ‘did not seem particularly complicated.’ Yet, why don’t we try to depict a moment that engage all the senses that it happens not according to our belief? Christie’s fond of plays clearly affect her inclusion of ‘theatrical effect’ in a number of scenes in this book.
What do you think?
– Gina’s mother Pippa is the daughter of a convicted criminal
– Carrie Louise is right about Edgar Lawson and Lewis Serrocold
-Christian Gulbrandsen’s suicide letter is fake
-Gina chooses Walter Hudd over Stephen Restarick and they move back to the U.S.A.
– Ruth Van Rydock’s premonition is unjustified
Cast of Characters:
Alexis Restarick (Carrie Louise’s stepson from second husband)
Arthur Jenkins (the last person who sees Ernie Gregg alive)
Carrie Louise Serrocold (the wife of Lewis Serrocold)
Christian Gulbrandsen (Carrie Louise’s stepson from first husband)
Edgar Lawson (who works at the institution)
Ernie Gregg (an ex-offender living in the institution)
Gina Hudd (Carrie Louise’s granddaughter, Pippa’s daughter)
Juliet Bellever (companion and secretary to Carrie Louise)
Lewis Serrocold (Third husband of Carrie Louise)
Dr. Maverick (a live-in psychiatrist at the institution)
Mildred Strete (nee Guldbransen) ( Carrie Louise’s child from first husband)
Ruth Van Rydock (Miss Marple’s school friend)
Stephen Restarick (Alexis’s brother)
Walter Hudd (Gina’s husband)
The Most Fascinating Character: Mildred Srete (nee Gulbrandsen)
After her husband’s passing, the widow of Canon Srete goes back to her childhood home Stonygates.
Mildred is Carrie Louise’s only biological child. Her mother brings her into the world after a surprise pregnancy at a later age. Three years before her birth, Mildred’s parents have adopted a girl, Pippa. Attractive and extrovert, she is an opposite side of a coin to Mildred, of whom has a plain look of her father but inherits the introvert trait of Carrie Louise. Her mother’s dotting on Pippa and her elder sister’s beauty create distance between Mildred and her mother. Mildred hates Pippa and after her death Mildred turns her dislike to her pretty niece.
Gina’s vivacity and beauty emulate her late mother and they only enrage Mildred more. She accuses her niece of trying to poison Carrie Louise and rants at Gina about the nature of Pippa’s adoption.
It is worth considering whether Mildred-Carrie Louise’s relationship mirrors Agatha-Rosalind. Christie is far from close to Rosalind Hicks, in spite of her daughter refers the other as ‘kind and loving.’ But Hick gets on with Max Mallowan, altough she has never joined the Mallowans’ excavation journeys in Syria and Irak. Moreover, Hicks pursues her own hobbies and interests in the absence of her mother’s travelling.
Be that as it may, Christie settles the misunderstanding between Mildred and Carrie Louise in a moving way – from one widow to another. In a letter to her aunt Mrs. Van Rydock Gina sums it up‘…And they went away together into the house, Grandam [Carrie Louise] looking so small and frail and leaning on Aunt Mildred. I never realized, until then, how fond of each other they were. It didn’t show much, you know, but it was there all the time.’
Ruth Van Rydock to Jane Marple:
‘….Well, Lewis was a very suitable person for her [Carrie Louise] to marry. He was the head of a very celebrated firm of chartered accountants. I think he met her first over some questions of the finances of the Gulbrandsen Trust and the College. He was well off, just about her own age, and a man of absolutely upright life. But he was a crank. He was absolutely rabid on the subject of the redemption of young criminals.’
Conversation between Gina Hudd (GH) and Jane Marple (JM):
JM: ‘No, never. I’ve heard a great deal about it, of course.’
GH: ‘A short of Gothic monstrosity. What Steve [her husband] calls Best Victorian Lavatory Period. But it’s fun, too in a way. Only of course everything’s madly earnest, and you tumble over psychiatrists everywhere underfoot. Enjoying themselves madly. Rather like Scout-masters, only worse. The young criminals are rather pets, some of them. One showed me how to diddle locks with a bit of a wire and one angelic-faced boy gave me a lot of points about coshing people.
It’s the thugs I like best. I don’t fancy the queers so much. Of course Lewis and Dr. Maverick think they’re all queer – I mean they think it’s repressed desires and disordered home life and their mothers getting off with soldiers and all that. I don’t really see it myself because some people have had awful home lives and yet have managed to turn out quite all right.’
JM : ‘I’m sure it is all a very difficult problem.’
GH : ‘It doesn’t worry me much. I suppose some people have these sort of urges to make the world a better place. Lewis is quite dippy about it all – he’s going to Aberdeen next week because there’s a case coming up in the police court – a boy with five previous convictions.’
JM : ‘The young man who met me at the station? Mr. Lawson. He helps Mr Serrocold, he told me. Is he his secretary?’
GH: ‘Oh, Edgar hasn’t brains enough to be a secretary. He’s a case, really. He used to stay at hotels and pretend he was a V.C. [Victorian Cross] or a fighter pilot and borrow money and then do a flit. I think he’s just rotter. But Lewis goes through a routine with them all. Makes them feel one of the family and gives them jobs to do and all that to encourage their sense of responsibility. I daresay we shall be murdered by one of them these days.’
Miss Marple didn’t laugh.
Alex Restarick (AR) to Jane Marple:
AR: ‘I must say that that was a very penetrating remark of the Inspector’s [Curry]. About a stage set being real. Made of wood and cardboard and stuck together with glue and as real on the unpainted as on the painted side. The illusion is in the eyes of the audience.’
JM: ‘Like conjurers. They do it with mirrors, I believe, the slang phrase.’