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 she has written to Carrie Louise about the sleuth coming to stay.
‘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 have been 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, she can’t see other way to solve the murders without Carrie Louise. 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 psychiatrists and ex-young offenders. For the Victorian Mansion is also used as a rehabilitation institution running by Lewis Serrocold, her third husband.
Furthermore, the three old school friends: the American sisters and Miss Marple. The rich and glamorous Ruth is a great contrast to a demure and introvert Carrie Louise. 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 her husband’s idea of giving back to the society – a noble cause.
Things seem normal at first. Carrie Louise seems to be the same personae Miss Marple has known for fifty years. In her words ‘Carrie Louise seems secure, remote at the heart of a whirlpool- as she had been all her life.’
It changes the next day. Christian Guildbrandsen, Carrie Louise’s stepson from her first husband, turns up. His presence delights her half sister Mildred, but triggers a chain of events which results in his killing.
In Carrie Louise Christie creates a unique protagonist. Everything revolves round her; people who live under the same roof call her differently. As Christie steers her readers to rely on the authority of the sleuth, the authoress also has Carrie Louise at the back of Miss Marple’s mind. As if a shadow, Christie seems to challenge readers whether Miss Marple’s views about the other are accurate. In fact, the sleuth is fascinated by her old friend; Carrie Louise’s opinions on certain suspects look ambiguous even raise doubts if her judgement is sound. Only towards the end does the sleuth begin to realise that her perception about Carrie Louise derive mostly from Ruth. In other words, Miss Marple knows very little about Carrie Louise.
When it comes to portray a character, Christie nails it. She succeeds in making her readers pay more attention to the simmering anger and jealousy of Mildred Sete (see The Most Fascinating Character) to her niece Gina Hudd and the three men who worship Gina. In Inspector Curry Christie conjures up an intelligent but playful police officer; despite his doing the job well he also likes saying remarks without realising the impacts.
For instance, the inspector’s comment about a stage performance to Alex Restarick. ‘…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.’ It gives Restarick an Eureka moment. Suddenly, he knows how Christian’s murder have been carried out. If only he’d known how dangerous his knowledge had been.
I’m intrigued that Christie has decided to put Miss Marple in a tricky situation. First, she is the last person to speak to Alex Restarick before his body and Ernie Gregg’s are found – their heads crushed under the counterweights. Nevertheless, she does nothing after Restarick tells her about Inspector Curry’s remark (See Clues). Although earlier Restarick has declared himself as ‘the ideal suspect’ for Gulbrandsen’s murder.
Second, at the beginning she criticises Carrie Louise being ‘up in the clouds’ about Stephen Restarick falling head over heels to Gina. In the end she admits the flaws in her judgment; her misinterpreting Carrie Louise’s responses and undermining her views on some issues.
Third, the sleuth’s firm confidence to handle the investigation alone without Ruth. Surely it is distinguished from Ariadne Oliver when she begs –orders, to be precise- Hercule Poirot to come immediately to Nasse House (see Notes On Dead Man’s Folly).
In the first two chapters Christie hints at the motive of the murderer – a bit of The Shawshank Redemption (1993) on one side and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1936) on the other. Ruth lays out all facts – ample for avid readers to guess whodunit. Mathew Prichard, should you read this, would you concur? It is not uncommon Christie plots as she writes. In a number of her books she places the perpetrators right from the beginning; her most famous book is an exemplary example.
Be that as it may, 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 as 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 point out to Rosie Powell’s review of They Do It With Mirrors in which she writes: ‘….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 words whom compares charity to 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…’ Plus, bearing in mind it is ‘spoken’ by the American Mrs. Van Rydock …
I agree with Powell nevertheless that Christian’s murder ‘did not seem particularly complicated.’ Indeed. But why don’t we try to picture in mind something occurs which engage all the senses and yet it does not happen as we think it would have been. Forget not Christie loves plays; in many scenes in her books she aims at the ‘theatrical effect’ of a scene. Christian’s murder (and the ensuing ones) fall into the category.
What do you think?
– 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 out 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 from her father but inherits the introvert trair from her mother. Carrie Louise’s dotting on Pippa and her untimely death when Gina was small make Mildred’s keeping a distance from her.
Not only does Gina’s vivacity and beauty emulate her late mother, they also enrage Mildred. She accuses her niece of trying to poison her mother, ranting at Gina about the nature of Pippa’s adoption.
It is worth looking at whether Mildred-Carrie Louise’s relationship is based on Christie’s. She is not close to Rosalind Hicks, in spite of her daughter refers Christie as ‘kind and loving.’ Furthermore, Hick gets on with Max Mallowan, but she was never seen to have joined the Mallowans’ excavation journeys in Syria and Irak. Hicks pursues her own hobbies and interests in the absence of her mother’s travelling.
Christie settles the misunderstanding between Mildred and Carrie Louise in a moving way – from one widow to another. In a letter to her aunt 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.’