You might think you know Christie from all the endless TV and film adaptations, especially around this time of year when we get Peter Ustinov wobbling around on cruise ships and Margaret Rutherford sword-fighting. In fact, you may have seen one or both of the TV adaptations of this one. The recent ITV one went way off the plot and brought in Nazis, which is odd in a book set in 1965.
Yes, 1965, and for once Miss Marple’s visiting London to recapture her lost youth at a hotel she enjoyed visiting in the Edwardian era. It’s not the same. In some ways the book’s about people trying to pretend nothing’s changed, with a crime-plot to motivate all the observations about this pretence. Christie denied that Jane Marple was simply her alter-ego but both of them had undergone the odd experience described in the book, notably in Chapter V, where people who don’t think they’ve aged much were confronted with an incomprehensible new generation. (Indeed, they had seen it now from both sides, from mixing with the Bright Young Things of the 20s with their Jazz, cocktails and cocaine to observing Swinging London just as pop was about to go psychedelic – in both cases the foppish men and girls in tiny dresses were scandalous.) It’s written in the dialect of the time, so the use of ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ in other, half-lost meanings is itself now as period as the BEA/BOAC air terminal in Kensington. The street-names remain, but this London is red-shifting from us into unrecoverable history. Just as people my age and over can just about recall some of the Music Hall songs that pop up in the chapter at Scotland Yard, so one day all these 60s details will be as remote as 1909 was to Miss Marple. For author and protagonist, witnessing how people of all ages reacted to such changes was the main interest, solving the odd murder was a side-effect of paying attention to details.
Many purists think that this is a weakness, that Christie’s books don’t really stand up to scrutiny as exercises in detective fiction. That’s possibly true if the destination is more important than the journey. In fact, if you only know the character from the telly the way the book ends might surprise you, and not just the resolution of the crimes involved. Miss Marple’s meditations on people trying to act as though everything were unchanged from six decades ago leads to the revelation of the real crimes, slightly obscured by a rather melodramatic murder. The basic motive for one is simple greed, but another is driven by a social circumstance almost completely gone these days. This book is almost the last time it could be a significant plot detail in a contemporary novel.
If you want a more orthodox Marple case once this has shaken your preconceptions, we have half a dozen of them including the posthumously-published Sleeping Murder (Christie wrote in in World War II and set this and Curtain aside so that they could be published with maximum publicity and used in lieu of a lump-sum left in her will). There’s also Poirot’s most noted outing, Murder on the Orient Express. An odd thing to note is that, although you’d think libraries had every Christie ever, At Bertram’s Hotel doesn’t show up on a check of Leytonstone, or Waltham Forest or anywhere else in London.
By Tat Wood