Over at Past Offenses, Rich is gathering mystery fans from far and wide to honor the year 1950. It just so happens that during this year, two of my favorite authors published mysteries set in small villages. Agatha Christie, writing her fiftieth novel, created a masterpiece. Ellery Queen, however, wrote a lesser Wrightsville tale that, while clever, is something of a shadow of his better work.
How does one find something new to say about A Murder Is Announced? If you’re a newcomer to Agatha Christie, I could tease you about the plot. And if you’re a veteran, chances are good that this Miss Marple story rates as one of your favorites. It certainly is one of the fairest of the Miss Marple mysteries, which tend to be more loosely clued than the Poirot books. It is odd to me that the author complained mightily about Poirot and yet poured such greater effort into creating “fair play” mysteries for the Belgian to solve. Perhaps it just became too much work for her to sustain each time.
It isn’t that the Miss Marple stories aren’t fair. Compared to other classic writers, they are grade A versions of fairness! And there are certainly clues aplenty strewn about these books: the missing revolver in Murder at the Vicarage, the torn suicide note in The Moving Finger, a clipped fingernail in The Body in the Library. But Miss Marple, above all else, used her understanding of human behavior to ferret out the truth. Her basic premise that people were 1) composed of certain types, and 2) each inclined toward evil allowed her to figure things out as much by a comparison of these types as of an examination of clues. In addition, while any policeman who underestimated Miss Marple’s prowess was soon forced to change his mind, her status as a little old lady did not permit her access to police interviews or forensic evidence. Her methods were more personal as she sought out information through gossip and played up the helpless old woman persona when necessary, with the result that she wormed more information out of suspects than the police ever could.
A Murder Is Announced does not take place in Miss Marple’s beloved village St. Mary Mead; rather, she is on vacation at the Royal Spa Hotel, Medenham Wells – another convenient gift from her nephew, author Raymond West – near the village of Chipping Cleghorn when mysterious events occur: an advertisement appears in the local rag inviting neighbors over to the elegant spinster Miss Blacklock’s house that evening for a murder, and nobody seems to know what it’s all about, least of all Miss Blacklock herself. Nevertheless, the neighbors show up cheerfully at the announced time and enjoy some sherry until the lights go out, when they are treated to a melodramatic stick-up that turns into a real life murder. But who is this mysterious burglar lying dead on the floor? Did he come to this cottage to be killed, or is someone else the intended victim?
There are more clues than usual of every sort of variety in this outing: physical clues, evidence of witnesses, some brilliant verbal clues, all of which adds up to a truly satisfying case. Criticism has been leveled that one two many characters in disguise may be lurking in this village, but there is actually a strong explanation for that, which Miss Marple discusses at certain points in the novel. English villages had undergone a remarkable change after the war, a reflection of the changes in the class system. Families who had lived for generations side by side were decimated. Rich folk had lost the wherewithal to maintain their statuses as lords of the manor, and poor folk were rising in status. The resulting middle class became more upwardly mobile so that the villages where, like Cheers, “everybody knows your name” were replaced by townships full of strangers. How easy, then, for someone to show up under false pretences!
Between the residents of Letitia Blacklock’s cottage, Little Paddocks, and the neighbors who drop by, there is a lovely representation of village characters that runs comfortably to type without seeming tired: the retired Colonel and his much younger wife, a disaffected young Communist author and his adoring mother, and a pair of spinsters, Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, who are generally recognized to be Christie’s only lesbian couple. The vicar and his wife, who host Miss Marple later in the novel, are hilarious, as is their cat. And the ménage of people who make up Miss Blacklock’s household are even more interesting: her oldest friend, daffy Dora Bunner, and Julia, Patrick and Phillipa, members of the disaffected younger generation who are well portrayed here. Christie may veer a little toward stereotype with her depiction of Mitzi, a war refugee who serves as Miss Blacklock’s cook, but even she is full of some interesting surprises. It’s hard to imagine that any of these nice people could be a murderer – and a particularly cold-blooded one at that! But as Miss Marple will freely tell you: anyone can commit a murder, and that’s where this novel becomes even more emotionally affecting than usual.
For Miss Marple, her village of St. Mary Mead will always be home. For Ellery Queen, Wrightsville, a picturesque New England community, is a sort of haven from the stresses of the city. But Ellery suffers the curse of all detectives, as murder follows him wherever he goes. One has to ask oneself why the citizens of Wrightsville would ever allow Mr. Queen to cross their borders again. But of course, as Miss Marple again would tell you, the evil already pervades Wrightsville. Ellery is simply there to ferret and stamp out its source.
The Wrightsville novels were a chance for Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee to loosen their tight puzzle construction and focus on stories of character and theme. As a result, people are divided as to whether they prefer these books or the older, more classically plotted puzzles of Queen’s first generation of mysteries. I, myself, appreciate the various iterations of Queen’s career, each with its own literary “personality” as a mystery. The first three Wrightsville novels are, I think rightfully, considered classics: Calamity Town because it was the first and because the characterization is so rich; and The Murderer is a Fox and Ten Days Wonder because their thematic elements and crime solutions dazzle. Each of these three novels centers around a family: respectively, the Wrights, the Foxes, and the Van Horns. You couldn’t find three more different families in any small town, so even though the setting is the same, the tone of each story differs a great deal. Plus, we find a fascinating sense of existential angst rising in Ellery after each visit, presaging the modern detective novel, which is almost more about the effect of a case on its sleuth than it is about the victims and murderers themselves. There is a cumulative effect about the Wrightsville stories that eventually spills over to Ellery back in the big city in Cat of Many Tales and Face to Face.
A fan of Wrightsville would probably get excited to learn that Mr. Queen returns to the village in the 1950 novel Double, Double. This time he is lured back to solve a series of murders. No one family is involved this time; rather, the killings span the varied classes and types that populate the village. In order to figure out who is killing off these Wrightsville residents, Queen has to deduce the common link between them in order to come up with a motive. I, for one, love novels about serial killings and the search for a link amongst the victims. But like my buddy JJ said in his well-thought out discussion of impossible crimes over at The Invisible Event (check it out: https://theinvisibleevent.wordpress.com/2016/01/08/59-on-locked-rooms-and-impossible-crimes-in-fiction-something-of-a-ramble/ ) , if the solution is unsatisfying, the ride to the end, no matter how enjoyable, can become questionable. And, for me, that is what happens in Double, Double. There are some interesting twists as Ellery starts to untangle the threads of this mystery, but it all comes down to something rather trite. Worse, the novel steals a final twist almost verbatim from an earlier, better Queen book – and doesn’t do it half as well. For a much better take on the serial killer, I urge you to pick up Cat of Many Tails, one of the finest of the sub-genre and a most excellent example of Queen at his best.
Wrightsville appears again in some short stories and – its façade horribly modernized – in the late novel The Last Woman in His Life. But by then, it’s just the name of a place. The symbolic reference, so richly depicted in the first three novels in which it serves as setting, is gone. As for St. Mary Mead, Christie shows that village in flux as well in her later Miss Marple books, one of which I plan to write about very soon. But these changes to the traditional village, particularly filtered though Miss Marple’s keen lens, are rendered much more poignantly than in Queen’s fiction.
I’m going to try and double dip with Bev Hankin’s Golden Age crime cover hunt: a clock for the Christie, and a mysterious mansion/house for the Queen!