When I began my Adventures with Agatha at the tender age of eleven and a half, I was pretty much flying blind. I had been led to And Then There Were None by the machinations of a brilliant babysitter, but after that I was on my own. There was no internet to look Christie up in, no fellow fifth grader to check out my reading material and exclaim, “Say, man! I read her, too!” I wouldn’t find a fellow fan until I was about sixteen, and then he would be a fount of information about titles I’d never heard of and where to find the British editions with the cool Tom Adams covers! All I had was the paperback rack at the local drugstore, which in 1967 was ripe with Christies. So . . . I just picked. As luck would have it, I followed up And Then There Were None with Murder on the Orient Express. As a result, I pretty much thought that Agatha Christie was God.
But what to read next? MotOE had been as shocking as ATTWN, but it was a helluva different read, really my first taste of Golden Age traditions but with that explosion of an ending that I never saw coming. Who knew such a solution was even allowed?!? So back to the drugstore I went – several times actually, due to my emerging OCD making it nearly impossible for me to choose! I read blurb after blurb on the back covers. I was looking for something resembling Ten Little Indians, and at last, I found it:
“There are seven of them – five men and two women, trapped in a snowbound manor. One among them is a killer – who has struck twice and is about to strike again.”
When I picked up the short story collection, Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, how was I to understand the clever tactics of publicists to capitalize on what had made their client a star? I had never heard of Miss Marple and didn’t understand the excitement Christie fans would have looking at a cover that suggested the two sleuths were working together at last! I had never heard of a play called The Mousetrap, even though it had been running in London for fifteen years. Indeed, how was I to know, in buying this collection, the multiple bonuses in store for me? First, I was about to read a novella that the Brits could never read as long as the play ran in London! Second, four of the “Other Stories” introduced me to the greatest spinster sleuth of all time, while three tales featured the funny little Belgian guy I’d met on the train. There was even a dubious bonus: my first brush with the Tedious Mysterious Mr. Quin. The publication history of the stories ran the length of Christie’s early career, from as far back as 1923 to the title story’s publication in 1948. Entertainment and history lesson all rolled into one!
I haven’t revisited this collection for over twenty-five years, but I recently purchased the audio book for my car and have delighted in listening to Simon Vance, Joan Hickson and Hugh Fraser perform these tales. As many of us have been musing lately, the act of revisiting an old read leads to new insights and opinions on the material, and this was certainly true for me with this return to an old friend. So here I go. The dates below mark the first appearance of each story in the U.S.. Most of them seem to have not appeared in the U.K. until the late 1970’s, and “Three Blind Mice” has never been published in the U.K. and won’t be . . . until the play finally closes. Sad to say, that means no film adaptation for the same reason – and “Three Blind Mice” is, if nothing else, ripe for a cinematic treatment.
“Three Blind Mice” (1948)
The sordid murder of a woman in Paddington has caught the eye of Scotland Yard due to a note pinned to the victim’s body: a scrawled illustration of three mice, a few bars of music, and the words, “This is the first!” By a fortuitous twist of fate, the police figure that if this is the beginning of a series of killings, the next one is likely to happen at Monkswell Manor, a boarding house in the country run by a young married couple named Molly and Giles Davis. The Yard decides to send a cop to investigate. But the snow is coming down hard, and the Davis’ and their guests become stranded . . .
The Mousetrap began as a 1947 radio play in honor of Queen Mary’s eightieth birthday (because a Christie play is what she asked for), with the plot based on a horrific true story of child abuse. Christie quickly expanded it into a novella for American readers and then turned it into a play in 1952. My first exposure of course was the novella, which was rich and satisfying and all I could want it to be . . . as a twelve year old. Today, my take is a little different. I still enjoyed the story and even found myself reciting certain scenes and snatches of dialogue from memory. Christie does a good job spreading the suspicion around. There’s a kind of Mary Roberts Rinehart quality here: a snowy, Christmassy setting and a young couple who are plagued by multiple disasters that threaten the core of their romance; only in Christie, the biggest threat might be that Molly’s beloved husband is a serial killer.
The biggest problem I have with “Three Blind Mice” is that you really don’t want to think too hard about the plot because if you do, it falls apart. There are too many fortuitous coincidences, and the murderer has too many lucky breaks until he – well, he just stops having them. How could he know that he would find his next victim at Monkswell Manor and yet not know who resides there or even who his next victim is? Learning as he does that the police are onto him, why doesn’t he take better precautions? The killer’s persona is inconsistent, and although readers of serial killer mysteries are often asked to accept inconsistencies on face value because they’re dealing with insanity, there still has to be some system in place here.
Clocking in at around eighty pages, Christie provides little more than a sketch of each of the characters: the flamboyant artist, the stiff Major, the charmingly malevolent foreigner, the hateful spinster. Okay, one of them might be a lunatic killer, so we can’t get too deeply inside anyone’s head, but as we will see in some of the shorter stories included here, she was capable of deeper characterization when she wanted to be.
Perhaps most problematic is that Christie relies on her perceptions of “otherness” to foment suspicion: her most likely suspects are a gay man and a foreigner. To her credit, Christie seems to be playing on the prejudices of her readers and of the other characters. Molly, our heroine, is distrustful of this otherness but gains better insight into the character of her guests as she gets to know them. And there is a certain emotional resonance as our heroine has to shift her suspicions from these eccentrics toward her stolid, attractive husband.
A savvy Christie reader might realize earlier than this twelve year old did that the author would use the expectations of stodgy mid-twentieth century readers against them in order to spring a surprise. Certainly, after my first read the denouement served notice for the third time in my experience that Agatha Christie had no limits and no fear in choosing a culprit. Today, the solution seems almost quaint, but at least it comes fast and furious, and the deus ex machina at the end, while robbing the story of any lasting horror, is actually one of the best set up secrets in the novella.
When the play opened five years later, Christie expanded – some might say “padded” – the plot even more, adding the character of yet another outsider, the lesbian Miss Casewell to the mix. (She has to be a lesbian so that she can be considered a suspect, since the murderer is so clearly “male.”) I directed the play at school about ten years ago. As happy as I was to have an extra female character to cast, Miss Casewell offers little improvement on the original. In fact, her character traits are an inverse mirror of Christopher Wren’s, her presence stretches the limits of coincidence, and by her nature and actions she seriously weakens the original climax. I actually got to see in London over thirty years ago. The theater that night was nearly empty; however, the people who sat around me entered into the spirit of the game with gusto, all of them trying without success to guess the killer’s identity during the intervals. I’m glad I saw it, but in retrospect I got a greater thrill reading the novella. Maybe it’s all in the timing.
Can we all agree what a shame it was that most of the Miss Marple short stories were not adapted for television like the Poirots were? Happily, hearing four of them read aloud by the one and only Joan Hickson offers some of the pleasure one might have had watching her perform these tales on TV.
“Strange Jest” (1944)
Distant cousins Charmian Stroud and Edward Rossiter have been referred by their friend, the actress Jane Helier, to Miss Marple. Their great-great Uncle Mathew, a fellow of infinite jest, had declared to both of them that when he died he would leave them his fortune. Yet after he died, their inheritance didn’t seem to amount to much at all, and the young people had been counting on the money to finance their wedding and set them up for life. Despite their reticence of this frail old lady’s powers, Miss Marple naturally leads these slackers right to a hidden treasure worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
This trifle is Christie’s nod to Poe’s The Purloined Letter. It’s nice to see Jane Helier again, who played such an important role in the second iteration of the Tuesday Night Club. But Jane ducks out quickly and leaves poor Miss Marple with the dull, snotty cousins. I can’t for the life of me figure out why these two deserved their uncle’s affection, let alone his money. It’s always fun to see our sleuth reference her friends and relations in St. Mary Mead when zeroing in on the solution of a case, but honestly this case had all the excitement of one of Encyclopedia Brown’s exploits.
“The Tape-Measure Murder” (1942)
The wealthy Mrs. Spenlow has been found murdered in her parlor in St. Mary Mead, and the police suspect her mousy husband. Mr. Spenlow claims that at the time of his wife’s death, he had received a call from his neighbor asking him to come consult with her on something, but when he arrived he was informed by the maid that no one was at home. That neighbor, as it turns out, was Miss Marple, and she decides to investigate to see if she has been played for a patsy. With only the tiniest of clues to go by, Miss Marple, of course, solves the case.
This is a delight from start to finish. In fact, I would venture to say that Christie has managed brilliantly to stuff an entire Marple novel into a spare fifteen pages. We get a strong invocation of the village (including the return of Miss Hartnell, one of Aunt Jane’s spinster friends); we get an increasingly complex domestic situation, several fine character studies, a made named Gladys!, and a continuation of the rivalry between Miss Marple and the odious Inspector Slack. (Christie’s evocation of this man shows off her sense of humor: “Slack was a positive type of man. When he had made up his mind, he was sure. He was quite sure now. ‘Husband did it, sir,’ he said.”
The solution is remarkably complex in its ramifications, reversing our expectations of most of the people we have met before in the best of ways. A solid clue – a rarity in a Marple tale – is flung in our faces and should give the whole game away . . . if we read it right. And in the end, we even get an intimation of one of those typical Miss Marple denouements where she explains to Colonel Melchett how to trap a killer without any real proof. (Hint: it involves lying about the weight of evidence.)
“The Case of the Perfect Maid” (1942)
The Skinner sisters, Miss Lavinia and Miss Emily, have fired their maid (whose name – of course – is Gladys). The named offense is the breaking of a plate, but it seems that one of Miss Emily’s brooches went missing for a while, and the rumor is that Gladys pinched it. Miss Marple visits the Misses Skinner at Old Hall to plead Gladys’ case as a favor to her own maid but discovers that the ladies have hired a new maid named Mary – a practically perfect servant in every way . . .
The crux of this mystery is pure Conan Doyle and employs a trick that Christie used over and over . . . and over again in her career. As a case, then, this one is rather slight, but in the details, it is a fabulous evocation of Miss Marple and her world.
The relationship between ladies and their servants should give you a clear idea of who are the good guys and who the villains. The history of Miss Marple is filled with examples of her feelings for the girls who come to work for her: she sees the servant life as a chance for a young woman of unfortunate circumstances to better herself and she sees it as a form of charitable duty of women like herself to train these girls. In the file drawer of village information she keeps in her head, Miss Marple knows two things: a true gentlewoman understands these girls and can read them well, and one must be aware of the limitations a village girl brings to the position of housemaid. These points are what puts her on the track to the mystery’s solution:
“Well, you know it did strike me that (Mary) was a little too good to be true. I practically told Miss Lavinia so. But she simply wouldn’t take the hint! I’m afraid, you know, Inspector, that I don’t believe in paragons. Most of us have our faults – and domestic service shows them up very quickly!”
We get a marvelously funny scene at the end between our sleuth and the doltish Inspector Slack. The Joan Hickson series played up their rivalry, but I had forgotten how much this appeared in the stories themselves. We also learn something of Miss Marple’s past when Slack grudgingly allows her to state her case but wishes she would hurry:
“’Oh, dear’ said Miss Marple. ‘I hope I shall be able to put to what I say properly. So difficult, you know, to explain oneself, don’t you think? No, perhaps you don’t. But you see, not having been educated in the modern style–just a governess, you know, who taught one the dates of the kings of England and general knowledge– Dr. Brewer–three kinds of diseases of wheat –blight, mildew–now what was the third– was it smut?’
“’Do you want to talk about smut?’ asked Inspector Slack and then blushed.”
We even get a taste of societal change in the mid-20th century here: Old Hall is a huge Victorian mansion that nobody can afford to buy or let, so it is chopped up into four lovely flats, one of which the Skinners rent – an unfortunate turn of events for their neighbors.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Christie had a tendency to pull an idea she liked out of a short story and expand it into novel form later. The situation of Miss Marple vehemently defending a young maidservant’s honor will be revisited eleven years later in A Pocketful of Rye. It is the richest, most heartfelt part of that book.
“The Case of the Caretaker” (1942)
Miss Marple’s spirits, depressed after a bad bout of the flu, are cheered by Doctor Haydock, who brings her a manuscript he has written, a fictionalized account of a true case: Harry Laxton, the original “village bad lot” has gone off to seek his fortune and has returned a new man, with a rich new wife in tow. As the tongues of the village gossips wag, the Laxtons tear down Harry’s old family home and replace it with a stunning new mansion and gardens. But their happiness is short-lived, due to the curses heaped upon them by the disgruntled wife of the estate’s caretaker, who is angry at being displaced from her home by the new construction and relegated to a cottage. Her imprecations come true when Louise, the bride, is thrown from her horse and killed.
If this sounds at all familiar to you, Christie reworked the central conceit into the 1967 novel Endless Night. The tone of that longer work is completely different, a dark departure from Christie’s typical style. “Caretaker” epitomizes the classic depiction of a Golden Age village in Christie’s world, and what is interesting to me is the timing of this and two stories in this collection. Christie debuted Miss Marple in 1930’s Murder at the Vicarage and then, for whatever reason, did not return to her until 1942, when these tales and the novel The Body in the Library were published. The three stories very much exist in the St. Mary Mead of Vicarage, a world full of spinsters and squires, a thriving class system, and a healthy suspicion of strangers. But Library serves in many ways as a break from tradition: the opening sequence is a brilliant parody of 1920’s whodunits, and the case that follows is almost uncomfortably modern, with a fragmented field of suspects who exist as far afield from the country mansion as possible.
On a personal note, the thing I realized re-reading these four tales is the striking difference between a Miss Marple story and any of Poirot’s short cases. In Poirot Investigates or The Labors of Hercules, the structure is distinctly Holmesian, and the emphasis is on the actions of the consulting detective. Miss Marple’s adventures are as much about village life as they are about the old lady. Poirot consults with the police, but in a Marple tale, the scenes between the official investigators are just as likely not to include Miss Marple. They exist to provide the reader with the facts, and then the old lady marches in, mysteriously possessed of these same facts, corrects all official misapprehensions and nabs the killer – often without proof.
Just as in the novels, her sleuthing is instinctual, rather than clue-based. Only in “The Tape Measure Murder” does Christie provide a clue that requires deduction. A person reading “Strange Jest” could latch onto the secret if he possessed specialized knowledge, but the other stories are solved by Miss Marple simply understanding the essential rotten nature of human beings and correctly guessing their criminal moves.
Despite this, I think Miss Marple’s mode of detection works better in short stories than that of Poirot, whose best cases are complex and require the breadth of a novel. Don’t get me wrong: I adore the Miss Marple novels, but the nature of her persona and mode of detection doesn’t lend itself to the presence of traditional clues or to their tracking down. In most cases, the old lady works with a more active partner, a policeman like Dermot Craddock, an assistant, like Lucy Eyelesbarrow, or an action figure, like Leonard Clement or Jerry Burton. These characters gather the physical clues and, for the most part, make a mess of interpreting them. Miss Marple gently corrects their misperceptions, but her main job is to talk to people and catch them giving themselves away.
Miss Marple appeared in only twenty short stories, Poirot in over fifty that spanned Christie’s entire career. But it wasn’t until 1947’s The Labors of Hercules that I found a collection of short Poirot tales that truly pleased me. The three stories that appear here are minor efforts and tend to support my argument regarding Miss Marple beating Poirot hands down for the title of “Best Detective in Short Fiction.”
“The Third Floor Flat” (1929)
Four bright young things return late at night from a lovely evening to discover that Pat, their hostess, has misplaced her flat key. She and her chum Mildred wait while the boys, Jimmy and Donovan, heroically haul themselves up on the coal lift. However, they find themselves in the apartment just below Pat’s by mistake. They rectify their error and let the girl’s into Pat’s flat. Only then does one of the boys realize that his hand is covered in blood! A quick return to the flat they entered through error leads to the discovery of its quite dead tenant. Luckily for everyone but the murderer, Monsieur Hercule Poirot has just moved in to the fifth floor flat!
A strong opening makes this the best Poirot story in the book. The pace here is much snappier than many of the stories in Poirot Investigates, but after the body is discovered, things happen almost too quickly. Worse than that, Poirot doesn’t do much detection here. His conclusions are almost as intuitive as Miss Marple’s. He deduces that somebody’s claim is a lie not because he can prove it but because the character’s actions didn’t make sense. However, all this could be explained by the tense atmosphere that accompanied the person’s movements. At the end, the sleuth reverts to his “Papa Poirot” mode to correct some shaky romantic shenanigans, taking almost as much time in that pursuit as he did finding the killer.
“The Adventure of Johnny Waverly” (1923)
After several requests for ransom are ignored, a small boy is kidnapped from his wealthy parents. (This seems to me to be an awfully backward way to do a kidnapping!) Poirot is consulted, and he begins to suspect that the kidnappers are very close to home. Hastings is there to make Poirot look smart.
This is the other kidnapping story in Christie’s career. We have to wait until 1934 to read the good one.
“Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds” (1941)
Poirot is having dinner at the Gallant Endeavor with his friend Henry Bonnington, a man who makes Captain Hastings seem witty and sharp. They chat with Molly, the friendly waitress, who tells of her astonishment over the behavior of one of her regular customers, a man nobody knows much about who comes to the restaurant every Tuesday and Thursday and orders the same thing. Only this time he shows up on a Monday – and orders all the foods he hates!
Oh, and did I mention that he has a big beard? And that he’s rich? And that he is found dead from an apparent accident on the stairs of his home?
This is one of those stories where you hope and hope that the facts with which you are presented will turn out to have far more clever ramifications than they do, where appearances will be deceptive and something astonishing will be pulled out of a hat. Alas, that is not the case here. The reason that a bearded man whom nobody knows appears on the wrong night and orders the wrong food is exactly the reason you would think it is. Watching Poirot cleverly deduce the obvious is almost as annoying as the fact that Bonnington and Scotland Yard can’t make head or tails of this piffle. It makes you shake your head at the intellectual capacity of mankind! Maybe Christie was just having a lazy day . . .
MR. HARLEY QUIN (get it? *wink, wink*)
My relationship with Mr. Quin is not particularly positive. True Christie fans know of her fondness for tales of the supernatural. Collections like The Hound of Death or The Listerdale Mystery are mostly made up of little O. Henry-type stories that wouldn’t be out of place as minor episodes of The Twilight Zone. The tales that make up the 1930 collection The Mysterious Mr. Quin contain enough elements of detection to get your hopes up, but something always gets in the way – something odd and mysterious and otherworldly and . . . boring. It’s like the first time you hear mention of the mystery plays and believe that throughout time audiences have been interested in crime dramas, and then you find out that you’ve been royally hoodwinked by the Church!
“The Love Detectives” (1926)
The Mr. Quin stories were first published in a variety of magazines in the U.K. throughout the latter half of the 1920’s. Christie created a sequence of six connected tales that was given the overarching title of The Magic of Mr. Quin. “The Love Detectives” is the first story in this cycle but was left out of The Mysterious Mr. Quin. You have only to read it to understand why. That collection was published in 1930, the same year that Christie released the first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage. And although everything about the Quin story is inferior to that novel, the solutions of both mysteries are essentially the same. I never put this together the first time I read “The Love Detectives.” Chalk it up to the magic of Mr. Quin, who only has to appear in a story and my attention span vanishes just . . . like . . . that!