Thursday, February 8, 2024

No Time Like the Past? At Bertram's Hotel (1965), by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Pecks at the keys 'bout a murder in her mind she's seen

Death lives in her dreams

There's a face at the window

A man's holding a knife that is all red and crusted with gore

Who is it for?

All those lovely murders

How did she think them up?

All those lovely murders

On blood tonight we'll sup!

Ah, try to solve those lovely murders!

Ah, just try to solve those lovely murders!

--with apologies to Paul McCartney

Inside, if this was the first time you visited Bertram's, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had re-entered a vanished world.  Time had gone back.  You were in Edwardian England once more.

"I mean, we're not the sort of hotel where murders happen."

--At Bertram's Hotel, Agatha Christie

Brown's Hotel, said to have been the basis for Christie's fictional Bertram's Hotel
Christie added the crime.

Agatha's Christie's 1965 Miss Marple mystery novel At Bertram's Hotel is, I believe, the only work of hers which mentions the rock group The Beatles by name.  By 1964, when the Queen of Crime was writing Hotel, the Beatles had invaded and conquered America and of course they were huge in the UK as well.  The popularity of the mop-topped Beatles, who at that stage of their careers seem to us so young and almost cutely innocent, was mystifying to a lot of oldsters like Agatha, making them feel more alienated than ever from the then present era and its modish youth.  At Bertram's Hotel makes brilliant use of that feeling of alienation.  

A year after her nephew Raymond West provided her with a vacation to a Caribbean island in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), Miss Marple got a nice trip to London, courtesy of Raymond and his wife Joan, to stay at Bertram's Hotel.  Of course, not long after Miss Marple gets there, she's embroiled in a crime and (eventually) a murder, which is even better, really, than shopping at the London stores.  

Since its publication nearly sixty years ago At Bertram's Hotel has provoked a mixed response from critics, who generally have enjoyed the atmosphere of the hotel, while taking a dimmer view of the thrillerish aspects of the plot.  I recall that when I first read this one, probably in 1978 when I was twelve, I found it pretty darn dull. 

Where were all the things I expected from a Christie by that time: the murder in the opening chapters, the investigations by the (usually) amateur sleuths, the gathering of suspects in the drawing room or some such similar place for the elucidation of the crime?  Instead you have Miss Marple sitting in a hotel chit-chatting with other oldsters, with occasional bouts of consuming muffins and tea and the occasional raspberry donut (the author had a sweet tooth, or a sweet plate) and shopping and reminiscing around London.  There is also some wild plot concerning a criminal gang of robbers.  Not my own personal cup of tea at all at the time.

Brown's Hotel

When I reread the novel many years later my view of it greatly improved; and on this latest reread I only liked it more.  

It's hardly an original observation but Christie's rendering of the hotel, which on the surface appears to be so magnificently, reassuringly traditional, is impressive indeed.  I would say in fact that it's something of a tour de force, rather Allingham-esque in its atmospherics.  

Indeed, I think Youngman Carter's Mr. Campion's Farthing (1969), said to have been based on an outline from Margery Allingham before she died in 1966, might have been influenced by At Bertam's Hotel.  

Miss Marple loves Bertram's but, canny as she is, she feels a certain sense of unease from the beginning: 

It really seemed too good to be true.  she knew quite well with her usual clear-eyed common sense, that what she wanted was to refurbish her memories of the past in their old original colours.  Much of her life had, perforce, to be spent recalling past pleasures.  If you could find someone to remember them with, that was indeed happiness.  Nowadays that was not easy to do; she had outlived most of her contemporaries.  She still sat and remembered.  In a queer way, it made her feel young again.  

This is lovely, focussed writing, the kind of thing people would not be getting nearly so much from Christie in a few short years in the future.  

Later after the astonishing events at Bertram's Hotel, Mrs, Marle reflects to the paternal, tune-humming Chief-Inspector Fred "Father" Davy (one of Christie's best-realized police detectives in the Marple universe, along with Inspector Dermot Craddock): 

"It seemed wonderful at first--unchanged, you know--like stepping back into the past--to the part of the past that one had loved and enjoyed.  But of course it wasn't really like that.  I learned (what I suppose I really knew already) that one can never go back, that one should not ever try to go back--that the essence of life is going forward. Life is really a One Way Street, isn't it?"

These are wise words, well-put, and a rebuke to those who think that Christie was "merely" about puzzles, with no intent behind her crime writing other than to entertain.  After The Pale Horse (1962) and The Clocks (1963), Christie's books increasingly concern elderly people trying to accommodate themselves to the present, with mixed results. (Endless Night is an exception, in that it is told through the voice of a young person.)  There's an autumnal feeling to most of these books, that of an aging writer who has realized she is in the final stage, not merely of a career, but of life itself.  But in Hotel, she's still perceptive enough to be aware that nostalgia is a comfortable trap, a resignation from life.  While one lives one should try to strive and go forward.  

Tom Adams cover

I could go into the plot of the book more.  The criminal gang element, apparently inspired by England's Great Train Robbery of 1963,  is bookish and too clever by half, I think, like something out of Edgar Wallace; but it dovetails beautifully with the theme and plot of the book.  There's an absent-minded cleric to end all absent-minded clerics.  (When he disappears Inspector Davy speculates about his possibly having run off with a choir boy.)  

There's a significant mother and daughter pairing, allowing Christie to get on her soapbox about mothers not providing adequate supervision for their daughters in the Sexy Sixties.  There's a late murder which draws on several classic Christie devices and probably won't fool the experienced Christie reader.  But I wouldn't change any of it for the world.  

As ever Miss Marple has great moral force in the novel, making her devotions before going to bed at night and telling Davy: "Murder--the wish to do murder--is something quite different.  It--how shall I say?--it defies God."  It's the sort of line the actress Joan Hickson could deliver perfectly on point, which is why she will always be Miss Marple to me.  

3 comments:

  1. Thanks, I enjoyed your post, a retrospective of your Christie fandom, and how readings of these books change when you're older. I was really surprised to learn that Christie mentions the Beatles phenomenon in At Bertram's Hotel, which I think I've read but mostly forgotten except for the 80's or 00's TV adaptations. You have good insights into Christie's modus operandi and how it deteriorated as she aged. But you're also able to appreciate aspects of her later novels. I really enjoy reading your evaluations of fiction. You're a thoughtful reader, fair and accurate in your judgments and alert to cultural snobbery, racial and class stereotypes, and sexual subtexts. You'd make a great teacher for a course in mystery literature!

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    1. Thanks so much for all the kind words. Yes, I would love to teach a class. Teaching was my background. I need to get back to some blogging, I have been doing reading and writing and attending to other things. I actually reread The Clocks and The Pale Horse too and meant to blog on those. Also read a couple of Robert Barnards and three Elizabeth Liningtons (am doing an article) and an Ed McBain.

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  2. I love Christie but At Bertram's Hotel was ruined for me by the flagrant, nauseating anti-semitism. Once again, here's the belief in the nefarious Jewish conspiracy to control world finance that pops up from time to time in her work. How she can continue to perpetuate this trope after the Holocaust is beyond me.

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