Tuesday, February 6, 2024

No Vacation from Murder: A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and At Bertram's Hotel (1965), by Agatha Christie Part I: A Caribbean Mystery

If one looks over Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries one sees that they tend to come in bunches. Thus we have:


The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

The Thirteen Problems, aka The Tuesday Club Murders (1932) (collection of short stories originally published between 1927 and 1931)


Sleeping Murder (1940?, published in 1976))

The Body in the Library (1942)

The Moving Finger (1943)


A Murder Is Announced (1950)

They Do It with Mirrors (1952)

A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)

4.50 from Paddington (1957)


The Mirror Crack's from Side to Side (1962)

A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

At Bertram's Hotel (1965)


Nemesis (1971)

So almost all of the books fall in these periods: 1930-32 (2), 1940-43 (3), 1950-53 (3), 1962-65 (3).  The two exceptions are 4.50 from Paddington (Christie wrote the substantial Marple short story Greenshaw's Folly in 1957 too) and Nemesis, which was Miss Marple's coda.  So did Christie just have Marplelous bouts of imagination, or what?  It's like once she started writing about her, she wanted to keep going for a bit.  And then it was back to that old ball and chain, Hercule Poirot!

Certainly the mod half of the Sixties (pre-hippie) was a Marple era, with three novels and the spate of Marple films around the same time, starring a lovable and indeed wacky, if not actually that faithfully rendered, Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple.  

All three of these Marple novels are solid books, I would say, with one of them, At Bertram's Hotel, being much undervalued, I would argue.  Christie made her last substantive visit to Miss Marple's native village, St. Mary Mead with The Mirror Crack'd (I'm using the shorter American title), a substantial contribution to the Marple canon, I believe, though I need to reread it.  Then there were back-to-back Marples with Caribbean Mystery and Bertram's Hotel, which I have recently reread.

I originally read both of these books around 1977-78 in American Pocket pb eds with a very unconvincing Miss Marple depiction on the back cover and those neat little casts of characters descriptions in the beginning pages (a feature I miss today). As I recollect I liked Caribbean Mystery pretty well but was rather bored by Hotel.  Today for me, it's just the other way around.

Saint Lucia

Both books take Miss Marple out of the confines of St. Mary Mead, but Murder, as in the case of Jessica Fletcher of the television series Murder She Wrote, follows Miss Marple wherever she goes.  In both books Miss Marple takes a pleasure trip, courtesy of her well-off and devoted novelist nephew Raymond West and his artist wife Joan, or Joyce as she's called in earlier works.  (I think Christie missed an opportunity in not devoting a novel to Miss Marple solving a mystery in the arts community, courtesy of her connection to the Wests.)

A Caribbean Mystery is one of those "travelogue mysteries" that a detective fiction author writes after they've taken a trip to some exotic distant location. (Everything is copy!)  Christie was hardly the only British mystery writer to take a jaunt to the Caribbean and then set a mystery there, but of course, Christie being Christie, her Caribbean Mystery is one of the best-known examples.  

1969 Fontana pb edition
Artist Tom Adams had a great eye
for the macabre and could not resist
Major Palgrave's glass orb.
A later Fontana edition he did
was even more surreal, with the 
major's glass eye elevated into 
the sky, overlooking a corpse.

The setting of the novel is Saint Honore, apparently a fictionalization of the island of Saint Lucia in the Lesser Antilles.  The novel opens with Miss Marple being bored to death by a garrulous old retired British major (one of Christie's classic stock types as she herself implicitly acknowledges in the book.  Major Palgrave loves, repetitively and lengthily, to tell stories of his past.  Then the major suddenly asks the old lady if she would like to see a murderer.  He is about to show her a photo from his stuffed wallet when, evidently disturbed by something which he spies over Miss Marple's shoulder, he hastily puts it away again.  

What did Major Palgrave see behind her shoulder? Miss Marple can't be sure, but she suspects it was the very murderer he was talking about!  This is the looking over the shoulder gambit which Christie had used in at least a couple of earlier novels.  The scene also resembles Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), one of Christie's last top-flight books, in that there is a piece of information, the photo, relating to a murder in the past which implicates someone present in the here and now.  

So we are very much in classic territory here, and some of the reviews of the novel at the time, resoundingly welcomed the novel as a classic Christie.  Declared Maurice Richardson of the Observer: "somewhere near her very best unputdownable form....Old Miss Marple is stimulated and defustified by a change of scene....Not very hard to guess, but quite suspenseful."  Christie's old Detection Club colleague Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) chimed in even more enthusiastically: "Mrs. Agatha Christie has done it again....she tells the reader explicitly what is going to happen; yet when it does, nine out of ten will taken completely by surprise, as I was.  How does she do it?"

Frangipani Cottage
Balenbouche Historic Estate

This is the third time I have read A Caribbean Mystery, so obviously surprise was out of the picture for me this time around.  (I don't believe I ever forget Christie solutions.)  

I'm pretty sure I was surprised by the solution back when I read it at the age of twelve or what have you, but then I never got a Christie mystery right until I was around sixteen or seventeen.  (Towards Zero, it was.)  

On this reading, the solution seemed pretty obvious to me, despite Christie's attempt to complicate the picture late in the book with a red herring, or perhaps I should say red snapper, this being the Caribbean.  Late in the book Christie uses a gambit from Peril at End House, and another aspect of the book resembles Sleeping MurderRobert Barnard has suggested that by this point in her career, Christie could not come up with original tricks, but rather repeated old ones.  She certainly does that here.  

If you compare ACM to later Christies, it's a better detective novel than most of those, though I would say that despite its longueurs I actually prefer Nemesis, a sort of spinoff of ACMACM just feels a bit bland to me, both in its mystery plot and its characterization/setting.  None of the characters are particularly memorable, outside of Mr. Rafiel, the cantankerous, crippled business tycoon, who seven years later plays a memorable role, albeit from beyond the grave, in Nemesis.  (In fact, ACM even inspired the title of Nemesis).  

On the plus side Miss Marple plays a very active role in Nemesis, featuring in almost every one of the book's scenes.  The Caribbean air must have been good for her rheumatism.  But the Caribbean atmosphere is pretty mild.  "So many palm trees," thinks Miss Marple, "never anything happening."

Christie references steel bands (Miss Marple hates but patiently abides the cacophony), and the habit of the locals of not marrying when they have children with each other (though they do christen the babies).  Several times she mentions the gleaming white teeth of the black people.  (Christie became increasingly occupied with teeth in her later books; I suspect that her own, judging from pictures and given her love of sweets, were none too good at this point.)  

However, there is only one black character in the novel of even minor significance, Victoria Johnson (later the name of an American comedian), who is a maid at the hotel where Miss Marple is staying.  She is the second act murder, as it were, when she tries to do a bit of blackmailing.  (Christie indulgently takes the view that she really didn't think of it as blackmail.)  There's a reference to paw paws and to palm trees, but otherwise this book could have been relocated to Torquay or Bournemouth, say, pretty easily.  

Still, ACM is competently done.  You can definitely see Christie's writing slacken within just a few years.  All the same, though, I would still rather read Third Girl (1966), which while not as tightly plotted, is simply more fun.  

Christie does get a few amusing bits into ACM though.  In the beginning Miss Marple is reading a modern novel that her clueless nephew recommended for her and her (and the author's) revulsion for the modern emphasis on the ugly and sordid is made clear.  Contra the claims of Christie television adapter Sarah Phelps, who in defending her dark and deliberately repulsive Christie adaptations, insisted that she was merely a medium of what Christie really wanted to write if the poor dear had only been allowed to at the time, Christie through Miss Marple makes clear that Phelps was blowing a lot of smoke, as it were:

Christie was not a fan of the look

"Do you mean you've had no sexual experience at ALL?" the young man demanded incredulously.  At nineteen?  But you must.  It's vital."

The girl hung her head unhappily; her straight, greasy hair hung over her face.

"I know," she muttered, "I know."

He looked at her: stained old jersey, the bare feet, the dirty toenails, the smell of rancid fat...He wondered why he found her do maddeningly attractive."

Miss Marple wondered too!

A few lines down, Christie lets us know that Miss Marple over the "course of her duties in a rural parish had acquired quite a comprehensive knowledge of the facts of rural life....Plenty of sex, natural and unnatural.  Rape, incest, perversion of all kinds," Including even things the "clever young men from Oxford who wrote books" seemed not to have heard of.  Gracious me!  

I hate to think where homosexuality fits in here.  Raymond West refers to the man who will mind Miss Marple's house while she's away, one of his friends he says, as a "queer" who naturally is "very house proud."  And dear Raymond is presumably socially progressive.  

I assume Miss Marple was a lifelong virgin, but Christie, of course, was not; and by the Sixties she was increasingly letting mentions of sex slip into her books, perhaps to let those clever reviewers know she was not so old and fusty after all, even though by this time she had become stout and quite matronly looking, like a jolly grandmother.  

Interestingly Christie liked the looks of young Sixties men, with the colorful clothing and curly long locks, much better than those of young women with their straight hair and miniskirts.  She compared the men to Elizabethans and Jacobeans, but the semi-naked and dirty women merely disgusted her.  

I also thought this was a funny observation of Miss Marple's ethical system: "on certain occasions,when she considered it her duty to do so, she could tell lies with a really astonishing verisimilitude."  

Overall, however, the tone of ACM, as in other late Marples, seems a bit wistful and sad to me.  There's a recognition of the difficulties of the aged: the tendency to be discounted, dismissed, ignored.  She mentions "the natural loneliness of an old lady: and Major Palgrave's having "had a lonely life and a lonely death."  Mr. Rafiel is crippled, as they used to say, and lonely and bored too, despite being rich.  The relationship he strikes up with Miss Marple in the course of the murders (three in this book) is the most striking part of the story and Christie was astute to pick up on that thread again in Nemesis.  It's almost a romance.  Their parting at the end is rather touching.  

By the way. we're told Major Palgrave was over seventy, Mr. Rafile almost eighty; my guess is Miss Marple fell somewhere in between, say 75?  Which would make her about the author's age.  Clearly that doesn't fit in with the earlier tales from 35 years ago, but it does reveal that Christie in a lot of ways became Miss Marple in the later novels: she aged into her, as it were.  She had started writing about her when she was only 37 and I think her grandparents' generation was more what she had in mind.  

Something the cozy-detractors of Christie like PD James miss is there's a lot of moral force to Miss Marple.  Christie actually took murder seriously in her heart, more so than the other Crime Queens, I think (except perhaps the later Margery Allingham).  You read Ngaio Marsh for example, and you get the impression she's more bothered by vulgarity than homicide.  I bet you encounter the word vulgar more than evil.  

In Christie's later books her concerns with justice and evil come very much to the more.  As she worries over heading off another murder, Miss Marple reads Thomas a Kempis at night and in bed sends up a little prayer to God: "One couldn't do everything oneself.  One had to have help."  Whether the credit goes to God or Miss Marple, an innocent life is saved and justice meted out to the wicked.  Just another day in the life of this righteous and fierce old lady.  


  1. Re: homosexuality and Raymond, I'm not sure AC would have understood "queer" (even as a noun) to be a slur--for much of her life, it would have been the least offensive word signifying a gay man. She could have used "poof" or something even less savory here and she didn't. I think it's reasonable to assume that when Miss Marple ponders "unnatural sex" and "perversion" she's including homosexuality but I don't think those are necessarily the views of AC herself.

    1. Yeah, I think in Mrs. McGinty's Dead, about a dozen years earlier, the playwright (Robin Upward?) is worried that Sven Hjerson is a "fairy." I think Agatha was trying to be up-to-date with her sexual references in the Sixties. Even people who thought of themselves as progressive could be pretty backward by today's standard. (Or maybe not, given how much of the world seems to be regressing on these matters.) Of course ironically the word "queer' has been embraced by the gay community now.

      Christie has a funny comment in the book through Miss Marple recalling the minister who was affected with an attack of nudism while working on Armenian relief. There's also an implicit lesbian character in Halloween Party who is interesting. And a reference in At Bertram's Hotel to how the missing Canon Pennyfather might have run off with a choir boy. Of course her lesbian couple in A Murder Is Announced is quite sympathetic.

    2. There's a later book--you know the one--with a significant lesbian character and one could take the book as being condemnatory of lesbian relationships but, given the sympathetic lesbian couple in A Murder is Announced, I have always taken it more as a condemnation of obsessive love, love that curdles into mere possessiveness. Paraphrasing Sting, if you love someone, set her free. Christie had already written about a heterosexual relationship that was quite similar in another Marple mystery.

      Given that it's about unnatural sex in rural communities, I'm guessing bestiality was high on Miss Marple's list! I'm reminded of the Chicken Lady from the sketch comedy show Kids in the Hall.

    3. There's also Christopher Wren--I don't know if this comes through in the play, but in the short story version Three Blind Mice, he reads as clearly gay to me at least.

      Regarding that other later book, I always kind of questioned how overtly lesbian that relationship is. I know Marple says something about how the victim could/should have married and had a "normal" life, but I'm not sure if the killer really understood her feelings as lesbian love. Like you, I started reading Christie very early and when I read that book for the first time at 12 or so, I fully interpreted the relationship as overpowering misplaced maternal feeling. Then again perhaps we shouldn't base literary interpretation on a 12 year old's impressions!

    4. Yes, actually John Curran did an essay for the Book Murder in the Closet I edited, where he delves into all this stuff. And he knows the play versions too. I should check that. I agree it's very noticeable in the the story version. There's also a gay villain in the play The Rats, which I finally read and reviewed here I believe a few years ago. Yeah, I don't believe that character you mention was overtly lesbian, like you say she may never have acknowledged to herself the true nature of her feelings. It's a bit foreshadowed in Halloween Party, though I think there the one schoolteacher was a self-aware lesbian and their relationship probably had been such. All rather like the film The Fox!

  2. Miss Marple's feeling about lying reminds me of Miss Maud Silver's views on eavesdropping: as a gentleperson she wouldn't dream of doing it, but as a detective she felt no qualms.

    1. Miss Marple of course isn't professional but she must have had a sense of a calling by that time.