R.T. (Raicho) Raichev’s previous post for this site examined the short stories of P.D. James. Raicho is a lifelong fan of English crime fiction and wrote his university dissertation on the subject. In this new post he examines and compares some of the work of two stars of mystery’s Golden Age, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Two new stories in Raicho’s critically acclaimed Antonia Darcy and Major Payne mystery series are coming up in EQMM soon; the latest novel in that series is The Killing of Olga Klimt. This post goes up on its author’s birthday. From all of us at EQMM, Raicho, happy birthday!!—Janet Hutchings
Solutions revealed: Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, Endless Night
At a party at London’s Savoy Hotel two ladies are chatting amiably. One is in her late sixties, tall and hawk-nosed, wearing an elegant black dress and broad-brimmed black hat, elbow-length satin gloves, a chunky cameo brooch, and a single row of pearls. She brings to mind a stage duchess. Her companion is seventy-two, large and jolly, her white hair in a bun; she is clad in a dress of floral design and carries a mink stole across her left arm. She sports three strings of pearls and glasses in frames of the Cat-Eye variety (recently made fashionable by Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn). The two ladies couldn’t have been anything but English. Indeed, they might have come out of a novel by Agatha Christie or Ngaio Marsh. One thinks of Lady Selina Hazy in At Bertram’s Hotel and Lady Angkatell from The Hollow—or of Miss Prentice and Miss Campanula, both rivals for the attention of the Pen Cuckoo vicar, in An Overture to Death. (No, that would be unkind.)
But appearances can be deceptive—as aficionados of the formal detective story know only too well. It is highly doubtful whether Miss Campanula or Lady Selina would have been able to write the books in which they appear—they wouldn’t have had the ingenuity, the devilish plotting skills, the unorthodox ideas, narrative drive, or, for that matter, the stamina of their middle-aged creators. The perception of Englishness in not quite right either: the lady in the eccentric Cat-Eye glasses has an American father whereas her be-hatted companion is in fact an Anglo-centric New Zealander.
It is to the civilised exploration of the most uncivilised act, murder, that Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh had devoted their creative lives and in 1962 they were at the height of their fame. They had already been dubbed, respectively, “The Queen of Crime” (The Observer) and “The Empress of Crime” (The Sun). The Savoy Party which both attended had been organised by the CWA and the meeting between Christie and Marsh was captured for posterity in a black-and-white photograph. They had met once before, in 1937, but that encounter doesn’t seem to count as there is no record of any exchanges between the two, certainly no photos. The occasion then had been A.C.Bentley’s initiation as a member of the Detection Club and the only interesting detail of that event is that Agatha Christie arrived late, which might have been on purpose, to avoid the invited speaker, an Inspector Kennard, who had been associated with her traumatic disappearance in 1926.
Even though in 1962 Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap was celebrating its ten-year anniversary and her floruit period was to continue till 1973, her Golden Age was all but over. The paradox is that the shakier and more rambling Christie’s novels became, the more her celebrity grew: according to a Unesco report published at the time she was the most widely read British author in the world, with Shakespeare coming a poor second. However, the only truly original and most accomplished novel she wrote in that decade was The Pale Horse (1961). Genuinely mystifying and unsettling, it concerns a sinister Murder Inc. organisation which specialises in “human removals.” (A similar idea was used by Dorothy Sayers in a short story called The Leopard Lady, published in 1939.) Other critics of the genre consider the 1967 Endless Night her best—”splendid late flowering” (Robert Barnard)—”final triumph” (John Curran). Christie certainly manages to performs a superb ventriloquist act when she assumes the voice of a working-class young man as her unreliable narrator, but her recycling of a famous trick from a much earlier novel, is not, in my opinion, entirely convincing. And the excess of homicide at the end tends to irritate rather than terrify.
In contrast, the advent of old age didn’t seem to have caused Ngaio Marsh any diminution of her creative powers—quite the contrary. In the period between 1962 and 1972 she produced some of her most sophisticated and entertaining murder mysteries, among them some of my own personal favourites: Clutch of Constables, When in Rome and Tied Up in Tinsel. In Clutch of Constables (published in 1968), Marsh experiments with narrative form by introducing each chapter with a section in which Alleyn is telling the story of the hunt for a highly dangerous international criminal called “the Jampot” to a class of police cadets—the chapters themselves follow the chronological order of the events in which Alleyn’s wife Troy, completely by accident, had become involved with “the Jampot” while on a canal cruise in an Arcadian part of England known as “Constable” country. (The book’s alliterative title is in fact a clever pun.) Each portion of Alleyn’s account ends with an enigmatic statement or a cliff-hanger and this creates a good deal of suspense and tension, thus making the novel compulsively readable. Marsh was seventy-three at the time. And she was well into her eighties when she wrote the unusual thriller-cum-whodunit Black as He’s Painted (1974) and the intricately plotted Grave Mistake (1978), set in an archetypal English village.
But how did the two First Ladies of Fictional Felony fare in the year of the Savoy party? Coming across the photo made me take another look at Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d and Marsh’s Hand in Glove, both published in 1962.
If you are familiar with Peril at End House (1932) and A Murder is Announced (1950) you can’t fail to rumble the killer in The Mirror Crack’d. Not only is the murder conundrum easy to crack, but Miss Marple, despite her passion for intrigue and unholy curiosity, plays a disappointingly sedentary, almost peripheral, part in the unravelling. (Very much like Poirot in The Clocks.) It is only in the last chapter that she meets some of the suspects. Still, the novel is worth reading as it has a number of interesting and unusual features. It is the last of Agatha Christie’s mysteries to be set entirely in an English village. It brings Hollywood to St. Mary Mead. The murder takes place at Gossington Hall, which is also the crime scene in the 1942 Body in the Library. It is one of two Christies inspired by real-life tragedies involving children (actress Gene Tierney’s giving birth to a mentally disabled daughter after a fan had infected her with rubella—the Lindbergh kidnapping in Murder on the Orient Express). And last but not least, it has a fascinating, truly fantastic central idea: The murder is committed on the spur of the moment, with lighting speed, as a result of the killer’s sudden realisation that one of her party guests, a complete stranger, is in fact the person who deprived her, albeit unknowingly, of her chances of happy motherhood. . . .
We are never told what exactly goes on in the killer’s mind, yet we can’t help speculating about the dreadful darkness inside it, about the torment and despair the celebrated actress must have been living with for most of her life. Where Christie succeeds is in suggesting disturbing psychological depths, which can be as effective as any detailed psychological analysis. (She uses the same method in the thoroughly satisfying Murder is Easy and Towards Zero).
Apart from the killer, the one other character in Mirror the reader will remember long after finishing the novel is Marina Gregg’s film director husband Jason Rudd whose striking appearance hints at unconventionality and unpredictability:
He had interesting eyes. They were . . . more deeply sunk in his head than any eyes she had seen. Deep quiet pools, said Mrs Bantry to herself. . . . The rest of his face was distinctly craggy, almost ludicrously out of proportion. His nose jutted upwards and a little red paint would have transformed it into the nose of a clown. . . . He had too, a clown’s big sad mouth. Whether he was at the moment in a furious temper or whether he always looked as though he were in a furious temper she did not quite know. His voice when he spoke was unexpectedly pleasant.
So much for Agatha Christie not being able to ‘do’ character.
Like Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, Ngaio Marsh’s Hand in Glove is set at an archetypal English village—the quaintly named Little Coddling, “decorous and rather pretty in the spring sunshine.” In both novels parties figure prominently—a garden party to meet a famous Hollywood actress in Mirror, a Treasure Hunt, complete with “amusing clues” in Glove. In an odd way the murder motive in Glove resembles that in Mirror in that it is linked to a woman’s thwarted maternal instinct. But this is where the similarities end. Christie is a conceptual artist, Marsh is the better stylist and, generally, the much better writer. Marsh’s dialogue sparkles with lively wit and drollery, her various descriptions of places and people remind us that she was a gifted painter as well. And her mastery to mislead, mystify, and bamboozle rivals Christie’s. All the characters in Hand in Glove are interesting and memorable. Nobody is a caricature or a stereotype, yet everybody is full of quirks. Snobbish but endearing Mr. Percival Pyke Period harbouring a dark yet ultimately ridiculous secret (aggrandising himself with a bogus ancestral lineage), much-married Desiree Lady Bantling with her “ravaged face with its extravagant make-up, and her mop of orange hair,” Connie Cartell, “large, tweedy, middle-aged . . . with a red face, a squashed hat and a walking stick,” who shouts rather than speaks and laughs too often in a braying manner . . .
Every scene in Glove is choreographed with the kind of theatrical virtuosity Marsh displays in all her novels (we mustn’t forget that she got her DBE for her contribution to the Theatre). For me the best part of the story is the comedy-of-manners lead-up to the discovery of the body and Chief Inspector Alleyn’s subsequent appearance (on page 99). Marsh has been accused of snobbery but she has always displayed an acute sense of the absurd when dealing with her upper-class characters. She makes them say some very funny things. Here is Mr. Period in a flap talking to an outrageously amused Lady Bantling:
“It’s plain to be seen that this frightful person, the Leiss, is an out-and-out bad ’un. And indeed, for your ear alone, we most strongly suspect—” Mr Period looked about him as if the boudoir concealed microphones and began to whisper the story of the cigarette-case.
“Oh, no!” Desiree said with relish. “Actually a burglar! And is Moppet his con-girl, do you suppose?”
And this is Alleyn interviewing “society secretary” Nicola Maitland-Maine:
“Leonard really is a monster.”
“What sort? Beatnik? Smart Alec? Bounder? Straight-out cad? Or just plain nasty!”
“All except the beatnik. He’s as clean as a whistle and smells dreadfully of lilies.”
The actual killer, as it happens, turns out to be outside the circle of murder suspects which we have been persuaded to consider—it is someone presented so cleverly as a comic figure that the reader never suspects them properly. Marsh employs psychology as a strategy of deception—while giving us all the material clues we need. The investigation in Glove is also a much lighter and more palatable affair compared to Alleyn’s interminable questioning of suspects with its emphasis on who-was-where-and-when in earlier novels.
One last note—the respective ages of Miss Marple and Alleyn are bound to cause some readers’ eyebrows to rise and lips to purse. In 1962 Miss Marple—who started as an “elderly lady” in 1927 in the short story The Tuesday Club published in the Royal Magazine—must be at least a hundred. Gentleman sleuth Alleyn, on the other hand, is precisely 67 (his creator-age—he was said to be 40 in Marsh’s first novel, A Man Lay Dead, published in 1934). Yet in Mirror, Miss Marple gives the impression of being no more than a sprightly seventy-five, her almost supernatural intuition undiminished, her deductive skills very much in evidence—and she walks unaided. Alleyn doesn’t display any signs of senescence either—he will continue to be referred to as “handsome Alleyn” by a series of impressionable society ladies till his very last investigative triumph in Light Thickens (1981).