This Miss Marple novel has a couple too many convenient coincidences for my liking, but remains one of the most fun Christie mysteries to re-visit.
It surely has one of her best openings. In a small village of Chipping Cleghorn, the locals settle comfortably into reading their favourite local Gazette when they spot a most peculiar notice announcing a murder that’s about to take place that day at 6.30pm, at a place called Little Paddocks. Nobody takes it seriously and all assume that it refers to some sort of murder mystery evening, but all agree that they should definitely show up and find out. The announcement comes as a total surprise to Miss Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, but being a practical woman she’s resigned to the mob of curious villagers showing up at her doorstep, and prepares drinks and suchlike. Things turn from frivolous to serious when the evening ends with gunshots and death of a stranger.
Luckily, Miss Marple is visiting a friend living in Chipping Cleghorn, and is able to provide assistance to the police, who are vaguely unsatisfied by the initial explanation of the events. Her best weapons are, as always, her uncanny ability to gently gain confidence of strangers and see clear parallels with people and events in the past, and her propensity to believe the worst.
As I re-read Christie’s novels I find myself appreciating the social aspect of her books much more so than when I read them as a teenager, and this novel gives you a neat snapshot of the changing face of the English villages post-World War II. The old order, where everyone knew everyone else’s family history going back generations, is gone; there’s an influx of foreigners and strangers whose story you take on faith. The attitude to the foreign refugees is, well, of its time, exemplified by the character of Mitzi, Miss Blacklock’s maid from Eastern Europe, who is mostly treated with exasperation by the rest. I felt ambivalent about Mitzi: though she’s a memorable and entertaining character her portrayal does come close to a shrill caricature. Another aspect that had completely sailed over my head in my teens is the subtly implied relationship between two older ladies who live together (if I remember right in the most recent TV adaptation they went from subtext to a completely unambiguous lesbian relationship).
As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a couple of coincidences that come off as too convenient, one involving a parentage twist that felt too much like soap opera even for a Christie mystery where secret relations are the norm. Overall though it’s all very tightly plotted and the motivations of the murderer, once they’re revealed, are completely believable. In some of Christie’s novels it’s the victim whose story is the most interesting and compelling, but in this one it’s definitely the culprit who you remember most. I had a very clear memory of the ending, and had lots of fun spotting the clues early on.
P.S. Dame Agatha couldn’t have foreseen that the word “pussy”, used here to describe an unmarried lady of an advanced age, was going to acquire a far more vulgar meaning later in the century. It may be childish of me, but it did made me snort with amusement.