4.50 From Paddington probably sits squarely in the middle of Christie’s Miss Marple series – not a classic, but hardly one of the worst either.
It certainly has a cracking premise. An elderly lady named Mrs McGillicuddy travels by train and shockingly comes face to face with a murder when she witnesses a woman being strangled in a train that briefly travels alongside hers. She promptly reports the crime, but no body is ever found and the officials dismiss her story as old lady ravings. The only person who believes Mrs McGillicuddy is her good friend Jane Marple, who knows that her friend lacks the imagination to make up a wild tale.
But Miss Marple herself is now old and frail. Having deduced a likely place where a body would be dumped from the train, she employs a certain Lucy Eyelesbarrow to get a job at Rutherford Hall, a country estate occupied by Mr Crackenthorpe, a cranky miserly invalid, and his daughter. Very soon, Lucy’s investigation attracts a real interest from the police, and brings in the rest of the estranged Crackenthorpe family: three brothers (businessman, artist and a black sheep), their brother-in-law and his adolescent son.
Lucy Eyelesbarrow acts as a stand-in for Miss Marple for much of the novel, and unfortunately she’s one of Christie’s blandest creations, an all-round perfection and a brilliant mind who swaps a promising academic career for a field of domestic labour… umm ‘kay. She’s in demand and makes great money, but still, I found the idea a stretch. In addition to being a super-efficient domestic goddess, Lucy also catches the eye of every single Crackenthorpe male, including the old patriarch who pretty much proposes marriage to her. Worst of all, she has no personal connection or stakes in the story other than curiosity; there’s a hint that some of the flirtation may lead to something more serious but Christie chooses to play coy on the subject.
The investigation is rife with trademark Christie red herrings and misdirection, but perhaps with too many lucky coincidences. While the solution is satisfying and makes perfect sense, it’s not entirely clear how Miss Marple arrives at the conclusion; her deductions aren’t explained as well as in other novels. However, it’s still a fun mansion murder mystery with some very effective scenes. Christie always excelled at dysfunctional families, and the boiling resentments and dramas of the Crackenthorpe clan make for an entertaining read.
My favourite thing in the book are Mr Crackenthorpe’s grandson and his friend, whose reaction to the found body is “wow can we see it please??” and who set about investigating murder with all the enthusiasm and callousness of youth. I always liked Christie’s lack of illusions where children and teenagers are concerned.