An earlier Miss Marple murder mystery, this clever and engaging novel is, in Christie’s own words, a variation on an old classic scenario in detective fiction. It wastes no time and gets down to business right at the beginning of Chapter 1, where Colonel and Mrs Bantry, a wealthy and respectable couple, wake up one morning to the shocking news. A dead body of a young blonde girl in a white evening dress has been found in their most conservative and conventional library, an incongruous sight that upsets and puzzles the couple. The mysterious girl seems to have been strangled and neither Bantrys nor their servants have any idea who she is and how she ended up in the library.
While her husband phones the police, Mrs Bantry calls her good friend Jane Marple to help solve the mystery, which is bound to get the local tongues wagging and affect their good social standing in St. Mary Mead. Miss Marple however doesn’t make much of an appearance in the first half of the book, which is mostly taken up by the police investigation and turns up a bunch of possible suspects. It’s discovered that the murdered girl, who is identified as a dancer at the hotel in a nearby town, was about to be adopted by a rich old gentleman who became fond of her, and a few people stand to benefit from her convenient death.
Another twist in the story is the gruesome discovery of a burned-out car with the body of a local schoolgirl inside (though there’s nothing particularly graphic about it, it’s still a pretty jolting thing to read about a charred corpse in an Agatha Christie book). The two deaths are obviously connected; there’s also a whiff of bad-girl/good-girl judgemental attitude coming from one of the older investigators that made me wince, though of course it’s entirely realistic.
Though her appearances are limited, Miss Marple truly shines when she takes the centre stage. This novel is a great display of her particular gift of seeing patterns and parallels between the behaviour of people in her home village and those in the wider world – the human nature, according to Miss Marple, is the same everywhere. She will also never take people on their own word and her keen observational skills lead her to identify the murderer from the get-go. 4.50 From Paddington, the previous Miss Marple book I’ve read, was frustratingly vague on the deduction side of things, but here the thought process and the various threads of the story are all clearly set out and pulled together in a very satisfying way.
P.S. I think it’s the only Christie novel where Dame Agatha namechecks herself, heh.