Miss Marple goes on a holiday in the sunny Caribbean and finds herself mildly discontented that nothing ever happens in the tropical paradise… until she suspects a murder.
Even though this is not one of the best Miss Marple mysteries, it’s nice to come across a novel where she’s a central character whose inner thoughts on life, ageing and crime we’re privy to. It’s also fun to see the old lady relocated from her usual setting of quaint and quiet English villages, and sent on a holiday arranged by her successful writer nephew Raymond. But while the scenery is lovely (if monotonous) and the tropical climate is kind to Miss Marple’s rheumatism, her mind is restless without any incidents or human problems to sink her teeth into.
It all changes with the sudden death of a fellow guest, Major Palgrave, whose tedious recollections Miss Marple patiently endures while usually thinking of something else. One day, taking a break from long-winded yarns about elephants, Kenya and safaris, Major Palgrave tells a story about the time he indirectly came across a murder case, and a man who had gotten away with wife killing at least a couple of times. And wouldn’t Miss Marple like to see the picture of the murderer? But before he can dramatically produce the snap carried in his wallet as a way of enhancing his story, Major Palgrave’s face suddenly goes red and he changes the topic of conversation.
The next morning, he’s found dead in his room. His passing is ruled to be natural, but Miss Marple knows better and suspects that the murderer in the photograph is right here, in this carefree idyllic spot full of young, healthy and happy couples. Worse still, she fears that he’s about to commit yet another murder.
There’s an interesting thread running through this novel about how the people you meet on your holidays only show what they want you to see, as most of the “happy” couples are revealed to be anything but behind the facade and we’re given reasons to suspect everyone. If there’s a major weakness with the mystery, however, it’s that one of the big red herrings meant to confuse us about the identity of the murderer is uncharacteristically weak and unconvincing. However, on a re-read I once again enjoyed Dame Agatha’s trick of slipping in an all-important clue right there in the open in the very first chapter. Can’t accuse her of not playing fair!
Miss Marple, while as sharp as always, feels rather isolated without her usual support network of friends, neighbours and sympathetic police officials, in a setting where she has to work harder to be taken seriously. She needs an ally and she finds one in Mr Rafiel, a grumpy invalid who is too stupendously wealthy and old to bother with good manners. Initially, he dismisses Miss Marple as a silly gossiping old woman, but he comes to respect her insight and they work together to solve the mystery. If Mr Rafiel was not so obviously knocking on death’s door, I’d probably secretly ship him with Miss Marple. Their partnership is delightful, and while the book itself is no Christie classic, abrasive but shrewd Mr Rafiel is one of my favourite Christie characters.
P.S. The funniest part of the novel is probably at the very beginning, where Miss Marple attempts to read an “edgy” modern novel thrust upon her by her nephew, and feels sorry for the young people who, to her, seem to regard sex as a kind of Duty.