They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie – Book Review

An earlier Miss Marple mystery that I pretty much completely forgot. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but there’s also little to make it stand out in the series with so many memorable entries. It could unkindly be called Christie-by-numbers.

The only reason I recalled reading this one before was the novel’s first couple of pages, which find Miss Marple in the company of her old American friend, Ruth Van Rydock. Unlike Miss Marple, a very personification of a sweet old lady, Mrs Van Rydock made an effort to chase away the old age with massage, cosmetics, diet and everything that money can possibly do. For some reason, her humorous question to Miss Marple about whether most people would guess them to be the same age stuck in my memory when the rest of the book didn’t. I found out later that Joan Collins played Ruth in the 2009 TV adaptation, which sounds like casting perfection.

Glamorous Mrs Van Rydock doesn’t stick around for long though, since her only purpose in the story is to ask Miss Marple for help before returning to the USA. She’s gravely concerned about her sister Carrie Louise, also a friend from Miss Marple’s youth, for a reason she cannot pin down. Carrie Louise has been married several times, and according to Ruth she’s always had a tendency to marry cranks with big ideas. Her latest husband, Lewis Serrocold, is yet another self-absorbed idealist, who runs an establishment for juvenile delinquents.

On Ruth’s request, Miss Marple travels to Stonygates, an imposing if shabby Victorian Gothic edifice transformed into a rehabilitation centre. There she reunites with Carrie Louise, and meets the various members of the household, including Carrie Louise’s sullen widowed daughter Mildred, her half-Italian granddaughter Gina, Gina’s American husband, and stepsons from the previous marriages that are rather hard to keep track of. Though she quickly detects all sorts of emotional undercurrents, the only person who makes Miss Marple feel apprehensive is an odd young man named Edgar Lawson, an assistant to Carrie Louise’s husband, who is suffering from some sort of mental disorder. Before long, one ordinary evening at Stonygates ends with a bizarre double of a violent attack and a murder happening simultaneously in different parts of the building. Coincidence? Miss Marple thinks not.

I had the murderer figured out almost straight away, because most of the red herrings felt like the familiar repeats from other Christie novels and you know instantly which characters are not to be trusted. There’s also little to distinguish the aftermath of the murder, with the routine police questionings and Miss Marple mostly working behind the scenes. The setting of an establishment for juvenile criminals is quite unusual, but adds almost nothing to the novel, with the young offenders themselves kept to the fringes of the story. It might as well have been set in any country estate.

While the characters are serviceable, with the exception of intriguingly detached, not-quite-of-this-world Carrie Louise none of them stand out all that much. Though I did like Gina’s monologue about how she might just as well enjoy being a beautiful young woman with a power over men, because one day the world will be cruel to her once she’s lost her looks. I doubt if pointed social commentary on how the society judges women on appearances was Christie’s intent, but it does feel like an echo to the opening scene with Miss Marple and Ruth. There’s also a nice bit of observation from Miss Marple about the cultural differences between the Brits and Americans, and the British tendency to celebrate failures rather than success.

During this re-readathon, I discovered that some Christie novels had slipped from my memory undeservedly, but They Do It With Mirrors is not one of them. I’d definitely say it’s the weakest Miss Marple novel I’ve read so far.

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