One of Christie’s more unusual novels, this later-day Miss Marple mystery has a memorable setting and some interesting ideas, but it’s held back by a lack of focus and its various elements don’t quite gel together.
Miss Marple is one lucky old lady for having a caring nephew and niece who are constantly devising treats and holidays for their aunt – even if they get inevitably interrupted by crime. This time around, she’s off to enjoy a stay at Bertram’s Hotel – an elegant luxury hotel in a quiet pocket of London that had left an indelible impression on Miss Marple when she had stayed there as a young girl of fourteen.
Miss Marple’s niece Joan gently warns her that she might be disappointed to see the place changed beyond recognition… but in fact stepping into Bertram’s Hotel feels like stepping back into the Edwardian England. There, modern amenities and comforts are discreetly hidden behind the cosy old-fashioned exteriors and furnishings, and one may enjoy impeccable service, a proper English breakfast and tea with exquisite muffins and doughnuts that send jam cascading down your chin. Even the clientele looks like it hasn’t changed much at all since the old days. To Miss Marple, with her usual clear-eyed common sense, this miraculous time capsule seems too good to be true.
“I learned (what I suppose I really knew already) that one can never go back, that one should not ever try to go back — that the essence of life is going forward. Life is really a One Way Street, isn’t it?”
At Bertram’s Hotel is unusual in that the mystery here is more “what is wrong” rather than “who did it” – an interesting approach with the downside being the lack of clear focus. There is in fact a murder to be solved, but it happens almost 200 pages into the novel and is not the main story. It could be said that uncovering the truth behind the polished veneer of Bertram’s Hotel is the main story, but in fact there are a few parallel strands in the novel, some more memorable than others.
As it turns out I completely forgot the storyline about the police investigating a string of heists and robberies, including a daring robbery of the Irish Mail train, that all seem to be the efforts of a well-organised crime syndicate. Bertram’s Hotel attracts the attention of Chief-Inspector Davy when one of its guests, a comically absent-minded priest Canon Pennyfather, doesn’t make it back from his trip to a conference, and yet is somehow spotted on the robbed Irish Mail train and seen by Miss Marple at the hotel during the night he was supposed to be in Lucerne.
There’s also rather more compelling family drama involving famous society adventuress Bess Sedgewick and her estranged daughter Elvira Blake, who becomes the object of Miss Marple’s concern when she happens to see the young girl in the company of a no-good rakish race car driver, who also happens to be Bess’ lover. Elvira is an intriguing character, somehow both deeply unlovable and yet very well observed. Outwardly passive and well-mannered, she’s quite clever and calculating, playing the role of damsel in distress in order to get what she wants. At the start of the book, Elvira is intensely preoccupied with finding out the size of her inheritance, and who will get it if she dies – a rather morbid interest from someone so young, but not without reasons, as revealed later.
This is one of the Miss Marple novels where the presence of the old lady sleuth is unfortunately rather marginal – however she always seems to be in a right spot to overhear an important conversation or notice something significant. I wouldn’t mind these extreme coincidences if the overall plot was solid, but I just didn’t think that the organised crime/Canon Pennyfather story was all that interesting. Also, I believe this is the third Christie novel in which a character is sent poisoned sweets that make them unwell but not fatally so – at this point you know that duh of course they sent it themselves.
Where the novel does excel is in setting and atmosphere – I could almost say that Bertram’s Hotel, with its own vivid personality, is one of my favourite Christie characters. I also love the central idea of something dark hiding behind the respectable English exterior, and the innate falseness of the nostalgic re-creations of the past. As a traveller, the idea of discovering a secret nook, through the word of mouth maybe, where things go on just as they have in the distant past is immensely seductive – yet how really “real” some of those places are?
P.S. I know it makes sense chronologically, but it’s just so surreal to see The Beatles mentioned in an Agatha Christie novel, as if two separate universes came together for a moment.
P.P.S. At Bertram’s Hotel is one of the very rare Christie novels where a murderer gets away, even if there’s a promise that the police won’t leave them alone until they pay for their crime. It’s an interesting choice, considering that a major appeal of Christie’s novels is the assurance that justice will always win in the end. Though some might find it unsatisfying, I quite like this darker and uncertain ending.