The last Miss Marple mystery Christie wrote is also the very last Miss Marple novel in my re-readathon. Bidding farewell to Dame Agatha’s old lady detective probably put me in a more sentimental and forgiving mood, because its flaws surely would have annoyed me more otherwise.
Nemesis isn’t the last-published Miss Marple novel – Sleeping Murder was released posthumously in 1976 and a collection of Miss Marple short stories was published in 1979. It is obvious though that Christie, by then in her eighties, intended this to be a send-off for her other famous fictional creation, and a rather happier one than her ending for Poirot.
Nemesis is loosely linked with A Caribbean Mystery, in which Miss Marple made an acquaintance with Jason Rafiel, an elderly, irascible and fabulously rich financier who became a valuable ally to Miss Marple. A few years later, she’s saddened but not surprised to see his name in the Deaths section of her newspaper one afternoon. What she doesn’t anticipate is Mr Rafiel’s solicitors contacting her to convey a startling offer from the deceased man: Miss Marple is to inherit a hefty sum of £20,000 if she can investigate and solve a crime within a year. The only problem is that, in his letter, Mr Rafiel gives her no clue as to what the crime actually is, only referring to Miss Marple’s flair for justice and her nickname “Nemesis”.
Intrigued by the challenge (and the financial reward, handy at any age), Miss Marple accepts the offer and finds out that Mr Rafiel didn’t intend for her to fly completely blind after all. Instead, it looks like he’s devised a sort of orientation course where she would slowly learn everything she needs to know. As a first step, Miss Marple is to go on a tour of British houses and gardens with fifteen other people (this part of the book made me think back to my days in the travel industry). Another crucial stop arranged by Mr Rafiel is an invitation to spend the more physically challenging days of the tour with Mrs Lavinia Glynne and her two sisters at the Old Manor House. During all of this, Miss Marple gradually learns the details of a brutal crime committed several years ago, and gets an idea of what Mr Rafiel wanted her to do.
I’ve never read Nemesis previously and, after my frustrating experiences with some of the later Christie novels, I wasn’t sure I was looking forward to it. Just as I feared, it is very much guilty of waffling: pages and pages of conversations and Miss Marple’s inner monologues as she tries to piece the puzzle together or just thinks about any random thing, pointless chapters and detours that go nowhere, constant repetition of the same facts, the information that in the previous Christie books would take a couple of brisk paragraphs to convey now stretched to a page or two.
What helps Nemesis immensely though is that, despite the plodding pace, the mystery itself is fairly solid and the resolution is compelling, even if parts of it are very familiar retreads of other Christie novels and I was able to guess the real murderer quite easily. The idea that love can be a force for good and a terrible destructive force works really well. There’s also a real sense of atmosphere about the Old Manor House, permeated with sorrow and melancholy, and the three sisters living there who make Miss Marple think of all sorts of evocative literary parallels.
In fact the one thing you could never complain about in this book is Miss Marple being relegated to the sidelines – even if her train of thoughts is at times rambling or aimless, it was still nice to spend more time in her head than in any other Miss Marple novel I can think of. I also enjoyed learning more about the life and times of Mr Rafiel, who I always had a soft spot for.
Nemesis could easily shed a hundred pages or so to cut down on the filler and improve the pace, and some of the outdated attitudes expressed here make the modern reader wince. Still, whether thanks to the timing or the lowered expectations, it went down much better than I thought it would.