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.
4.50 From Paddington probably sits squarely in the middle of Christie’s Miss Marple series – not a classic, but hardly one of the worst either. It certainly has a cracking premise at least. An elderly lady named Mrs McGillicuddy travels by train and shockingly comes face to face with a murder when she witnesses a woman being strangled in a train that briefly travels alongside hers. She promptly reports the crime, but no body is ever found and the officials dismiss her story as old lady ravings. The only person who believes Mrs McGillicuddy is her good friend Jane Marple, who knows that her friend lacks the imagination to make up a wild tale.
This Miss Marple novel has a couple too many convenient coincidences for my liking, but remains one of the most fun Christie mysteries to re-visit.
It surely has one of her best openings. In a small village of Chipping Cleghorn, the locals settle comfortably into reading their favourite local Gazette when they spot a most peculiar notice announcing a murder that’s about to take place that day at 6.30pm, at a place called Little Paddocks. Nobody takes it seriously and all assume that it refers to some sort of murder mystery evening, but all agree that they should definitely show up and find out. The announcement comes as a total surprise to Miss Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, but being a practical woman she’s resigned to the mob of curious villagers showing up at her doorstep, and prepares drinks and suchlike. Things turn from frivolous to serious when the evening ends with gunshots and death of a stranger.
Another quick re-read in between the book club. I’m actually thinking of doing an official Agatha Christie re-readathon challenge, where I read and review every novel by the Queen of Crime, yes all 66 of them. If I finish one each month, this should take me only five and a half years. Piece of cake.
Anyway, this novel is one of my favourite Miss Marple murder mysteries, partly for the mystery itself and partly for the observations of the social changes of the time. It takes place in Miss Marple’s home of St Mary Mead, but in this post-war era it’s no longer the same sleepy village. There’s a shiny new supermarket and a housing development referred to simply as the Development. Miss Marple, who was an old lady since her very first appearance, is now truly frail and has to put up with a live-in housekeeper, a capable yet annoyingly patronising woman who treats her charge as a feeble invalid. But of course Miss Marple’s mind is still as sharp as a tack.
I meant to get started on the next book for our club, but instead I got sidetracked re-reading this Agatha Christie mystery, a Miss Marple mystery to be precise. This book has an unusual history in Christie’s oeuvre – during her life it was locked in a vault on her request, to be published posthumously along with Curtain, Hercule Poirot’s last mystery. Unlike Curtain, which wrapped up Poirot’s life and work, there’s no such finality in Sleeping Murder and there are further Miss Marple stories that follow it chronologically, so the foreboding byline on the book cover is pretty misleading. No need for drama, Miss Marple is still alive and kicking at the end.