The second half dozen stories found in The Thirteen Problems were originally published in The Story-Teller Magazine from December 1929 to May 1930, eighteen months after the first six tales had appeared. This set differs in its cast of characters and its format: rather than a weekly meeting at Miss Marple’s house, these six tales are related over the course of one dinner party at Gossington Hall, home of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly. They have invited Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Scotland Yard commissioner and the only character besides Miss Marple to appear in every story, to spend the weekend with them, and he asks Mrs. Bantry to invite Miss Marple for dinner. The other guests include Dr. Lloyd, an elderly physician, (presumably the predecessor to Dr. Haydock, who appears in the final story and will figure so prominently in Miss Marple’s debut novel, Murder at the Vicarage) and Jane Helier, the first in a long line of gorgeous and dimwitted actresses to grace Christie’s fiction.
I like this batch of stories even more than the first six. The mysteries are all fine, and the added joy for me is the interplay between the dinner guests huddled together in the Bantry’s ice-cold dining room. I think I would have loved to be at this dinner party! It helps that, this time around, the sexes are evenly represented, and Dolly Bantry and Jane Helier are thoroughly delightful characters. The style of narration for each story is far more varied and dependent on character this time around, leading to some of the most humorous writing of Christie’s career. Here, with potential spoilers, are my takes on cases seven, eight and nine:
CASE #7: “The Blue Geranium” NARRATOR: Sir Arthur Bantry (when his wife lets him get a word in edgewise!)
Once Dolly Bantry accepts Sir Henry Clithering’s claim that Miss Marple is an ace at problem-solving, she decides to drag out “Arthur’s ghost story” to see if the old lady can shed any light on the matter. The stakes are higher this time around, for it appears that either strange supernatural doings resulted in the death of Mary Prichard, or her husband George – a fine man and a dear friend of the Bantry’s – has probably murdered his wife. Mary is “a dreadful woman,” according to Dolly and Sir Arthur husband agrees, saying, “She was one of those semi-invalids – I believe she really had something wrong with her, but whatever it was, she played it for all it was worth.
Once again, a dubious psychic appears within these pages. Zarida has “black hair in coiled knobs over her ears – her eyes were half closed – great black rims round them – she had a black veil over her mouth and chin – she spoke in a kind of singing voice with a marked foreign accent . . . “ Or, as George Prichard remarks, “In fact, all the usual stock in trade.” Mary calls Zarida in for a reading and learns, to her dismay, that she is, to all intents and purposes, doomed. An overly complicated and frankly silly series of warnings are presented to the hysterical woman: every month after the full moon, one of the painted flowers on her bedroom wall will turn blue, and when the geranium changes color, she will die!!
It’s all such nonsense that George can’t help but burst into laughter, and then, once the signs do appear, he backs away stubbornly from any belief in the spirit world. And yet, on the morning of the third full moon, the blue geranium does appear, and Mrs. Prichard is found sprawled lifeless on her bed. Her bedroom door was locked on the inside. How did she die and by what agency? And how did the flowers turn blue?
The mood is much more lighthearted than, say, “The Idol House of Astarte,” largely because of the way Dolly constantly interrupts her husband’s telling of the story. (I may have also been affected this way because I listened to the book in the car this time around, and Joan Hickson’s reading is absolutely delightful.) Ironically, there is also a greater sense of urgency to this tale because George’s fate lies in the balance: the gossip in the village leans toward his having done away with his wife and is preventing him from marrying the woman he should have wed in the first place. As with her niece Mabel in “The Thumb-Mark of St. Peter,” Miss Marple is called upon to solve the mystery and save a life, which, of course, she does, not only finding a murderer but bringing two love-starved people together in true Miss Silver fashion!
It’s difficult to discuss much more without giving the show away, but I’ll offer the following by way of a spoiler. Christie repeated the basic plot of the story almost verbatim, minus the supernatural element, a mere ten years later in “The Lernean Hydra,” which would appear in her other great story collection, The Labours of Hercules. And one can’t help but be reminded of Sad Cypress, not for any similarities of plot but because a certain type of character plays the same kind of role in all three tales.
CASE #5: “The Companion” Narrator: Dr. Lloyd
Despite having lived and worked in St. Mary Mead probably as long as Miss Marple, Dr. Lloyd fails to see village life as a hotbed of vice and devious behavior. In order to find a story to tell (and to impress the beautiful Jane Helier), he reaches back many years to a period when he worked in the Canary Islands following a breakdown in his health. In the teeming port town of Las Palmas, one might expect any sort of intrigue to happen. And, indeed, it seems at first as if the doctor’s tale will be full of tropical flavor one of the Spanish tango dancers at the Metropole Hotel who has caught his eye:
“Tall, beautiful, and sinuous, she moved with the grace of a half-tamed leopardess. There was something dangerous about her.”
Dr. Lloyd goes on at some length about this dancer, discussing her with his friend and remarking, “It’s not only beauty. There is something else. Look at her again. Things are bound to happen to that woman, or because of her. As I said, life will not pass her by. Strange and exciting events will surround her. You’ve only got to look at her to know it.”
That’s all very nice, but it turns out the story isn’t about the Spanish dancer at all. It’s about two English ladies, one plump, the other scraggy, who have just arrived on the island and are watching the dancers as well. One is a wealthy commercial traveler named Mary Barton, and the other is her paid companion, Amy Durrant. They are perfectly ordinary, or, as Dr. Lloyd describes to his friend, “They are made for a safe and uneventful existence.”
The next day, however, tragedy strikes when the two English ladies go out for a swim and Miss Durrant, the companion, drowns. Was it an accident, as Miss Barton claims, or was it murder? And why would a wealthy woman murder her companion?
I must confess to an opinion that this is one of the weaker entries in the collection, one that again reminds me of a Sherlock Holmes story. First, we have the cheat of the Spanish dancer – of the whole setting really, since this tragedy could have happened along any English coast – and while the situation becomes straightforward, and the solution is perfectly fine, if pretty guessable, one could never guess the motive, which seems tacked on in a hurry and never fully developed or believable, since by virtue of the plot requirements, we never really get to know these characters well. It’s not a bad story, but compared with the masterpiece that follows, it is a bit of a disappointment.
CASE #6: “The Four Suspects” Narrator: Sir Henry Clithering
“Of course,” said Miss Marple, “a lot of people are stupid. And stupid people get found out, whatever they do. But there are quite a number of people who aren’t stupid, and one shudders to think of what they might accomplish unless they had very strongly rooted principles.”
“The Four Suspects” is arguably the best of the lot, a story that certainly had the capacity to be expanded to a novel but makes for a perfect short story, both for plot and for some of the issues it brings up. People have accused Agatha Christie of ignoring the after effects of murder on the community it touches. This story is about that very thing. It begins with a discussion over how many crimes at Scotland Yard go unsolved and evolves into something deeper. Sir Henry Clithering sums it up by saying, “It isn’t really guilt that is important – it’s innocence.” With every crime, a certain set of people come under suspicion. If the crime goes unsolved, that curtain of uncertainty continues to hang over the suspects, ruining their peace of mind and, ultimately, their lives. We’ve already seen two stories about this where proving one person’s innocence is at least as important as proving another’s guilt. Here, Christie takes the idea and molds it into a tight little mystery.
Dr. Rosen, a prominent member of the German Secret Service, is instrumental in bringing down a terrorist organization called the Schwartze Hand and receives a threat of death as a result. He defects to the English countryside and sets up a happy home, but he has little doubt that one day, a member of the Schwartze Hand will find and execute him. When he does die, Clithering is not fooled by what appears to be an accidental fall down the stairs. In examining the evidence, Sir Henry becomes convinced that Dr. Rosen was murdered and that, somehow, he was warned in advance about his death. Furthermore, the murderer could be one of only four people, and yet these four are so unlikely that pinpointing the guilt on one of them seems impossible.
Once again, Miss Marple is put to the task of figuring out the truth as much to protect the innocent as to punish the guilty. She has to figure out where the warning message came from, and as often is the case, her domestic knowledge proves invaluable in routing out the solution. And, as we have seen before, the elderly sleuth’s deductive powers not only bring a killer to justice but solve the romantic troubles of the innocent. Often, Miss Marple delivers her solutions with an angry tremble at the thought of such wickedness almost going unpunished. Here, she displays a deep empathy for the innocent and begs Sir Henry to hasten his efforts to clear the names of those who have suffered unjustly.
This is Christie at her purest form, and it is one of the best-clued stories in the collection. Christie can create a complex plot with the best of them, but sometimes she is strongest when she keeps it simple . . . by the numbers, so to speak. She will return to the idea of a select quartet of suspects in 1936 in the Poirot novel Cards on the Table, where bridge scores replace the daily mail as the central clue. She will increase the number of suspects to ten in her 1939 masterpiece And Then There Were None, then halve that to five in 1942 with Five Little Pigs, another of her very best works, both for its excellent characterization and its relative simplicity. Nobody could affect a final twist like Christie did in those stories where a previously unimaginable murderer is revealed. However, in this story – and the three novels mentioned here – there is no “unlikely” murderer to spring upon the unwary reader. In fact, in two of the cases, every character is known to have previously committed murder. And yet, Christie still surprises and delights us! She is truly a master at manipulating her audience.
In my final entry on The Thirteen Problems, I will discuss the last three cases solved over a glass of port at the Bantry’s table, as well as the unique coda that rounds this collection off to a baker’s dozen.