RANKING MARPLE #4: Sleeping Murder

’Miss Marple and Dr. Kennedy both said, “Leave it alone.” Why don’t we, Giles? What makes us go on? Is it her?’                                                                                                                                           “’Her?’                                                                                                                                                                “’Helen. Is that why I remember? Is my childish memory the only link she’s got with life – with truth? Is it Helen who’s using me – and you – so that the truth will be known?’”

“Murder in retrospect” is a theme that preoccupied Agatha Christie throughout the latter half of her career. As opposed to the myriad of present-day cases where the victim or the killer is ultimately linked to past crimes, here the sleuth is trying to piece together, through faded memories and piecemeal evidence, the events surrounding a long-ago death or disappearance. At the height of her powers, Christie presented us with intriguing examples of present-day folk haunted by past crimes; sadly, as her own powers faded, Christie’s murders in retrospect turned mediocre: despite intriguing premises, By the Pricking of My Thumbs, Elephants Can Remember and Postern of Fate meander along on the faulty power of memory of the characters and their creator. 

But Christie knew how to do it right. She had experimented with the idea as early as 1936: although Cards on the Table concerns a present-day murder, the investigation takes the sleuths into the past, to four deaths that just may have been cold-blooded murders. 1939’s And Then There Were None also plunges its characters into the past, although it is less a case of “murder in retrospect” than deadly introspection, as each of the ten island guests must wrestle with the feelings associated with their criminal actions. 

The 40’s and 50’s produced Christie’s best works surrounding this theme. Five Little Pigs (1942) arguably her finest example, uses the procedural structure to create a book that works as both a puzzle mystery and a powerfully emotional novel. Sparkling Cyanide (1945) and Ordeal by Innocence (1958) may not shine as puzzles, but the retrospective aspects of these novels – the long-term effects of a murder on a closed circle – are their strongest feature. 

Somewhere on this list we must place Sleeping Murder, which stands out as a case of crime-as-memory as suitable to Miss Marple as Five Little Pigs was to Poirot. In the latter novel, Carla Lemarchant presents a clear-cut problem to Poirot: 1) her mother was convicted of killing her father; 2) her mother claimed to be innocent of that crime; and 3) Poirot is charged to find out if her mother was telling the truth. It leads to a series of interviews and reports where Christie manages to lay out the events surrounding Amyas Crale’s death with a fine balance of fact and opinion. Here people misinterpret their memories – or lie about them – but the depiction of those memories is laid out by Christie with clarity. (Compare this to Elephants Can Remember, where everyone, author and characters, are submerged in fog: witnesses take forever to get to the point, and succinct clarifying statements are extremely rare.)

Sleeping Murder could never be a Poirot novel. It lacks clues, evidence, facts! No, this is a book made for Miss Marple’s brand of detection: it’s all about instinct, feeling, coming to conclusions based on a lifetime of determining just how people behave. Five Little Pigs ends with a murderer, confronted with the evidence, issuing a confession and then walking away to a miserable freedom. It is arguably Christie’s finest ending. Sleeping Murder ends like most Miss Marple novels, with the killer snapping and giving the game away in a final burst of violence. The joy of Pigs for the reader is that Christie isn’t playing around with twists: her five suspects are equally suspicious, and yet the ending feels totally right, a perfect example of RLSRI (Ratner’s Law of Sudden Retrospective Illumination). Meanwhile, if one is willing to think like Miss Marple (or has had any substantive theatre education), the killer in Sleeping Murder will stand out like a sore monkey’s paw. 

The question you might be asking yourself if you have been following my Ranking Marple Project is . . . why discuss Sleeping Murder now? No matter when it was written, it was published last and it is her final case. I’ll be discussing the question of when Christie wrote this below, but the reason I have chosen to talk about the book now is that – especially when compared to Curtain – no mystery has ever felt less like a final case than this one. For that, you need to read Nemesis, which feels in nearly every way like the finale Miss Marple deserves. But we’ll get there . . . 

*     *     *     *     *

The Hook

A woman buys a house. Weirdness ensues.

Agatha Christie loved the supernatural, the bizarre, and the macabre. (I love to think what might have happened had she written for The Twilight Zone.) She kept her genres separate: there is no Burning Court amongst her novels, and when she included a fantastical element – usually in the form of a séance or a premonition or dream – we could be assured of a rational explanation at the end. Moreover, Christie was an expert at juxtaposing the fantastical with the ordinary. A jolly party seance turns monstrous; a coven of witches hide a scientific explanation; a child is murdered at a Halloween party where even the village witch seems prosaic.

The first three chapters of Sleeping Murder are the best part of the book. Gwenda Reed, a New Zealander who has recently married a British man named Giles, has been sent ahead to England to find a house for them as they plan to relocate there. They want to live on the Coast, and Gwenda finds the perfect house in the village of Dillmouth. And yet she grows uneasy as certain thoughts, perhaps memories, make her come to believe that she knows this house. The fact that she has never been to England before makes the notion impossible, and yet . . . she remembers things – wallpaper, a missing door that should be there, the original configuration of the garden. 

Is Gwenda psychic? She hopes with all her heart that she is not. In fact, she spends a great deal of time fearing that she might not be what she wants to be, which is ordinary. She doesn’t want to be “highbrow,” like Giles’ cousins, Raymond and Joan West; she doesn’t want to be “special.” When the weird occurrences pile up, however, Gwenda fears the worst and flees the house to visit the highbrows in London.

In a book teeming with coincidences, this is the loveliest one, and it just so happens that Gwenda arrives as the Wests are about to celebrate Raymond’s aunt’s birthday. This puts Jane Marple on the scene from the start, and it all leads to a delicious climax at a production of The Duchess of Malfi. When the actor playing Ferdinand stands over the Duchess’ body and says, “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young,” Gwenda screams and runs out of the theatre. At least she has the wits about her to take a taxi back to the Wests’, where she tells Miss Marple that the play has triggered a terrifying memory:

I was back there – on the stairs, looking down on the hall, through the banisters, and I saw her lying there. Sprawled out – dead. Her hair, all golden and her face all – all blue! She was dead, strangled, and someone was saying those words in that same horrible gloating way – and I saw his hands – gray, wrinkled – not hands – monkeys’ paws.

When Miss Marple asks Gwenda who the woman was, she replies quickly, “Helen” – and then realizes that she doesn’t know anyone named Helen. 

Okay, so before I rank, I have quite a few questions. I myself have very vague memories of when I was four: nervously walking on a steep, curved sidewalk; watching my nursery school teacher tell stories using Colorform figures on an easel; getting stuck under the covers of my bed. In Sleeping Murder, Gwenda turns out to have been three when she lived in the house in Dillmouth, and I’m willing to grant that what she saw through the banister was so horrific that it burrowed deep into her brain. Thus, when it emerged eighteen years later, she was able to

  1. Remember the moment with great physical detail
  2. Remember a phrase uttered by a murderer under his breath on the floor below (particularly as the line from Webster is brought back to her so dramatically at the theatre – it is the book’s greatest moment)
  3. Remember that the dead woman was named Helen

I might even sign off on the nursery wallpaper because baby Gwenda would have spent a lot of time in that nursery. And yet, I find it hard to believe that Gwenda could remember the configuration of the garden, the now-hidden view, and the missing door in the drawing room, which is so ingrained in her lost memories that she repeatedly walks into the wall expecting a door to be there!

I have other questions: 

  1. How the hell in all of England did Gwenda come straight to Dillmouth?
  2. Who buys a house situated next door to a girls’ school? (And, in turn, who would have bought a house next door to that same building when it was a hospital??)
  3. Gwenda’s contractor installs two new bathrooms in the house in a single month. How much did that cost, and where can I find this contractor?

There’s no denying Christie’s skill here at taking an ordinary situation and imbuing it with a growing sense of dread. And the questions I’ve listed – the serious ones, at least – don’t come up until later. Christie takes a rational young woman (and the reader) and flings us into an irrational world, one that will be sorted out alright by You-Know-Who, starting with an assurance to us all that nothing supernatural is happening. 

The downside of this opening hook, at least in comparison with the first three Marples we have read, is that it doesn’t have much more than this plot device to recommend it. As nice as it is to see the Wests again – and they do remind us that Raymond was in St. Mary Mead for part of the Protheroe murder case – nothing about their household is as rich or interesting as that of the Clements or the Bantrys. And while we learn less about the past life of Jerry Burton and his sister in The Moving Finger than we learn about Gwenda, their company is more interesting and charming than hers. They don’t know it yet, but Jerry and Joanna are going to change a lot by the time the case in Lymstock is over. Gwenda learns things about her early childhood and undergoes a great deal of stress and danger. And yet, she doesn’t change or grow from this experience because she can’t: she’s really more of a plot device than a person. 

Still, kudos to Christie for roping us in – and for sticking Miss Marple into the proceedings right from the start this time.

Score: 7/10

The Closed Circle: Who, What, When, Where, Why?

This was probably my fourth, and, by far, most careful reading of Sleeping Murder. Interestingly, the problems I have always had with it remained constant, but I found other aspects of the novel that interested me like never before. For example, consider that this novel was written in the same general time frame as Christie’s gold standard of retrospective cases, Five Little Pigs. I’m not interested in comparing the relative quality or merits of the two books; Sleeping Murder wouldn’t stand a chance. What strikes me as significant, however, is how these two novels so perfectly reflect the characters of their respective sleuths. 

Pigs is as solid a mystery as you could want: An artist is murdered, and the question posed to Poirot is: did the courts convict the wrong woman? Poirot’s investigation is awash in interviews and reports, and the puzzle is beautifully clued. This is what we have come to expect with a mystery starring Hercule Poirot; what surprises us more is the emotional resonance of the case, as well as the brilliant way Christie plays around with memory as characters who are deeply invested in past events reach far back in time in order to provide a cross-section of conflicting narratives that will lead to the truth. 

Sleeping Murder, on the other hand, is a very different sort of book. There is no clearcut crime to investigate; in fact, the reader can only surmise that there has been a murder because the title tells us so. Thankfully, the memories encountered here are never as vague as what we find in Elephants Can Remember or Postern of Fate. But Miss Marple and Company have only a small set of half-remembered circumstances to go by; consequently, they have to piece together a picture from the past with almost no pieces. The book reads more like a procedural, although oddly enough for a Miss Marple novel, there are no policemen present until the very end. This really is Miss Marple’s show, along with the young couple at the center of it all. 

So how well does it all work? 


I know it’s only my opinion, but this is easily the weakest set of characters in any Miss Marple novel. 

Leaving that lady aside for the moment, there are only four major characters: Gwenda and Giles Reed, who function as the heroes and amateur sleuths of the novel, the victim, Helen Kennedy Halliday, whom we never actually meet, and Dr. Kennedy, Helen’s much older half-brother, who comes to the Reeds’ assistance and who – you knew there’d be SPOILERS – turns out to be the killer. Of these, to my mind, Helen is the most interesting in that, like Arlena Marshall from Evil Under the Sun (which may or may not have been written nearly simultaneously with this novel), her character is maligned from the start, mostly from gossip initiated by her brother, all of it taken in and believed by the Reeds until Miss Marple finally has to chastise them:

I’ve been a little worried, you know, by the way, you two have seemed willing to accept, as actual fact, all the things people have told you. I’m afraid I have a sadly distrustful nature, but, especially in a matter of murder, I make it a rule to take nothing that is told me as true, unless it is checked.

Poor Helen was an early 20th century girl who only wanted, as Miss Marple says, “to have fun and a good time and flirt a little and finally settle down with the man of her choice – no more than that.” As she was wont to do, Christie has fun playing with the reputation of her victim, leading her sleuths and readers astray by having aspersions cast against Helen and seeing where they land. Frankly, it works more strongly and dramatically in Evil Under the Sun because we actually get to witness some of Arlena’s more questionable behavior and make our own conclusions. (And Arlena is a more complex figure than Helen.) 

Dr. Kennedy reminds me a great deal of another murderer (and here I’m going to SPOIL Murder Is Easy, so skip this paragraph if you haven’t read that one). He is a respected older figure in the community, a professional man, and he offers his services to the young couple investigating what turns out to be not one but four deaths. In reality, he was stifled in his youth from an unwholesome attraction to his sister, and it has driven him insane. This description also fits Honoria Waynflete, right down to the final attempt to murder the heroine because she knows too much. The description of Dr. Kennedy as he advances upon Gwenda – “That kind, quizzical face – that nice, ordinary, elderly face – the same still, but for the eyes – the eyes that were not sane –“ calls to mind “that look on a person’s face” that comes over Miss Waynflete whenever she is about to commit murder (and she commits eight or nine of them!) The fact that Miss Waynflete fooled this reader from start to finish while Dr. Kennedy’s guilt was an open book to me is less Christie’s fault than a matter of my excellent education (but more of that later).

That leaves Gwenda and Giles Reed, and a more boring couple cannot possibly be found in the Christie canon. We learn about their past lives only what we need to set up the circumstances of the novel, and throughout their investigation, their actions and reactions give us nary an insight into the kind of people they are. Miss Marple approves of them both, and so they are accepted both as a couple worth rooting for and as her minions throughout the investigation. I could tell you that Giles is smarter than Gwenda because he comes up with better theories . . . until he stops doing so because, in order to reveal the solution in Chapter 25 rather than Chapter 13, it is imperative that Gwenda and Giles be utterly stupid as regards Dr. Kennedy. Sleeping Murder flows at a fairly quick pace, but readers are buoyed along with it not out of suspense generated by our concern for Gwenda, but from the generic desire of a mystery reader to find out what happens. It’s odd to me that, in a decade where Christie found a beautiful balance between character and plot, here she neglects the former so miserably.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of other characters or that there is nothing to please us. The servants are all wonderful: Mrs. Cocker, the cook at Hillside, so eager for a full nursery, and Foster, the elderly gardener, fond of tea and gossip but not of hard work. (Watching Miss Marple fiercely pulling up bindweed is another of the book’s delights.) Even smaller characters, like Lily Kimble’s grumpy husband or Dr. Kennedy’s dour housekeeper, make us smile in the brief moments they appear. So does Walter Fane’s monstrous mother and the charming inspector d’histoire named Primer, who has the smallest role for a policeman in my memory of Christie.

Almost as brief in their presence are the three red herrings that make up one of the weakest suspect lists Christie ever devised. Oh, she tries – Walter Fane is a quiet respectable solicitor with three things going against him: he lives with his mother, as a child he tried to kill his brother (who didn’t?!?), and outside his office there is an outrageously obvious metaphor clinging to the wall in the form of a cobweb with “a pale, rather nondescript spider. Not the fat, juicy kind of spider, who caught flies and ate them. It was more like a ghost of a spider. Rather like Walter Fane, in fact.

Then there’s Richard Erskine, saddled with a mannish shrew of a wife (that wisp of suspicion goes nowhere fast), whom we might suspect because nobody wants to suspect such a nice man. And finally, Jackie Affleck, probably the most colorful character, makes his first and only appearance in Chapter 21 and should have been in a lot more of the book. His false geniality, his deep resentment regarding class, leading him to marry the daughter of a peer and then make life hell for her, all of this could have made for a richer red herring, if only Christie had been interested in developing this trio. Alas, however, she is not, and this goes far toward mitigating any surprise readers might experience at the end.


It takes about three pages for Miss Marple to refute any thoughts of supernatural phenomena, and then we are off on a sort of amateur procedural where Giles and Gwenda are committed to learning the truth about Helen Halliday’s death. I suppose they also want to learn about Major Halliday’s true state of mind, although Gwenda, who doesn’t remember her father, hasn’t got the emotional connection to him that Carla Lemarchant made with her mother in Five Little Pigs.

From there, it’s all remarkably smooth sailing, thanks mostly to Miss Marple, who uses an astounding array of social connections to get Giles and Gwenda into the homes of every suspect and then slows the Reeds down when they seem all too willing to misinterpret the information they gather. Their newspaper ads are promptly seen and answered, leading them to Dr. Kennedy and Lily Kimble. All witnesses and suspects are cooperative, both in doling out testimony and revealing their true selves behind the masks they wear. Why would Mrs. Fane tell Miss Marple the story of Walter nearly killing his brother? Why does Christie allow Gwenda to use the same pretext twice of returning to the scene of an interview just in time to overhear important information? Frankly, it all seems like laziness on the part of the author; an eighteen-year-old incident that nobody was aware of should be a harder nut to crack. 

As I said, the book flows swiftly due to the brevity of the chapters and the charm which Christie imbues in her minor characters, but it’s oddly inert. From the start, Miss Marple repeatedly warns of the dangers inherent to investigating a sleeping murder, and yet there is very little sense of danger or even suspense present, despite the mild attempts to stir up the violence hidden in the three false suspects. No concrete murder occurs until Chapter 22 (out of twenty-five chapters), and the climax, from Dr. Kennedy’s arrival to his confession and attempt to kill Gwenda before she is rescued by Miss Marple (“So fortunate that I was just syringing the greenfly off your roses”), takes up a page and a half. 

When and where?

The novel is less about a community and more about a trail of people, scattered throughout England, who are associated with Helen Spenlove Kennedy Halliday. Nevertheless, in terms of place, I think Christie does a good job bringing the house, the grounds and the associated communities to life. It’s not a detailed portrait, but we do get a sense of the various topographies of Dillmouth, Matchings Halt (where Lily dies), and the bleak Northumberland area where the Erskines live. As for the time, based on our brief meetings with Raymond and Joan West and the inhabitants of St. Mary Mead, it feels in both history and tone like we’re somewhere in the mid-30’s between Murder at the Vicarage and The Body in the Library. Perhaps Christie wanted to be purposefully vague, given her intentions regarding publication. Not knowing for sure what she would do with the Bantrys or the Vicar in future books, she couldn’t really develop any story for them. Just because it’s understandable, however, doesn’t make it all less disappointing.

Score: 5/10

The Solution and How She Gets There (10 points)

I was stupid – very stupid. We were all stupid. We should have seen at once. Those lines from The Duchess of Malfi were really the clue to the whole thing. They are said, are they not, by a brother who has just contrived his sister’s death to avenge her marriage to the man she loved. Yes, we were stupid – 

Sorry, Aunt Jane, but I wasn’t stupid at all. When I was at university at U.C. Berkeley, the Drama department put on a production of Malfi that was quite something. (Somebody was on a Jacobean kick: the following year, they did John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore with almost the exact same staging!) Thus, I was well-versed with the whole incest angle when I picked up Sleeping Murder, and when I got to the scene where Gwenda runs screaming out of the theatre, I said to myself, “Whatever this plot turns out to be, if a brother shows up, he’s the killer.” Truthfully, it all turns out to be as simple as that, making this one of the most personally disappointing denouements I have experienced from reading my favorite author.

Honestly, though, you don’t really need to be familiar with Webster’s play to suss out the truth because – it’s the only solution that makes sense. The other “suspects” are so poorly developed as to feel like minor characters – and you can’t have a minor character be the killer. Most of the information that Gwenda and Giles base their sleuthing on is fed to them by Dr. Kennedy, and Miss Marple warns them early on not to be so gullible. Who but the medico would have the easiest access to Hillside (he works at that hospital next door!), to drugging Major Halliday (his trusting patient), to slashing his own tennis net or keeping his sister’s foot wound infected (back we go to Cards on the Table)? It makes no sense for the other three “suspects” to have the access they needed to kill Helen, pack her bag, set up Major Halliday, come back and bury Helen’s body in the garden and then supervise that garden’s redevelopment to hide the deed! Only someone close to the family – like a beloved brother – would be able to do that! Only Dr. Kennedy could nurture Halliday’s delusion right up until his death!

Christie gives us little clues throughout as to the Doctor’s true nature. Witness the relationship he has with his housekeeper, suggesting he is a loner, or the villager who talks about what a much better doctor he was than his “much better liked and more successful rival? Jackie Affleck says he was always sorry for Helen. All her actions paint a picture of a girl trying to escape an unhappy home. Here is a case where Miss Marple doesn’t really need any clues. All she has to do is look at things the right way to eliminate Walter Fane, Richard Erskine, and Jackie Affleck and unmask the bad Doctor. All she has to do is stare down Gwenda’s fears that the supernatural has taken hold or that she needs a psychiatrist (“Well, of course, Gwenda dear, you can always do that when you’ve exhausted every other line of approach, but I always think myself that it’s better to examine the simplest and most commonplace explanations first.”) to calmly lay out the facts that Helen was murdered, that the “monkey paws” of the killer were – duh! – gloves, and that the Reeds have been fed a lot of hooey from one source and one source only. 

Our erstwhile sleuth does more actual sleuthing at the beginning when she knocks the idea that Gwenda is psychic right into one of those two lovely new toilets the Reeds have just installed. Based on a memory of a bearded captain and a clean-shaven one, she deduces that Gwenda took two sea voyages. Based on Gwenda’s vision that she saw the murder through the banisters, Miss Marple deduces that she was a small child when she witnessed this event. This is the closest we get to solid detection, although it – and all the rest, it could be argued – is really just  good old-fashioned common sense. 

“Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young.”

Perhaps I view this book through the lens of someone who was a little angry that Christie assumed none of us were well-read in classic drama. She seems to think that her readers, like all the characters but one, will assume that the killer must have been a thwarted lover and that only certain folks – in proper society – could fit that bill. As I’ve stated above, she barely even tries to cast real suspicion on her three red herrings. But she does try one narrative trick to remove any doubt in her more literary fans. In Chapter 22, “Lily Keeps an Appointment,” she plays with our sense of time by alternating the narrative between Dr. Kennedy and the Reeds waiting for Lily Kimble to show up, and Lily’s own doomed journey. We are meant to assume that both situations are occurring simultaneously, giving the Doctor an alibi. But there are two problems with this: first, we find out immediately from Inspector Primer that Lily’s death occurred hours earlier, revealing Christie’s narrative to be a total trick. And secondly, that letter in Lily’s pocket that Dr. Kennedy switched after he killed her . . . the theory attached to that makes no sense! Why would Lily carry the letter if she had no intention of meeting the doctor but instead planned on blackmailing someone else?

The only other “clues” we get are the fact that Helen wanted to buy a new house and sneak out of town with her husband and her words overheard by the maids to an unseen person: “I’m afraid of you. I’ve been afraid of you for a long time. You’re mad. You’re not normal. Go away and leave me alone. You must leave me alone. I’m frightened. I think, underneath, I’ve always been frightened of you . . .“ These sound like words spoken to someone Helen has known for a long time, and they make the most sense when applied to her brother. And that is what happens in your typical Miss Marple novel: the application of common sense, rather than an abundance of evidence, unveils the truth to her. This is why, in two thirds of the Marple novels, the killer must be trapped into self-revelation, as happens here. 

Score: 4/10

The Marple Factor

It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.”

I go by the credo that the more we get of Miss Marple, the better.  That said, even the most devout of her fans must acknowledge that, given the almost supernatural nature of her instinctive ability to read people, it’s dangerous to the length of a novel to have her around too much. We need those stolid, unimaginative police detectives around to gather the facts, misinterpret them, and then deliver the information to Miss Marple at a climactic point in order for her to make common sense of it all. 

In Sleeping Murder, we are given a gift: an early written novel where Miss Marple appears pretty much from start to finish. It’s the only book I can think of that features no policemen right up to the final fifth of the book, after Lily Kimble dies. Instead, Giles and Gwenda fill the function of stolid cops, and it just goes to show that, even though they are far more personally invested in this case than the police ever could be, their investigations are no more interesting or deeply personal than if Dermot Craddock were conducting the whole proceedings. And frankly, I find Craddock a much more compelling character.

If the novel was written around 1940, then we would have to say that the character of Miss Marple has taken quite a turn from her only other full-length adventure. The Murder at the Vicarage presents us with a more vigorous, pushy, and locally notorious figure than we find here. Miss Marple here has evolved, as we saw in The Body in the Library, to someone with a smoother presence and an enviable reputation as a problem-solver – more like the woman we meet in “Death by Drowning,” the final short story in The Thirteen Problems. Inspector Primer knows her by reputation (“You were pointed out to me by Colonel Melrose”) and introduces himself to her with every semblance of respect. If the novel was written, as John Curran claims, after The Moving Finger, then, had Christie actually been killed during the Blitz, readers would not have found the evolution of Miss Marple’s character quite so jarring after the first three books. 

I consider it a great pleasure that Miss Marple is used less sparingly here than in other novels, but it also presents a problem. It becomes necessary to Christie’s plans for her to spend as little time with Dr. Kennedy as possible, and even then, from the comments she makes, it becomes clear that she suspects the doctor. We are being asked, after all, to exclude Kennedy on the premise that good people can’t conceive of a brother harboring unwholesome feelings about his sister. Miss Marple’s “cesspool” of a mind has no problem with that, and once she can embrace it – helped by the intimations of incest that Webster’s play brings to the fore – she could easily see that the only person who, as she says, was “on the spot” enough to kill Helen , drug and set up her husband, was the Doctor. Instead, she has to listen to, and filter, all the half-baked theories the Reeds spout about the three former suitors. 

I think Christie does a fairly good job with this, in terms of keeping Miss Marple’s instincts at bay. And more of the good lady is always better than less, so I’ll be generous here.

Score: 8/10

The Wow Factor

The biggest “wow” about Sleeping Murder isn’t the fact that it was written to be Miss Marple’s final case. I would venture to say Christie pretty much fails on that count. By the time she wrote Curtain, Hercule Poirot had been featured in somewhere between eighteen and twenty novels and dozens of short stories. Clearly, Christie was invested in him, and she provided a poignant send-off for her much beloved sleuth. But Miss Marple’s “final” case is as ordinary as it gets, despite her greater role within the page. It doesn’t take place in St. Mary Mead, which is given even shorter shrift than in The Body in the Library, inhabiting exactly two pages worth of text in the book. It doesn’t provide a sense of closure, happy or not, for the lady; it isn’t even an example of her best sleuthing, as she basically hones in on the truth by simply eliminating the detritus surrounding the case. 

There’s more of a “wow” factor surrounding when the book was written. Christie sets the tone in her Autobiography:

I had written an extra two books during the first years of the war. This was in anticipation of my being killed in the raids, which seemed to be in the highest degree likely as I was working in London. One was for Rosalind, which I wrote first – a book with Hercule Poirot in it – and the other was for Max – with Miss Marple in it. Those two books, when written, were put in the vault of a bank, and were made over formally by deed of gift to Rosalind and Max. They were, I gather, heavily insured against destruction.”

Her biographers follow suit:

In 1940, she also wrote Evil Under the Sun and two extra books, insurance against unforeseen events such as her “sudden demise”: Sleeping Murder and Curtain, final cases for Miss Marple and Poirot, given to Max and Rosalind respectively.”                                                  Laura Thompson, Agatha Christie, A Mysterious Life (2018)

The Phoney War, from autumn 1939 to summer 1940, proved a period of phenomenal output for Agatha. Anxious about her tax as well as world events, she wrote like a demon. The magnificent Evil Under the Sun was a holiday story set in Devon that provided welcome distraction from the fall of France. She also pushed ahead with two more books, Sleeping Murder and Curtain. One featuring Miss Marple, and the other the death of Hercule Poirot, these two are not to be published immediately, but stockpiled for the future.”                          Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie, An Elusive Woman (2022)

It would seem that the matter was settled. And yet . . . why is Christie scholar John Curran’s argument, detailed in his 2009 opus, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, that Sleeping Murder was written significantly later in the decade – perhaps even after the close of the war – so compelling? 

Here are his main arguments:

  1. The novel is mentioned under “Plans” for both September 1947 and November 1948. With notes suggesting “the barest outline of the plot,” one is hard-pressed to find an explanation for these entries based around a book that had been ostensibly finished and vaulted eight years earlier. 
  2. A more emotional argument can be made that, by 1940, Miss Marple had appeared in exactly one novel and one-story collection. One must ask why she thought a “final case” for Miss Marple was something that would be popular and make money for Max. Perhaps she was merely being prescient, but the argument that she turned to a “last case” for her elderly sleuth after three successful novels (Murder at the Vicarage, The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger) does make more sense.
  3. The problems associated with the case in Lymstock from The Moving Finger are referenced in Chapter 24 of Sleeping Murder, and the former book did not appear until 1943. It’s possible that Christie returned to her manuscript periodically to make updates – she had to change the title twice because the ones she chose had been appropriated by others – but why insert this one reference to one case when Christie could by now be pretty much assured that she would survive the war and add further cases to the Marple canon before her death?
  4. Curran adds an argument about quality: with Christie firing on all cylinders in 1940 – 42 (Sad Cypress, Evil Under the Sun, Five Little Pigs, and more), Sleeping Murder seems in his opinion a much weaker work of fiction, making its writing at a later date more logical. I would counter this with the fact that, even if we place the writing as late as 1948, Christie was still turning out gems (The Hollow, Crooked House, and arguably the strongest Marple, A Murder Is Announced), which makes the suggestion that she wrote SM when her powers were at an ebb rather specious. 

The question of when it was written has haunted me throughout my re-reading of this book. (Considering the subject matter, perhaps a haunting is appropriate!) The first argument by Curran that I list seems to me the strongest because it is based on simple fact: why write a book in 1940 and then make “planning” notes eight years later? The other points Curran brings up make for more ambivalent evidence. Yes, Christie had written very little about Miss Marple when she decided to write a final case; however, it’s possible that the author was a fan of long-range planning. She may have written bothnovels for posthumous publication feeling fairly certain that she would fall victim to the Blitz. Still,  she must have also considered that she might survive and live a good long life after the War. 

Regarding Point 3, she might have grabbed the manuscript out of the vault after publishing The Moving Finger and added that bit in Chapter 24, and then, as Miss Marple’s exploits grew, decided not to repeat the process. Frankly, there are so many instances where passing details land the book firmly in the early-mid 40’s (i.e., mention of the King) that it seems like Christie had no major interest in “updating” the manuscript; why, then, include reference to Finger . . . unless it had already been written?!? 

Finally, attaching the “quality” of Sleeping Murder to its point of conception is a muddy argument indeed. First of all, issues of quality are totally subjective: Curran considers this a weak novel, while others laud it to the skies. I side with Curran as to the book’s overall quality, and its “weakness” may stem from Christie simply tackling too much during the early 40’s. Personally, I consider much of what she wrote during that decade to constitute some of her finest prose. If she did write the book in the 40’s – the time of Evil Under the Sun, Five Little Pigs, The Hollow, Crooked House and just before A Murder Is Announced, we would hope and/or expect Sleeping Murder to reflect to some degree the high quality of those novels. 

Anyone who has read Curtain can see, no matter what its other weaknesses, how beautifully it functions as a “final” case, but the reaction to Sleeping Murder is stunningly different, especially if, like me, you had read Nemesis five years before Sleeping Murder came out. Nemesis is brooding, reflective, and deeply nostalgic. It never lets Miss Marple out of its sight. Everything about it – plot, setting, mood – serves as a culmination of her long career; its final pages in the solicitor’s office feel like the cherry on top of a gigantic confection made up of all twelve of her cases. Sleeping Murder has none of these qualities. 

Less of a “wow,” more of a “what the – ??” And arguably irrelevant to the book itself, which is entertaining without providing much of anything truly special. 

Score: 5/10


*     *     *     *     *

As we are now a third of the way through our Ranking Marple project, I thought I would lay out the results so far:

  1. Murder at the Vicarage (41 points)
  2. The Body in the Library (38 points)
  3. The Moving Finger (37 points)
  4. Sleeping Murder (29 points)

21 thoughts on “RANKING MARPLE #4: Sleeping Murder

  1. Very nice analysis. Sleeping Murder is on a list of my least favorite Miss Marples along with Nemesis, A Carribbean Mystery, and What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!/4.50 from Paddington. But it’s been so long since I read these four that I can’t even recall the specifics of why I havent’ re-read them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, of course, we’ll get to these other three titles later in the year, but in brief: A Caribbean Mystery was the first Miss Marple novel I ever read and, I think, my fourth Christie, and so I have great fondness for it. It has its weaknesses, but the setting and the way certain tricks are recycled makes it seem fresh. I think 4:50 from Paddington is a delight from start to finish . . . as a suspense novel about Miss Marple and Lucy Eyelesbarrow going under cover following another remarkable Christie opening. Its problem for me is that, as a puzzle mystery, it’s a big, fat flop. But there’s too much for me to enjoy there to dismiss it. As for Nemesis . . . well, I consider that Christie’s “problem play.” If you tried to create a graph to chart the qualities of both Nemesis and Sleeping Murder, the former would be a vivid, up and down line, while the latter would start out strong and then flatline.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great analysis as usual Brad. Sleeping Murder is not a favorite. I have only read it once and am unlikely to do so again. There are just better Marple books than this as your ranking shows with some better books to come.

    I was struck by your observation of Christie’s apparent fascination with murder in retrospect. In addition to the titles you list above, I can also think of several others where the investigation centers around death after the fact including: Sad Cypress, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Nemesis, and even Crooked House and Dumb Witness.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We might see the concept of “murder in retrospect” a bit differently, Scott. Sometimes we are witness to murder and sometimes it has already happened, but those that occurred in the recent past don’t strike me as retrospective murders. Of your list, only Nemesis strikes me as fitting the bill . . . although we don’t find out what happened to Verity until nearly the end. I’ll give it to you because the whole book concerns a journey through the distant past. And while there are four long-dead murder cases referenced in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Poirot isn’t investigating them per se; he’s merely trying to identify which of the supposed perpetrators is present in Broadhinny as he investigates a recently (and incorrectly) solved murder.


      • Thanks Brad. Indeed if you define retrospective in the distant past, then of course you’re right.

        I saw it differently though. Where the murder already had occurred (recent or distant past) and when perhaps the culprit smugly thought s/he was safe, Poirot or Marple managed to get to the truth that otherwise would have stayed hidden. That is in contrast to Poirot or Marple being on the scene before, during and after the crime.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This one is mediocre, even by the standards of the Miss Marples. (Not as good detective stories as the Poirots, & I much prefer Mrs. Bradley, “easily the best woman detective in fiction”.) The premise is intriguing, then it’s downhill – the investigation meanders, and, as you point out, the “Suspects” are underdeveloped. It doesn’t adapt well to TV, either. The Hickson (which I saw recently) is uncharacteristically pedestrian, probably the worst of that series, and ITV changed almost everything to try to make it watchable, with little success.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One can often tell if a Christie title is weak by the perfectly horrid adaptation that only makes it worse. The addition of an acting troupe in the ITV version was probably an attempt to create a better suspect list, but it failed. That program’s greater fault was how it damaged and even ruined perfectly good Christie novels, even ones that never featured Miss Marple at all.

      I wish I could get into Gladys Mitchell/Mrs. Bradley, Nick, but it isn’t easy. However, When Last I Died has been sitting on a shelf for years now, and friends insist I will like it. One of these days . . .


  4. Such a thorough reading, Brad! I think your rating is completely fair. I agree that the coincidence of Gwenda landing in Dilmouth is a bit much, but swallowing that, those first creepy moments of recognition are beautifully done – until you realize the child was three when she last was there. Sigh. And yes, the suspect list is a list of one. But still, Miss Marple!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I agree, Marthe – the more Miss Marple, the better. Still, she thrives even more in the company of interesting people, and there really aren’t any here. That early quick chapter in St. Mary Mead where she talks to Dr. Haydock and a few of her friends makes me long even more for a better setting and plot than she gets here.


      • I save long comments sometimes in case this happens!
        I’ll repost it:

        You’re right, it’s a shame that such a great hook ends up in a book that’s just… fine.

        One consideration that doesn’t come up much with the dating of the book is the lead time of the other books it’s being compared to. According to Wikipedia, The Moving Finger was published in the US in July 1942 and The Body in the Library in February of 1942. Slightly earlier in Secret Notebooks, Curran writes that The Body in the Library was probably written during 1940. The idea for The Moving Finger is under a heading titled “Ideas (1940)”, already assigned to Miss Marple. I don’t see why Sleeping Murder can’t be written both after one or both of The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger, while still being started during or slightly after the Blitz (1940-1941) like everyone says it was.
        Now I have finished writing that, I read further on in the Secret Notebooks and came across a mention of all the “Cover her face” reference being attributed to the much later Taken at the Flood, and still-unformed ideas being written about Sleeping Murder’s plot in 1947 and 48.
        But Curran also writes about it being originally called Murder in Retrospect, which was scuppered by the US publishers using that title for Five Little Pigs in 1942, suggesting it was written by then already.
        So who even knows!

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s definitely confusing. The two title changes, one based on that U.S. title switch of Five Little Pigs and the other coming from P.D. James’ debut novel (I’m forgetting any connection with Taken at the Flood) seem to indicate that Sleeping Murder was written earlier. The late 40’s notes, however, tend to contradict that idea.

          For me, the real confusion comes from how inferior Sleeping Murder seems to me when stacked up against the rich novels surrounding it in the 40’s. The basic writing of the other two Marples during that decade is world’s better than this, while 1950’s A Murder Is Announced proves that Christie wasn’t losing her powers at all. And all during that time, she was so very GOOD at characterization; why drop the ball on Miss Marple’s Final Case????

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I read Sleeping Murder when it first was published and I always loved it. Unlike Gwenda, I considered the brother a suspect, but couldn’t discern a motive until Edith tells Gwenda and Giles about the conversation Lilly overheard. The Dutchess of Malfi reference didn’t gel for me till nearly the end when I realized in that play, a brother causes his sister’s death.

    From the start, I actually got chills while reading about the discoveries and revelations Gwenda made while moving in. The wallpaper was a great reveal and still creeps me out.

    Although you thought otherwise, Brad, I can recall in great detail every place I’ve lived including yards, fences, alleyways, etc, going back to when I was three. Helen often played with Gwenda in the yard, so it wasn’t unreasonable that she would recall the steps down to the beach.

    I never compare Marple and Poirot stories; they are not meant to be comparable. Personally, I loved SM, it’s one of my Marple faves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know you’re not alone: lots and lots of people are extremely fond of Sleeping Murder. It first came out as our “Christie for Christmas” in 1976, a mere six months after I had watched a production of The Duchess of Malfi at my university. I know I’m not the only mystery lover whose pleasure is diminished when he guesses the truth immediately. (Scott Ratner will tell you the same thing about A Murder Is Announced, a much better book than this – at least to me.)

      And I hope, at least, that I adequately expressed the pleasure I felt at this novel’s beginning. Even though my own memories at that age are extremely scattershot, I’m not trying to suggest that I can’t believe the emergence of Gwenda’s long-buried traumatic memories being triggered by those lines uttered at a performance. (It’s a fabulous moment!) I find the coincidence of her finding the same house so quickly harder to swallow, but my real problems with the book, as you have read, lie elsewhere, and my quick “solving” of the case based on my academic knowledge spoiled the experience further for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Completely agree that the murderer was painfully obvious very early on. I wish Christie had made a stronger case for the other – that would have made this a much stronger mystery. That said, I like Dr Kennedy for murderer — his obsession with his sister and her desperate bid to escape reminded me of the relationship between Verity and Clotilde in Nemesis. Perhaps Christie had been playing with this idea of unhealthy love for a while and felt so strongly about it that she put it into two Marples! Even the line by Miss Marple about how the girl just wanted an ordinary life with a little fun and the chance to fall in love with a man and marry him is present in both books. Nemesis is, of course, the superior work, although the folks at All About Agatha ranked it pretty brutally. Loved your episode over there, btw!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think Christie does obsession really well. The murderers in Hercule Poirot’s Christmasr and Murder Is Easy are great early examples. Dr. Kennedy is easily the most interesting major character in this novel, outside of Miss Marple herself. Gwenda and Giles don’t stand a chance against him; they’re too wimpy. Perhaps, like the detective here, our murderer deserved a better book! 🙂

      I’m glad you enjoyed the All About Agatha episode because I had so much fun talking with Kemper. I think he really tried to raise the scores on Nemesis in that re-ranking episode with John Curran. But I, too, have met John, and he is a powerful force!!!


      • Oooh, yes. She does do obsession really well! Towards Zero is another good example of the persistent a d maniacal intent to destroy another person for a perceived slight.

        And yes, I did listen to the John Curran episode too. Excellent entertainment value for listeners! 😃 I love Nemesis in spite of its faults because the characters and settings are so striking. The three sisters, the flowering mound, a perplexing missive from Mr. Rafael. It’s all fantastic in every sense of the word.

        I found the atmosphere and setting, especially in the first one-third of Sleeping Murder just as captivating. So I’ve always remembered this book fondly even though it’s not in my top 20.

        Once again, thanks for ranking the Marples separately. I’m loving these posts.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Glad to see there is another fan of Nemesis besides me. I look forward to when Brad gets to that one later and the discussion that will follow given it has both strengths and weaknesses.

          Liked by 1 person

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