Toward the end of Agatha Christie: A Mysterious Life, biographer Laura Thompson writes:
“It is a paradox, although, perhaps, not a surprise, but Agatha’s popularity should have increased as her powers declined. After 1950 she wrote a handful of brilliant and unusual books – Destination Unknown, Ordeal by Innocence, The Pale Horse, Endless Night, and Passenger to Frankfurt – but she produced her best work in the 20 previous years, particularly in that period of intense, sustain creativity around the war, which marks the High Point of her career. In 1950, she published A Murder Is Announced, and this set the standard for much of what followed: supremely accomplished, utterly readable, but the product of ‘Agatha Christie’, the phenomenon, rather than Agatha the writer.”
Casting aside the idea that anyone who holds the opinion that Destination Unknown and Passenger to Frankfurt are “brilliant and unusual” leaves their credibility in doubt, let’s look at Thompson’s assertion in light of the book we’re discussing today and all that came before it.
For Agatha Christie, the 1930s were a successful run of one stunning puzzle after another. The 40’s were only slightly less prolific, and, like many of her peers, Christie began to move away from the cold-blooded and ingenious puzzles to mysteries centered more around the psychology of her characters. There were still great whodunnits to be found, like Evil Under the Sun and Five Little Pigs, but the rest of the books – the Marples we have discussed and titles like Towards Zero, The Hollow and Crooked House – managed to surprise and delight with more emphasis on the human drama and less on clueing. (Let’s be clear: Pigs did both!)
With the arrival of the 1950’s, the 60-year-old author tended to strike a lighter tone. If Thompson’s list of stunners was restricted to Ordeal by Innocence, The Pale Horse, and Endless Night – I refuse to consider her other examples to be “brilliant” – there were still many fine books that were great fun to read and (sometimes) to solve: any other author would have been thrilled to achieve the excellence of the Poirot novels Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, After the Funeral and Cat Among the Pigeons. The puzzles here aren’t bad – Funeral contains one of my favorite – but they rely on simpler tricks, mostly based on how easily Christie can lead us into making false assumptions about various aspects of identity. But one thing these three novels has in common, along with a number of others written during the 50’s, is how damned funny they are.
The main exception to this lightness came from Miss Marple herself who, with A Murder Is Announced began to take on the notes of what Catherine Brobeck called “Dark Marple.” The lady, of course, had always been very old, and when she appears in Chapter Eight of A Murder Is Announced, she is “taking the waters” at the Royal Spa in Medenham (courtesy, of course, of her nephew Raymond West) in order to ease her rheumatism. And physically, she won’t change much more through the following seven novels except she will have to curtail her beloved gardening (banned in Nemesis through “the fussiness of doctors.”) Her sleuthing methods won’t change much either, relying on educated guesses based on her instinctive understanding of how people (at least, people in Christie’s world) operate and think. And then, as often happens with her kind of evidence-free sleuthing, she will resort to extraordinary tactics to trap a killer, even stooping to amateur theatrics!
Two major changes, however, can be noted. First, the cases for Miss Marple become more personal. She protects friends and seeks justice and retribution for others. She begins to earn the mantle of Nemesis. And, secondly, while Tommy and Tuppence bask in their old age and Poirot retreats to his magnum opus on the world’s best crime writers, Miss Marple becomes a keen observer of the social changes that befell England in the post-war era. Because it’s Christie, much of this change becomes integral to her puzzle plots. More important, however, the Marple novels stand as a testament to the shifting mores of Christie’s genre and her world. A Murder Is Announced starts it all: the book is a hybrid of 30’s puzzle, 40’s novel of character, and something ineffably modern: a world that Christie seems to say belongs to the young, whatever the cost to the traditions of her own generation.
* * * * *
“Between 7:30 and 8:30 every morning except Sundays, Johnnie Butt made the round of the village of Chipping Cleghorn on his bicycle, whistling vociferously through his teeth, and alighting at each house or cottage to shove through the letter-box such morning papers as had been ordered by the occupants of the house in question from Mr. Totman, stationer, of the High Street.”
This book deserves a 10 for its opening hook simply for starting us out with a newspaper boy named Johnnie Butt. Seriously, though . . . what a fabulous way to introduce and then link together the dramatis personae of this novel. Christie uses the reading of newspapers both as a way of setting the scene and of providing first impressions of her closed circle. Everyone is looking for servants (meaning the old social stratum is giving way); there is a plethora of Dachshunds for sale (meaning, we still hate the Germans). Everything is scarce after the war – even false teeth! And people rely on the Personal columns of a local paper like The North Benham News and Chipping Cleghorn Gazette to buy and sell, beg for help, and even resolve romantic relationships (“All a mistake, darling. Undying love. Friday as usual. J.”) On the particular Friday that starts our novel, a most unusual item draws attention:
“A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30pm. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.”
By the end of Chapter Three, we have been intimately introduced to fourteen characters, attended five breakfasts and a cocktail party, and witnessed a murder. Although we don’t know it, we have also been gifted with several clues, all brilliantly disguised under a veneer of normalcy. Christie knows what she’s doing here. The gentle babblings of a confused old lady hide a major clue. The running gag at the party about the central heating hammers home a clue that remains hidden to all but the sharpest of readers. Part of Agatha’s cleverness is that she front-loads clues before we can actually be aware of their significance, and because they are contained in scenes of mild domestic strife and/or bliss, we make the big mistake of not heeding them. She also knows how to work on our own prejudices, so that by the end of Chapter Three, we know exactly whom to trust, whom to be wary of, and whom to take with a healthy grain of salt.
That’s when we fall right into the author’s trap.
The Closed Circle: Who, What, When, Where, Why?
The cast of A Murder Is Announced is sprawling, spanning gender, locale, generations, even sexuality. First, the men.
Christie is best at her portraits of men when they are detectives or narrators. The high point here is the debut of Sir Henry Clithering’s godson, Detective Inspector Dermot Craddock, of the Middleshire Police. If it takes him a little time to warm to Miss Marple, this novel marks the beginning of a friendship and collaboration that will last for the rest of their respective careers. His sense of camaraderie with her is a welcome respite from the grinding animosity exhibited by Inspector Slack and others whom the elderly sleuth will come across.
The rest of the men are long-standing Christie types: Colonel Easterbrook is the colonial boor pompous and foolish, but oddly endearing. The ethereal cleric Julian Harmon is almost identical to Caleb Dane-Calthrop from The Moving Finger, while the two young men, Patrick Simmons and Edmund Swettenham are variations on the same theme, both a bit smart-alecky but ultimately earnest. Patrick is the trickster, Edmund the serious one. Theoretically, either could be the mysterious “Pip”, but the suspicion that surrounds them is hazy. Edmund comes through more clearly due to his courtship of Phillipa, while Patrick mostly hovers. Finally, there’s Rudi Scherz, the victim. Christie loved to dangle foreigners over her British readers’ heads, certain their deep-set prejudices would make them snap. Rudi’s foreignness makes him the perfect fall guy for the killer and also allows Christie to continue the dangling through Mitzi the maid.
It’s the women who shine as characters here, particularly the older women, whom the 60-year-old Christie clearly understood. Each is fully individualized, one from the other, starting with the trio of spinsters who center the plot: the Blacklock sisters and Dora “Bunny” Bunner.
Letitia Blacklock is the most extraordinary figure, a dynamic success story as secretary and conscience to a world-class financier named Randall Goedler. We get an incisive portrait of Miss Blacklock in the middle of the novel when Craddock goes to visit Goedler’s widow Belle, another fascinating woman, despite being on her deathbed. As Letitia is set to inherit Goedler’s fortune upon Belle’s death, Craddock can’t help but insinuate Goedler’s motive for doing so. Belle quickly dispels any notion of an affair:
“What minds you policeman have! Randall was never in the least in love with her, and she wasn’t with him. Leticia, you know, has really got a man’s mind. She hasn’t any feminine feelings or weaknesses. I don’t believe she was ever in love with any man.”
Given the fact that, in Christie, even the most independent young woman eventually lands herself a man, it’s good to see these powerful female figures who are perfectly happy without one. What’s more, Belle asserts to the fine moral character of Letitia Blacklock with what feels like authorial license. For once, we feel comfortable accepting the total innocence and goodness of a character – which, of course, goes a long way to setting us up for a huge surprise at the end.
If Letitia is strong, then Charlotte and Bunny exhibit weakness in different ways. Charlotte’s is a weakness of character: once affectionate and pretty, she was altered by her experience with the disfiguring illness of goiter. What begins as an opportunity snatched from fate to experience some of the happiness she had lost spirals into a grotesque game of multiple murder. Bunny, on the other hand, is a truly pathetic figure. Her presence allows Christie to explore the horrors inflicted on middle-aged spinsters as the century progressed, embodied by the much-quoted speech Dora gives to Miss Marple at the Bluebird Tearoom:
“I’ve heard people say so often, ‘I’d rather have flowers on the table than a meal without them.’ But how many meals have those people ever missed? They don’t know what it is – nobody knows who hasn’t been through it – to be really hungry. Bread, you know, and a jar of meat paste, and a scrape of margarine. Day after day, and how one longs for a good plate of meat, and two vegetables. And the shabbiness. Darning ones close and hoping it won’t show. And applying for jobs and always being told you’re too old. And then perhaps getting a job and after all one isn’t strong enough. One thanks. And you’re back again. It’s the rent – always the rent – that’s got to be paid – otherwise you’re out in the street. And in these days it leaves so little over. One’s old age pension doesn’t go far – indeed it doesn’t.”
Christie offers a rich commentary on the emotional and financial interdependence between older women, both in the friendship between Miss Blacklock and Dora Bunner and the lesbian relationship between Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd. Dora, who bears a strong resemblance to her namesake in David Copperfield, is a dangerous risk for Miss Blacklock to take on, but she assumes it anyway, out of an intrinsic kindness and her own loneliness. The parallels between them and the couple at Boulders are superficial but significant: Amy Murgatroyd can also annoy the more practical Hinch with her muddleheaded ways, and it’s Hinch who pushes Murgatroyd toward her death by pressuring her to play sleuth and remember what she felt was out of place at the crime scene.
As for the younger generation, Phillipa Haymes is slightly more compelling than Julia Simmons, perhaps because she is used more as a subplot and she’s simply a more sympathetic figure, both as a hard worker and as a young widowed mother and the object of Edmund’s affection. Julia has a sardonic sense of humor, but she’s sulky and obnoxious most of the time. Together, they form both sides of the book’s most significant red herring. It’s not the last time Christie will muck about with gender reveals, but having Phillipa turn out to be Pip (and isn’t her name so obvious?) lends more credence to the whole Stamfordis subplot. I don’t for a second buy that both Pip and Emma could hang out for months with their own twin sister and never suspect the truth, but having just directed The Mousetrap I can only say – that’s Christie for you. It’s Phillipa who gets the more surprising reveal, and as she matters more in other ways to the general plot of the book, she’s simply a better character.
The female side of our closed circle is rounded out by Mrs. Swettenham, Mrs. Easterbrook, and Mitzi. All we get is a sniff of suspicion around them both: Mrs. Easterbrook is fond of walking in and out of people’s houses, and we get a brief allusion to Laura Easterbrook having pulled the wool over her old husband’s eyes. While it’s hard to take the first two seriously as red herrings, they are fun to have around. Mitzi more problematic: she may be Jewish or Romani, it’s never clarified, but her tragic history is made a bit awkward by the “wacky foreigner” stuff with which Christie imbues her. What I love about Mitzi is how Christie establishes her as a complete liar only by what others say about her. Thus, she can tell the truth about Miss Blacklock or about Phillipa’s husband or the weird relationship between Patrick and Julia and nobody – including the reader – believes her. Plus, her courage in the end for acting as bait to catch the killer makes Mitzi a true hero – an opinion she shares with the rest of us!
(I’m going to spoil a few other titles here, so skip the first paragraph if you don’t want anything other than A Murder Is Announced spoiled for you.)
If the characters are far richer than the cast of a typical mid-1930’s Christie, the plot hearkens back to those older puzzles. John Curran cites two early stories as inspiration for the main plot: 1930’s “The Companion,” (collected in The Thirteen Problems) and 1933’s “The House at Shiraz” (from Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective). In both, a servant/companion masquerades as a rich lady in order to gain happiness. While it’s true that Charlotte Blacklock follows a similar idea by passing herself off as her late, more successful sister Letitia, I see other important plot similarities with the 1932 Poirot novel, Peril at End House. Here, Poirot comes to the assistance of a character whom it seems is the target of a killer. In the end, it turns out that the supposed victim-to-be is the actual killer and that the person killed “accidentally” was the intended victim all along. Gaining an inheritance is the motive here as well.
Perhaps because of it’s being written smack dab in the middle of the Golden Age, Peril at End House comes off as cunning and believable in spite of all its artifice; that’s a big part of its charm. The way it plays out in A Murder Is Announced is also charming but a bit less believable. Christie works very hard to make us believe that a confidence man like Rudi Scherz would be gullible enough to play the role that costs him his life. Maybe he was greedy enough to jump at any chance to make money, even from someone he was blackmailing, I’m more inclined to believe Myrna Harris’ rationale for why Rudi took part: “He was a bit scornful about it all. Said it was kids stuff really – but that was just like the English. They never really grew up . . . “
Still, it takes more effort to buy the complexities of this plan than that of Peril at End House. We are asked to buy the pretext that one of the Stamfordis family – most likely Pip and/or Emma, but also possibly their mother Sybil or father Dmitri – wanted Miss Blacklock dead in order that the children would inherit the Goedler fortune. So why not just kill Miss Blacklock by running her over with a car or coshing her over the head while she’s walking to and fro? Phillipa’s own husband is run down late in the book, so such accidents happen. The idea of one or more of the Stamfordis family planting themselves in Chipping Cleghorn for months and months and then seizing the chance to . . . . oil the door and set up the trick with the lights and the lamp and hire a man (who also happens to know Miss Blacklock) to come and rob the place and put an ad in the paper so that a lot of people will come to a party and then use the man and the people and the party as cover to go behind the man and shoot Miss Blacklock – and hit her EAR?!?
It may all sound a bit far-fetched (!), but the truth hinges on an impersonation, something we have seen a lot in Christie, and here it’s something which I think stands in the novel’s favor. Compared with the various dinner parties where the guests were fooled into thinking someone either was or wasn’t there, or the woman who married her ex-husband thinking he was someone else, or the lady who dressed up as her (male) cousin, complete with fake beard, to give him an alibi, the impersonation at the heart of A Murder Is Announced is wholly believable. And the idea that greedy relatives might interfere with a woman’s inheritance is standard, and believable, GAD fare, even if they all seem to show up in disguise at the same time – and they’re twins!!!
In the end, I’m willing to swallow the plot due to the excellence of its presentation and the really sensational clueing, some of which is literally woven into the text. The killer here is not a natural killer, and she devolves pretty horribly as things go wrong. Given that, I can accept the elaborateness of her plot, but compared to some of Christie’s best, I acknowledge a certain clunkiness here.
When and where?
Agatha Christie returns to the land of “Mayhem Parva” for the first time since her last published Miss Marple mystery, 1943’s The Moving Finger – and, oh, what changes have been wrought in the English village of old. Miss Marple worries about it herself, comparing Chipping Cleghorn to her own beloved St. Mary Mead, and for once, setting and historical perspective are integral to the plot:
“Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was. The Bantrys in the big house – and the Hartnell’s, and the Price Ridleys and the Wetherbys. They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they’d been in the same regiment, or served on the same ship as someone there already. If anybody new – really new – really a stranger – came, well, they stuck out – everybody wondered about them, and didn’t rest till they found out.
“But it’s not like that anymore. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them . . . Nobody knows anymore who anyone is . . . People take you at your own valuation. They don’t wait to call until they’ve had a letter from a friend saying that the so-and-so’s are delightful people and she’s known them all their lives.”
Christie doubles down on this new lack of village intimacy by giving us a cast of folks who are not tied down with village jobs. There are no solicitors or doctors or poachers, no antiques dealers or fine old ladies with antecedents stretching back centuries. Here we have older retirees and young folks who are either students or simply indolent. Some of them, like Philippa Haymes and Miss Hinchcliffe, raise animals and/or till the land, but mostly they read the paper and take part in whatever activities may arise. The post-War era has lent them a semblance of intimacy: people keep their doors unlocked and share their provisions with each other. But everyone in this book is relatively new to Chipping Cleghorn, and some of them are new to each other, despite the fact that they are cousins or neighbors.
This results in a different kind of suspense: we’re missing the sort of case where the members of a long-standing community are worrying over which old friend or family member has donned a mask of innocence. But Christie does such a good job of establishing this community and the ties that hold it together that we really don’t miss that pre-War insularity. Plus, even if there are no village professionals amongst the major cast, from page one we find ourselves inhabiting a fully-fleshed location, one full of cottages and tea shoppes, just a bus ride away from a well-established spa, all inhabited by a colorful array of characters. What’s more, we find in this book like no other before (and not again really until The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side) a deep reflection, as typified above, on the modern transformation of the English village.
The Solution and How She Gets There (10 points)
“Craddock recapitulated swiftly: ‘Lamp. Violets. Where is bottle of aspirin? Delicious Death. Making enquiries. Severe affliction bravely borne. Iodine. Pearls. Letty. Berne. Old Age Pension.’ “Bunch asked: ‘Does it mean anything? Anything at all? I can’t see a connection.’ “Craddock said slowly: ‘I’ve just a glimmer – but I don’t see.’”
In A Murder Is Announced, Miss Marple sleuths like she has never sleuthed before, with the richest array of clues to ever be found in one of her cases. Here is the balance between intuition and Holmesian detection that we’re looking for. And, oh, how skillfully buries some of these clues in the text! And some of them, like the clue “Letty,” are waved under our noses over and over again with the confidence of a trickster who knows how easily she can fool all of the people some of the time; in the passage quoted above, she feels confident enough to dangle a few oft-played so obviously that you’d think it would be a complete giveaway:
“’Making enquiries,’ read Craddock. “’Inquiries? What about, I wonder? What’s this? “Severe affliction bravely borne” . . . What on earth – !’ “’Iodine,’ read the Inspector. ‘Pearls. Ah, pearls.’ “’And then Lotty – no, Letty. Her e’s look like o’s. . . “
The ”Letty/Lotty” clue is the book’s most famous: evidently, Christie had to scold the publisher when they corrected what they thought were errors. Did you notice the alternate spelling of “enquiries?” Most people don’t. The sequence where Miss Marple observes the Harmon’s cat, Tigleth-Pileser, spill water on the table-lamp is also a clever, if more conventional, way to provide a key clue. Granted, the issue of goiter is less fairly clued, just like another significant disease found in a future Miss Marple book. But still, this is a juicy clue list, and it functions beautifully when Miss Marple proceeds with her explanations at the end.
There’s so much more to discover upon closer analysis, making A Murder Is Announced one of the most delicious re-reads. If you pay attention to everything Dora Bunner says, both to the police at Little Paddocks and to Miss Marple at the teashop, you have to wonder why Miss Blacklock didn’t kill her a lot sooner. The constant slip-up between “Letty” and “Lotty” alone would have been enough to postpone Rudi’s murder until after Dora (who was dying, for God’s sake!) had kicked the bucket. But there’s a lot that Dora reveals in her not quite lucid blatherings, including:
- The switch between the shepherdess and the shepherd lamps
- The fact that the violets have no water in them after just being picked (Bunny blames her own absent-mindedness, but of course she put the flowers in water)
- The interesting way in which, almost every other moment, she confuses the pretty “sad” Charlotte with the plain, successful Letitia
The one clue that works less successfully, for me at least, is the whole “She wasn’t there” situation. I know Miss Marple explains carefully how the meaning changes when you place the emphasis on a different word. But I don’t buy that it changes quite in the way she describes. But here I’m quibbling . . .
The Marple Factor
Miss Marple first turns up in Chapter Eight, suitably titled “Enter Miss Marple,” but she is referenced as early as Chapter Four.
“’I wish I had my own particular old Pussy here. Wouldn’t she like to get her nice ladylike teeth into this. Right up her street it would be.’ “’Who’s your own particular Pussy, Henry? An aunt?’ “’No,’ Sir Henry sighed. ‘She’s no relation.’ He said reverently: ‘She’s just the finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in a suitable soil.’”
We know she had earned the respect of that august personage Sir Henry Clithering during the run of cases known as The Thirteen Problems, but it’s wonderful to see after only a handful of novels how much he holds her in reverence:
“’Ye Gods and Little Fishes,’ said Sir Henry, ‘can it be? George, it’s my own particular, one and only, four starred Pussy. The super Pussy of all old Pussies. And she has managed somehow to be at Medenham Wells, instead of peacefully at home in St Mary Mead, just at the right time to be mixed up in a murder. Once more a murder is announced – for the benefit and enjoyment of Miss Marple.’”
While it does take a while for Miss Marple to show up, she’s far better featured here than in The Moving Finger, and she isn’t usurping the show, as she did with Jerry Burton. We’re back in the same territory as The Body in the Library, but in this case Miss Marple is not only playing the sleuth, she is also acting the role of modern historian. Christie puts her own views on post-war village society into Miss Marple’s mouth, and everything she says – or elicits in others – is fascinating stuff.
If I don’t give this section a “10,” it’s only because her sleuthing, even with the substantial set of clues listed above, is still not enough to convict Miss Blacklock, which leads Miss Marple yet again to set a trap. And while this one starts out well with Mitzi enlisted to play the role of blackmailer, it ends on such a ridiculous note that Mrs. Christie should have been (mildly) ashamed of herself. I refer, of course, to Miss Marple’s heretofore unmentioned ability to perfectly mimic voices. It’s not enough to simply burst in and find Miss Blacklock with her hands firmly pressed on Mitzi’s submerged head in the kitchen sink. No, Miss Marple has to shock Charlotte Blacklock into a confession by calling her name in a pitch-perfect copy of Bunny’s voice.
Even this GAD fan has his limits.
The Wow Factor
Many of you will probably know that A Murder Is Announced was billed as “Agatha Christie’s Fiftieth Mystery,” although it took the counting of the short story collection, The Regatta Mystery, published in the U.S. only, to make this happen. I completely approve of this subterfuge! Can you imagine the letdown if the “Fiftieth Mystery” had been They Came to Baghdad?!?
Other than that, the “wow” factor comes from the book itself. And while this one doesn’t have the bravura ending of Murder on the Orient Express or Crooked House, it is a charmingly written book from start to finish (in truth, more entertaining than Orient Express, in my humble . . . ). To see Christie at sixty, with 48/9 novels behind her, still at the top of her game, still being “the phenomenon” is pretty much a wow to me! I think I have read this book ten times, and it never ceases to delight me. It may not be the first Marple, which earned Murder at the Vicarage a score of “8” here – the highest so far – but in terms of the strength of its clueing and its overall goodness, I think it deserves the same score.
FINAL SCORE FOR A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED: 45/50
29 thoughts on “RANKING MARPLE #5: A Murder Is Announced”
This is my favorite Christie (and one of my favorite mystery novels) of all time. It’s the only one where I really do feel sorry for the murderer. I have an alternative ending in which she stops after Rudi Schertz. She really does love Dora, and could easily dispose of her by saying she has dementia which would account for her confusing Letitia and her sister (were they twins? I don’t remember). I do find the last murder hard to believe. I don’t see this particular killer strangling anyone not to mention that she was quite slight and frail, and Amy was a large farm woman.
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Dora is DYING as the novel begins! Lotty could have sent her off on a vacation which she probably wouldn’t have survived. (Or, if Dora wanted to feel useful, she could have been sent on an errand to, say, pay respects to Belle Goedler. I kind of disagree about the final murder – not about it’s necessity (I agree with you there) but I don’t think Lotty was all that frail, and while Amy might have been a capable farm woman, she was also a trusting soul. It would have been easy for Lotty to creep up behind her and dispose of her. (And it was!)
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Lotty was a frightened fish by the time she has to kill Dora. She continues to break down mentally throughout the rest of the story. It was easy to believe that she was fooled into believing Dora had come back to admonish her. oooOOOOoooo. A lovely read and an all-time top 10 fave.
Is Dora dying? I know she was old and not in excellent health, but where did you pick up that clue, Brad?
From Chapter Two . . . we are told that “Dora’s health had given way,” and Miss Blacklock swoops in and brings her to Little Paddocks; “It was not for long – the doctor had told her that – ” So while there’s no clear diagnosis of a terminal illness, I figure the doctor was as good as his word.
Good spotting! Thanks, Brad. This is one of my favourite Christies (right up there with After the Funeral and Five Little Pigs). In spite of the “unnecessity” of such an elaborate method of murder, the book is absolutely delightful and as you’ve pointed out here, one of the best-clued Miss Marples. The Letty/Lotty clue gave me goosebumps when I first read the book — same with how cleverly Christie hides descriptions of two different people in Dora’s long ramblings. I love the 1983 Joan Hickson adaptation. It’s slow-burn and faithful to the book but I love how beautifully the actors who played Miss Blacklock, Dora Bunner, Hinchcliffe, and Murgatroyd brought the characters and relationships to life. And the BGM too during the last murder: it’s so campy but brilliant!
Really enjoyed this breakdown and analysis Brad. I have always thought of it as my firm favourite Marple but now I’m not as sure I was … Damn, I’ll have to wait until you’re finished with the full dozen. BTW is Laura Thompson’s book as, er, “eccentric” as it sounds?
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It’s a good read, but I don’t trust myself to rank it as a biography compared to others. As most biographers do, she based some suppositions on a lot of circumstantial evidence. For example, did Agatha really have a platonic affair with Stephen Glanville? Who knows? But Thompson makes her case, and it’s entertaining.
The opinions about the books, in your quote, does border on the bizarre …
I enjoyed Thompson’s book. The author did her homework and provides some interesting insights. Since I don’t normally read biographies I don’t know how good an example it is of that. I probably wouldn’t have read this one if I hadn’t been given the book as a gift, but I’m glad I was.
A small point, that actually makes A Murder Is Announced a bit more believable and even more tragic. Rudi Scherz didn’t actually blackmail Miss Blacklock. At least that’s what Miss Maprle thinks, and we know she’s always right. Scherz didn’t even know there was someone to be blackmailed. He just recognized the former patient not knowing, that she’s now impersonating her sister. This makes it more credible, that he agreed to play his role in the game, particularly because Charlotte promised him money. The blackmailing just happened in Charlotte’s head. So the whole thing was even more unnecessary.
The clueing is just fantastic in here. IMO, it rivals Roger Ackroyd as the best clued Christie, just in very different ways. In the teashop, Dora even says (I’m paraphrasing): “I wrote to Letty, hoping she would help me. And then Lotty appeared. Of course I was very surprised.” The solution is literally spelled out here, but it’s so well done, that even if you guess the killer (which is very in this one possible, IMO), you may miss stuff like this.
And regarding the characters: Even the relatively weak ones in this one would be among the more memorables in most other Marple novels.
IMO, it’s the best Marple by far.
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My scoring certainly agrees with you! Regarding the idea of “blackmail” . . . I would say that in 1950 it was quite abnormal for a relative stranger to knock on your door and ask for money. I totally buy that Rudi had little idea of Charlotte’s trickery and wasn’t approaching her with some deep dark knowledge in order to drain her dry. But he did know she was Charlotte, the prettier of the sisters who had been recovering from surgery – and his request for money had to be tied in with that knowledge, which was enough to cause the increasingly paranoid Lotty to act. (Particularly since she knew that Pip Stamfordis was living under her roof!!
Good point about Schertz.
I think this is probably overall the best and most well-rounded Miss Marple book, though I love others for various reasons. Announced has fine characterizations, setting, clues, humor, and nuanced observations about post-war life. This one is marred for me only by the trick Miss Marple plays to catch the murderer; that I found a bit silly and unconvincing.
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A wonderful novel. The most significant blemish for me is how silly it seems that almost the entire village is masquerading as someone else.
And very extensively clued. In fact, dare I say that it may be the easiest Christie to solve, given the many clues and the variety of them? I think this is a unusual case where Maple’s recall of village parallells helps the reader, because we are told what the scullduggery in St Mary Mead that she recalled was. I also think there are a couple of clues in what Mrs. Goedler says. For one thing, the honesty she describes may be incompatible with participating in the black market which “Leticia” does. Also, Leticia did not use much make-up, suffering from a man’s mind as she did, but we see the fake Leticia run off to improve her make-up when the police visit.
I don’t believe Mitzi is either Jewish or Romani by the way. If she was either, I think that would be said explicitly, at least if the characters knew it. I imagine her as Slavic or Hungarian.
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@ Johan Richter: as I remember it, Mitzi stated she was persecuted by the Germans because of her ethnicity. That makes her very likely Jewish or Roma (and the former does not preclude her from being Slavic or Hungarian as well; I am less familiar with the Roma, but presume there were Roma in both Slavic countries and Hungary).
I also believe to remember that Mitzi claimed to be well educated. (or perhaps it was her family in general). That would make her less likely to be Roma than Jewish.
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Mitzi says that she should be doing scientific research, not domestic work, based on her education. As a Hungarian Jew myself, I always assumed Mitzi at least COULD be Jewish.
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I am happy to see confirmed that my memory is not entirely shot yet :-).
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I don’t remember anything about why Mitzi was persecuted, and a few quick searches in the book found nothing. And even if she was persecuted for her ethniticy, she need not be Jewish or Romani. The Nazis hated Slavs only slightly less, and of course Mitzi is not real character, she is a fictional creation. My feeling is that the British public at the time were aware the Nazis were murderous, but perhaps not how utterly singled out Jews were. I feel the idea of associating Nazi atrocities primarily with the Holocaust is a more modern development? So Christie and her audience might not think primarily of Jews when hearing about a victim of Nazism.
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Well, I just did a bunch of research for the post about censorship. I’m likely to agree with you about Christie’s audience. By 1950, her guilt over previous treatment of Jewish characters had full sway, and I can imagine that she would want to avoid the subject entirely. Which still leaves us with the comical treatment of Mitzi, a victim of Nazi persecution. I can hear Christie saying, “Oh, please, stop belaboring the point; I was being entertaining.” But some of us cannot leave well enough alone, and in the spirit of the wonderful clues you mentioned that I had not taken into consideration (“Letty’s” use of make-up to prepare for the police and her black market proclivities belying Belle’s insistence on Letitia’s total honesty), I would propose that Miss Blacklock’s disdain for Mitzi’s suffering is another insight into her character as Charlotte.
Although she is described as “a weak, affectionate” woman, there has to be something a little sociopathic about a person who figures she can take her sister’s identity because she is owed some happiness in life – and then begin a chain of murders, including her oldest (and only real) friend in order to protect that secret. It never feels like Charlotte covets the Goedler money; it’s the “being Letty” that she loves. (Of course, a lot of money in those days would help buy more butter!!) And while Charlotte is ultimately stupid enough to make many mistakes and give the game away, she’s also quite cunning and uses the long-standing British prejudice against foreigners against the others. She keeps insisting that Mitzi is a liar, much as she plays up Dora’s foolishness and confusion. And, of course, it’s Mitzi and Dora who keep shouting the truth about everyone else to the rooftops and nobody believes them.
This is why I’m so glad that, in the end, it’s Mitzi who becomes the tool for Lotty’s destruction. At the same time, one is always taken aback at Miss Marple’s ruthlessness. Surely she must have imagined that Mitzi would be putting herself into a lot of danger withe the blackmailing trick. And yet look at how long she waits to pull off her mimicking trick: Lotty has Mitzi’s head under water and still Miss Marple waits until Craddock has entered the kitchen and can see perfectly well what Lotty is doing. It makes me even more glad that I subtracted the point for that piece of foolishness!!
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I thought Poirot Loses A Client was easier to solve, although I agree the clues in a Murder is Announced.
Great review of a great book. Thanks also for all the covers. The first Fontana is by far my favorite.
Brad – Your knowledge and love of Christie’s work shines once again.
This is a Top 5 favorite Christie for me having read it more than once. Each time I take delight from the intricately woven plot and fair-play clueing.
I can’t add much to your excellent review. It is worth noting that the two adaptations of this book manage to stay broadly with the plot and not make too many significant changes. The Joan Hickson one is the far better of the two with Ursula Howells’ portrayal of Miss Blacklock. But even the Geraldine McEwan adaptation with Zoë Wannaker as Miss Blacklock is watchable.
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Loved the Hickson, loathed the entire Marple series. I thought Howell was sublime, as was the rest of the cast.
Murder is Announced was one of the earliest Christie books I read as a kid – it was my third after Mysterious Affair at Styles and And Then There Were None – and I believe I can attribute much of my continued love for Christie to its strengths as a novel. I haven’t read it since which means it’s long overdue for a revisit.
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When I last read it I was struck by how almost the whole way through Lottie is referred to by the writer as Miss Blacklock (which is perfectly true) and only as Letitia by the other characters. It’s a shame that wasn’t continued until the very end, and I’m not sure why Christie chose not to.
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Agatha Christie was wrong. I’ve just subbed an article in which “inquiry” and “enquiry” appear in the same paragraph.
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A magnificent novel. When I want to introduce newbees to Christie, this is the mystery I recommend. (The Poirots can be a bit dry for those not used to golden age mysteries). And a great review – I’ve read the book a dozen times and this article makes me want to read it again.