Agatha Christie’s THE THIRTEEN PROBLEMS: Part III

It’s Thanksgiving Week, a perfect time for this Christie fan to indulge in reflection about one of her best short story collections. I think others like it, too; we who discuss the best of the best Golden Age writers have named ourselves The Tuesday Night Bloggers, in honor of the guests who met each week at Miss Marple’s cozy cottage to discuss unsolved mysteries. A discussion of the final three stories in the first iteration of the club follows:

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CASE #4: “The Bloodstained Pavement”                                          NARRATOR: Joyce Lempriere

“Well, dear,” says Miss Marple to Joyce Lempriere, “ it is much easier for me sitting here quietly than it was for you – and being an artist, you are so susceptible to atmosphere, aren’t you? Sitting here with one’s knitting, one just sees the facts.”

In contrast to Dr. Pender and Raymond West before her, Joyce’s susceptibility to atmosphere doesn’t prevent her from being an essentially reliable witness to events in the Cornish fishing village of Rathole that have “ . . . sort of haunted me ever since. The smiling, bright, top part of it – and the hidden gruesomeness underneath.” Her account is one of the best in the collection and provides a blueprint for several major Christie stories to come.

We find ourselves once again in the presence of a trio of players: an attractive husband, his rather mousy wife, and a glamorous woman, an old friend of the husband’s, who shows up out of the blue at the inn where the couple – and Joyce – are staying. Right away, the savvy reader will begin making predictions about the course of the story, but almost immediately . . . the wrong person dies! To complicate matters, Joyce spots a bearded fisherman and asks to paint him.   SpanishFisherman.jpg   During the sitting, the man relates a legend of ancient battles and a stain of blood on the pavement that nobody could wash off for a hundred years. And then, Joyce observes a bathing suit drying in the sun . . . and the stain of blood forming on the sidewalk below –

I feel that the supernatural element in this story is more forced and perhaps not even necessary, but that caveat is mitigated by the skill with which Joyce relates her tale. At any rate, the men in the Tuesday Night circle are quickly at a loss and blame Joyce for supplying a minimum of information. Miss Marple, however, solves the case in record time, proving one of the many advantages of her sex. “I too think you are just a little unfair, Joyce dear,” she says. “Of course, it is different for me. I mean, we, being women, appreciate the point about clothes. I don’t think it is a fair problem to put to a man.” Perhaps, Sir Henry Clithering should heed the mandate of another strong female character in the Christie canon – mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver – and appoint a woman to run Scotland Yard!

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The solution of this story involves a trick that Christie incorporated throughout her career, mostly in Poirot novels such as One,Two, Buckle My Shoe, Evil Under the Sun, and Third Girl. Only in Evil Under the Sun does Christie really play fair with this trick by offering a certain amount of information to the reader that, if properly interpreted, could lead one to a glimmer of truth. Here, you just have to sit back and enjoy yourself. The setting and general pattern of the story reminds me of a tale in The Labours of Hercules, the best of the Poirot story collections, called “The Stymphalian Birds” with another witness experiencing strange events at an inn and falling prey to another variation of the same trick, quite a clever one, in fact.

CASE #5: “Motive v. Opportunity”                                                      NARRATOR: Mr. Petherick

“To everyone’s astonishment, Miss Marple gave vent to a long and prolonged chuckle. Something seemed to be amusing her immensely . . . ‘I was thinking of little Tommy Symonds, a naughty little boy, I am afraid, but sometimes very amusing. One of those children with innocent, childlike faces who are always up to some mischief or other. I was thinking how last week in Sunday school he said, “Teacher, do you say yolk of eggs is white or yolk of eggs are white?” And Miss Durston explained that anyone would say “Yolks of eggs are white, or yolk of egg is white” – and naughty Tommy said, “Well, I should say yolk of egg is yellow!’”

This amusing village anecdote helps Miss Marple solve the problem presented by Mr. Petherick, a dried-up little solicitor, and the least likely of the group to fall prey to feelings of atmosphere. Still, there’s plenty to admire in his contribution, another “impossible” problem made even more effective by its simplicity, and another high point of the collection.

Simon Clode, a millionaire client of Mr. Petherick’s, has harbored deep feelings of grief ever since the tragic death from pneumonia of his eleven-year-old granddaughter. He offers a home to his late brother’s three children but is unable to transfer the love he felt for little Christobel to any of them. Still, he has made a will dividing his considerable fortune among his nephew and two nieces. Affairs take a turn when he comes under the influence of a notorious psychic named Eurydice Spragg who holds numerous séances where Clode communicates with the deceased child.

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This leads to a falling out between Clode and his relations, and the tycoon sends for Mr. Petherick to change his will in favor of Eurydice. Two trusted servants are brought in to witness the will, and Petherick himself seals the document, takes it to his own office, and locks it up for safekeeping. The millionaire dies, the envelope is opened – and a sheet of blank paper is found in place of the will.

The crux of the mystery is this: Clode’s relations had the motive but not the opportunity to doctor the will. The opportunity was there for both Mrs. Sprague and her husband, but why would either one of them want to remove a will that benefited them so generously? Who caused the will’s substitution, and how was this neat trick accomplished?

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This tale illustrates the major distinction between a good mystery novel and a good short story. We mystery lovers adore those convoluted plots that have to be sorted out at the end of a novel. The permutations of plot in Death on the Nile or Three Act Tragedy delight us as they are unraveled by Poirot in the final showdown. But a good short story should present a puzzling situation and then dazzle us with a straightforward answer. The solution in this story is simplicity itself, made even more enjoyable when one compares it to the convoluted suggestions proposed by the other members of the club. It’s also one of the few stories here that does not deal with a murder, and yet the reader never feels cheated because of that.

CASE #6: “The Thumbmark of St. Peter”                                             Narrator: Miss Marple

It’s a special treat that two of the tales in this collection are told by Miss Marple herself because here we get greater insight into the way her mind thinks. At the start, she describes her methods and vouchsafes her credentials as a solver of crimes:

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“I have had a lot of experiences in solving different little problems that have arisen. Some of them have been really quite ingenious, but it would be no good telling them to you, because they are about such unimportant things that you would not be interested – just things like: Who cut the meshes of Mrs. Jones’ string bag? And why Mrs. Sims only wore her new fur coat once. Very interesting things, really, to any student of human nature.”

This reminds me of the myriad of unrecorded cases mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes stories,   Giant Rat of Sumatra, The, Richard L Boyer    and I think someone would do us a great favor to stop trying to poorly mimic Hercule Poirot and get busy writing up The Case of the New Fur Coat and Other Stories. To the relief of the Tuesday Night Club, however, Miss Marple has had the good fortune – ill fortune to the criminals – of being involved in a number of murders, and the first one in recorded history is that involving her niece Mabel.

Mabel is a silly romantic girl who, like so many silly girls in Christie books, makes a bad choice for a husband. Geoffrey brings with him a terrible temper and an ancient father who is tetched in the head. You would think that Mabel is ripe for picking off so that her husband can canoodle with the local barmaid, but no, it’s Geoffrey who dies, possibly by accident after eating poisoned mushrooms. Mabel’s problem is that everyone in town thinks she did away with him, and it is up to Miss Marple to come to her niece’s rescue and uncover the truth.

This time around, we get to see the old lady play an active part as a sleuth, going around town and questioning the servants and the townspeople. At one point, she interviews the doctor in attendance, and we learn Miss Marple’s views about the medical profession: “I have had too much experience of life to believe in the infallibility of doctors. Some of them are clever men and some of them are not, and half the time the best of them don’t know what is the matter with you. I have no truck with doctors and their medicines myself.”

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Miss Marple’s eye for domestic detail provides some great humor in the story. She explains that one of her strategies when all seems hopelessly muddled is to say a little prayer to herself, whereupon enlightenment always arrives. This time, she says a prayer while walking along the High Street, and –

“’What do you think was the first thing that I saw?’                                                    “Five faces with varying degrees of interest were turned to Miss Marple . . “‘I saw,’ said Miss Marple impressively, ‘the window of the fishmonger’s shop. There was only one thing in it, a fresh haddock.’ She looked around triumphantly.                                                                                                            “‘Oh, my God!’ said Raymond West. ‘An answer to prayer – a fresh haddock!’                                                                                                                   “’Yes, Raymond,’ said Miss Marple severely, ‘and there is no need to be profane about it.’”

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The haddock reminds Miss Marple of the final words of the victim: the servants had reported hearing him, in the throes of death, say something like “a heap of fish.” Miss Marple’s clever mind deduces the true meaning of the dying message, allowing her to uncover a nasty ending to this puzzler, and prompting Sir Henry Clithering to announce, “I shall recommend Scotland Yard to come to you for advice.”

This is our first taste of Miss Marple handling a case where someone dear to her is involved. It will be many years before Jason Rafael, in the late novel A Caribbean Mystery, supplies her with the nickname “Nemesis.” But the old lady already possesses a keen sense of right and wrong, and we see here the first instance where her advanced age does nothing to stop her from finding justice for poor Mabel.

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Next time around, we’ll examine the first three tales of the second round of storytelling in The Thirteen Problems. While you’re waiting, check out Mark Green’s fabulous post for Bodies From the Library here where he analyzes massive amounts of data surrounding all twenty Miss Marple short stories. Great reading!

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