“’Do you mean that you’ve had no sexual experience at ALL?’ demanded the young man incredulously. ‘At nineteen? But you must. It’s vital.’
“The girl hung her head unhappily, her straight greasy hair fell forward over her face.
“‘I know,’ she muttered. ‘I know.’
“He looked at her, stained old jersey, the bare feet, the dirty toenails, the smell of rancid fat . . . He wondered why he found her so maddeningly attractive.”
It’s 1965, and Agatha Christie, at the start of A Caribbean Mystery, has changed her writing style in anticipation of the flood of sexually explicit novels that will occur the following year, beginning with Jacqueline Susann’s racy Valley of the Dolls.
Okay, I’m just playing with you! The above passage is part of a “modern” novel that Miss Marple, Christie’s spinster sleuth, has been forced to read by her nephew, the famous author Raymond West, as she basks in the warm glow of the Caribbean sun, recovering from a bout of pneumonia, on another deluxe vacation West has paid for. (It must be very nice for Miss Marple to always have a wealthy nephew to rely on, since she must have run through her inheritance after her parents died in 1892 or thereabouts. One could be flippant and suggest that Miss Marple must be around 110 here since she was around eighty when she was introduced in 1932. But I don’t want to be flip because, in addition to being a cracking good case, A Caribbean Mystery is a fascinating discourse by Christie on aging and the role of elderly people in society.
At the start of the novel, Miss Marple is feeling a bit trapped. The sun is warm, the days at the Royal Palm Hotel on the island of St. Honore endlessly pleasant, the palm trees . . . well, there seem to be nothing but palm trees, and Miss Marple finds the whole excursion rather boring. Adding to the tedium is her companion of the moment, Major Palgrave, another one in Christie’s parade of ex-military bores, (like Major Porter in Taken at the Flood or Major Horton in Murder is Easy):
“An elderly man who needed a listener so that he could, in memory, relive days in which he had been happy. Days when his back had been straight, his eyesight keen, his hearing acute. Some of these talkers had been handsome soldierly old boys, some again had been regrettably unattractive; and Major Palgrave, purple of face, with a glass eye, and the general appearance of a stuffed frog, belonged in the latter category.”
The Major regales Miss Marple with tiresome tales of his exploits in Africa, and she in turn bestows upon the old man “the gentle charity” of appearing to listen to him. Even when the topic turns to murder, a subject high on the old lady’s list of interests, she only half listens as Palgrave speaks about past scandals on St. Honore that led to violent death. This is a scene you find in the best of Christie: the reader, interested in what’s going on in Miss Marple’s mind, might, like her, breeze through the Major’s conversation, not realizing that important clues are being strewn about like hibiscus blossoms.
As Major Palgrave is about to show her a photograph of a murderer that he has kept for years, he stares over her shoulder (one could write a wonderful monograph of Christie’s use of this device throughout her career), gurgles in horror, and stuffs the photo back in his wallet.
Miss Marple will curse her inattentiveness the following morning, when she learns that Major Palgrave has died in the night, a victim of high blood pressure. Except the old boy didn’t suffer from high blood pressure. What did he see when he looked over her shoulder? Is it connected to the photo he was about to show her, a photo that seems to have disappeared?
Miss Marple is determined to figure out the truth using the skills that have served her well before. There is a fun moment early in the novel when she realizes how the relaxation and change of scene, intended to bring her back to full health, has actually befuddled her:
“. . . for the first time, she began to feel slightly at home in her new environment. Up to now, she had missed what she usually found so easily – points of resemblance in the people she met to various people known to her personally. She had, possibly, been dazzled by the gay clothes and the exotic coloring; but soon, she felt, she would be able to make some interesting comparisons.”
This time, however, she relies less on village parallels and more on the active life of a sleuth, albeit an octogenarian one. She recognizes that the job of an old lady is to sit, knit and listen, and she puts these pursuits to constructive use. She slyly worms information out of sunbathers. She pumps the hotel doctor for medical news on the pretext of seeking relief for her rheumatism. In short, she hones her persona as “an old pussy” into a work of art in order to gain information from the hotel guests and staff, one of whom must be a murderer.
There is no doubt that her investigation provides relief for her boredom, but there is more to it than that. At Palgrave’s funeral, Miss Marple ruminates on the dead man:
“Major Palgrave might have been a lonely man, he had also been quite a cheerful one. He had enjoyed himself in his own particular way. And now he was dead, buried, and nobody cared very much . . . The only person who could possibly be said to miss him was Miss Marple. Not indeed out of any personal affection, but he represented a kind of life that she knew. . . there had been between her and the Major the gentle give and take of two old people.”
When I first read this novel, at the age of 13 or so, this passage had little significance for me. Nowadays, as I begin to find myself passed over by people in the street or at a café table, seemingly invisible in middle age and no longer part of any significant age group in marketing surveys, as more and more of my conversation includes reminiscences of days passed – days which I sentimentally esteem to have been “better times,” – I can appreciate more what Christie, herself 75, is talking about here and why Miss Marple deems it something of a responsibility to see that Major Palgrave’s death should be avenged.
Another elderly character of great importance in this novel appears in the form of Jason Rafiel, incredibly old and incredibly wealthy:
“He might have been seventy or eighty, or even ninety. His eyes were shrewd and he was frequently rude, but people seldom took offence, partly because he was so rich, and partly because of his overwhelming personality, which hypnotized you into feeling that somehow Mr. Rafiel had the right to be rude if he wanted to.”
Most of us hope that when we become octagenarians, people will still sit up and take notice of us. Mr. Rafiel accomplishes this by being thoroughly unpleasant to his staff and to the other guests. He has no patience for retired bores like the Major or “old hens” like Miss Marple, whom, at first, he alternately tries to avoid or to buy off with a subscription to one of her charities. Despite being in a wheelchair, awash in infirmities, Rafiel refuses to acknowledge the possibility of his own mortality or obsolescence. He constantly fires off telegrams to his long-suffering secretary, Esther Walters, and expresses his disapproval for other elderly people who stop working or taking care of themselves, with all the smugness of a man who can easily afford to do both.
Still, Mr. Rafiel is a force of nature on that gentle beach, and he has information that will prove helpful to Miss Marple. Their growing alliance, a meeting of the minds and spirit, is one of the best features of the book. With Mr. Rafiel, Miss Marple can drop the pretense and just be herself, a sharp-eyed, keen evaluator of human behavior and a force of justice. Towards the novel’s end, she dubs herself “Nemesis” after the Greek goddess of divine retribution. It’s a powerful connection for Mr. Rafiel, who accepts Miss Marple as a modern Nemesis, “with that fluffy pink wool all round your head.” He will remind Miss Marple of that connection six years later in the appropriately named 1971 novel Nemesis, when he makes a posthumous request for the old lady to seek justice in a long-forgotten murder case that has strong personal ramifications for Rafiel’s family.
It’s something of a relief for me, who has been delving into the technical complexities of various locked room mysteries, to return briefly to the relative simplicity of a Christie novel. Her later mysteries are usually less complex than those she wrote at the height of her powers, and to some extent, this holds true for A Caribbean Mystery. Still, Christie is able to surprise and delight here, and I wager some key clues will elude many of you, even as they stare the reader right in the face.
There were only twelve novels and twenty short stories written about Miss Marple. In many of them, she appears sporadically (4:50 from Paddington), even in a cameo (The Moving Finger) or shows up after an investigation is well on its way (A Murder Is Announced, A Pocket Full of Rye). Here, the spinster sleuth is front and center, proving to all of us that any person who uses their head, no matter their age or infirmity, has the ability to become a Nemesis and find justice for those who have been fatally wronged.