A TROPICAL IDYLL: Miss Marple Takes On the Caribbean

“’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.

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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.

5cb1e4a878dd58238227f15f7720d7f6                   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.”

Marple-Caribbean-Rafiel                          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.

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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.

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13 thoughts on “A TROPICAL IDYLL: Miss Marple Takes On the Caribbean

  1. Well, well, well, Brad, thy name is Coincidence: I’ve just read this myself, and have a post in the offing on a theme you’ve picked up on here. Shall refrain from saying more just yet, but…ooooOooOOOooOOOOOoooOOOo, spooky…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I have fond memories of this book. One part of the story did amuse me a little when it is said that Miss Marple ‘had one weapon and one weapon only, and that was conversation. Old ladies were given to a good deal of rambling conversation. People were bored by this, but certainly did not suspect them of ulterior motives.’ The first bit especially just made me think of spy thrillers, which just seems so disparate from Miss Marple and her knitting. Wonderful post as ever Brad and I look forward to reading JJ’s thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This might be the last novel of Christie’s where the conversations didn’t seem to wander towards nowhere. At Bertram’s Hotel and Nemesis contain a lot of “Was it 1939 or 1929 . . . and was it Charlie or Rupert” kinds of conversations that just confuse us and are never quite cleared up. It’s telling that the recent TV adaptations of both of these made the ENTIRE original story unrecognizable (in terrible ways!)

    I can’t wait to read what JJ says about this, either! I was going to try and set up a three-way review, but the poor boy has been in a funk and I didn’t want to rush him.

    HURRY UP, JJ!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see where you are coming from for ABH but don’t really remember lots of random conversation in Nemesis, but then it is one of my favourite Marples so I am probably massively biased. Modern adaptations of Marple have been dreadful. Joan Hickson’s portrayal is the only one for me. Really need to re-watch them some time and have a Miss Marple Marathon or something (slightly more doable than a Hercule Poirot (as portrayed by Suchet) one which I think would take 5050 minutes if my boxset is to be believed.) Also I’m sure there are many other possible books for us to do a triple author review with.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Have you ever heard of/read Dorothy Bowers? She just popped up on my Amazon page: published by Rue Morgue, wrote five novels, died young of TB. Lots of raves, apparent “heir to Sayers” with great twists like Christie. Sounds interesting, and my TBR pile is down to fifty, don’t ya know. . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read The Bells of Old Bailey several years ago and found it molasses-slow and filled with shrill and unlikeable characters and so gave up just over halfway through, but can’t say whether that’s indicative of the rest of her work.

      “Heir to Sayers” would be hugely overstating it on that evidence, however. She’s not even the heir to Gladys Mitchell, and I managed six of those!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I have read two of Bowers novels. Enjoyed Postscript to Poison more than Deed Without a Name, but I still wouldn’t say either were favourite reads. Fear and Miss Betony, one of her later efforts is supposed to be her best novel and probably the one which lead to the claim ‘heir to Sayers.’ Though based on the two I have read this is as JJ says an overstatement and can’t remember any Christie like twists. Sorry for raining on your parade… *cue Barbara Streisand*

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  5. This is a favorite story of mine because of the story within a story … almost like a Penn & Teller trick. The book was perfect and led the reader a merry chase. As the story unfolds it ironically becomes less and less apparent that at least one of the Colonel’s stories was true. . .

    TV adaptations: The definitive version (of course or does this just go without saying?) is Joan Hickson. The awful Marple series just plain sucked on toast. Apart from terrible miscasting (Both McEwan and MacKenzie were awful) the rewrites were simply unfathomable, unwatchable drek. Sleeping Murder? Butchered ….eh…. they were all terribad.

    There is another version of Caribbean Mystery with Helen Hayes that is very “Americanized”. It gets a passing grade from me because it was at least, faithful to the original material. Though really it felt like Sue Grafton wrote it (see the film version of Sparkling Cyanide with Harry Morgan). OK but not quite up to Christie par.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there’s something positively mediocre about the American made for TV adaptations. Perhaps the best was Murder Is Easy, despite Bill Bixby’s American accent. It has Hayes again, and Olivia DeHaviland, Leslie Anne Down and Timothy West are really good. And you can’t say the British got that one better! That terribad (I like that word!) Marple series REALLY did a number on Murder Is Easy.

      No, the U.S. showed that you can be faithful to the story, but bad casting and screenplays will defeat you, as does modernization. Hickson got it right, thank goodness, and many of the Suchets were wonderful, until he started mucking about with explorations of morality.

      Liked by 1 person

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