Critics of classic mysteries complain that these tales lack any grounding in reality. People die horrible deaths – sometimes a great many people during the same country weekend – but nobody seems particularly put out, unless you count the irritation one feels about having to put off one’s golf game in order to be interrogated by the police. Then, once the killer is caught, everyone reverts back to what they were doing before the murder occurred without much ado. Often enough, if the murderer was married or engaged, another character is waiting in the wings to soothe the briefly ruffled feelings of the aggrieved (and newly single partner. Case solved! Order restored!
Now, on the one hand, that simply isn’t true. Or at least it’s a gross generalization. On the other hand, Golden Age mysteries thrived between the Wars precisely because they helped readers escape their all too real life problems. (I can’t tell you how much my own reading helps distract me from our current presidential nightmare.) Still, a close examination of many GAD writers offers a paradise of socio-political trivia of the era, and some titles even center their stories around a location or event of strong historical significance. (I am told that there is a quite good whodunit floating about that is set in a German concentration camp.)
Since the Tuesday Night Bloggers are exploring the ties between mystery and history throughout November, and since I am the consummate Agatha Christie fan, it was only time before the twain should meet. Now, I’m not here to argue that Christie was a particularly topical author. One can read her novels and learn about the life of the times for middle class Englishmen, but rarely does she center her tales around real events. Oh, the sinking of the Lusitania jumpstarts 1922’s The Secret Adversary, the first Tommy and Tuppence novel, and the Beresfords reappear to fight Nazi spies in 1941’s N or M. Yet, that particular title is about as non-indicative of life in England during World War II as you can get, except for the fact that many people left the dangers of city life for the countryside.No, N or M comes across very much as a light-hearted escapist romp. More significantly, it is the only novel between 1939 and 1945 that directly addresses the war, even with tongue in cheek.
Even after D-Day, the next few novels exist in a sort of political vacuum, with none of the characters referencing the war at all. One of these novels, Death Comes at the End, takes place 2,000 years before Hitler even struck! This tour de force is a strong reminder that, in terms of referencing actual history, Agatha Christie, the archaologist’s wife, was more fascinated by the doings of the ancient world than of her own.
Yet, there are two novels that immerse us in post-war British society to marvelous effect. One of them, 1948’s Taken at the Flood (published in the U.S. as There Is a Tide), probably succeeds more as a chronicle of post-war family life than it does as a mystery. The other novel, 1950’s A Murder Is Announced, it succeeds in every fashion, as a puzzler and as a chronicle of the changes happening in villages all over England after World War II. What’s more, this sociological reality provides much more than background; it figures significantly into the murder plot.
The inciting incident for Taken at the Flood occurs during a brief preface on a specific date: October 5, 1944. I looked up that date and saw nothing of significance occurring in England. In the novel, however, the Nazi blitz onLondon destroys the home of financier Gordon Cloade, killing him and changing the fortunes of his extended clan in an instant. Cloade enjoyed playing the role of family benefactor, and his largesse had seen his two brothers, his sister, and their families through the worst sacrifices of the war with room to spare for some speculative ventures. Then, just prior to his death, Gordon had found a wife, a young widow named Rosaleen Hunter. Her survival from the attack makes her a very rich widow and signals an end to the gravy train for Cloade’s surviving relatives.
The book cuts to two years later, and the action shifts to the countryside where we see the changes that modernization has wrought. Warmsley Heath is a thriving new community that:
“. . . consists of a golf course, two hotels, some very expensive modern villas giving onto the golf course, a row of what were, before the war, luxury shops, and a railway station. Emerging from the railway station, a main road roars its way to London on your left . . . “
But, in an ominous sign for the Cloade family, they live to the right of the railway station in Warmsley Vale,:
“It is in essence a microscopic old-fashioned market town now degenerated into a village. It has a main street of Georgian houses, several pubs, a few unfashionable shops and a general air of being a hundred and fifty instead of twenty-eight miles from London. Its occupants one and all unite in despising the mushroom growth of Warmsley Heath.”
With Rosaleen ensconced in Furrowbank, the family mansion, the rest of the Cloade family is scrambling to survive. The most independent of them is Lynn Marchmont, Gordon’s niece, who has recently been “demobbed from the Wrens.” Lynn is easily the most sympathetic member of this family to the modern reader, fiercely independent and sensible, while the rest of the family resembles a Dickensian menagerie of helpless eccentrics, unable to find or afford passable servants, running into debt at every turn, and trying to charm their respective ways into Rosaleen’s good graces.
Lynn’s cousin Rowley (who also happens to be her fiancé) is trying his hand, not very successfully, at running a farm he started with his friend Johnnie. Rowley’s absence from war service is addressed thusly:
“What a queer topsy-turvy world it was, thought Lynn. It used to be the man who went to the wars, the woman who stayed at home. But here the positions were reverse. Of the two young men, Rowley and Johnnie, one had been perforce to stay on the farm. They had tossed for it, and Johnnie Vavosour had been the one to go. He had been killed almost at once – in Norway.”
The tension between the engaged couple, one of whom has seen the world in service to her country while the other was forced to remain behind, begins to affect their relationship, especially when Lynn meets Rosaleen’s brother David Hunter, one of those ex-soldier adventurers who figure prominently in several of Christie’s novels. Men like David – or Ralph Paton from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Philip Lombard from And Then There Were None – tend to morally suspect but highly attractive to women, having channeled their need for danger into war service and now finding themselves at loose ends. Lynn and David clash at first, yet their shared experience during wartime bonds them together as it drives a wedge between Lynn and Rowley.
Another character who illuminates the effect that wartime had on the upper classes is Frances Cloade, married to Gordon’s brother Jeremy. In describing Frances’ upbringing as the daughter of a lord, Christie paints a brief but trenchant picture of a noble house in financial trouble:
“Money to her was a toy tossed into one’s lap to play with. She had been born and bred in an atmosphere of financial instability. There had been wonderful times when the horses had done what was expected of them. There had been difficult times when the tradesmen wouldn’t give credit and Lord Edward had been forced to ignominious straits to avoid the bailiffs on the front doorstep. Once they had lived on dry bread for a week and sent all the servants away . . . If one had no money one simply scrounged, or went abroad, or lived on one’s friends and relations for a bit. Or somebody tided you over with a loan . . . “
Frances finds financial stability with Jeremy – until Gordon’s death. The couple’s growing desperation as the need for money tightens around them is so firmly grounded in the realities of the time that it seems more real than the usual grubbing for money one finds in murder mysteries. How unfortunate that this promising set of circumstances becomes mucked up with an overly complicated mystery plot that never quite comes together. And Hercule Poirot’s entrance into the whole affair is one of the most artificial aspects of the plot from beginning to end.
Moving from the fair to the sublime, we find Miss Jane Marple at the peak of her powers in A Murder Is Announced, her first mystery since 1942’s The Body in the Library. From the delicious opening – a newspaper ad inviting all the neighbors in the village of Chipping Cleghorn to Miss Blacklock’s house to witness a murder – to the final twist, it’s a mystery that I relish revisiting each time I pick it up for the cleverness of its clueing and the delightful assortment of characters that populate its pages. But Christie also weaves elements of British life after the war into the story, and she is too pragmatic to waste this on mere background detail. No, many of the changes wrought in your typical English village as a result of the war figure significantly into the plot and signal a change in the tone of this type of novel.
No longer does everybody know your name on the village streets. Long standing rich families have seen their homes broken up or sold. Young working class men have either died as soldiers or, buoyed by their adventures in the military, have left the family business seeking better opportunities. Newcomers have replaced the old guard in Chipping Cleghorn, and, as Miss Marple points out, that makes it more difficult “to find out if people are who they say they are:”
“(Chipping Cleghorn is) very much like St. Mary Mead where I live. Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was . . . 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 already there. If anybody new – really new – really a stranger – came, well, they stuck out . . . But it’s not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.”
This is honest fact about England in 1950; it’s also an important clue in the story. So is the fact that citizens are still rationed, and to help each other make ends meet, they trade goods as needed. And to make that easier, every neighbor keeps his or her back door unlocked, making it easier for someone to drop off some black market sugar, or butter, or a bunch of beets . . . or to set up a cottage for murder!
Many characters have had their lives touched significantly by the war. Mitzi, Miss Blacklock’s cook, belies her comic figure with a tragic past: her Eastern European family was wiped out by the Nazis, and her tendency to lie to policemen stems from the cruelties inflicted on her during the war. Miss Blacklock’s lodger, Phillipa Haymes, is a war widow with a small child. Edmund Swettenham, barred from service due to defective eyesight, espouses Communist doctrine. At least one of these people is either central to the unraveling of the murder plot or provides a juicy red herring to this murder feast.
In neither novel does Christie hammer over our heads with world events, nor does she cheat us out of her clever plotting with an over-emphasis on history. But her subtle depictions of post-war life and, in the case of A Murder Is Announced, the clever way she interweaves this reality into her mystery plot, make both these books fascinating chronicles of the past.