Margot Kinberg taught me to seek inspiration in the words of my fellow bloggers, and that is what happened to me yesterday. My buddy Kate over at Cross Examining Crime re-read and reviewed Dead Man’s Folly. I figure that few Christie fans start a conversation with, “Oh, yes, and my favorite book of hers is Dead Man’s Folly because . . . um . . . “ Kate does her usual expert job of pointing out the good, the bad, and the indifferent about this novel. As a lifelong Christie fan and interminable big-mouth, I piped in with my two cents, and the conversation took off from there.
Kate posed a question at the end: would Folly have been a better book with Miss Marple in it instead of Poirot? And that is where inspiration hit! A better word for the feeling might be déjà vu! Because I couldn’t help thinking that there already was a Dead Man’s Folly with Miss Marple in it. Memories began to flood back, and if you want to stick this out, I will share every single one of them with you!
Okay, maybe not every memory. But here’s the thing: when you discover your favorite author at a point where she has already penned fifty-five out of the sixty-six novels she will write, every bookstore, drug counter and airport terminal is a virtual treasure trove to you. I know our memories may dim, but that moment in 1966 when I stood in our local pharmacy, turning the paperback carousel around, and discovered the red cover that had been published to coincide with the latest movie adaptation of Ten Little Indians is still sharply limned in my mind. I remembered that my babysitter had related the plot to my brother and me (a modern Dickens, he had told it to us in several installments, always stopping at the perfect point), and I begged my mom to buy it for me. Perhaps she considered, for one brief moment, that a novel about a serial killer slaughtering an island populated with murderers was inappropriate fare for an eleven-year-old. But I was precocious, my mother was prescient, and the purchase was made.
My first two Christie titles!
Next came Murder on the Calais Coach, which I bought with my own allowance. (I use the inferior American titles here because that’s all I knew at the time.) I followed that with Three Blind Mice and Other Stories. And then my love for Christie gathered speed, and my purchases were made in clumps! I would stand for hours at the mystery section of a bookstore, reading every single back cover blurb, taking so long to decide that I became an object lesson in exasperation for whatever adult happened to be with me. Then I would select two or three titles and rush home to Cocoon with Christie.
Around 1968 or so, I bought a pair of paperbacks that I thought offered a nice cross-section of Christie’s oeuvre: one was a Marple (1952’s Murder with Mirrors– again with the U.S. titles! – and the other a Poirot, 1956’s Dead Man’s Folly.) Now, 1968 was a pretty traumatic year for me and for my family. My maternal grandparents had been in a terrible accident driving back to California from Las Vegas. They barely survived and had been hospitalized and would both remain so for a year. Only my grandmother would come home. In addition, that was the year of my bar mitzvah, an event both solemn and joyous, where the pressure placed on a twelve-year-old boy riddled with anxiety is pretty much indescribable. (It all worked out okay, folks!) So you can imagine how curling up with a classic mystery – or six – would be the greatest form of solace for this shivering pup.
My original covers of both novels . . . See? They even look alike!
At that age, I read the books, enjoyed them, and put them lovingly on my shelf alphabetically. (I still have these copies, battered as hell, but I have rearranged them in order of publication, illustrating my post-bar mitzvah status of manhood.) Since that time, I have read all of Christie – including both of these titles – again and again, with the critical eye of a GAD would-be scholar. More and more, I find they invite comparison with each other, and Kate’s post brought that idea back with such ferocity that I decided to write my thoughts down.
A CALL FROM AN OLD FRIEND . . .
introduces Miss Marple and Poirot to their respective cases. For Jane Marple, it’s a plea from an old school friend, Ruth Van Rydock, to hurry down to Stonygates, the home of her sister, Carrie Louise Serrocold, while Poirot hears from his old friend, Ariadne Oliver, who begs him rather cryptically to join her at Nasse House, the home of country squire Sir George Stubbs.
In both cases, the caller has experienced a sense of unease while staying with the house’s owner. Ruth’s intuition has vague roots, stemming from a lifelong concern about the poor choices her sister has made, particularly when it comes to husbands. Married three times, Carrie Louise is one of those women who commits herself wholeheartedly to the forceful personality of her current spouse. The latest, Louis Serrocold, has transformed the estate into a rehabilitation center for juvenile delinquents.
It’s 1952, and They Do It With Mirrors is one of the earliest examples of Christie trying to write with the younger generation in mind. The problems with this are manifold: clearly, Christie has little understanding for, or sympathy of, troubled young men. She never has had this, first casting every charming cad in the image of her own personal example, first husband Archie. The boys who populate Stonygates are the least realized figures in the novel, and they co-exist uncomfortably – both in the narrative and literary sense – with the more traditional extended family that surrounds the hapless Carrie Louise. Representatives from all three of her marriages abound, all of them in some measure dependent on the rich old lady’s money. Still, they are an interesting lot, children of the real, step, and adoptive varieties, in-laws and loyal retainers, and the gentle eccentric Louis. Miss Marple has her work cut out for her from the start as she notices multiple damaged relationships and a great deal of tension, some but not all of it generated from the lost boys living side by side with the family.
The opening of Mirrors is at its best when it focuses on Miss Marple and her memories of girlhood juxtaposed with her present situation. It’s sweet, a touch melancholic, and it fills in a huge gap of heretofore undisclosed biographical information on our sleuth. It couldn’t be more different in tone from the start of Dead Man’s Folly, but in terms of characterization and an attempt to harmonize traditional GAD tropes with newfangled psychological issues, it is quite ambitious, if not wholly successful.
Folly’s opening is its best part, and that’s because it’s one of the funniest segments Christie ever wrote. It hearkens back to the even funnier sections of 1952’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, and both novels share the same reason for this: Mrs. Oliver.
Ariadne Oliver may or may not be Christie’s stand-in for herself, but in either case she is a triumphant character, both self-deprecating and sure of herself, prone to wacky pronouncements but ineffably cognizant of human nature. Since her first novelistic appearance in Card on the Table, she has made much of the powers of female intuition. Here, they are firing on all cylinders as she knows in her heart that something is wrong at Nasse House, even if she can’t put her finger on the source.
Sir George has hired Mrs. Oliver to create and produce an interactive Murder Hunt for the upcoming fate on his grounds. The plot she has come up with, involving a beautiful Yugoslavian backpacker, an atomic scientist, and a host of traditional British types, is hilariously ludicrous. But of course, all of it stems from Ariadne’s observation of the members of Stubbs’ entourage. In theory, it’s the perfect assemblage for a 1930 house party. Unfortunately, this is 1956, the whole concept is treated by Mrs. Oliver as a mélange of clichés because they areclichés, and to make matters worse, they are not a group that particularly comes to life on the page. As amusing as the opening chapters are, the source of humor comes straight from the regular characters, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver; nobody else adds much to the party.
NOW I CAN SAY, “I TOLD YOU SO” . . .
The concerns of both Ruth and Mrs. Oliver are proven correct when murder strikes. The lead-up to death in Murder with Mirrors is expert Christie: Carrie-Louise’s stepson from her first marriage arrives with grave but unspoken concerns. Miss Marple overhears him talking to Louis about “protecting our Carrie Louise.” On the fatal night, a particularly disturbed delinquent attacks Louis and traps him in his study, brandishing a gun. It isn’t until after that situation is diffused that the stepson’s body is discovered in his room.
The underlying motif of Murder with Mirrors is reflected in its title: magic and conjuring tricks. Here, Christie does a nice job of literary legerdemain, manipulating her readers to look where she wants them to look. The problem for me here has always centered on the fact that 12-year-old Brad read a certain sentence, took it literally, and solved the case. I’m not going to spoil anything here, but I’ll get into the experience of it at greater length in a moment.
In Folly, the fete begins, and the Murder Hunt doesn’t go too well. Again, this is amusing, as long as we are focused on an increasingly frustrated Mrs. Oliver, who wonders why people are so stupid and can’t figure out her clues. (It’s because they’re way too complicated, poor lady. To my mind, this has never been Christie’s problem, yet one wonders if she received such complaints throughout her career, perhaps about the artificiality of her construction. (Not a flaw, in my opinion.) Ultimately, murder is discovered: the teenager portraying the victim is herself slain.
Does this look like Joan Hickson, or what???
In both books, the victim is little more than a plot device to get the murder tale rolling. But at least Christian Gulbrandsen is firmly entrenched in Carrie Louise’s family tree and brings enough non-specific dialogue with him to provide some mystery. When he dies, he leaves behind a letter that sets the ball rolling: somebody is trying to kill Carrie Louise!
None of these people correspond with any of the characters in the novel!!
In Folly, there are some amusing bits showing how different Marlene Tucker is from the Yugoslavian spy she portrays, but she remains pretty much a cipher of a character. Once a motive for her murder is assigned, she provides even less interest than before. And for the longest time, we still don’t have much more than Mrs. Oliver’s intuitive feelings to go on. Nothing has really gelled in terms of exposition to suggest a reason for the girl – or for anyone– to be murdered.
DO I LOOK A LITTLE BLOATED AROUND THE MIDDLE?
Like any Christie that has been expanded/adapted from an earlier short work (this time, Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly, a novella Christie wrote for charity in 1954 and then expanded for publication), Dead Man’s Folly suffers in the middle. The appropriately named Inspector Bland takes over the proceedings, and we are treated to a case of dragging the Marsh. Nothing about the investigation is particularly memorable, especially the travails of the suspects. Everything centers around the odd behavior of the lady of the house, and Hattie Stubbs is not a particularly attractive character. (Kate lays out a good case for modern readers having trouble embracing this figure.)
What saves Mirrors from a similar fate is that Christie juxtaposes the interrogations by Inspector Curry, a more attractive figure, with the snooping around by Miss Marple. The joy in Miss Marple’s relationship with the police figures lies in the slope of their dawning respect for her. The ones who hate her are tiresome; the ones who have been “given the good word” keep out of her way. Here we find parallel investigations: the police interviews tend to regurgitate the facts we have already seen, while Miss Marple’s conversations are more character driven. True, the delinquents remain an embarrassment, signs of the author’s age, but their role in the story is minor, at least as far as the main investigation goes. Miss Marple has to earn Curry’s respect right up to the end, but can you doubt in the least that this will occur?
We are clearly in “later Christie” territory in both novels, as she provides extra murders to move things along. In Mirrors, it’s a double murder, staged verylate in the game, which adds a bit of gruesomeness, and it’s literally well-staged. And yet, in both novels, the deaths are of inconsequential characters who, one presumes, knew too much for their own good. In Mirrors, Christie even throws in that old stand-by, the Arrival of the Box of Poisoned Chocolates (Three Act Tragedy) and hearkens all the way back to her own beginnings with the Fatally Dosed Medicine.
Meanwhile, in Folly, nothing much is happening. The Pocket Books paperbacks that I favored always featured a cast of characters at the beginning. Aside from the victims, there are ten suspects described here, and I can barely remember how any of them connect to the case. There’s a troubled young couple (he’s the inspiration for the atom scientist in Mrs. Oliver’s game) and a lot of other people who simply don’t matter. The best thing I can say is that, as in After the Funeral, Christie turns British anti-foreigner sentiment against the police, sending them into all sorts of incorrect directions and, of course, causing them to underestimate the musings of the little Belgian gentleman wandering about the estate . . .
ALL GOOD THINGS MUST COME TO AN END . . .
(No spoilers here, I promise.)
I have said this before many times, but I am of the school that prefers to be baffled to the end. I take little to no pleasure at solving a book mystery. (I do like to match wits in games, however; please send me suggestions for a good game!) Thus, the total pleasure of Murder with Mirrors was spoiled for me by my own juvenile cleverness. I simply stripped a small phrase of the double meaning that Christie had intended for it . . . and I knew. For the first time in my memory, the kindly provided map of the murder scene assisted me here. Once you know, nothing the author does to mask the truth does you much good. And, truth to tell, the masking here isn’t up to Christie’s usual standards.
However, the denouement in Mirrors is brisk and well turned out. Miss Marple lays out the surprise – typical Christie reversal of expectations stuff – to the Inspector in a mere three pages. This is followed by a letter from one character to another that describes in juicy detail the fate of the murderer, and it’s good, dramatic stuff. Miss Marple lays out her “proof” in a brisk six pages. Typical of her cases, most of her “deductions” are intuitive, but it’s nice to see that she noticed what I noticed and that, for once, my teenaged mind was operating at Marple Level! We end with a brief epilogue that suggests, as all her Golden Age mysteries did, that the serving of justice has set the world aright again.
The end of Dead Man’s Folly will not go down in history as a great ending. I think it’s a bit of a mess, but there will be worse endings to come. I actually guessed the killer’s identity here because . . . well, I really don’t want to spoil things. Let’s just say that it hearkens back to one of my favorite aspects of Cards on the Table, and I can discuss this with anyone who wants to in the comments below. But I’ll quickly add that my “prowess” comes in no way from deductive reasoning. Folly is sadly lacking in that. Just before he names the killer, Poirot lists a series of events, to which Inspector Bland replies, “Facts? You call those facts?” And I tend to agree.
Here is the best case one could make of the book being better as a Miss Marple story: it lacks Poirot’s usual finesse with clues and depends more on recognizing situations and being intuitive. The former comes from a sense that we’ve seen most of this before, in earlier Christie novels. Sadly, we will see a lot of it again as her creative juices began to seriously dry up in the 1960’s.
So there you have it: two middling novels from the mid-1950’s. As I collected cover art to place here, I found it interesting that the Mirrors covers reflected the mechanics of the crime and otherwise fit into the general tone of Christie. The Folly covers I picked are more tawdry, suggesting that the publishers didn’t quite know what to do with this one. The one on the right has a folly in it, but what’s with the girl? If she’s meant to be the victim, a somewhat dimwitted, spotty young teenager, then it’s wrong. She doesn’t quite match Peggy Legge, but plot wise it might work if the preppy guy is the architect. My best guess is that she stands in for Maya Stavisky, the fictional victim of Mrs. Oliver’s game, a character that never actually appears!!! If so, here’s a meta-issue of dishonesty that might make for interesting future conversation.
I would suggest that They Do It with Mirrors is better than it’s often assumed to be, not for the mechanics perhaps, but for the circle of people surrounding Carrie Louise, and for what it informs us about Miss Marple’s history. Dead Man’s Folly is particularly disappointing to me because it starts so well and for the fact that Mrs. Oliver is my favorite Watson figure. She enlivens this novel and two of Christie’s later and weakest books, Third Girl and Elephants Can Remember. It seems a waste of her talents, but at least we have Cards and Christie’s comic masterpiece, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead for posterity. I’ll have to revisit Broadhinny soon!