2020: My pal JJ finishes his first run of reading Agatha Christie. Mazel tov, JJ! Because he tackled the books in order of publication, his last read was Sleeping Murder. His review came out yesterday.
1940: According to biographer Laura Thompson, Christie began a staggering period of production, probably egged on by the bombs of war flying all around her. In addition to N or M?, (more of a powerhouse thriller in its day due to its controversial anti-Nazi statement) and the delightful Evil Under the Sun, Christie wrote two books as insurance against her untimely demise – final cases for both Poirot and Miss Marple – bequeathed the sales of one to her husband and the other to her daughter, and put them both in a vault for safekeeping.
On the other hand, in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, John Curran makes a powerful case for the book having been written much later, possibly as late as the early 1950’s.. Indeed, one has to ask why Christie would pen a “final” case for a sleuth who, by 1940, had appeared in exactly one novel and a collection of stories and who hadn’t been heard from in a decade. Why not a swan song for Tommy and Tuppence, too? Her notebooks also provide ample evidence that, for the longest time, the author was undecided over who would do the detecting here, Miss Marple, Poirot or even the Beresfords!
1976: Agatha Christie died in January. Poirot’s Curtain call had been published the previous September. The last Marple, Sleeping Murder, came out in October. On December 16, my 21st birthday, my Aunt Rosalie gave me my last “Christie for Christmas.”
You know me and Christie: we’ve hung together for many years. Our relationship is – well, it’s complicated. There’s the context of personal history: I was there when Curtain and Sleeping Murder came out, and that colors my reaction. There’s a purely critical response to the literature. And then there’s the issue of approaching this book retrospectively, after many reads and much life lived. I realized after reading JJ’s review that I have not posted much about the book myself. And so, rather than dive bomb The Invisible Event with my own thoughts, I decided to put them down here. (I warn you: JJ’s response was, “I look forward to reading your post and then responding with a post of my own.” And then I’ll post a response to his post, and then . . . )
My initial reading of the canon was as random as it was constant. Between 1965 and 1970, when my aunt gifted me with a hardcover copy of Passenger to Frankfurt, I grabbed Christie paperbacks by the handful wherever I could find them. I was guided not by publication date but by the blurbs on the inside front and back covers. I favored Pocketbooks over Dells because they contained character lists at the start. (I didn’t know at the time that some of the Dells had been edited for content! Another black mark against them.)
I can’t remember my exact reading history. I know that I started with And Then There Were None, followed that with Murder in the Calais Coach (the U.S. title for Orient Express) and thus realized I was hooked. The next book The Mousetrap, and Other Stories, gave me my first taste of Miss Marple. From there it’s all a blur, but somehow I sorted it all out and was well on my way to completing the canon by the time Christie died.
I’ve mentioned before that receiving each Christie for Christmas engendered the same excitement in me that one felt waiting in a bookstore for the next Harry Potter. This, despite the fact that those final hardcover titles – Frankfurt, Nemesis, Elephants Can Remember, Postern of Fate – in no way constitute the author at her best. Still, the public had been made aware of the early writings in the vault, of a final case for each of the best of sleuths, created when Dame Agatha was at the height of her powers. This was the public trade-off for losing our favorite author.
I’ve written elsewhere about my reaction to Curtain. Having read it while a university student, at least I had the knowledge to appreciate its classical allusions, which form the cleverest aspect of its murder plot. Losing Poirot in this way was tough, but there was no denying that Christie had imbued his swan song with emotional heft. The reunion with Hastings was appropriately bittersweet, although I have to say that, based on his actions throughout the novel, this Hastings was as unrecognizable to me as the wheelchair-bound Poirot.
Then came Sleeping Murder. Mind you, I had last visited Miss Marple in 1971 when Nemesis came out. The first novel I had read featuring Aunt Jane was A Caribbean Mystery, back in the mid-60’s, and now here was Mr. Rafiel back again, at least in spirit, to guide his partner in crime-solving through a somber meandering amongst the great homes and gardens of England until we reach an admittedly powerful, tragic ending to this murder in retrospect.
Then, as I say, came Sleeping Murder. And I asked myself: what the hell?
No sense of finality. No sign of the increasingly reflective Miss Marple from the past four novels. Most damning of all, we have here a mystery that is really flimsy, at least to this university student whose drama department had just produced a fine Duchess of Malfi. When that play rears its head near the start of Sleeping Murder, we have met no case-specific characters except for Gwenda Reed, a long-time New Zealander self-repatriating to her birthplace, sent ahead by her husband to find a house and finding one that seems to be haunted by her own memories. Nice hook – Christie rarely gives us anything less – but it’s all for naught. There’s ultimately no cool reason for Gwenda showing up at this house, as JJ pointed out in his review.
The worst thing for me, however, was that fresh off the very cool classical allusions of Curtain, which I did not see through until the final reveal, Christie does the same thing without a hint of cleverness. Looking at the notes in her notebook, it seems she bounced around with ideas for a while, but when she settled, she settled. You don’t need clues here. You don’t even need a list of suspects. All you need to know is The Duchess of Malfi and the significance of “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle, she died young,” which is so telling a phrase that it causes Gwenda to run screaming out of the theatre. That’s how I knew who the murderer was before I met them. That’s what caused me to wonder, what sort of idiot mutters Webster while killing a woman – no, not mutters, because little Gwenda is all the way up the stairs when she sees the murder, so the killer had to theatrically project their voice whilst doing the deed. Really? Come on.
That’s why, even in ’76, Sleeping Murder seemed like a wimpy ending for the greatest of crime novelists. And while I understand Christie fandom enough to know that many people count this, or any, title as their favorite, you know that a lot of people agree with me from the way the novel was adapted for television by ITV. Characters are dropped and added, a sordid past was given to the main victim, the motivations of the killer were changed – in short, what was overly simplistic in the novel became an overcomplicated mess.
Still, nobody should mistake my criticism as a dismissal of this book or as recommendation of avoidance. Second or third tier Christie was better than most of what was written at the time. The opening is just fine, even if it presents a supernaturally-tinged problem whose solution will ultimately fall short. Miss Marple is always a pleasure to see, and here we get more of Raymond West than we have seen since The Thirteen Problems, and it’s the most positive rendition of that character in the canon. JJ points out in his review some of the delicious secondary characters and clever clueing. I confess I did not re-read this one in preparation for my post, so you’ll have to rely on his review and others for more plot-driven detail.
Ultimately, for me, the greater puzzles surrounding Sleeping Murder lie not in the book’s plot but in the creation of the book itself. If it was created in 1940, why did Christie choose to write this book about this character. The 1922 introduction of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in Christie’s second book, The Secret Adversary, received high praise. Partners in Crime, the 1929 collection of detective story parodies featuring that jolly couple, also garnered praise. And she had just turned out perhaps the best T&T story with N or M?, in which, for once, Christie didn’t only avoid the actual political scene around her, she made a statement about it that was so strong as to worry her publishers and kill a syndication deal. Why not write their final adventure? Can you imagine if the last Tommy and Tuppence story had been written when Christie was at her best rather than the mess that became Postern of Fate?
Meanwhile, as I mentioned, by 1940 we had seen Miss Marple only twice. Did Christie choose her as sleuth for a posthumously published adventure merely out of a fondness for the old girl? That might explain why the case is . . . just a case, and not a farewell. It does not explain what John Curran uncovered in his research: the notion that the linchpins of the plot, the Malfi reference and the house of recovered memories, had been floating in her imagination for some time, and that she had tried on every one of her sleuths to this literary shoe before settling on Miss Marple.
So let’s imagine that Curran’s suggestion is correct, that Sleeping Murder was written at the end of the decade rather than the beginning. Yet that seems problematical to me as well. If the 1930’s produced most of Christie’s most clever puzzle plots, the 1940’s saw her writing reach an apotheosis of emotional depth. In 1942, she wrote one of the best “murder in retrospect” plots ever produced by anyone. (Five Little Pigs has a good puzzle, but it has great characters and resonates powerfully at the end. Interesting note: Murder in Retrospect was the original title for Sleeping Murder until the American publishers co-opted it as the U.S. title for Pigs.) Following that, in book after book, we see the emotional effect of murder more clearly than we ever did in the past: The Moving Finger, Sparkling Cyanide, The Hollow, Taken at the Flood, Crooked House. As far as mechanics, each of these books may have their adherents and their detractors, yet they are all exemplify the height of Christie’s maturity as a writer.
In comparison, Sleeping Murder feels dashed off. Why, after taking such care to craft a memorable send-off for Poirot, would she take the sleuth for whom she had more affection, whom she had now featured in several excellent novels, and put her in a final case that seemed so . . . ordinary. Of course, there is an element of the solution that is far from ordinary, that is impossible to discuss without spoiling the whole thing. So I’ll merely refer you back to the fact that I solved this case before I met the characters, before I heard about the murder, and before I was handed a single clue. Christie accessed her love of the classics, of Jacobean tragedy and theatrical horrors, to present a topic that would have seemed shocking to contemporary audiences. By 1976, I’m not sure how shocking it was, especially considering how temperately the subject matter was presented. But I suppose it was something new and daring for Christie, and we should acknowledge that.
Ultimately, I would recommend you read Sleeping Murder without fail. If you are just starting out reading Christie, I might suggest the following: the Miss Marple novels, more than Poirot, are best read in order, as the character definitely changes over time and reacts more specifically to the alterations of her society. Miss Marple’s story is the story of the English village, even when her books aren’t set there, in the same way that Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs mark the profound social change of England due to war and industrialization.
If you have the chance to read the Miss Marple novels together and/or in order, I would recommend that you slip Sleeping Murder right after The Moving Finger. Curran notes that mention is made of “that poison pen business in Lymstock,” and the sleuth we discover in the final case is very much like the Marple we meet in Finger, both in terms of her character, how she operates, and her relationship to society. The village in Sleeping Murder feels pre-war in every way, and when she shows up again in 1950’s A Murder Is Announced, the world is very different.
There is no need to “forgive” Dame Agatha Christie for ending her career on an anti-climactic note. Sleeping Murder is more fun to read than any of the “new” books she wrote between 1965 and 1973. It may be lacking in quite a few of the elements that made the author great, but I am reminded of the words of the poet: “A Marple is a Marple is a Marple.” In these troubled times, we should all take that advice to heart.
Meanwhile, JJ has completed his first cycle. Now, my friend, it’s time to start over. And it’s the perfect year to begin anew, for many reasons, as we shall see. And I’m excited that we shall be taking that step together.