“Like to see the picture of a murderer?”
Miss Marple’s nephew was very kind to send her to the West Indies. And it’s very pleasant to sit on the beach, beneath swaying palms. But isn’t it maybe just a tiny bit…dull?
Even when a fellow guest’s stories turn to murder, her attention wanders. Something about a man whose wife died after a previous suicide attempt; very sad, except that it had happened to him before, under another name. Major Palgrave even has a photograph of the man. Then he catches sight of someone over Miss Marple’s shoulder and hastily changes the subject, shoving the unseen snapshot back into his wallet.
Miss Marple wouldn’t have thought anything of it. Except that Major Palgrave dies that night. And the photograph has disappeared.
What follows is Miss Marple conjuring up a murder out of thin air simply because she’s bored. She finds herself up against a subtle whisper campaign. “It only needs a murmur here and there […] You don’t say it of your own knowledge, you just say that Mrs. B. told you that Colonel C. told her. It’s always at second hand or third hand or fourth hand and it’s very difficult to find out who was the original whisperer.” Luckily, Miss Marple is an artist, and gossip is her medium.
She focuses her efforts on those who were in Major Palgrave’s sightline during their conversation, in particular the Dysons and the Hillingdons. The two couples are supposedly best friends but turn out to have a more complicated relationship. Other potential suspects/victims include Tim Kendal and his young wife Molly who have just taken over running the hotel, and the elderly tycoon Mr. Rafiel. In spite of his semi-suspect status, Miss Marple later teams up with Mr. Rafiel, which is delightful: “Miss Marple had not at first realized that Mr. Rafiel’s ‘Hi You’ was addressed to her. It was not a method that anyone had ever used before to summon her.”
Much of the story is told from Miss Marple’s point of view, and she fully lives up to her reputation as “the biggest cat in the village.” The first two chapters are full of her frankly obnoxious ruminations on modern society. It’s ironic that so much of the plot in A Caribbean Mystery centers around people not paying attention to elderly bores, since I frequently found myself skimming over Miss Marple’s inner monologues. Luckily this becomes less of an issue when the mystery kicks in.
Despite the exotic setting, Miss Marple is firmly in her element here. As the lady herself points out, “Conversations are always dangerous, if you have something to hide.” It’s pure pleasure to watch her at work, endlessly circulating among the hotel guests, relentless as a shark scenting blood.
“Major Palgrave told me a really extraordinary story,” murmured Miss Marple, “about—well I couldn’t quite make out. I am a little deaf sometimes. He appeared to be saying or hinting—” she paused.
“I know what you mean. There was a great deal of talk at the time—”
“You mean at the time that—”
“When the first Mrs. Dyson died. Her death was quite unexpected. In fact, everybody thought she was a malade imaginaire—a hypochondriac. So when she had the attack and died so unexpectedly, well, of course people did talk.”
She picks up shiny bits of stray scandal like a magpie. In this way, she uncovers
many entertaining little dramas that have nothing to do with the murder. Or so it seems, although a number of these idle conversations end up bearing fruit later. Even at this late stage, nobody is better than Agatha Christie at hiding a clue in plain sight. I kept having to page back, thinking, “They never said that, did they?” only to find that of course they had and I missed the significance. The many dialogue scenes never feel slow or repetitive. This is another of Christie’s special gifts—she’s almost always able to get the information out there without getting bogged down in endless interviews.
The mystery is very straightforward, a little too straightforward. As a twelve-year-old, I was blown away by the solution. As an adult, I figured most of it out in chapter two. There are slight attempts to muddy the water that are not really followed through. That’s unfortunate as some of them are intriguing and would have added more depth to the narrative. While it would have been nice to have more of a twist, the murderer was so loathsome that I was actually afraid for a while that they weren’t the killer and wouldn’t get their comeuppance. I really hated what this person did and have rarely felt so satisfied at seeing villainy exposed.
A Caribbean Murder is very good for late Christie. Compared to Christie at her prime, it’s the equivalent of a summer Friday at the office—it’s there getting the job done without quite going the extra mile. Still, it’s a lot of fun, especially for fans of Miss Marple. She doesn’t always get a lot of page time in other novels. Here she is front and center throughout, and really gets to shine.
The other niggle is the fact that given the murderer seems to have got away with it at least twice before, they are exceptionally clumsy in this case and once you see which way the wind is blowing, plot-wise, I think it’s pretty obvious from early on, who the guilty party is […]
Having said that – it’s an excellent read. When you know what’s going on, you get a chance to appreciate Christie’s simply but evocative writing style.
A Caribbean Mystery by obscure author Agatha Christie is available from HarperCollins.