Sunday, June 28, 2015

Agatha Christie Reflects in The Mirror Crack'd

So well does the cover capture a critical moment of Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (Penguin edition), that the image ought to bear a "Spoiler Alert."

No actual mirrors were destroyed in the making of this book, however.  The title derives from Tennyson's verse about a woman who, taken by a premonition, looks "as if a mirror crack'd." In Christie's novel, witnesses describe a movie star's look of "doom" when she freezes during a tedious anecdote told by a village woman at a PR fete.  The star has apparently seen someone or something beyond the reception line.   Minutes later, that villager has been poisoned.  The villager had swallowed a cocktail poured for her host, so the conclusion is obvious:  Someone had intended to kill the diva.  The key seems to lie in whatever the actress saw that caused her to freeze.

But a theme of mirrors seems to run through the novel, beginning with the narcissism of the actress.  The diva's doctor says that film stars, while "obsessed with themselves," are far from "conceited," instead being fearful of their own "inadequacy" (Kindle edition, 80).  Given that the novel is dedicated to Margaret Rutherford, who was portraying Christie's detective "Miss Marple" in a series of films still ongoing when Christie wrote this novel in 1962, Agatha Christie may have been writing from fresh personal experience.

Apparently unselfishly, the diva Marina Gregg adopted children and provided them with "all the advantages," but lost interest, leaving behind a bitterness that one of the grown children describes this way: "[Marina Gregg] did the worst thing to me that anyone can to anyone else.  Let them believe that they're loved and wanted, and then show them that it's all a sham" (148).

Another narcissist is the unfortunate victim Heather Badcock, a community leader in the new housing developments outside Jane Marple's beloved little town.  Miss Marple recognizes her type:

[Heather Badcock] is self-centred, and I don't mean selfish by that....  You can be kind and unselfish and even thoughtful [but] never really know what you are doing. ...Life [for people like this] is a kind of one-way track -- just their own progress through it.  Other people seem to them just like -- like wallpaper in the room. (50)

Miss Marple herself is hemmed in during this story by a cheerfully domineering live-in nurse, "full of kindness, ready to feel affection for her charge" but treating Miss Marple "as a mentally afflicted child" (6).

Aside from these narcissists who see themselves reflected in the world, Dame Agatha works "mirrors" into the fabric of her novel in other ways.  Miss Marple several times makes a point of holding up the mirror of the past to characters in her present, satisfied to confirm that "human nature" doesn't change.  The housing developments that bring hordes of younger families to the town seem at first to threaten Miss Marple's sense of life there, until she recognizes "types" from her own childhood among the busty teenaged girls chatting up boys on the sidewalk.  Curious about the movie star, Miss Marple reads movie magazines and observes that all the gossip is only what we find in any "specialized" and insular environment, such as a hospital.

Not to give away too much, Miss Marple figures out whodunit when she looks at the events of the fatal cocktail party as through a mirror.  From a reverse perspective, she says, it all becomes so obvious.

Dame Agatha kept the jump on this reader throughout The Mirror Crack'd...  Every time I made a note along the lines of, "Ah-ha!  This person is really so - and - so," or, "That photograph will prove something," my prize revelation was raised within a couple of pages and dismissed as so much red herring.

While the plot drew me forward, I was pleased to stay in the world of this book awhile, recognizing a mirror for my own reality in the ways that Miss Marple pushes back against the constricting horizons of old age.

Because I wanted to linger in that world, I downloaded the 1980 film made of this novel, starring Elizabeth Taylor as the actress, Kim Novak as her rival, Rock Hudson as her adoring husband, and Angela Lansbury as the elderly Miss Marple.  I almost wish I hadn't done so.  At the time -- a couple years before she starred in the TV series Murder, She Wrote -- Lansbury was under 50 and vigorous, starring in SWEENEY TODD on Broadway (where I'd just seen her, myself).  Even in the publicity shots, she looks like a high school drama club's idea of an old lady.  The film lacks that undercurrent of loss and resentment that gives subtext to Christie's novel.  Then, the creators suspend story to give their Hollywood stars ample opportunity to cut each other with jokes about wigs, weight, agents, and sex.  They're all such caricatures in the first half of the movie that the second half fails, though the actors try valiantly to make us take their emotions seriously.

The movie's two standouts played the victim and the actress's secretary.  The doomed "Heather Badcock" comes across oblivious as Christie describes her, but also surprisingly appealing, vivacious and happy, played by Maureen Bennett in what appears from a cursory web search to have been her first and last film.   The diva's secretary, whose love for her employer's husband is a poorly-kept secret, is played with much repressed passion and resentment by Geraldine Chaplin.  She often appears to be simultaneously officious, tearful, lustful, and allergic. 

By the way, Wikipedia points out many parallels between the fictional diva and the real-life star Gene Tierney.  In 1962, like "Marina Gregg," Tierney was trying for a comeback from years of breakdown and health problems.   In Tierney's memoir, published in 1978, Tierney reveals an incident from her early career that is identical to the secret revealed in The Mirror Crack'd....  But how could Christie have written of this private, tragic incident, sixteen years before the memoir was published?  It's a mystery.

[See my Crime Fiction page for links to my reflections on works by Agatha Christie, P.D.James, and many others.]

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