Sunday, June 14, 2015

Agatha Christie's Miss Marple At Bertram's Hotel

In Agatha Christie's 1960s novel At Bertram's Hotel, one of her last to feature elderly Jane Marple, crime seems to be of less interest to the author than mores of a time marked by the ascent of "Beatles, or whatever they called themselves" (Kindle Edition 410).

As my friend Susan Rouse points out, nostalgia is built into the whole Jane Marple series.  Most of the stories take place in Miss Marple's little town post-World War II, a time for loss of empire, domestic displacement, and learning of a new normal.  "Much of her life had...to be spent recalling past pleasures," Christie writes (220).

Here, nostalgia is the point.  Miss Marple on holiday is merely one of a half-dozen denizens of an old London hotel who get our attention.  Through description and dialogue, Christie makes much of the hotel's preservation of forms and manners of the pre-war era.  Miss Marple hardly speaks of anything else, and mostly hangs in the background of others' stories.  We see a glamorous and scandalous jet-setter, American tourists, some old military men and clergymen.  A race-car driver in black leather appears.  But all are measured against the good old-fashioned qualities of the quaint hotel and its staff.  The common sentiment that Bertram's is all too good to be true turns out to be a point of the plot. 

We don't get a body until more than two-thirds of the way through the novel, though Christie throws in a single chapter early on to let us know that criminals use the hotel as a front.  Bertram's Hotel truly is "too good to be true."

Instead of investigating crime, we're following the actions of teenaged girls, one mischievous, the other cautious; and a clergyman pretty far along on the road to dementia. Their foibles are not treated as serious.  Adults observing the girls comment that one expects girls that age to lie about having improper boyfriends, and Canon Pennyfather's confusions are presented as endearing.

But Christie does suggest that the loose morals of the day are a sign of underlying evil.  The scandalous jet setter Lady Sedgwick comments, appropos her own marriage, "Plenty of adultery nowadays.  Children have to learn about it, have to grow up with it" (2450).   Speculating on the whereabouts of Canon Pennyfather, a policeman remarks, "Doesn't sound as if [the priest had] gone off with a choirboy" (1420), a line thrown away as if pederasty has become just one of those things to expect.  Permissive guardians and teachers are all "too nice" to the mischievous girl, observes a senior detective, but not Jane Marple.  He says she has "had a long life of experience in noticing evil, fancying evil, suspecting evil and going forth to do battle with evil" (2472). Marple reflects sadly that the French adage works as well in reverse, "Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ca change," as she has observed that the moral underpinnings have changed even where the forms have been maintained (2845).

Christie gives Miss Marple credible reasons to be in just the right places at the right times to witness clues.  Miss Marple just happens to be knitting in high-backed chair of the hotel's writing room to overhear a certain conversation; happens to be in cafes not once, but twice, where she sees the race driver's assignations with women; happens to awaken around 3 a.m. to investigate a noise in the hall that turns out to be criminal activity.   While each incident is credible in itself, this reader just had to suspend disbelief in the interest of enjoying the whole.

Funny, Miss Marple in 1965 was looking back fondly on a more innocent time forty years or so earlier;  in 2015, it's been forty-five years since I read At Bertram's Hotel at the Sandy Springs Library, and, even then, in the post-Beatles Seventies, I was already nostalgic for the London of Diana Riggs's Avengers series and Petula Clark.  I know how Jane Marple feels.  I also agree with Dame Agatha, that a murder mystery is a great framework for social commentary.

[See my Detective Fiction page for capsule book reviews and links to reflective essays.]

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