The Agatha Christie Challenge – At Bertram’s Hotel (1965)

At Bertram's HotelIn which Miss Marple assists the police in solving the assault of a forgetful cleric, discovering the mastermind of a sequence of high value robberies and identifying the true identity of the murderer of a hotel employee, all in a seemingly respectable and old-fashioned London hotel. And, like before, don’t worry, I won’t spill the beans about whodunit!

chocolatesAt Bertram’s Hotel was the second Christie I read as a kid, and I think the main reason I chose it from the bookshop was because I liked the cover illustration! The elegantly made-up ladies’ hand, concealing an expensive looking chocolate and holding a bullet as though it was a cigarette probably came across to the young Master Chrisparkle as being somewhere on the sexy/sophisticated scale. It makes a great contrast with the blurry, eerie night-time illustration of the hotel in the background, with just the lone commissionaire outside – almost as though he was going to do battle with the sophisticated lady. Not an inaccurate interpretation of events, as it happens.

DavenportThe main character in this book is really the hotel itself. Mrs Christie spends a lot of time coming back to how it’s a building of innate taste and class, providing good service to an older clientele, and recreating an Edwardian feel during what was actually the Swinging Sixties. The general unlikeliness of such an establishment spills over into a realisation that the hotel is, indeed, not all that it seems. Yes, in part it’s a real hotel, a solid building with a good reputation, with real guests and real staff; but it’s also a façade for other activities performed by dubious characters and criminals; and the two are seamlessly intertwined. Nothing is as it seems to be: “the china, if not actually Rockingham and Davenport, looked like it”. A stark contrast throughout between Edifice and Artifice.

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleBoth of Christie’s main amateur detectives are elderly, but their actual ages are not stated. Poirot (we haven’t met him yet, soon will though! in his first appearance in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) is described as retired from the Belgian police force after many years of devoted service; and he has developed a limp. So he’s obviously of some age then. Miss Marple first appeared in The Murder in the Vicarage (1930), and she was in her late-sixties from the very beginning. So what age would she be in 1965? Well, not knocking 100, that’s for sure. Neither character has a real-time age-progression throughout their Christie-careers, but Miss Marple has definitely got a little older by the time this novel came around. The fortnight at Bertram’s was a holiday treat given to her by her nephew and his wife. When explaining why she chose this quaint old London hotel and not a more snazzy location, she says “I stayed there once – when I was fourteen”. When she’s later reflecting on the changes of the years, Mrs Christie tells us “it was fifty – no, nearer sixty years since she had stayed here”. I take that to indicate somewhere between 56 and 59 years; so add that to 14, and I can conclusively prove that, in 1965, Miss Marple was aged somewhere between 70 and 73 years old!

Autumn leavesBut, hovering around my mid-50s as I am, I really object to Mrs Christie declaring people to be elderly when they’re really only a little bit older than I am. Canon Pennyfather, who is a doddery, forgetful old buffoon is 63. That seems to be her favourite age to choose when she wants to impress on you how past it they are – Helen MacKenzie in A Pocket Full of Rye was the same. Interestingly, Mrs Christie herself had attained the age of 75 in 1965, and she certainly wasn’t past it. There’s another character in At Bertram’s Hotel who’s marked as elderly beyond his years – Mr Bollard of the jeweller’s shop patronised by Elvira. He is described as “the senior partner of the firm, an elderly man of sixty-odd”. Even worse, the character of Egerton, one of Elvira’s trustees with his hands on her purse strings, is 52 years old and describes himself as “well advanced in years”. I’m finding it hard to get my head around this.

Coal FireMoving on! There is a lovely air of nostalgia littered throughout this book and personally I think it’s got more than its fair share of elegant turns of phrase for a Christie novel – let’s face it, she’s not known for her literary quality. In that reverie where Miss Marple works out that it’s nearly sixty years since she’s stayed at Bertram’s, she reflects on the then and now with rather charming, delicate observations. “The out of date returns as the picturesque”, she says of the hotel, which today would be a good description of anything that we would now refer to as “retro”. The opening description of the hotel includes the fact that: “there were two magnificent coal fires; beside them big brass coal scuttles shone in the way they used to shine when Edwardian housemaids polished them, and they were filled with exactly the right sized lumps of coal”. That’s a typically nostalgic look back at how life seemed to be more pleasant in the “good old days”, whereas of course by 1965 the whole heating issue was dealt with by modern radiators, creating a much more efficient way of keeping warm. High standards of modern cleanliness too are seen as having a negative connotation: “A connecting door led to a bathroom which was modern but which had a tiled wallpaper of roses and so avoided any suggestion of over-frigid hygiene”.

FloradoraElsewhere Miss Marple reminisces about how wonderful it was to shop at the Army and Navy Stores, how you used to be able to get proper glass cloths, how you left an address for your purchases to be delivered to, and how sad it was to see that a splendid old house now has four front-door bells (so it must have been converted into four flats). Egerton’s offices are located “in one of those imposing and dignified squares which have as yet not felt the wind of change”. Even Chief-Inspector Davy seems to have his head filled of old nonsense: “Why must they call me Mary when my name’s Miss Gibbs” he muses, taking a line from a long gone musical comedy; followed by the slightly misquoted “tell me, gentle stranger, are there any more at home like you? A few, kind sir, and nicer girls you never knew”, from the 1899 musical Floradora.

Crime sceneI find this book hugely enjoyable because of its constant aside observations, its Dickensian minor characters and its gentle approach to the crimes involved. I would normally prefer something much punchier, but I guess this one is the exception that proves the rule. There’s very little in the way of cold-blooded evil; and that’s perfectly in keeping with the nature of the criminal minds at work. Well-structured and thoughtfully characterised, this is classy Agatha Christie country.

So, gentle reader, here’s the at-a-glance summary for At Bertram’s Hotel:

Publication Details: 1965. My copy is a third impression from April 1969.

How many pages until the first death: The only murder takes place on page 140. Sounds like a long time to kill, but you’re not hanging around, kicking your heels waiting for something to happen – there’s a strong sense of intrigue right from the very start.

Funny lines out of context: thin pickings in this book, on the whole. But here are some nice lines –
“There were people who would have smiled in gentle derision at this pronouncement on the part of an old-fashioned old lady who could hardly be expected to be an authority on nymphomania”.
“Where can we go and talk? That is to say without falling over some old pussy every second”.
“Mrs McCrae, Canon Pennyfather’s housekeeper, had ordered a Dover sole for the evening of his return. The advantages attached to a good Dover sole were manifold. It need not be introduced to the grill or frying pan until the Canon was safely in the house. I could be kept until the next day if necessary. Canon Pennyfather was fond of Dover sole; and, if a telephone call or telegram arrived saying that the Canon would after all be elsewhere on this particular evening, Mrs McCrae was fond of a good Dover sole herself.”
“Inspector Campbell drew his papers towards him and gave Father the ascertainable facts in so far as they had been ascertained. “Doesn’t sound as if he’d gone off with a choirboy””.
“So then we hit upon getting Dr Stokes to come and have a look at you. We still call him Dr Stokes although he’s been struck off. A very nice man he is, embittered a bit, of course, by being struck off. It was only his kind heart really, helping a lot of girls who were no better than they should be.”

Memorable characters: The central character of Bess Sedgwick is very fully written, a glamorous, flawed, sensuous woman, full of daring and attitude. “Bess Sedgwick stubbed out her cigarette in her saucer, lifted a doughnut and took an immense bite. Rich red real strawberry jam gushed out over her chin. Bess threw back her head and laughed, one of the loudest and gayest sounds to have been heard in the lounge of Bertram’s Hotel for some time”. That’s a very visual and realistic description of someone who really lives life to the full.
She doesn’t feature a lot but I also feel the receptionist Miss Gorringe is a very believable character. “She knew every one of the clientele and, like Royalty, never forgot a face. She looked frumpy but respectable. Frizzled yellowish hair (old-fashioned tongs, it suggested), black silk dress, a high bosom on which reposed a large gold locket and a cameo brooch.”

Christie the Poison expert: Nope. It’s all handguns in this one.

Class/social issues of the time: Linked to the nostalgia theme.
The smoking room is reserved for gentlemen only.
A conversation between Mr Humfries, the hotel manager, and Colonel Luscombe, a guest: “We endeavour to give people anything they ask for”. “Including seed cake and muffins, yes I see. To each according to his need – I see…. Quite Marxian”.
Miss Marple gratefully remembers how her mother steered her away from an unsuitable liaison with a young man, and reflects on the relationships between mothers and daughters nowadays: “These poor young things. Some of them had mothers, but never mothers who seemed to be any good – mothers who were quite incapable of protecting their daughters from silly affairs, illegitimate babies, and early and unfortunate marriages. It was all very sad.”
A socially awkward situation: “He remembered he hadn’t paid for it. He attempted to do so; but Henry raised a deprecating hand. “Oh no sir. I was given to understand that your tea was on the house. Mr Humfries’ orders. “Henry moved away. Father was left uncertain whether he ought to have offered Henry a tip or not. It was galling to think that Henry knew the answer to that social problem much better than he did!”
There’s a wonderful display of snobbery by Miss Gorringe towards Chief-Insp Davy, when she assumes he is just a mere sergeant; she is much more responsive towards the more junior (but better dressed) Inspector Campbell.

Classic denouement: Well certainly an exciting one. In the space of a few pages, suspicion alights from one person to another to another. There’s a big showdown between Davy and the alleged murderer, who, instead of putting up their hands with an “it’s a fair cop, guv”, actually tries to escape and run away. The truth of whodunit is only revealed in the final three pages; where the murderer fails a test of decent character which makes Davy only more resolved to seek justice.

Happy ending? Not discernibly. There aren’t many people to come out of the whole sorry affair unscathed.

Did the story ring true? For the most part it’s a complete flight of fantasy. Eccentric, unlikely and rather weird. However, the characters are largely believable and many of the more interesting conversations have a definitely realistic feel.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10

The ABC MurdersSo, have you read At Bertram’s Hotel? What are your thoughts about it? Please let me know – but don’t give the whodunit game away please! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is the first Hercule Poirot book I read – The ABC Murders. If you fancy catching up with that one, I’ll be blogging my thoughts about it in a two weeks’ or so time. Thanks for reading, and happy sleuthing!

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