The Agatha Christie Challenge – They Do it with Mirrors (1952)

They do it with MirrorsIn which Miss Marple visits her old friend Carrie-Louise at Stonygates, the old mansion she shares with her husband Lewis Serrocold, and which is used as an educational institution attempting to shape up delinquent youths and prepare them for an honest life in the world outside. Carrie-Louise’s sister Ruth knows that something is wrong at Stonygates, but couldn’t put her finger on what. Will Miss Marple see through the trick of mirrors and identify who’s responsible for the death of a family visitor? Of course she will! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Cosmopolitan April 1952The book is dedicated simply “To Mathew Prichard”, Agatha Christie’s only grandson. His son James is the current CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd. They Do it with Mirrors was first published in the US in a condensed version in the April 1952 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine, under the title Murder with Mirrors. It was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine between April and May 1952. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1952, still with the title Murder with Mirrors and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, as They Do it with Mirrors on 17th November 1952.

Margaret Rutherford as Miss MarpleThere are elements of this story in the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple film Murder Ahoy, where an assembly of criminally inclined young men are all housed together but this time on board a ship, the Battledore. Apart from that, nothing remotely connects this book with the film, and you can safely enjoy one without spoiling the surprise for the other! Despite having a few begrudging reviews at the time, I think this book is a terrific read. Once Miss Marple has arrived at Stonygates, the events of the book take place over a period of four days, which adds urgency and tension to the storytelling. The title already reveals that there is some sleight of hand at work that obfuscates the murder – but once Miss Marple gets clarity on how the whole thing was done, identifying the guilty party is easy-peasy. The reader doesn’t really get the chance to reflect and imagine what the trick with mirrors might be until presented with a final solution that resolves all the relevant points of the story. Once you’ve appreciated it, it’s very pleasing in its straightforwardness. If you’re looking out for them, you can this book to your collection of “Christie Staged Murder Scenes” – rather like that in A Murder is Announced, published only two years earlier.

MirrorsI believe this is the first time that Miss Marple is involved in a case right from the very start. Usually she is brought in by the police after a crime has been committed in order to help them out with her village-life analogies. In They Do it with Mirrors, she’s a part of the very first conversation, with Ruth van Rydock, listening to the latter’s concerns about her sister Carrie-Louise. We accompany her on her trip to Stonygates, and from then on, she’s hardly ever out of the reader’s sight. Interesting, perhaps, then that we don’t learn that much more about her, although she does come up with one fascinating observation about life; that, in comparison with British perceptions of American lifestyles, “we are so very fond of failures”. That ought to give us a greater insight into the nature of crime, but I don’t think it particularly helps us with this book.

police inspectorWe do get to meet Inspector Curry in this book; he hadn’t heard of Miss Marple’s expertise before meeting her, which must make him unusual in the Christie police files. Make the most of him, because he doesn’t return in any later Christie books. Curry is a calmly able and diligent policeman; he “had a pleasant voice and manner. He looked quiet and serious and just a little apologetic. Some people made the mistake of under-rating him. Actually he was as competent in his way as Miss Bellever was in hers. But he preferred not to make a parade of the fact.” He’s traditional and modest; sensitive to the perceptions and expectations of his elderly witness, and calls Miss Marple Ma’am; “the old ones like ma’am, he thought. To them, police officers were definitely of the lower classes and should show respect to their betters.”

Winston ChurchillHe’s also a product of his upbringing, perhaps not challenging the views of earlier generations as much as an intelligent man should. “”Russians” to Inspector Curry were what “Bony” had been in the early day of the nineteenth century, and what “the Huns” had been in the early twentieth century. Anything to do with Russia was bad in Inspector Curry’s opinion.” Curry and Marple work well together, with a strong sense of mutual trust and respect, and a liking for not jumping to conclusions. Neither of them has a modern outlook on the issue of mental health, and when Miss Marple witnesses Edgar Lawson’s apparent weaknesses – believing his father to be a famous statesman or hero like Churchill or Montgomery – she’s surprisingly dismissive and lacking in empathy.

family treeChristie’s structure for the book is simple; the first few expository days are quickly run through, and then the meat of the book comes with Curry’s detailed examination of all the suspects’ stories and alibis. The untitled chapters are split into smaller sections, simply to provide a visual pause for breath between individual conversations and investigations. I did, however, find it helpful to write out my own family-tree for Carrie-Louise and all her relatives, as it’s a complicated family and it was useful to refer to something occasionally. There is a plan of part of the downstairs of Stonygates House; there’s no particular need to look at it until just before the denouement, when its obvious relevance becomes unavoidable. The characterisations are standard, erring on the side of underdrawn; any interesting personality traits in the suspects are sacrificed for an eager telling of the investigations and a drive towards discovering the guilty party.

SavoyAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book starts with a visit by Mrs Van Rydock to London, so we get references to the Savoy, Claridge’s, the Berkeley and the Dorchester, all of which we know to be real. When Miss Marple gets a train to Market Kindle, that’s the location for the rest of the story; there’s no such place, and Christie deliberately gives us no clues as to the direction that Miss Marple has travelled from St Mary Mead. The only other location mentioned in the book is San Severiano; Pippa marries the Italian, Guido, the Marchese di San Severiano, but the only San Severiano that I can discover in the world is part of Cadiz, in Spain, so I can only presume this too is a fictitious location.

somerset and wiltshire bankThere are few other interesting references that can all be quickly and easily dealt with. When we first meet Mrs van Rydock, she’s trying on a Lanvanelli creation. Whoever this gifted dress designer is, we’ll never know as they’re a Christie creation too. Gina’s affectionate name for Carrie-Louise is Grandam, which is a very archaic term for a grandmother. Lewis Serrocold has placed one of his ex-con young men in a job with the Wiltshire and Somerset Bank. Whilst we don’t recognise that name today, the Somerset and Wiltshire Bank used to exist and was swallowed up by Lloyds Bank at some point before the mid-1970s – I can’t find anything more concrete on that at the moment.

siskin“Recover hope all ye who enter here” is the inscribed welcome at the entrance to Stonygates. It’s a play on the words of Dante, in the Divine Comedy, who supposed the gates to Hell were inscribed “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”. Miss Marple pretends to be distracted by the sight of siskins in the garden; these are members of the Finch family, similar to a goldfinch but smaller. Gulbrandsen apparently had a collection of Thorwaldsen’s statuary. Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 – 1844) was a Danish sculptor of international repute. And at various stages in the book, Edgar Lawson declares that his father is Winston Churchill or Viscount Montgomery – neither of whom need any clarification from me.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book – that of £10,000, which is how much Carrie-Louise is going to leave Miss Bellever in her will. £10,000 in 1952 is worth approximately £200,000 today, which is a tidy sum and no mistake.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for They Do it With Mirrors:

Publication Details: 1952. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eleventh impression, dated November 1975, with a price of 50p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a revolver on top of a piece of sheet music, then reflected in several mirrors at adjacent angles. In the distance are some stylised garden scenes. It’s a great design that’s totally appropriate for the book without giving too much away.

How many pages until the first death: 66. The death comes as a complete surprise and is superbly stages in terms of the structure of the book.

Funny lines out of context: two, that both rely on the other meaning of one of Christie’s favourite words.

When Gina tells Miss Marple how she gets on with the delinquent inmates: “It’s the thugs I like best […] I don’t fancy the queers so much.”

And when she’s asked by Inspector Curry who she thinks might have committed the murder: “one of the queers did it, I should think.”

Memorable characters:

This is perhaps the one area where this book falls down a little, in that there are no truly stand-out characters. That’s why it was helpful to write out my own family-tree for Carrie-Louise, because it was difficult at times to remember which person was which.

Christie the Poison expert:

Given that there are no murders in this book that are caused by poison, it’s perhaps surprising that the book allows Christie to show off quite a lot of her knowledge. There’s some talk of the case of Katherine Elsworth, whose husband died of arsenic, which she obtained by soaking flypapers (a very old-fashioned way of dealing with flies as it seems today). That young scamp Ernie refers to “strickline” and “Prussian Acid” in conversation with Gina; he means Strychnine, and Prussic Acid, today better known as cyanide. The chocolates sent to Carrie-Louise are laced with aconitine, a poison derived from the monkshood plant; Alex Restarick jokes that he prefers curare, famously the poison that you’re meant to dip your arrow in, in Central and South America.

Class/social issues of the time:

There are far fewer of the usual class/social references in this book than you would normally expect to find in a Christie novel. Primarily any references are geared towards the education system, which is not to be unexpected, given that Stonygates is an institution set up to educate young criminals out of a life of crime. Ruth van Rydock sighs to Miss Marple when she says “there are fashions in philanthropy. In Gulbrandsen’s time it was education. Before that it was soup kitchens […] feeding the body gave way to feeding the mind. Everyone went mad on educating the lower classes […] He was more and more convinced that juvenile delinquents were not subnormal – that they had excellent brains and abilities and only needed right direction.” Primarily Mrs van Rydock uses the weapon of class to try to prevent education being offered to those who don’t deserve it: “everyone expects education as a matter of right – and doesn’t think much of it when they get it!”

The redemption of criminals is an age-old theme but one gets the sense that Stonygates is an institution that’s ahead of its time, with old guard onlookers like Miss Marple and Mrs van Rydock having very little respect for its work. A criticism of the book at the time was that Christie wasn’t comfortable with the set-up she had created in this book; I’m not sure I completely agree, but it’s interesting to see the alternative viewpoints offered, with the specialists like Dr Maverick, being referred to as “half-baked sentimentalists” (Miss Bellever’s opinion.)

There’s normally a spot of xenophobia in a Christie book; here it’s reserved for criticism of the character of Wally Hudd, Gina’s American husband. He’s definitely a fish-out-of-water, uncomfortable in the environment; a practical man alone in a household of intelligent brains, and a classic outsider. But the level of prejudicial language used against Wally is minimal in comparison with that used against European or (heavens above) African foreigners in Christie’s other books. Regrettably, this book does feature one use of the N word; in its slight defence, it’s used in the old “woodpile” phrase, an objectionable use of language that a very unpleasant ex-boss of mine was still using in the 1990s.

One surprise moment, highlighting something I would have thought was very old-fashioned but maybe was still common at the time of writing: Inspector Curry is sarcastically critical of Gina’s attire after the murder. “I see you’re not wearing mourning, Mrs Hudd?” The Victorian age was the height of the mourning-wear tradition in Britain, although I know from my own family experience that people chose to wear black for a good few months after bereavement as late as the 1970s.

Classic denouement:  Sadly not. The identity of the murderer is revealed in a private conversation between Inspector Curry and Miss Marple, and then we fast-forward to an explanatory aftermath. Still, the modus operandi of the crime is fascinating enough to still make this an exciting end to the book.

Happy ending? Moderately so, in that a relationship that we felt was on the rocks is clearly firmly back on track. Again, Christie could have made more of the emotional fallout of the revelation of the murderer, but didn’t develop the characters enough to make this work.

Did the story ring true? It just about survives a spot of critical thought. “They do it with mirrors” suggests the whole thing is a magic trick, and that’s about the level of credibility that it deserves; in other words, it looks true and it feels true, but we know deep down it can’t be true!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite its faults – the lapses in characterisation, and a lack of classic denouement, it’s an incredibly entertaining read and a very intriguing crime. So I’m going to upgrade it to a 9/10.

After The FuneralThanks for reading my blog of They Do it with Mirrors and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is After the Funeral, and it’s back to the world of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about this book, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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