In which Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder from her train window as another train overtakes and she sees the back of a man strangling a woman. However, no murders or missing women have been reported. Is this the result of her overactive imagination? Her friend Miss Marple doesn’t think so, and engages the bright young cook and housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow to do some snooping. With Lucy’s help, and the professional expertise of Detective Inspector Craddock, Miss Marple gets to the bottom of it all eventually! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit – although there are a few plot spoilers I’m afraid!
This is one of Christie’s comparatively rare books that contains no dedication. It was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in October and November 1957, and in the US in thirty-six instalments in the Chicago Tribune from October to December 1957, under the title Eyewitness to Death. With that same title, an abridged version of the novel was also published in the 28 December 1957 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement. The full book was first published the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in November 1957 under the title What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 4th November 1957 as 4.50 from Paddington, a complete year since the publication of her previous book, Dead Man’s Folly. The UK version was to be titled 4.54 from Paddington until the last minute, when the title and text references were changed to 4.50 from Paddington. This change was not communicated to Dodd Mead until after the book was being printed, so in that edition the text references to the time show 4:54 rather than 4:50.
As with After the Funeral, this book was the basis for one of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films; the first in the series, Murder She Said. Much of the original plotline survived into the film, although Miss Marple plays a much more active part than in the book, as she basically assumes the Lucy Eyelesbarrow role.
4.50 from Paddington is a very enjoyable read, with some excellent aspects to it, plus a couple of downsides. It plunges straight into the main story, with Mrs McGillicuddy witnessing the murder on the third page. No faffing around with endless heavy exposition before getting to the meat, which is always a delight for the reader. Christie writes fluidly, amusingly and with some great quirky descriptions, and also creates a few terrific cameo characters. On the downside, some of the suspects aren’t very well drawn, and personally I kept on mixing up the brothers Cedric, Alfred and Harold so that I couldn’t work out what their particular personality traits are. There’s also a ridiculous coincidence set up, which, whilst thoroughly entertaining (it actually takes your breath away when you read the sentence in question) really takes preposterousness to a new dimension. Nevertheless, you forgive Christie because you’re totally enjoying the reading experience. Christie uses her short chapter structure to its fullest benefit, to build momentum and suspense, and give the impression that she’s keeping you up to date with what’s happening in every area of the story.
With only a few pages to go, you realise that so many of the story’s secrets are still to be revealed, so you’re really kept on the edge of your seat towards the end. Primarily, we don’t discover who it was who was murdered on the 4.50 from Paddington until three pages before the end; and that’s unavoidable, because, in order for the crime to make sense, you have to know who the murderer is first. Some critics feel this is a downside, as the reader is unable to stretch their own little grey cells to any meaningful extent. Personally, however, I see it as a strength. It’s amazingly skilful that Christie manages to keep those secrets right to the very end!
Although Miss Marple takes a very back seat in this book, by sending in Lucy to do her work for her, you nevertheless still get the sense that her presence is never too far away. She’s very active in the early stages as she encourages Mrs McGillicuddy not to give up her belief that she has genuinely seen a murder. Miss Marple achieves what she can, considering her age and infirmity, and then hands the real work over to Lucy. However, every time that Miss Marple does play a prominent part in the story, you feel you learn a little more about her. Much of the book’s energy stems from the juxtaposition of tradition versus modernity. Tradition is chiefly seen in the thoughts and characteristics of Miss Marple, and the head of the family at Rutherford Hall, Luther Crackenthorpe. I’ll touch on the modernity aspects later in this blog, but let’s think a little more about the fluffy, pink Jane Marple – a sweet little old lady with the mind of a razor.
When we first meet her, she’s surprisingly antagonistic and difficult. She’s always derived a great deal of joy from her garden, but not at the moment. “The garden is not looking at all as it should […] Doctor Haydock has absolutely forbidden me to do any stooping or kneeling – and really, what can you do if you don’t stoop or kneel? There’s old Edwards, of course, – but so opinionated. And all this jobbing gets them into bad habits, lots of cups of tea and so much pottering – not any real work.” She’s not only frustrated by the fact that she can’t tend the garden herself as she used to, she’s also got her claws into her own gardener – opinionated, full of bad habits, lazy. This is not a contented Miss Marple; she’s annoyed, restricted, and thoroughly critical of others. Miss Marple’s traditional stance is also emphasised at the end of the book when she and Craddock both agree that the perpetrator of the crimes deserves to be hanged. None of this mentally unstable nonsense; an eye for an eye is what’s required here.
She does continue to be very anti-feminist with her general outlook on woman’s place in society. It’s a respectable place, but not too ambitious. “Women have a lot of sense, you know, when it comes to money matters. Not high finance, of course. No woman can hope to understand that, my dear father said.” She’s deferential to “gentlemen”; “”so many gentlemen in the house, coming and going,” mused Miss Marple. When Miss Marple uttered the word “gentlemen” she always gave it its full Victorian flavour – an echo from an era actually before her own time. You were conscious at once of dashing full-blooded (and probably whiskered) males, sometimes wicked, but always gallant.”
That paragraph is one of a couple where Christie’s voice comes in and speaks to the reader directly, which is a refreshing narration technique for us to enjoy. I love how, with no prompting, Christie describes Miss Marple’s current maid as “the grim Florence”. More significantly, (and slight spoiler alert!), when Lucy is explaining to Bryan about how the curry might have been poisoned, and tries to convince him that she had nothing to do with it, Christie’s voice comes in again: “Nobody could have tampered with the curry. She had made it – alone in the kitchen, and brought it to table, and the only person who could have tampered with it was one of the five people who sat down to the meal.” And that’s slightly disingenuous of her!
So not only do we get to know a bit more about Miss Marple’s character we also meet Inspector Bacon and Sergeant Weatherall, and get reacquainted with Inspector Craddock. Christie doesn’t spend too much time rounding out the character of Bacon; he’s the local Inspector, “a big solid man – his expression was that of one utterly disgusted with humanity.” Weatherall provides an occasionally comic presence; Christie describes him as “a man who lived in a state of dark suspicion of all and sundry” – which is probably not a bad thing for a police sergeant.
Craddock, however, is a more complicated soul. We met him before when he led the detection in A Murder is Announced. In that book, he revealed the rather unusual characteristics of being able to recognise his own faults and prejudices. He is surprisingly self-aware; scrupulously honest, diligent in his work. In 4.50 from Paddington, he is the Inspector brought in from Scotland Yard. Christie describes him as having “a pleasant manner […] Nobody could make a better show of presenting a very small portion of the truth and implying that it was the whole truth than Inspector Craddock.” He’s delighted to be working with Miss Marple again; and she’s delighted too, and not only because he’s Sir Henry Clithering’s godson, but because she knows he’s a sensible, but also suggestable, detective. She tells Lucy about how they first met; “a case in the country. Near Medenham Spa.” That is indeed A Murder is Announced. He respects her insight, occasionally gently teasing her for having a mind unlike most other fluffy pink old ladies. Craddock’s self-awareness becomes more acute towards the end of the book, when he feels guilty about not having prevented further deaths. “The fact remains that I’ve made the most ghastly mess of things all along the line […] The Chief Constable down here calls in Scotland Yard, and what do they get? They get me making a prize ass of myself!” However, it’s this conversation with Miss Marple that finally gets his brain working in the right direction, so his self-doubt proves to be useful and constructive after all.
Now we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. There’s a good mixture of real and make-believe places. Of prime importance in the early stages of the book are the stations through which the 4.50 from Paddington passes. Brackhampton, Milchester, Waverton, Carvil Junction, Roxeter, Chadmouth, Vanequay; other trains stop at Haling Broadway, Barwell Heath and Market Basing. The 5.00 Welsh Express goes to Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. Well, there’s no doubting the reality of those places. Milchester appears in A Murder is Announced, Market Basing (which one presumes is based on Basingstoke) appears in Crooked House, Dumb Witness and The Secret of Chimneys (amongst others). Brackhampton is presumably Bracknell in disguise.
Otherwise, locations in London sound highly realistic; Harold has tea at Russell’s in Jermyn Street, (no such tea room, but Russell and Bromley shoe shop is in Jermyn Street), dines at Caterer’s Hall (doesn’t exist), lives at 43 Cardigan Gardens (also doesn’t exist). In Brackhampton, Emma has lunch at the Cadena Café, which was a well-established chain of cafes bought out by Tesco in 1965, shops at Greenford’s and Lyall and Swift’s, (neither of which I can identify) Boots, (obvious) and has tea at the Shamrock Tea Rooms (plenty of those around). Martine Crackenthorpe gives her address as 126 Elvers Crescent, N10. N10 is the Muswell Hill area of London, but there’s no Elvers Crescent. The compact that is found is said to have been sold by shops in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris – that’s a pretty exclusive and real address.
And now for the other references. Miss Marple tells Craddock that her method of thought was based on Mark Twain: “the boy who found the horse. He just imagined where he would go if he were a horse and he went there and there was the horse.” I’m pretty sure that’s A Horse’s Tale, published in 1907. Harold drives a Humber Hawk; that was a Hillman style car that was manufactured from 1945 to 1967. Miss Marple raises the question of tontine; the definition of which I lift shamelessly from Wikipedia: “an investment plan for raising capital, devised in the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. It enables subscribers to share the risk of living a long life by combining features of a group annuity with a kind of mortality lottery. Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund and thereafter receives a periodical payout. As members die, their payout entitlements devolve to the other participants, and so the value of each continuing payout increases. On the death of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”
Cedric advises that on the afternoon of December 20th he saw a film, Rowenna of the Range. He describes it as a corker of a western, but I’m afraid it’s fresh out of Christie’s imagination, so don’t IMDB it. I think Mrs Stanwich, the woman who poisoned and killed her own child, whose case Miss Marple recollects, is also fictional. And when Craddock asks Dr Morris about cases where people were poisoned without a doctor realising it, mentioning “the Greenbarrow case, Mrs Reney, Charles Leeds, three people in the Westbury family”, I believe these are all fictional too.
Regular 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. Most unusually, sums of money are not mentioned in this book. There’s the question of the Crackenthorpe inheritance, but no sum is actually cited. The only mention of a sum I noticed was when Mrs McGillicuddy gives a railway porter a shilling as a tip. Today that would be worth 84p. Not overly generous.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for 4.50 from Paddington:
Publication Details: 1957. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixth impression, dated May 1967, with a price of 3/6 on the front cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the sarcophagus in the background, with the compact, some fur from a collar and some foliage, neatly and fairly encapsulating a few vital elements of the plot.
How many pages until the first death: 3. There are few things more rewarding than a whodunit where the crime appears so early in the book. You know there’s no waiting around, no lengthy expositions, just the opportunity to dive straight in and solve it!
Funny lines out of context: Regrettably none that I could see.
Although some of the characters aren’t very well drawn, there are plenty that are. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is one of Christie’s strong young women, full of gumption and derring-do, a trusty pair of hands into which to entrust a lot of the leg work in solving the crime. At first you get a slight sense of disappointment that Lucy is rather artificially parachuted into the story, rather than having any real organic connection to it, but that quickly passes as she gains importance in the first half of the book. The obvious attraction that Cedric and Alfred feel for her is amusingly described, and the very gentle dalliance between her and Bryan is also rather charming.
Elsewhere, Luther Crackenthorpe also stands out because of his irascibility and belligerence, but you can see the heart within the man, and his approaches to Lucy are also amusing. You can never really decide to what extent he’s shamming his ill health or if the Doctors are right and he is needs lots of rest. Mme Joliet features briefly but entertainingly; “a brisk business-like Frenchwoman with a shrewd eye, a small moustache and a good deal of adipose tissue.” And young Alexander’s fresh-faced and exceedingly proper prep school keenness is amusingly and lovingly drawn. It’s not surprising that they made more out of that role for the film Murder She Said.
Christie the Poison expert:
Dr Quimper underplays the possibility that Crackenthorpe may have been the victim of arsenic poisoning, and there are discussions about how you can introduce arsenic gradually into a diet without anyone realising. And there was arsenic in the curry. Aconite is also used in this book – the first time that Christie employs this poison in her novels. Better known as wolf’s bane, this was the poison that was used in ancient Greece, where a javelin or dart would be dipped in the substance to make it even more lethal when piercing skin. Used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, and also for its attractive floral appearance, it’s extremely effective as a poison.
Class/social issues of the time:
By far and away the biggest social theme of this book is people’s concerns and suspicions about modern progress, juxtaposed with good old-fashioned practices. Take, for example, the new developments in a 1957 kitchen. When Bryan helps Lucy prepare dinner, he’s impressed by the modern oven. Different ingredients have been merrily cooking away, apparently with no human help. “Have all these things been fizzling away in here while we’ve been at the inquest? Supposing they’d been all burnt up.” “Most improbable,” replies Lucy, “there’s a regulating number on the oven.” “Kind of electric brain, eh what?” admires Bryan, whose exposure to modern cooking methods are limited to putting “a steak under the grill or open a tin of soup. I’ve got one of those little electric whatnots in my flat.”
Miss Marple, perhaps unexpectedly, recognises the benefits of modern domestic progress. She accepts her nephew Raymond describing her as having a mind like a sink, “but, as I always told him, sinks are necessary domestic equipment and actually very hygienic.” Harold’s wife, Lady Alice, is less progressive. “I read in the paper the other day […] of forty people in a hotel going down with food poisoning at the same time. All this refrigeration is dangerous, I think. People keep things too long in them.”
It’s not just kitchen developments that rear their head. Miss Marple and Craddock are both suspicious of the modern tendency towards explaining (or excusing) criminal behaviour from a mental health perspective. Old Doctor Morris, too, when asked by Craddock why Crackenthorpe dislikes his sons, replies “you’ll have to go to one of these new-fashioned psychiatrists to find that out.”
Another major bugbear amongst the characters – especially Luther Crackenthorpe – is high taxation. I’m not sure if this was a hangover from the war, or whether Christie’s own tax bill that year was preposterous, but there’s hardly an opportunity missed to criticise the high levels of taxation at the time. Emma says of her father, “he has a very large income and doesn’t actually spend a quarter of it – or used not to until these days of high income tax.” Dr Morris agrees: “it is the root, too, of his parsimony, I think. I should say that he’s managed to save a considerable sum out of his large income – mostly, of course, before taxation rose to its present giddy heights.” Even Miss Marple stirs his anger on the subject in a conversation also with Cedric; “”punctuality and economy. Those are my watchwords.” “Very necessary, I’m sure,” said Miss Marple, “especially in these times with taxation and everything.” Mr Crackenthorpe snorted. “Taxation! Don’t talk to me of those robbers. A miserable pauper – that’s what I am. And it’s going to get worse, not better. You wait, my boy,” he addressed Cedric, “when you get this place ten to one the Socialists will have it off you and turn it into a Welfare Centre or something.” High taxation is even given as one of the motives for the crime (but I don’t want to give away too much!)
A Christie wouldn’t be a Christie if it didn’t have a little gentle xenophobia, and in this book, it’s reserved for the French. Describing someone or something as French, is taken as a cue to roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, and say, “oh, well, the French….” as if that explains everything that’s wrong with the world.
Classic denouement: No. Even though Miss Marple sets up a revelation of who the murderer is in front of a large crowd of witnesses, it all happens so quickly and suddenly that you couldn’t possibly describe it as classic. You haven’t got the time mentally to prepare yourself for what’s about to happen. Nevertheless, it’s still very entertaining and enjoyable.
Happy ending? Yes. The final discussions between Miss Marple and Inspector Craddock are light-hearted and friendly, and they concentrate on who might engage Lucy in the matrimonial stakes. Craddock doesn’t know who might become Lucy’s significant other, but Miss Marple is certain. Interestingly, in Christie’s original notes, she made it clear that she felt it would be Cedric. But I don’t think that’s how it will work out!
Did the story ring true? As mentioned earlier, there’s one massive coincidence without which a vital piece of evidence would never have been revealed. It’s a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable surprise too, but the reader might think the coincidence is just a step too far. Personally, I forgive Christie for it, and therefore I think that, on the whole, the story just about holds together.
Overall satisfaction rating: For me, the good sides outweigh the downsides, and the twists are entertaining enough to warrant a 9/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of 4.50 from Paddington, 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 Ordeal by Innocence, a mystery novel that includes neither Poirot nor Marple, nor any of Christie’s other long-term detectives. Nothing about this book springs into my mind, so it’s either totally forgettable or my brain has sprung a leak. I guess we’ll find out! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!