In which Miss Marple has been sent on a rest holiday to the Caribbean island of St Honoré, where she is cornered by an old bore named Major Palgrave, who tells her a story about a murder and offers to show her a photo of the murderer; however, at the last minute he thinks better of it. Nevertheless, murders follow, and Miss Marple is up for the challenge to find out the culprit is and prevent more deaths. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The book is dedicated “to my old friend John Cruikshank Rose with happy memories of my visit to the West Indies”. John Rose worked on the dig at Ur under Leonard Woolley, and when Max Mallowan oversaw a dig in Arpachiyah in Syria in 1932, he recruited Rose as his draughtsman. A Caribbean Mystery was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 16th November 1964, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1965. It was also published, in two abridged instalments, in the Toronto Star Weekly Novel in January 1965.
Although some significant contemporary reviewers saw this book as a return to form for Christie, personally I found it rather disappointing. As does sometimes happen with Christie, it gets off to a cracking start, but then it seems to lose its way in the middle, before gathering all its bits and pieces and getting its act together for a decent ending. Unlike most Miss Marple books that had been published by this date, A Caribbean Mystery places Miss Marple firmly in the heart of things, without a Detective Inspector Craddock or similar copper to do the majority of the donkey work, which normally leaves Miss M to hover in the wings and turn up for a few crucial blows.
No, in this book, the local Caribbean detectives play a very minor role and it’s up to Miss Marple to mastermind the investigation. She wastes no time starting her detective work, well before any of the authorities suspect that something might be amiss. But you quickly realise it’s a role with which she isn’t actually that familiar. Unlike Poirot, who lies with the greatest of ease, you see her go through pangs of guilt about telling porkies to suspects in order to find out what she wants. Moreover, she has to team up with the offensive Mr Rafiel, who treats most people like slaves; he’s a crude and offensive conversationalist at the best of times. We’re simply not used to seeing Miss Marple put up with impolite behaviour, and, without a decent English police superintendent or a polite environment to work in, this just doesn’t feel like The Real Miss Marple. Maybe we miss St Mary Mead too much, but sometimes it’s as though another character has invaded the book and taken over Miss M’s personality. That might account for the fact that once she had started her investigations in earnest, rather than finding it unputdownable, I found hardtopickupable.
Let’s take a further look at what more we learn about Miss Marple in this book; as she takes central stage throughout, there’s a lot of material to consider. Right at the beginning we hear her views on “modern novels” – “so difficult – all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, enjoying them.” It maybe comes as no surprise that Miss Marple wouldn’t like that kind of book; one thinks of her with her Bible and maybe a Jane Austen if she wanted something racy. But Christie goes on with something that may come as a surprise: ““Sex” as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple’s young days; but there had been plenty of it – not talked about so much – but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her. Though usually labelled Sin, she couldn’t help feeling that that was preferable to what it seemed to be nowadays – a kind of Duty.”” Miss Marple! Are we discovering that you’re not quite the maiden aunt we always presumed? Sometime later her mind goes back to the past. “A young man she had met at a croquet party. He had seemed so nice – rather gay, almost Bohemian in his views […] he had been suitable, eligible, […] and Miss Marple had found that, after all, he was dull. Very dull.” It doesn’t sound like they had a passionate affair, so it’s hard to know what to make of her romantic past.
Away from her natural environment, she’s not enjoying her holiday as much as she ought, and certainly not as much as her nephew Raymond would have expected. She’s bored by the weather always being fine: “no interesting variations”. Tim Kendal is alert to her slight unhappiness, and somewhat erroneously offers her bread and butter pudding to make her feel more at home. “Miss Marple smiled and said that she thought she could do without bread and butter pudding very nicely for the present.” But she doesn’t like the steel bands; “she considered they made a hideous noise, unnecessarily loud.” She doesn’t like the way young people dance; “flinging themselves about, seeming quite contorted.” She’s critical of Lucky: ““forty, if she’s a day, and looks it this morning,” thought Miss Marple.” She feels sorry for Esther: “Miss Marple sighed, a sigh that any woman will give however old at what might be considered wasted opportunities” – but in this instance it’s the fact that she doesn’t know how to make herself attractive. Miss Marple never was bound to the cause of feminism. All this amounts to the fact that there isn’t much joy in Miss Marple in this book – she’s out of sorts, out of place and the twinkle in her eye is missing.
One other aspect to the narrative that didn’t entirely feel comfortable to me was the side plot about Molly’s health. Without giving too much away, so I must pick my words carefully, it did feel at times as though Christie considered it a separate story, not properly integrated into the rest of the book. But that may be a deliberate ploy by Christie to mask an important part of the plot. I’ll leave you to decide!
Otherwise it’s quite a straightforward book; it all takes place in the one location, the Caribbean island of St Honoré, which is an invention of Christie’s, whose chief town appears to be Jamestown. That’s the original name of Holetown, the capital of Barbados, so maybe that’s where Christie is setting it in her imagination. Like Evil Under the Sun, And Then There Were None and the next book she was to write, At Bertram’s Hotel, a hotel plays a prominent part, which always lends a sense of confinement and claustrophobia to a story.
In other references, Miss Marple wonders if she made up the quote “the many splendoured weather of an English day”. It looks like she did, as I can’t find any other instances of that phrase online. The bottle that was found in Major Palgrave’s room, Serenite, is a natural medication extracted from herbs and is a non-addictive sleep aid. It’s also the new name given to a gemstone found in Oregon, USA! There is also a magnesium-based drug called Serenight.
Miss Marple advises us that as a child they were told to put cobwebs on a cut. Really? I’ve never heard of that before. But apparently, it’s true. Spider webs supposedly have natural antiseptic and anti-fungal properties, which can help keep wounds clean and prevent infection. Who knew?! There’s also a couple of instances where Miss M appears to call on the Almighty to help. “Who will go for me? Whom shall I send?” she asks. This is taken from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 6 Verse 8. And she misquotes the Bible in her sleepiness, “and the evening and the morning were the last day”; it should be the first day, not the last day, and that comes from the creation story, Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 5.
Talking of the Bible, one of the chapters is entitled “Without Benefit of Clergy”, which is a short story by Rudyard Kipling; and Miss Marple says that she once worked for “the Armenian relief”, which I presume meant working with refugees. There is an Armenian Relief Society, founded in 1910 and based in Boston, Massachusetts. Another tantalising insight into Miss M’s back story that is only lightly touched on. We want to know more!
Mr Rafiel comes out with some Latin: “Ave Caesar, nos morituri te salutamus”. Miss Marple apologises for not knowing much Latin; but it means, those who are about to die salute you – and is taken from Suetonius’ Life of the Caesars. Basically, Rafiel is telling Miss M that he’s not got long to go; and, indeed, by the time Christie was to write Nemesis, in 1971, Rafiel has died.
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. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £50,000. It’s an important sum – and is the amount that one of the characters has willed to another of the characters – I’ll say no more on that front because it might give some of the game away! Anyway, that’s the equivalent of over £700,000 today. A very nice little inheritance!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for A Caribbean Mystery:
Publication Details: 1964. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, twelfth impression, published in March 1972, bearing the price on the back cover of 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, depicts the dead face of Major Palgrave, his bulbous glass eye staring out hideously at us. There’s also a snapshot – which is a Very Big Clue.
How many pages until the first death: 16. Another very quick death, which always gets the reader’s juices flowing!
Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.
Memorable characters: Most of the characters are not particularly memorable, or individually well drawn. I’d say the standout character is Mr Rafiel, because of his charismatic stature and ruthless domination of his staff and the other characters – even Miss Marple. He’s a shouting bully, used to getting his own way through a lifetime of successful business deals and with no sensitivity to other people’s feelings. But you can tell that there is a lot of intelligence there too, and he and Marple form a pretty useful detective team.
Christie the Poison expert: Poison is involved in the first death, and in another attempted murder that is frustrated just in time. There’s a suggestion that arsenic is involved, also Belladonna Atropine, and Datura, which is not just a pretty flower.
Class/social issues of the time: I said earlier on that I felt this was a very straightforward book in some respects, and that’s certainly reflected in the lack of social issues discussed in the book. Nevertheless, there are still a few interesting things to consider.
The book predates Roy Jenkins’ Permissive Society, but you can see some of the more modern ways of speech and behaviour appearing. Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond has a friend who wanted somewhere quiet to write a book – he’s going to stay in Miss Marple’s house whilst she is in the Caribbean. ““He’ll look after the house all right. He’s very house proud. He’s a queer. I mean –“ He had paused, slightly embarrassed, but surely even dear old Aunt Jane must have heard of queers.” I’m pretty sure that back in 1963 this was disrespectful, but common, terminology.
It’s also interesting how Molly seems to expect to have to put up with behaviour that today we’d consider unacceptable sexual harassment. The drunken Gregory, for example: ““now then, Molly my lovely, have a drink with me […] now don’t run away.” His arm fastened round her arm. “You’re a lovely girl, Molly […] I could go for you, you know, in a big way.” He leered at her.” Clearly, she looks on this kind of incident as just one of the down sides of the job.
Given Christie’s propensity for a little latent xenophobia, if not racism, it was always going to be unlikely that a story that takes place on a Caribbean island would get off scot-free in this department. There are, for example, some assumptions made about the local Caribbean staff, that, sexually, their morals are not all they should be. Miss Marple reflects: “nice natures, all these girls, and a pity they were so averse to getting married. It worried Canon Prescott a good deal. Plenty of christenings, he said, trying to console himself, but no weddings.”
There is also an uncomfortable moment where Dyson laughs at the sight of Victoria’s face; “it had looked like a faceless apparition but that was because, though the dress was white, the face was black”. Admittedly Dyson was drunk, but still I didn’t care for that sentence. Even more uncomfortable is when Tim tries to explain Molly’s anxiety: “Coming out here to the West Indies. All the dark faces.” There is, however, one paragraph where Rafiel appreciates how hard Molly and Tim have worked to get the hotel up and running, and his choice of language is very much of its day but now feels simply racist. I’m going to leave you the quote with no further discussion on the subject: “They’ve both worked like blacks, though that’s an odd term to use out here, for blacks, don’t work themselves to death at all, so far as I can see. Was looking at a fellow shinning up a coconut tree to get his breakfast, then he goes to sleep for the rest of the day. Nice life.”
Classic denouement: The culprit is uncovered when Miss Marple and Rafiel step in to prevent another murder, and thus there is no time for a grand gathering of suspects in the best Poirot tradition. As a result the revelation is a little hurried, but, without question, it’s dramatic and exciting. Then there is a final chapter, where everything falls into place, followed by an epilogue, which makes the end feel a little lopsided. I should, however, say, that I couldn’t remember whodunit when I started to read the book, but about two thirds of the way through I successfully guessed who it was. And if I can do it, I expect most people can!
Happy ending? Not a traditional Christie happy ending – more a wistful one. Some people get a raw deal out of it.
Did the story ring true? There are two glaring aspects to the story which for me are entirely far-fetched. Palgrave is about to show a photo of a murderer and then stops in his tracks because he sees something/someone presumably involved in that old murder. There’s no way that that could have been the first time that Palgrave saw that thing or that person – so why would he start the conversation in the first place? That doesn’t make sense to me. There’s also a moment where Miss Marple just happens to find a book concealed underneath a mattress, which certainly provides something of a clue. Again, how did she know to look there? No, for me this book is one of those to be filed under Too Much Coincidence and Too Far-Fetched, sadly.
Overall satisfaction rating: A good start and a good end but it sags in the middle; and you also feel Miss Marple isn’t depicted in quite the same way that she has been before, which feels disappointing. Added to the coincidences discussed above, I can’t give this book more than a 7/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of A Caribbean Mystery, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. The next book that Christie wrote was At Bertram’s Hotel, but I’ve already written about that book, as my first few Christie blogs appeared in the order that I originally read them! Therefore next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is the book after that, Third Girl, of which I only have a vague recollection – Hercule Poirot feeling very much out of place in Swinging Sixties’ London. I’m really looking forward to re-reading this one! 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!
2 thoughts on “The Agatha Christie Challenge – A Caribbean Mystery (1964)”
If I’m not mistaken, the ‘Ave Caesar, morituri te salutamus’ line also finds itself in The Secret Adversary, written forty years before.
Excellent detective work, Manav!