In which Miss Marple is contacted “from beyond the grave” (via a solicitor’s letter, not a Ouija board) by the late Mr Rafiel with whom she worked in A Caribbean Mystery. He asks her to investigate a crime but gives no other indication of what it is or how she should do it. Piqued with curiosity, Miss Marple accepts his challenge, which results in her taking a coach tour of Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain. But are all the other passengers genuine, and what crime will Miss Marple stumble upon? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
The book is dedicated to Daphne Honeybone, who was Agatha Christie’s private secretary; after Christie’s death in 1976, she continued working for Max Mallowan. Nemesis was first published in the UK in seven abridged instalments in Woman’s Realm magazine from September to November 1971, and in Canada in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement, in October 1971. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1971, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later that year.
After the massive disappointment of Passenger to Frankfurt, one might have thought that Christie had run out of good stories and her usual slick storytelling style. But whilst Nemesis is far from her best work, it’s even further from her worst. With similarities to other works where a crime from the past is investigated in the present, there are some extremely good passages of writing, and some difficult subject matter is treated with delicacy and sensitivity. There are a number of hark-backs to previous books, both thematically and in the re-use of characters; but it succeeds in being a good story, with a central plot puzzle that unfolds organically and ends with an eerie, exciting denouement. There are a few moments that rather require a suspension of credibility – but it’s not as bad as some, from that perspective. A couple of the vital clues are telegraphed heavily – much as happened with Hallowe’en Party two years earlier – and as a result it’s quite easy to work out not only whodunit but their modus operandi. Nevertheless it’s an enjoyable read, and never feels like the chore that the previous book did.
In what would be the last book that Christie wrote featuring Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), our redoubtable inhabitant of St Mary Mead is still living relatively independently, with housekeeper Cherry acting slightly more in the role of carer, which, at 81, is something Christie would herself have been sensitive to. She still has a bee in her bonnet about the difficulty of finding reliable gardeners, although it’s the new neighbour Miss Bartlett, who moans about these “elderly chaps who say they know all about gardening […] they come and have a lot of cups of tea and do a little very mild weeding.”
One of the great things about Christie’s characterisation of Miss Marple is that we never stop learning more about her. Often in Miss Marple books, she’s sitting quietly on the sidelines, listening to conversations, gathering her thoughts together and coming to a wise conclusion, before hitting us with a big reveal. With Poirot, on the other hand, we tend to see him going over the evidence, exercising his little grey cells, and watching and listening to him putting two and two together. In this book however, we get to see Miss Marple’s thought processes, and it’s a rare insight; for example discussing the evidence of the red and black check pullover with Professor Wanstead.
At the end of the first day of the coach tour, Miss Marple decides to write down her thoughts and opinions about what Rafiel had expected of her. Although I don’t think she ever goes back to writing this daily journal, it provides an excellent insight into her qualities and detective abilities. In fact, in part it reads like a CV. “Murders as reported in the press have never claimed my attention. I have never read books on criminology as a subject or really been interested in such a thing. No, it has just happened that I have found myself in the vicinity of murder rather more often that would seem normal. My attention has been directed to murders involving friends or acquaintances. These curious coincidences of connections with special subjects seem to happen to people in life.” As such, she defines herself as the opposite of Poirot, who often seeks out murder to solve, providing it’s of a sufficient degree of interest for him. He loves to read of murders in the press and never stops learning more about it through books both fiction and non-fiction.
Professor Wanstead reports that Rafiel had told him that Miss Marple has “a very fine sense of evil.” “Would you say that was true?” he asks her. She replies: “Yes, perhaps. I have at several different times in my life been apprehensive, have recognized that there was evil in the neighbourhood, the surroundings, that the environment of someone who was evil was near me, connected with what was happening […] it’s rather […] like being born with a very keen sense of smell […] I had an aunt once […] who said she could smell when people told a lie. She said there was quite a distinctive odour came to her. Their noses twitched, she said, and then the smell came.”
However, I’m not entirely certain that Miss Marple’s final reaction in the book – which is how she’s going to spend the £20,000 that Rafiel gives her – is entirely true to her character as we have previously known it. It is quite an amusing surprise though. I think it’s more likely to have been the kind of thing Poirot would have done. It confirms my feelings that, whilst writing this, Christie rather merged the personalities of her two most famous characters, and that this Miss Marple is something of a blended detective!
However, I’d like to point you in the direction of that initial conversation in Chapter 11 between Miss Marple and Professor Wanstead, when both are tiptoeing around their subject, trying to find out how much the other one knows without revealing their own hand. Given that Christie was now 81 years old, it’s as fine a piece of conversation as she had ever written, like a gentle fencing match between two elderly guarded opponents, with very polite lunges met by a parry and a riposte. It’s a joy to read.
Continuing the trend that Christie had started in both Hallowe’en Party and Passenger to Frankfurt, there are a few characters whom we have met in previous books. I don’t know if this was a sign that Christie had basically run out of new characters to play with, or whether it was simply easier for her to re-use work that she’d already done. Despite being obviously absent from the book, the character of Jason Rafiel from A Caribbean Mystery is ever-present, with Miss Marple constantly trying to second-guess what it is that he wants her to do. It works really well as a story device because it provides Miss M with the double challenge of finding her way towards a crime of the past as well as then having to solve it. As part of her early investigations she meets up with his old secretary Esther Walters, for whom Rafiel has provided handsomely with a very generous inheritance – but she feels it doesn’t get her very far in working out what it was that he wanted from her.
Miss Marple also calls on the services of taxi driver Inch, even though Inch has long retired, as she had done in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Elizabeth Temple reveals that she and Miss Marple had a mutual old friend in the figure of Sir Henry Clithering, the former Scotland Yard Commissioner, whom we first met as one of the Tuesday Club Members in The Thirteen Problems, way back in 1932, but who also reappeared in A Murder is Announced, and she worked alongside his godson, Inspector Craddock, in 4.50 from Paddington and the aforementioned Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Clithering also appears in The Body in the Library, which Miss Marple recalls in this book, when she’s passing the time of day with Miss Cooke and Miss Barrow. Thus Nemesis integrates nicely into the rest of the Marple oeuvre.
As usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. The offices of solicitors Broadribb and Schuster are in Berkeley Street, Mayfair, a very elegant location near Green Park. The Old Manor House, where the Bradbury-Scotts live is in the charmingly named Jocelyn St Mary, which really ought to exist but is one of Christie’s rural inventions. Mrs Glynne lived thirty miles away in Little Herdsley with her late husband – also invented – and I was amused by Mrs Merrypit remembering she’d once seen the treasures at Luton Loo. I reckon she means Sutton Hoo – which although is in the east of the country as she recollects, is nowhere near Luton.
Let’s check out the references and quotations in this book. As Christie gets older she finds the need to provide us with more and more literary quotations. At the beginning of the book Miss Marple thinks of her friendship with the late Mr Rafiel as being ships that pass in the night. That’s a saying that has won a firm place in everyone’s language. I always thought it was a proverb, but it’s actually a quote from Longfellow, from Tales of a Wayside Inn: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”
“Call no man happy until he is dead” murmurs Miss Marple in her conversation with Esther. According to Herodotus (so it must be true) these were the wise words of Ancient Greek statesman Solon. The gist of the full quotation is “Call no man happy until he is dead, but only lucky.” Elizabeth Temple quotes T S Eliot: “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree are of equal duration”. This is from the final section of Eliot’s fourth Quartet, Little Gidding. Chapter Ten is titled “Oh! Fond, Oh! Fair, The Days that Were” – this must be a quote, but I’m blowed if I can find what it’s from. Anyone out there know?
When Miss Marple sees a newspaper placard saying that a second girl’s body had been found in the Epsom Downs Murder case, “some lines of forgotten verse came haltingly into her brain: Rose white youth, passionate, pale, A singing stream in a silent vale, A fairy prince in a prosy tale, Oh there’s nothing life so finely frail As Rose White Youth.” This is a short poem by Thomas Chatterton.
Miss Marple catches sight of a book in a shop – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and says “oh dear, it’s a sad world one lives in.” That was a 1960 book by Henry Farrell that famously was made into a film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And there’s a final quote that Miss Marple cites regarding Mr Rafiel’s sense of Justice: “Let Justice roll down like waters And Righteousness like an everlasting stream.” It is from the Bible; it’s Chapter 5, Verse 24 of the Book of Amos.
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 are two sums mentioned in the book – both fairly significant sums; the £20,000 that Rafiel promises Miss Marple if she completes his task, and the £50,000 that Esther Walters inherited from him. In today’s money, Miss Marple gets the equivalent of just under £200,000 and Esther got £500,000!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Nemesis:
Publication Details: 1971. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1974, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. The young me also wrote my name in the front and dated it August 1974! The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a young woman’s face obscured by a flower, and a ruined greenhouse covered by foliage. All pretty appropriate!
How many pages until the first death: 68 pages until the first reported death, 107 until the first death that happens during the course of the current story. That’s quite a long time to wait for a Christie death, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Funny lines out of context:
Memorable characters: Perhaps the most memorable are the two unmarried Bradbury-Scott sisters, the scatty Anthea and the strong Clotilde. But for the most part this book is dominated by Miss Marple, with the second big influence being Rafiel from beyond the grave.
Christie the Poison expert: There is an unconfirmed suggestion that Hemlock might have been administered as part of a crime – but it’s only lightly touched upon. That’s only the second time it’s mentioned in all Christie’s works to date – the first time being in Five Little Pigs.
Class/social issues of the time:
One doesn’t tend to think of Miss Marple having latent racism or xenophobia, because she needs to keep an open mind in order to solve a crime. However, in this book she occasionally recognises it in herself. When she first joins the coach trip, she looks around her fellow passengers to see who arouses her suspicions – and none of them does, except Mr Caspar, who is described as an “excitable foreigner”. “Nobody appeared to Miss Marple likely to be a murderer except Mr Caspar, and that was probably foreign prejudice.” She recognises it for what it is.
After a conversation with him and the Misses Cooke and Barrow, her suspicions have not been allayed. “Mr Caspar, now, it would have been much easier to imagine that he might be dangerous. Did he understand more English than he pretended to? She began to wonder about Mr Caspar. Miss Marple had never quite succeeded in abandoning her Victorian view of foreigners. One never knew with foreigners. Quite absurd, or course, to feel like that – she had many friends from various foreign countries. All the same…?” And of course, there are Mr and Mrs Butler, of whom she says “such nice Americans – but perhaps – too good to be true?” Americans are also foreigners, although not on the same level of suspicion as Europeans.
I did like Christie’s description of the Bradbury-Scotts’ garden. “It had the elements of an ordinary Victorian garden”. Once more Miss Marple is reflecting back to the good old days of the Victorian era. But if this was an ordinary Victorian garden, one can only imagine an extraordinary one! “A shrubbery, a drive of speckled laurels, no doubt there had once been a well kept lawn and paths, a kitchen garden of about an acre and a half, too big evidently for the three sisters who lived here now.”
Part of Christie’s unhappiness with the world today which was seen very strongly in her previous book Passenger to Frankfurt, stems from a disapproval of the way the young people of today behave and dress. This started being most evident in Third Girl. When Dr Stokes is questioning Miss Crawford at the inquest, she is uncertain whether the figure she saw near the boulders was a man or a woman. “”There was longish hair at the back of a kind of beret, rather like a woman’s hair, but then it might just as well have been a man’s.” “It certainly might,” said Dr Stokes, rather drily. “Identifying a male or female figure by their hair is certainly not easy these days.””
There’s also a continuation of the rather uncomfortable theme today of the promiscuity of youngsters, and the sexualisation of children. The character of Nora Broad is pretty much assassinated throughout the whole of the book with the villagers’ comments about and attitudes towards her general behaviour, bearing in mind she was a schoolgirl. For example, Mrs Blackett’s view: “it was something terrible the way she went on with all the boys. Anyone could pick her up. Real sad it is. I’d say she’ll go on the streets in the end”. Or the unnamed neighbour: “She was boy mad, she was […] I told her she’d do herself no good going off with every Tom, Dick or Harry that offered her a lift in a car or took her along to a pub where she told lies about her age.”
Wanstead is guilty of uttering a terrible line about the girls of today, that would be pretty much unthinkable nowadays. “He had assaulted a girl. He had conceivably raped her, but he had not attempted to strangle her and in my opinion – I have seen a great many cases which come before the Assizes – it seemed to me highly unlikely that there was a very definite case of rape. Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be. Their mothers insist, very often, that they should call it rape. The girl in question had had several boy-friends who had gone further than friendship. I did not think it counted very greatly as evidence against him.”
Solicitor Broadribb is not much better. “Suspected of having done away with perhaps three other girls during the past year, Michael was. But evidence wasn’t so good in the other deaths – so the police went all out on this one – plenty of evidence – bad record. Earlier cases of assault and rape. Well, we all know what rape is nowadays. Mum tells the girl she’s got to accuse the young man of rape even if the young man hasn’t had much chance, with the girl at him all the time to come to the house while mum’s away at work, or dad’s gone on holiday. Doesn’t stop badgering him until she’s forced him to sleep with her. Then, as I say, mum tells the girl to call it rape.”
One other theme, that I can only touch on very lightly without issuing a major spoiler, is that one of the characters is gay and that plays a vital role in the crime. It’s never explicitly said, but it makes sense that that’s the case. I can say no more!
Classic denouement: Reading the book, it occurred to me that the denoument might have been heavily influenced by the 1960s Miss Marple films, because Miss M gets herself into a near-death scrape that is just like the kind of thing Margaret Rutherford would have escaped from in the final reel. It’s not a classic denouement, but it is a very exciting one, where actions reveal the truth of about the crime more than words. Having said that, there are some extremely wordy passages in the post-denouement chapter, where all the explanations are made; that could have been written a little more animatedly, I feel.
Happy ending? You’d have to say yes. Justice is seen to be done, and an innocent party is released from prison – although there’s no suggestion that the innocent party is now going to live a life of law-abiding decency; quite the reverse. There’s also the happy ending of Miss Marple becoming £20,000 the richer. But I’m still not remotely convinced that what she says she’s going to do with the money is credible in the slightest.
Did the story ring true? Despite its ornate and unusual set-up, there are plenty of Christies that are more incredible than this one! Suspend your sense of disbeliefs and you can completely accept this book on face value.
Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It has its faults but it’s a pretty satisfying book overall and I enjoyed reading it enormously!
Thanks for reading my blog of Nemesis, 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 Elephants Can Remember, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Hercule Poirot, although the master detective would still appear a couple more times. I can remember nothing about this book, so I go into it with no preconceived ideas! 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!