In which Christie gives us six short stories featuring Miss Marple, plus two other supernatural stories, none of which had been published in the UK before in book form. Miss Marple’s Final Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1979, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
This first story was originally published in the October 1954 issue of Woman’s Journal, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories, in 1961. The way it was written and published is an interesting curiosity; it was written to raise money for the Westminster Abbey restoration appeal, and was sold to the highest bidder, the aforementioned Woman’s Journal, who never revealed how much they paid – but it is believed to be a substantial amount.
Vicar’s wife Diana Harmon comes upon a dying man in the local church; he must have been there all night clutching a wad to a bullet wound in his chest. When he sees Diana, he just says the one word “sanctuary”. Despite the efforts of the doctor, the man dies shortly afterwards. But Diana is suspicious of the man’s relatives, Mr and Mrs Eccles, who want to know all about his death and what happened to the man’s coat. That’s when Diana calls upon the assistance of her godmother, Miss Jane Marple, and together, with of course the help of the police, they solve the mystery of the man’s death.
This excellent little story, that sets up a neat and intriguing plot, is simply but effectively told, although the solution to it is perhaps a little hurried. We’ve met Diana and Julian Harmon of Chipping Cleghorn, together with their pompously named cat, Tiglath Pileser, before – they feature in A Murder is Announced which had been published a few years earlier in 1950. Inspector Craddock, who leads the police detection in that book, also appears in Sanctuary.
Christie explains that Diana had been called “Bunch at an early age for somewhat obvious reasons and the name had stuck to her ever since.” I’m not sure if one would instantly work out those obvious reasons, but I went back to A Murder is Announced and found this helpful description: “Mrs Harmon, the roundness of whose form and face had early led to the soubriquet of “Bunch” being substituted for her baptismal name of Diana…” Still not quite sure why plumpness would suggest “Bunch”, but there you go.
There are some easy clues to working out who the criminal(s) is/are, but the reason why the dying man also says “Julian” is quite satisfying, and I like the fact that Miss Marple enjoyed the “pre-war” quality of her face towel.
One slightly odd matter: the dead man had on him half a return railway ticket, but the police constable says he must have come to Chipping Cleghorn by bus. I think we can forgive this discrepancy as it was all written for charity!
A really enjoyable start to the book.
Miss Marple exercises her brain in this charming little story, originally published in issue 643 in July 1944 of the Stand Magazine in the UK under the name The Case of the Buried Treasure, and in This Week magazine on 2nd November 1941 in the US. Young Charmian and Edward were hoping to use their expected inheritance from their Uncle Mathew in order to set up home together. However, he’s hidden his riches somewhere and they don’t know how to go about finding them!
Not only does this Miss Marple short story NOT contain a murder, it doesn’t even contain a crime! Instead Miss M and her two young friends go on a treasure hunt trying to find how and where Mathew has left them an inheritance. The fact that there is no crime makes the whole story stand out and feel very clean and wholesome! There’s also a very clever solution to the mystery.
This story shows Miss Marple at her kindest and most indulgent. She can’t wait to help the nice young couple solve their conundrum – and you get the feeling it’s partly because she wants them to find the inheritance but also she’s really interested in revealing the solution, almost from an academic point of view. She makes the rather damning observation, “the depravity of human nature is unbelievable”; maybe it’s Charmian and Edward’s youthful spirit and delight that attracts her to them so much. Interestingly, if this was originally published in 1941, it was probably written around ten years after Miss Marple first appeared in her books, and a couple of years before her second appearance, in The Body in the Library.
There are quite a few interesting references to follow up. Edward says “it made me think of an Arsene Lupin story wither there was something hidden in a man’s glass eye.” Lupin, of course, was a gentleman thief in the fiction of French writer Maurice Leblanc; he first appeared in print in The Arrest of Arsene Lupin in 1905. The story that includes the glass eye is The Crystal Stopper, first published in 1912.
Miss Marple refers to the recipes of Mrs Beaton in her rather unusual route to get to the truth. ““First catch your hare – “ as Mrs Beaton says in her cookery book – a wonderful book but terribly expensive, most of the recipes begin, “Take a quart of cream and dozen eggs.”” Mrs Isabella Beaton – really Beeton – was probably the first published expert about cooking (and indeed, all domestic science), most notably in her Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.
There are a couple of old-fashioned sayings in this story. Describing something as gammon and spinach, to mean nonsense, was a phrase I’d never come across before. Actually I had… as I knew the old rhyme A Frog he Would a-Wooing go, but I didn’t realise the phrase was in the refrain. I believe the Spinach part was originally Spinnage, as in spinning a tale. But it’s an odd one really.
There’s also the phrase All My Eye and Betty Martin, which I didn’t know until I came across it in another Christie book, One Two Buckle My Shoe. This was published just a year before Strange Jest first appeared in print, so it must have been a phrase that was firmly embedded in Christie’s mind at the time!
There are a couple of financial sums mentioned in this story, but the important one is the big individual item to be inherited, which was estimated to have a value of $25,000, which today would be equivalent to about £450,000. Charmian and Edward are going to be VERY rich.
Very entertaining, undemanding, pure little story.
Tape Measure Murder
This jaunty little tale was originally published in the February 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine, under the title The Case of the Retired Jeweller, and in the November 16th 1941 edition of This Week magazine in the US. Dressmaker Miss Politt calls on Mrs Spenlow to make alterations to a dress but doesn’t answer the door – because she’s dead. Did Mr Spenlow kill his wife to inherit her money?
One wonders why anyone might commit murder in St Mary Mead, when it is inevitable that Miss Marple will get involved and guide the police to the correct deduction. In many ways, plot-wise this is a classic early Christie story in miniature, with dropped clues and red herring suspects; but she revels in an unusually massive dose of fun in the invigoratingly dramatic and humorous way in which she tells the tale. Consider, for example, how she announces that Mrs Spenlow has died: ““Nonsense,” said Miss Hartnell firmly. “She can’t have gone out. I’d have had met her. I’ll just take a look through the windows and see if I can find any signs of life” […] Miss Hartnell, it is true, saw no signs of life. On the contrary, she saw, through the window, Mrs Spenlow lying on the hearthrug – dead.”
The story enjoys reuniting us with the usual St Mary Mead suspects as well as Miss Marple – Chief Constable Colonel Melchett, Inspector Slack, Constable Palk and Miss Hartnell had all appeared in The Body in the Library. Miss Hartnell, Slack and Melchett were also in The Murder at the Vicarage, and Melchett also crops up again in The Thirteen Problems. The continuity of characters is almost comforting as you read what they get up to next.
Christie tells us that some people call Miss Marple “vinegar-tongued” – but that’s not a description of her that I recognise. Yes, of course, she is comfortable telling difficult truths when the time is right, but there’s not normally any vinegar to her style. There’s certainly none in this short story. Melchett describes Ted Gerard as an “Oxford Grouper”; the Oxford Group was a Christian organisation founded in 1921, which became very popular in the 1930s and led to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. And this is another tale in which Christie refers to Dr Crippen, hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910.
It’s a very entertaining tale written with a lightness of touch and an almost indecent sense of fun and mischief, stylistically quite unlike most of Christie’s other work.
The Case of the Caretaker
This odd little short story was originally published in the January 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the July 5, 1942 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune in the US. A gloomy, bed-ridden Miss Marple is slowly recovering from flu, so Dr Haydock gives her a puzzle to solve – a murder mystery that he has written out – apparently a work of fiction, but Miss Marple soon sees through that. She also works out the identity of the murderer. Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?
Structurally, this is something of a curiosity, as most of the story comprises of Dr Haydock’s narrative, simply topped and tailed by an introduction and Miss Marple’s conclusions. It’s a new way to express a familiar plot, and it works fine, with Miss Marple solving the mystery on the sidelines, relying only on what she’s told by someone else. The only problem with the story is that the solution to Dr Haydock’s puzzle is rather easy to guess.
One of the characters is a Miss Harmon – might she be a relative of Bunch, who appeared earlier in this collection in the story Sanctuary, as well as in A Murder is Announced? Both stories are set within the Miss Marple landscape. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with strophanthin discovered in a syringe – this was used by native African tribes used as an arrow poison, and today is often used in euthanasia.
Christie described Haydock’s challenge to Miss Marple to solve the puzzle as a “Parthian shot” – originally a hit-and-run tactic employed by the Parthian cavalry, but nicely subsumed into the English language because of its similarity to the phrase “parting shot”, which is basically what is meant here. And Harry Laxton is described as a scapegrace – I’ve heard of scapegoat, of course, but never a scapegrace. They’re not the same thing; according to my OED, a scapegrace is a young scamp or rascal, someone who escapes the grace of God. So now you know.
Guessable, but enjoyable.
The Case of the Perfect Maid
This clever and imaginative story was originally published in the April 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine under the title The Perfect Maid, and in the September 13, 1942 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune in the US. Gladys Holmes is dismissed from her position as maid to Misses Lavinia and Emily Skinner and replaced with an apparently perfect maid, Mary Higgins, who comes with excellent references. But is Mary Higgins as perfect as she seems?
This is a terrific little tale that draws you in and leaves you truly surprised by Miss Marple’s extraordinary but totally believable solution. She tricks the criminal – even before a crime has been committed – into revealing themselves with undeniable evidence. All the St Mary Mead crew are there – Haydock, Hartnell, Miss Wetherby, Inspector Slack, and even Mrs Price-Ridley gets a mention. Some new characters are introduced, living at Old Hall, a big house that has been converted into flats, including an Indian judge who insists on having a “chota hazri” – basically an early morning cup of tea and a biscuit.
The story is beautifully written too, with a lightness of touch and deftly humorous turns of phrase. Gladys is a described as “bouncing, self-opinionated” which gives us a perfect insight into what she’s like. Miss Emily’s hairstyle is “untidily wound around her head and erupting into curls, the whole thing looking like a bird’s nest of which no self-respecting bird could be proud.”
Short, sweet, and great fun.
Miss Marple Tells a Story
This unusual but rather clever little tale was originally published in the 25th May 1935 issue of Home Journal, under the title Behind Closed Doors, although it had been previously broadcast on the BBC in May 1934, read by Christie herself, as a special commission for a radio series called Short Story. It was originally published in the US in the collection The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Marple solves a classic “locked room” murder mystery, and saves a husband from going to the gallows.
The story is unusual in that it is narrated by Miss Marple rather than Christie telling us her story. This was written quite early in Miss Marple’s career, so to speak, coming after The Murder in the Vicarage and The Thirteen Problems, but before the majority of the Marple novels. As narrated by herself, here Miss Marple comes across as a little more dithering and self-effacing than one is used to; easily distracted and wittering on about unimportant things. It’s not how I see Miss Marple; it’s almost like a development stage for Christie to get her characterisation right.
Other aspects that don’t fit in with the usual Marple landscape include the fact that she has yet another maid at this time – Gwen, and that there is a town twenty miles away called Barnchester; I believe this is the only story featuring that fictional location. However, her nephew Raymond and his wife Joan, to whom she tells her story, are consistent characters in all the Marple stories. And she does admit to preferring the art of Alma-Tadema and Leighton, as she had already explained in A Murder is Announced.
There’s one theme which fits in with many other Christie stories and novels, which is that a murderer is a murderer because of “insanity in the family”.
Curious, but entertaining.
The Dressmaker’s Doll
This is the first of two stories that were not published in my original copy of Miss Marple’s Final Cases but were added to a later edition. It was first published in the December 1958 issue of Woman’s Journal, and in the US in the June 1959 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story had previously appeared in Canada in the 25 October 1958 issue of the Star Weekly magazine.
A doll appears at a Dressmaker’s workshop. No one seems to remember how it got there, or if someone gave it to someone as a gift. The floppy doll has a habit of moving from room to room, but no one admits moving it. In the end, the people who work there become so anxious about the doll that they throw it out of a window. But will it be gone forever?
Not a crime story, more an attempt at a ghost story or supernatural tale. It’s rather repetitive, heavy-handed in its construction and conversations, and with a somewhat disappointing ending. Clearly Christie was trying to turn her hand to the supernatural – but really, this story doesn’t work well at all. However, according to John Curran in Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, she described The Dressmaker’s Doll as “a very favourite story.”
In a Glass Darkly
This spooky little tale was originally published in the US, in the 28 July 1934 issue of Collier’s Weekly. It hadn’t been published in the UK until it appeared in this volume. However, its first public appearance was when Agatha Christie read the story on BBC Radio on 6th April 1934. Sadly, no recording of the broadcast has survived.
When changing for dinner the narrator sees a vision in a mirror behind him of a man with a scar strangling a beautiful girl; of course, when he turns around, the vision is gone and all that is was there was a wardrobe. But then he goes down for dinner and sees that the beautiful girl is in fact his best friend’s sister, and that the man with the scar is her fiancé. Has he seen her future in a dream? Can he stop the man from killing her some time in the future?
This is another supernatural tale, considerably better, I would say, than The Dressmaker’s Doll, but still lacking a truly decent twist that would make it a good short story. But it nicely plays with the psychology of relationships, and is decently written.
And that concludes all eight stories in Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. On the whole, they’re very high quality – especially if you ignore the two supernatural stories at the end! Fully worthy of an 8/10, rating I would say. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box. Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is another collection of eight short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!