In which young Gwenda Reed has a vision that she witnessed a murder when she was a child, and Miss Marple helps her and her husband Giles to investigate if she really did see the crime – and if so, who was the murderer! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
This was the last novel to feature Miss Marple and, like Curtain, was written at some point in the 1940s, then locked away in a vault until such time that Christie wanted it to be published. As it turned out, she died in January 1976, before it was published. Also like Curtain, Christie didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Sleeping Murder was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1976, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it had been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1976.
There are some conflicting opinions as to exactly when the book was written. Originally it was thought to have been around 1940, but other evidence suggests it could be almost a decade later. I note that when the characters all go to the theatre in the early part of the book they go to His Majesty’s Theatre, which obviously dates it as pre-1952. Christie had a number of possible titles for the book; the one she preferred and intended was Cover Her Face – but unfortunately for her, P D James got in there first with her first Inspector Dalgliesh novel published in 1962. Apparently, Christie had to get the manuscript out of the vault in order to change the title.
After the success of Curtain, written when Christie’s creative skills were at their height, the book-buyers of 1976 expected something equally sensational from Miss Marple’s last case, as it had also been written many years before. Alas, this hope was rather misplaced. Much of Sleeping Murder is taken up by Gwenda and Giles painstakingly working their way around the country as amateur sleuths on the track of something they don’t quite understand, with Miss Marple acting as an emotional and cerebral associate, dispensing advice and warnings from a safe distance. Of course, one of the most exciting things about reading a whodunit – Christie or otherwise – is hoping for a big surprise at the final denouement. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in this book; the person who (I felt, at least) was the most likely to have done the crime was indeed the murderer. And although it’s nice to pat oneself on the back and bask in the glory of one’s success, one also gets to feel a little cheated out of a final surprise. So you come away from the book not only slightly disappointed by the journey to the big revelation, but also by the revelation itself.
The plot also suffers from being based on a massive coincidence, namely that Gwenda bought the same house for her and Giles to live in that she had briefly lived in as a child. It isn’t as though she’d always lived in the same village, Dillmouth; she didn’t even realise she’d lived in England. Of all the houses in all the towns…. she had to buy the one she already knew (without knowing). Personally, I also find it hard to believe that Gwenda would overreact quite so astonishingly at watching the play The Duchess of Malfi – the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young…” sends her into apoplectics. For a young woman who is otherwise firmly in charge of her life, I find that pretty hard to believe.
Nevertheless, it’s very nicely written and acts as a decent swansong and nostalgia trip, celebrating the great lady’s status as a much loved amateur detective. Perhaps oddly, Miss Marple doesn’t seem to have aged in the same way that Poirot has. Whereas Hastings was upset at the sight of his old friend’s failing health, Miss Marple is described much as she always has been: “an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner, Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them.” Not only unchanged in appearance, but also in behaviour; she is still as independent and wily as ever, popping around all the old-fashioned shops ostensibly to buy wool and suchlike, but really trying to get as much gossip about the past as possible. No one would suspect her cunning ulterior motives.
She’s still socially active too; when we first come across her in the book, she is part of the party going to the London theatre, going out for a meal, and still socialising with her nephew Raymond West, still messing about in her garden, complaining about the unreliability of gardeners, and keeping up to date with her old friend Dolly Bantry. You wouldn’t know that the years have come and gone. It’s quite comforting to see that age has not withered her (well, not more than she was already withered!) Raymond West, however, who in some of the earlier book comes across as an insufferable prig, seems to be a little less annoying now – just generally intimidating, if you’re not used to moving in his circles, as Gwenda wasn’t. Miss Marple’s maid is Evelyn; that’s an anomaly, as in her later years she was looked after by her super-kindly Cherry.
There’s not much more to say about the book at this stage, so let’s take a look at the locations. Most of the book takes place in the Devon town of Dillmouth. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is Christie’s name for Dartmouth, but Aunt Alison’s letter makes it clear elsewhere that Dartmouth is a separate town. It’s a curious blend of fact and fiction; Dr Kennedy lives in Woodleigh Bolton, a fictional location, but there is a village called Woodleigh near Kingsbridge in Devon. Local train stops include Helchester, Lonsbury Bay, Newton Langford and Matchings Halt, all of which are completely charming names and totally fictional. The sanatorium in Norfolk is said to be near the town of South Benham; again, that’s fictional but there is a Banham halfway between Norwich and Thetford that might be the inspiration. Apart from that, Christie uses real-life locations, such as Exeter, Northumberland, and indeed the final chapter takes place in the well-known Imperial Hotel, Torquay.
Now for the references and quotations in this book. I’m sure you’ll realise that the esteemed actor they had the pleasure of seeing starring in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was Sir John Gielgud – in real life he performed in this play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the 1944/5 season, which again can help to identify when the book might have been written. The murderers Madeleine Smith, Lizzie Borden and Dr Crippen all get a mention – Christie has mentioned these people several times before, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Labours of Hercules, After the Funeral, Ordeal by Innocence, The Pale Horse, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, The Clocks, and Elephants Can Remember.
“Calcutta Lodge was surrounded by a neat trim garden, and the sitting-room into which they were shown was also neat if slightly overcrowded. It smelt of beeswax and Ronuk.” Ronuk? This was a brand of sanitary polish, manufactured in Portland, Dorset, until the 1950s. Miss Marple, meanwhile, in a wool shop remarks: “I always find Storkleg so reliable. It really doesn’t shrink. I think I’ll take an extra two ounces.” I believe this is a type of wool that gives an extra grip to the body, so is suitable for socks. But I could be wrong. Please tell me if I am!
Giles quotes: “I know a hundred ways of love, and each one makes the loved one rue”. This is a slight misquote from Emily Bronte – the original is “I know a hundred ways of love, All made the loved one rue” – it’s from her untitled poem LVII that begins “Were they shepherds who sat all day on that brown mountain’s side”. And, of course, there is a quick gallop through some of Miss Marple’s earlier cases in conversation with Inspector Primer, including a reference to “a little poison pen trouble” (The Moving Finger) and a churchwarden shot in the Vicar’s study (The Murder at the Vicarage.) There’s also a slightly bizarre forward reference, with an old lady at the home in Norfolk asking Gwenda “is it your poor child, my dear?” which had been previously used in By the Pricking of my Thumbs – but which wouldn’t be written for at least another twenty years!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sleeping Murder:
Publication Details: 1976. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first Australian paperback edition published in 1978, bearing the price on the back cover of $2.50. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead woman’s face against an attractive sea- and skyscape, plus a bundle of wool with two knitting needles – which I presume is in homage to Miss Marple.
How many pages until the first death: 150. It’s a long wait, but the reader isn’t frustrated by the delay. You can sense this death coming quite a long way off.
Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.
Memorable characters: Really disappointing on this front.
Christie the Poison expert: Not much here either. There is some mention of the Indian practice of “wives driving their husbands insane by datura poisoning” in the Indian courts, but that’s it. Datura is a form of Deadly Nightshade.
Class/social issues of the time: Once again we have to think of the “time” as being sometime in the 1940s rather than 1976. But there are very few issues of note in this book anyway. There’s the usual sense of xenophobia, with a number of characters repeating the thought that Leonie, the Swiss nanny, was a bit stupid because she was a foreigner; that distrust is also repeated with Mrs Fane’s scorn that her son Robert had married a Roman Catholic.
There’s also the old gardener who deplores change: “Changes all the time. People takes a house nowadays and lives in it ten or twelve years and then off they goes. Restless. What’s the good of that?” And there’s also the common theme of total distrust of anything to do with mental illness, and the sneaking suspicion that it could be inherited.
And I do have to draw your attention to the unfortunate use of the N word in a conversation with Galbraith, the old estate agent, who remembered Major Halliday. I think there was a big difference in the word’s acceptability between the 40s and 70s, so maybe it was odd that it wasn’t amended by the editors.
Classic denouement: No – instead it’s one of those occasions when the murderer reveals themselves by their own activity, attempting to kill another person, which in this particular case is thwarted by a rather comic intervention by Miss Marple.
Happy ending? Yes – in that Gwenda and Giles get to live happy ever after in their chosen home; and Miss Marple is left to carry on carrying on, undeterred by age or infirmity.
Did the story ring true? Most of the plot feels believable. The only thing I find extraordinary is that Gwenda returned unwittingly to the scene of the crime and wanted to buy it for her home.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not bad and it’s not great. An entertaining enough read, but it’s a shame the identity of the murderer is so obvious. 7/10
Thanks for reading my blog of Sleeping Murder, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was Christie’s last novel to be published, but the Agatha Christie Challenge continues with a posthumous book of short stories, Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. These had never been published in the UK before, so I’m looking forward to reading them – possibly for the first time! 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!