As many of you know I am in the middle of this project to read all of Agatha Christie’s novels in publication order. Finally I have reached the books she wrote in the 1950s. I don’t know what it is about them, but they seem to be lighter, not quite so grim as they were during the war years.
This stor feels like an odd party. It has a boatload of characters, practically all the major residents of the small town of Chipping Cleghorn. So many people are involved, primarily because of a very unusual announcement in the local newspaper:
“A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30 p.m.”
Everyone, including Miss Blacklock the owner of Little Padock, say they did not put the advertisement in the newspaper. No one knows what is going on. Is it some sort of party game? There is a lot of speculation, but of course, they wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Soon, after everyone gathered at Little Paddocks, the lights went out, several gunshots could be heard and. yes indeed, someone was dead. Who is this dead man? Was he the intended victim? What was the motive? With all the lights out, how can we know who did it?
Thus begins a fairly complicated fictional murder investigation, but one that is well known. It’s one of the best examples of how an Agatha Christie story can be woven and twisted into a triple-pretzeled plot. Not until the very end did I have any inkling as to the who, why and how.
For me, the best part of this novel was the re-entry of Miss Jane Marple. I like it when she enters a case. She’s not really a detective, just a good amateur sleuth. However, I have to tell you that ex-Commisioner Sir Henry Clithering disagrees with me. The Detective Inspector assigned to the case, Dermot Craddock, was lamenting the fact that he didn’t have enough insider information on Chipping Cleghorn. Sir Henry told him about Jane Marple, describing her this way:
“She’s just the finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in a suitable soil. Remember that an elderly unmarried woman who knits and gardens is streets ahead of any detective sergeant. She can tell you what might have happened and what ought to have happened and even what actually did happen! And she can tell you why it happened!’
By a stroke of luck Miss Marple was visiting one of her friends nearby and was persuaded to help the police. She is able to gain personal information in the same way you and I do — we simply “chat-up” people in an unassuming old-lady fashion. We make statements on the condition of people and life-in-general and then begin asking subtle, but targeted questions. Soon all but the most wary start to spill the juicy gossip and personal details. Sometimes I am amazed at what perfect strangers tell me, so I have no doubt about Jane Marple’s success rate.
It takes a lot of conversation and mulling over to finally arrive at a suspect. A few more people are murdered during the process and there is a great deal of terror and confusion in this small community. Everyone, including me, is shocked when the killer is revealed.
There is no doubt that this is one of Agatha Christie’s top stories. I have only one slight complaint. After the killer is revealed I thought she took way too long explaining how everything happened. Once the killer was exposed, I could figure out the rest. That’s a very minor glitch for me. All the twists and turns in the story and putting together all the little details is what makes this story the equivalent of working out a complicated jigsaw puzzle. It was extremely satisfying.