Ingenious Murders

Having read a fair number of Agatha Christie mysteries lately, and especially thinking about her earlier mysteries, has led me to think about ingenious murders and the related subject of ingenious plots of murder mysteries. Agatha Christie was, I think, the queen of outwitting the reader. Certainly, she broke more of Fr. Knox’s rules in a way that forced him to amend the rules than anyone else I know of. This was a trait that was much appreciated in her day, and I think still is, though I suspect less so now. Which leads me to ask how important it really is.

The main thing, it seems to me, that a really ingenious murder gives a story is the ability to present all of the evidence up front and maintain an air of mystification among the characters while keeping them reasonably intelligent. It also, of course, makes for a very satisfying reveal at the end of the story.

Of course, if this is not done well—if, for example, the solution is obvious—it makes for a particularly uninteresting murder mystery in which all of the characters seem to be idiots. The best example I can think of this is The Benson Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine. It was extremely obvious that the brother of the victim had killed him, and the entire rest of the novel until the last chapter was uninteresting filler because it obviously bore no relationship to the characters figuring out whodunnit. Worse, Philo Vance (the detective) already knew that it was the brother, too, so he was fairly explicit that he was wasting everyone’s time. The Benson Murder Case is a book that I cannot recommend too little. If you ever have the opportunity to not read it, I strongly suggest you take it.

The downside to the clever murder with the facts set out early—when it’s done well—is that re-reads have a very hard time being satisfying. This is not necessarily a problem for most people, but I prefer to read, as far as possible, only books that are worth re-reading. On this score, murder mysteries were the detective must find evidence, which leads him to the next evidence to find, etc. tend to have significant advantages.

This can be ameliorated, however, by the introduction of red herrings which require additional evidence to eliminate. If done well, the red herrings, prior to elimination, make the solution possible but improbable. Once the red herrings are gone, we get to Sherlock Holmes’ famous dictum that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the case. This, I think, tends to be far more satisfying on re-reading because the work is necessary and not merely killing time until the detective realizes the true solution.

Perhaps the best example I can think of this is my favorite Cadfael novel, Saint Peter’s Fair. (spoilers ahead.)

Once the killer of Ewan of Shotwick is found out to be Euald, on top of Turstan Fowler having given evidence against Philip Corviser and having been found by Ivo, drunk but suspiciously recovered in the morning—it is possible to guess that Ivo was responsible and Euald and Turstan were acting under his orders, but it was by no means probable. It took more evidence for Cadfael and Hugh Beringar to see Ivo’s evil as really possible. The getting of this evidence by Philip, which foreclosed other possibilities, was very helpful, and in consequence it’s one of the great things to re-read in the novel each time I do.

Miss Marple and The Moving Finger

The third Miss Marple novel, The Moving Finger, was first published in 1943. In some ways it is more of a love story than a detective story, though the two do intertwine. Miss Marple appears only at the end of the story, and then only for about as many pages as she appeared in many of the short stories featuring her. (Spoilers below.)

Miss Marple is in the book at all because, towards the end, she is called in by the vicar’s wife as a specialist in solving murders. How the vicar’s wife knows Miss Marple and further how she knows that Miss Marple is good at solving murders is completely unstated. We don’t even have a decent sense of how far away St. Mary Meade is from Lymstock.

The narrator, Jerry Burton, is a decent enough chap. The premise of the story is that he was badly injured in a plane crash and is recovering. His doctor recommends complete rest, so he rents a house for six months in a quiet little town in the English countryside (Lymstock) with his sister, Joanna, who is five years his junior. Shortly after arriving they receive a nasty letter accusing them of not being brother and sister, which is ridiculous. It turns out that many other people have had similar letters, equally inaccurate. Jerry takes an interest in this and after one woman commits suicide and another is murdered, he ends up unofficially working the police, though it is eventually Miss Marple who actually solves the case.

There are a decent number of hints given throughout the story, the narrator even sometimes calling attention to them. For example, it is mentioned that the address on a letter for Miss Burton was originally addressed to Miss Barton (the old maid from whom they’re renting the house), with the ‘a’ being changed to a ‘u’. Jerry comments that this should have been a significant clue to them, if they’d had the wit to realize it at the time. There are some clues which are not discussed, however. For example, the poison pen sends letters accusing people of things to the people themselves, rather than to the people who might be angry at the secret. That is, the poison pen will send a letter accusing a woman of cheating on her husband, not to the husband, but to the woman. Such a thing would be unpleasant, but it would not be particularly dangerous or apt to cause her any problems if the letter is promptly destroyed. This strikes me as being at least as significant as the letters all being entirely false. Miss Marple points out that the falsity of the accusations was a clue that a man had written the letters, since a woman would be more aware of the general gossip and would, thus, have come much nearer the mark. This is, I dare say, true enough, but I think it’s more important that the letters were not written in such a way as to accomplish anything, not even a deranged goal, which showed that they must be a smoke screen.

Before we got the hints, there was a decent amount of anticipation in the narrative, as until the six or seventh chapter (if I recall correctly) the story had some mild element of mystery in it as to who was writing the letters, but other than that it was just a domestic story of a young brother and sister from London finding it interesting to take up resident in a country town. I think that, ultimately, the foreshadowing did work to keep the reader’s attention, but it is interesting to consider that this was necessary.


I’ve read, at this point, most of the Miss Marple novels and all of the Miss Marple short stories, and I find myself wondering how much I like Miss Marple as a detective. In some sense this is not really even a well-formed question because (apart from Nemesis) Miss Marple is not a detective. She’s really much more of a mystery consultant. Which is fine; it suits her character. It does, however, lead to her being very little in her own stories. In consequence, Miss Marple stories are far more of one-off stories where you’ve never met the characters before and won’t meet them again. (The major exception to that is The Body In the Library.)

The Moving Finger is a good illustration of how much Miss Marple stories are one-off stories. All of the characters in it are new and we’ll never see them again. The only exception to that is Miss Marple herself, but she’s a very minor character. If this was your first Miss Marple story, you’d come away with almost no impression of her.

To be fair, it is all but necessary for most of the characters in a story to be new each time; you can’t go about having the same characters keep killing each other off. The usual counter-balance to this is to have a detective and his side-kick form a major part of the story. Contrary to popular belief, the Watson is not there merely to make Holmes look brilliant; the include not only of two recurring characters but of a recurring relationship (which is not antagonistic) provides a great deal of familiarity and stability.

The author’s voice is, of course, another constant throughout the books and one that does provide familiarity to the reader.

I don’t yet know what I think. It’s a subject I need to mull over, more.

Miss Marple Short Stories vs. Novels

In the year of our Lord 1932 the first thirteen Miss Marple stories were collected into a book, The Thirteen Problems. The 1953 edition of this book contained a forward by Agatha Christie in which she said that Miss Marple is better suited to short stories (unlike Poirot, who does better with novels). I find this quite interesting:

I enjoyed writing the Miss Marple stories very much, conceived a great affection for my fluffy old lady, and hoped that she might be a success. She was. After the first six stories had appeared, six more were requested, Miss Marple had definitely come to stay.

She has appeared now in several books and also in a play—and actually rivals Hercule Poirot in popularity. I get about an equal number of letters, one lot saying: “I wish you would always have Miss Marple and not Poirot,” and the other “I wish you would have Poirot and not Miss Marple.” I myself incline to her side. I think, that she is at her best in the solving of short problems; they suit her more intimate style. Poirot, on the other hand, insists on a full-length book to display his talents.

These Thirteen Problems contain, I consider, the real essence of Miss Marple for those who like her.

This may contain something of an explanation for why Miss Marple is so little in her own books. She is more in them than she is in her short stories—she’s often only in a page or so of the short story—but the belief that she is better at solving short problems may shape the novels so that other people do the long work and it is presented to her as only as a summary, such that for her it is a short problem.

I can also see what Agatha Christie has in mind. Miss Marple does a little investigating in A Caribbean Murder and most of the investigating in Nemesis, and as much as I liked both I have to admit that it didn’t quite feel right. People should come to her, rather than the other way around. In some sense I think that the essence of Miss Marple is not precisely that she is intimate, but that she is domestic. This relates to how Sir Henry Clithering would always tease Miss Marple about how the people in a crime remind her of people from the village; the whole point is that the public world was not really larger than the domestic world. When Miss Marple does the investigating, she ventures outside of the domestic sphere. It is right, in a sense, for someone else to do the investigating in the public world then bring it to her, where she uses her knowledge of the domestic world to solve the problems of the public world.

That said, the way she does the investigation in Nemesis does not violate this; one of the parts of the domestic world is visiting other domiciles. Old ladies visit each other, and pay calls, and chat about local and family things, and Miss Marple mostly solves the mystery in Nemesis using these tools.

All that said, of the short stories and novels, I’m inclined to say that The Body in the Library was the best of the Miss Marple stories. So I suppose I must respectfully disagree with Dame Agatha, though I will say I think that she’s right when she said that the Thirteen Problems contain the essence of Miss Marple. They give you a clear sense of who and what Miss Marple is, but I do not think that they are her at her best.

At Bertram’s Hotel

Published in 1965, At Bertram’s Hotel was the second-to-last Miss Marple novel written, though the third-from-last published. (Like with the final Poirot novel, Curtain, Agatha Christie had written the final Miss Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, in the 1940s and put it in a safe with her lawyers to be published after her death.) It is a strange story, more a light thriller about a police detective who on the trail of an organized crime syndicate than a mystery. Miss Marple, as is often the case, does not feature heavily in the story, but when she does it’s as a witness, rather than as a detective. (Spoilers below.)

In fact, we don’t even get a murder until a few chapters from the end, and there isn’t much of a mystery in the story until the murder comes along. I suppose that there is a bit of mystery about what the deal is with Bertram’s Hotel, but it seems plausible that it’s simply an expensive hotel with an old-timey gimmic. It’s not that expensive to have a dozen varieties of tea, to make real muffins with lots of butter, and to have real seed cake. Granted, these things would have been more expensive in England 1965 than in America in 2022 (which I’m used to), but food rationing had been over for 10 years by then. It doesn’t require astonishing amounts of money to have these things and old furniture.

The idea that the whole thing is a front for organized crime, and that’s where the real money comes from, is also a bit far-fetched. Crime does pay, but it rarely pays well. It has large ongoing costs, but can only opportunistically generate revenue. That revenue tends to be a small fraction of the value of the goods stolen, too, since the pool of people who will buy stolen goods is fairly small, and will tend to insist on a huge discount for the risk that it’s taking.

Crime also has higher costs than legitimate business since it has a limited labor pool and can’t outsource contract enforcement to the courts and the police. That limited labor pool also tends to have few highly talented people, since highly talented people can probably make more money through legitimate businesses. The entire labor pool—high or low talent—also has issues with reliability. Carefully planned robberies that require a dozen people or so to all do what they’re supposed to, when they’re supposed to—you can’t use just ordinary criminals for that.

When you put it all together, it makes more sense for Bertram’s Hotel to be able to run because it is expensive and serves a niche who will pay for it than because it is a front for a criminal organization. Moreover, what good did the hotel actually do for the criminal organization? They weren’t using it to store stolen goods until the heat cooled down. As far as I could tell, the mastermind more-or-less lived there, and they had a very strange habit of having character actors impersonate recognizable guests who were staying at the hotel.

Speaking of which, why did they bother with the impersonations of recognizable people who were all staying at the hotel they ran their criminal empire from? Some sort of costume makes sense, but why impersonate a specific person? Moreover, why impersonate a specific person who was staying at the headquarters of the criminal organization? They didn’t need to keep exact tabs on the whereabouts of the people being impersonated. All it did was serve to point to their headquarters by giving the police a weird and unexplained coincidence. I could see the point if they had selected some other hotel from which to choose the people impersonated; this would serve to send the police on a wild goose chase if they noticed the odd coincidence.

(I do suppose that impersonating people from Bertram’s allowed them to borrow the actual clothing of the people in question, but this is a very curious sort of cost-cutting measure.)

Also very strange is that Miss Marple is on vacation in this novel, both literally and in many ways, figuratively. She was given a two week stay at the hotel by her niece-in-law as a treat, and is in the plot mostly because her various reclinings in high backed chairs and shopping expeditions put her in places to witness things relevant to the plot. She does make deductions, of course, but no earlier than the police make them; her only assistance to them is telling to them what she saw.

I can’t help but wonder why this novel is the way that it is. It is always possible that Mrs. Christie had gotten bored and wanted a change, or else that her life was busy and she wanted to write an easy novel. In her autobiography she said that thrillers were much easier to write than murder mysteries since you could make things up as you went along in thrillers.

It is also the case that tastes change, over time. Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916 and it took her three years to find a publisher. Detective fiction was wildly popular at the time, and still quite new. Detective fiction is still extremely popular, though it is not nearly so new. The 1960s, however, were a very strange time. The mystery stories written during the inter-war period knew that they were at the end of an era and stories written in the 1950s (and set then) seem to know that they are at the transition point. In the 1960s people knew that they were at the beginning of something else, but not really of what, because it was completely unsettled. Nothing old was really appropriate, but nothing new was really any good. (You can tell this, in part, because of how bad—by which I largely mean nihilistic—popular culture became in the 1970s.) Truth be told, things haven’t really settled down even yet. If you look closely at popular culture, it’s still a rebellion even though it is in many ways a successful rebellion and should have moved on to being conservative. Bishop Barron once described it as modernity needing to constantly tell its founding myth, but I think it’s actually more that the fundamental nihilism at the core of modernity requires an enemy in order to give it a framework to define itself. (Hence, incidentally, why so many moderns are busy trying to re-tell older stories, badly. They need enemies.)

The 1960s must have been a strange time to write a murder mystery in, and Agatha Christie wrote in order to please her audience, so she would have been at least partially sensitive to the times. Especially since she wrote during the golden age of detection fiction, she would have been in a difficult place to keep writing the same kind of things. It is relatively easy for young people to look back at a golden age and say, “I want to write that kind of thing” since we will never have a sneaking suspicion that we’re simply stuck in our ways. For us, to write the good old stuff is to swim against the currents, and as G.K. Chesterton once observed, while a dead thing can go with the flow, only a live thing can swim against the current. Agatha Christie was not quite in this happy position; she must have had doubts that people still wanted the classic stories when so much else of their tastes have changed.

I don’t want to exaggerate this, of course. Nemesis, the next Miss Marple story, published in 1971, was in many ways a classic detective story, or at least much more of a classic detective story. Still, after almost fifty years, it’s not shocking that she should try something a bit different. I guess what I wonder is why Agatha Christie put Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel if she didn’t intend to make it a Miss Marple story. She was quite willing to write stories which had neither Poirot nor Miss Marple in them.


This story reminds me a bit of the Dorothy L. Sayers story Murder Must Advertise. There aren’t many direct parallels, but both are quasi-thrillers about about the police taking down a massive crime syndicate. Lord Peter is far more in Murder Must Advertise than Miss Marple is in At Bertram’s Hotel, of course, but he spends a lot of his time under cover as Death Bredon and his personality is significantly shifted when he does, especially when he goes further undercover. I don’t really remember it because it’s been many years and I don’t really care for the story. It’s another mostly-action story where the murder is solved almost as an afterthought, a bit like The Maltese Falcon. For some reason the part of the story that stands out to me the most was when Lord Peter, in whatever alias he was in at the time as an underworld criminal, dives off of a statue into a shallow pool of water. I suppose Lord Peter might have picked up the skill of shallow diving at some point. To be fair, there’s really no reason that he shouldn’t. It just felt so random and out of character, and certainly never came up before or since.

A problem that I have with both is that I really don’t like the thriller genre. As such, I have no good way of determining if these are mediocre examples of it, or if they’re quite well done and I just don’t like this kind of story.

Murder With Poisons

Poisons were a common method of killing people in golden age detective stories. The two primary ones were arsenic and cyanide. I believe that this was the case primarily because of availability. (It seemed that they were commonly sold as weed killer and insect killer.) I’ve seen more than a few references, however, to people using exotic, undetectable poisons (often from South America) in murder mysteries, though I’ve never seen its actual use in them.

I’ve recently been reading some Miss Marple stories, and while the Miss Marple short stories began in 1927 and the first Miss Marple novel was in 1930, the bulk of the Miss Marple novels were in the 1950s and 1960s. Times had changed, especially with regard to poisons.

I found the description of a poison in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962) extremely interesting:

Heather Badcock had died as a result of four grains of hy-ethyl-dexyl-barbo-quinde-lorytate, or, let us be frank, some such name.

This drug turns out to be a (fictional) anti-anxiety medication which goes by the brand name “Calmo.” It is by this name that it is typically referred to throughout the rest of the book.

A similar device was used in A Caribbean Mystery (1964):

“They found he’d had a lethal dose of something that only a doctor could pronounce properly. As far as I remember it sounds vaguely like di-flor, hexagonal-ethylearbenzol. That’s not the right name. But that’s roughly what it sounds like. The police doctor put it that way so that nobody should know, I suppose, what it really was. The stuff’s probably got some quite simple nice easy name like Evipan or Veonal or Easton’s Syrup or something of that kind. This is the official name to baffle laymen with. Anyway, a sizeable dose of it, I gather, would produce death, and the signs would be much the same as those of high blood pressure aggravated by over-indulgence in alcohol on a gay evening.”

I strongly suspect, though I can’t prove, that Mrs. Christie had no real medication in mind, in either case, and I must say that this does greatly simplify the job of the mystery writer. There is the question of whether this violates the fourth commandment of Fr. Knox’s ten commandments of detective fiction, but I think that it does not. The point of the commandment is not whether the poison is known to the reader, but whether it is known to the medical science of the people in the stories. The point is that the big reveal at the end may not be a completely made-up poison, since if it is the solution becomes completely fictional. If the poison, though fictional, is known in the middle of the story, then the reveal at the end will rely on real human things such as motive and opportunity.

This approach does leave off a few issues of verisimilitude, though. One of the great problems with a poison is the dose that is needed to kill. It’s not that hard to make people feel sick, but actually killing—especially in a reasonably short time frame—requires an accurate dose. This will vary considerably with the individual chemical, and the LD50 of a particular drug is not always easy to come across. You can often find information with google on the LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of the population) of medications for rats and mice, but human LD50s are not always available, and the values for rats and mice can vary considerably. This is not just about making the dosage appropriate in the book, for the murderer to use the poison, he probably needs to have some idea of how much he should use in order to feel confident at the attempt.

To pick an example at semi-random (I had to google about five different medications before I found one with human info), Citalopram, sold under the brand name Celexa, has a human LD50 of 56mg/kg. For 110 pound people, this means that a dose of 2,800mg would kill half of the people you gave it to. To put this into perspective, the dosing is usually about 30mg/day, though possibly up to 40mg/day. Let’s assume the source of the pills are 40mg pills, this would mean having to give a 110 pound person 70 pills in order to have a 50/50 shot at killing them. You’re not going to manage putting 70 ground up pills into someone’s coffee. You’re probably going to need something like a stew, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a stew to cover over 70 pills worth of magnesium stearate or whatever chalk-like substance makes up most of the pills. (This, incidentally, is why pills tend to be mostly inert ingredients—it is extremely effective at preventing accidental overdose in significant quantities.)

Now, I doubt that I happened to select the most dangerous drug with human LD50 information on my first few tries, but it would be quite a coincidence if the murderer did, too. This means that trying to kill someone with medicine would be very unlikely to be a spur-of-the-moment thing, and would need to be researched. (To be fair to Mrs. Christie, btw, medicine has mostly gotten safer since the 1960s, so things weren’t quite as bad for murderers in her day.)

I also suspect that, if one were doing a properly researched murder, it would be a better idea to try to play off of drug interactions. There are a lot of combinations of drugs that are far more dangerous than simply a larger dose of the one, and of course many of these also interact with alcohol which is a lot easier to get into somebody’s blood in large quantities than most medicines are, since the victim might well put the alcohol there on purpose. Though it might be more effective, this approach is, perhaps, even less of a spur-of-the-moment weapon than a simple overdose is.

There is also a curious problem on the other end of the murder mystery—identifying the stuff in a corpse. Chemicals are identified by tests with reagents, which means that they must be specifically tested for. The police lab must, therefore, have some reason to test for the medicine in order to find it. Merely having the police report that a high level of an unpronounceable poison was found is cheating. And that is, of course, supposing that the medicine would even still be in the blood to test for. All sorts of chemicals break down in the body over the course of a few hours, many medicines among them, and cannot be found even if you know to test for them unless you run the test immediately. I suppose that this later part can be hand-waved away by simply not giving the made-up medicine this property, but there’s no real way around the test needing to be specific.

Ultimately, I think that this approach to medicine-as-poisons (just making them up) is fine, but doing it right would be so much work that it probably would be easier to use a real medicine. I think better than medicines, though, are recreational drugs. LD50 information tends to be readily available on these, and owing to being illegal they are generally available (to the degree that they are available) in pure forms quite in excess of a lethal dose. Further, since they are illegal, anonymous procurement does not greatly stretch the imagination.

Of course, there would be no harm in mixing recreational drugs with other drugs for synergistic effect. As long as it was planned well ahead of time.

The Immodesty of Hercule Poirot

One of the things which comes up in Poirot novels and short stories is how immodest Poirot is. He is very willing to say that he is the greatest detective ever, since it’s an indisputable fact and is often relevant to clients. Hastings, whose ideas of modesty are more English, frequently teases Poirot about this. I find this aspect of the stories very interesting, especially because Agatha Christie seemed to think it was funny enough to include quite often.

It is also curious to consider the contrast: Poirot was immodest but humble. Captain Hastings was modest but not humble.

I’m not really sure what to make of this; sometimes Agatha Christie seemed to hold it against Poirot and other times she seemed to side with him. Poirot has asked, quite reasonably, why it is considered better for a man who is good at something to lie and say that he is not. At other times Poirot seems to stray out of merely stating relevant facts and becoming boastful. I suppose to some degree we cannot expect a character written over the course of more than forty years to be entirely consistent. For that matter, real people are not always consistent even within a day, to say nothing of being consistent in many different circumstances over the course of forty years.

(Actually, the duration of Poirot stories is not really calculable; as Agatha Christie observed in her autobiography, given how she made Poirot of retirement age in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he must have been well over 100 by his later cases, since they were all—or at least, mostly—set contemporaneously.)

A curious contrast to this is Miss Marple, who is extraordinarily modest. In a most Victorian style, she will not allow anyone to say anything positive about her without some sort of disclaiming it; the closest she comes to acknowledging the truth is a qualification to her disclaimer (“though it is true that I’ve been of some little assistance once or twice…”).

Modesty can, of course, be an enormously useful social grace. Being boastful can come at enormous social cost. That said, there is a danger of these things being confused with the far more important moral virtue of humility. Captain Hastings, in the books, frequently thought himself far more clever than he was, though he never said so except in his memoirs. In consequence he made all sorts of mistakes and occasionally made situations worse. In contrast, Poirot’s boasting was always in service of a practical point; he wanted clients to trust him because it was to their benefit to trust him. He wanted police inspectors to trust him, because their cases would go better if they trusted him. He never boasted of his abilities for his own benefit, but only for the benefit of those to whom he boasted.

Agatha Christie was, in her temperament, closer to Miss Marple than to Poirot, though based on her biography she was not greatly like either. Still, I do wonder how much she was actually able to see Poirot’s point of view. Authors cannot give characters what they do not have, but authors can give characters what they do not know that they have. It would be curious to know how much this is a case of that.

Miss Marple

So far I’ve read 13 Miss Marple short stories (the first thirteen) and the novels Murder at the Vicarage, The Body in the Library, and A Murder Is Announced. These span 23 years (from 1927 to 1950), and while the environment of the mysteries changes quite considerably (especially in A Murder Is Announced, which is clearly set after World War II), there are some strongly consistent elements throughout.

The consistent element which strikes me the most is the degree to which Miss Marple stories are not about her. If it is the case that in Poirot stories Poirot emphasizes that he does not get down on his hands and knees to look for clues because that is the work of others, who bring what they find to Poirot so that it may be understood, nevertheless Poirot features quite heavily in Poirot stories. If he’s not in every chapter, he’s certainly in most of them.

Miss Marple is far less prominent in her stories.

The short stories, I suppose, are not so surprising in this regard. In the golden age of detective fiction short stories were quite frequently meant—and read—as decorated logic puzzles. It was common enough for them to be a recounting of the events to the detective, followed by the detective giving the solution, and these were most of the Miss Marple short stories.

Novels, however, are different. Detective novels are stories about a detective, or at least stories that involve a detective, in which the problem and its solution makes up only one thread of the story. In these, it is far more common for the story to be about the detective, to at least some degree. Miss Marple stories are not about her; in fact she’s not even the primary detective in her stories. I don’t mean that there is, technically, a police detective in charge of the case. I mean that the police detective does most of the work, and, more to the point, most of the time in the novel is spent with him (while he does it).

I find this very curious. It’s not bad, and doesn’t make the novels less enjoyable—though it does rob them of the comfort of having familiar characters. Murder mysteries necessarily involve new people in each novel—you can’t keep killing off the same victim, after all—but there is something very comforting in getting back together with familiar characters. This may be most pronounced in my experience in the Cadfael series, where after a few novels we have the familiar characters of Cadfael, Hugh Berringar, Abbot Rodulphus, Prior Robert, Brother Jerome, and several other brothers such as Edmund the infirmarer and Petrus, the cook. These characters are not only familiar, but form a community.

Part of what I find curious about this is that Miss Marple is, herself, an extremely settled character. She has spent nearly her whole life in the village of Saint Mary Mead. She has even lived in the same house during the entire time she’s been there. She is a Victorian who is well settled in her ways—though not so much that she can’t adapt to changing circumstances. It is also significant that she is a spinster. The life of a parent changes very greatly over time—there is marriage, then a child, then children; the children start out as young children and grow, their needs constantly changing with their size and age. Eventually they become adults and may well give their parents grand-children, which is yet another set of changes in the grandparents life. A spinster’s life, by contrast, changes far less, or at least has far fewer necessary changes of such direct magnitude. In short, Miss Marple, the character, is a very settled character.

I wonder whether part of this is that Miss Marple is a feminine character. Agatha Christie very much wrote Miss Marple as a woman, not merely a gender-swapped man. A great many female characters, especially in modern times, are very masculine women, or more often characters that were written as men and then cast with a woman playing the part of the man. Agatha Christie tended to write genuinely female characters for her women, and I think that this is true of Miss Marple, who has the feminine characteristic of liking to be unobtrusive. This is not at all the same thing as liking to be passive—Miss Marple is most certainly not a passive character. Like a great many women, however, she does have a marked preference for not being noticed by people too far outside of her social circle, and for not drawing too much attention to herself within it. This is a difficult thing for males to understand because people are so much less interested in us than they are in women. We like when people pay attention to us because it happens so rarely. We are also trained from a young age to be used to the downsides of publicity, because women like to use males to shield them from public interactions that they don’t want. Miss Marple was raised as a lady and thus would want her privacy; Miss Marple books being largely about others may, in a subtle way, be related to this.

Silencers

Silencers come up from time to time in murder mysteries. Especially, I think, in golden age murder mysteries. They are legitimate, I think, but their use does also raise some legitimate questions.

I was recently reminded of silencers because one featured in Murder At The Vicarage, which is the first Miss Marple novel, published in 1930. Silencers were fairly new technology, back then. The first silencer was developed and sold by Hiram Percy Maxim, an American, in 1902. (He was awarded the patent for it in 1909.) Maxim advertised them regularly in sporting goods magazines and they sold fairly well; they were by no means fantastic by 1930.

The degree to which silencers actually silence a gun, on the other hand, is fairly often a matter of fantasy. It’s not that silencers can’t make a gun silent, or at least very near to it—it’s just that they usually don’t. In order to actually be silent, everything about the gun needs to be designed for it. A really good example of this is the Welrod Mk IIA:

Nothing about this is a normal gun, though. Probably the most important thing—after a well designed silencer—is having a light enough powder load that the bullet is subsonic, i.e. that the bullet travels slower than the speed of sound. This is critical because a bullet traveling at or faster than the speed of sound will produce a sonic boom when it hits the air outside of the barrel. Sonic booms are quite loud. The thing is, the speed of sound isn’t all that fast—under 1,100 feet per second—so typical guns are designed to make their bullets travel much faster. Low speeds make bullet drop a significant problem, and the Welrod’s manual states that it’s accurate in daylight out to about 30 yards. To put this into perspective, my compound bow, whose arrows go at about 260 feet per second, is easily accurate at 40 yards and not that hard to be accurate with at 60 yards. (Normal guns are accurate much further out than bows.)

The Welrod Mk IIA also has a silencer with rubber wipers that the bullet actually shoots through, too, in order to achieve its near-silence. Ordinary silencers do not have anything in the way of the bullet, and in consequence don’t really silence the gun. Ordinary guns fitted with a silencer also tend to fire bullets at between 2,000 and 3,500 feet per second, which will make a loud sonic boom. In consequence, what typical silencers on normal guns actually do is greatly attenuate the noise of the gun from instant-hearing-loss levels of noise to won’t-damage-your-hearing levels of noise. This is an absolutely enormous benefit to the people shooting them, but is not the sort of thing that will make people fifty feet away unaware that a shot has just been fired.

The upshot of all this is that silencers in murder mysteries tend to be unrealistic. What’s even worse is that in stories where a silencer features, people not hearing the shot tends to be a major plot point. Certainly, I’ve never read a story in which the murderer used a silencer only to protect his hearing. To be fair, there’s no reason why a murderer shouldn’t do that—while a murder is obviously not completely risk-averse, they are often at least a bit cautious. That said, that the shot that everyone heard wasn’t merely extremely loud and not mind-bogglingly loud would have no real effect on the plot, and I suspect would be hard to make interesting.

That said, it would be interesting to use a realistic near-silent gun, since it would turn much of the mystery into finding out where the gun came from. Something like a special services assassination gun such as the Welrod Mk IIA or a High Standard HDM pistol would serve well for this. They’re not sold commercially and so they’re not easy to get. Alternatively, a good silencer on a pistol that was loaded with ammunition with a light powder load would be pretty reasonable. It’s common enough for people to load their own bullets in order to save money and this allows people to select any amount of gun powder that they want. It wouldn’t be as silent as a purpose-made special services assassination pistol, but it wouldn’t be too much louder. This would point to someone with more than a little bit of firearms experience, though. Loading your own bullets requires some specialized equipment and a bit of practice. The potential for incriminating an innocent person is, I think, pretty obvious.


This last part put me in mind of other kinds of silent murder weapons, which makes me realize that blow gun darts dipped in fast-acting poison aren’t used nearly often enough in murder mysteries. One would have to find the right poison, but I think that there’s real potential for murderers trying to misdirect the police by using outlandish weapons.

If Only the Future Matters

Agatha Christie’s novel featuring Hercule Poirot, Death on the Nile, ends in a very interesting way.

Lastly the body of Linnet Doyle was brought ashore, and all over the world wires began to hum, telling the public that Linnet Doyle, who had been Linnet Ridgeway, the famous, the beautiful, the wealthy Linnet Doyle was dead.

Sir George Wode read about it in his London club, and Sterndale Rockford in New York, and Joanna Southwood in Switzerland, and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode.

And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.”

But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed who was going to win the Grand National. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.

These are callbacks to various characters; Sir George Wode sold his estate to Linnet, and hated what she was doing to the place. Joanna Southwood was a jewel thief, and Mr. Burnaby was a neighbor of Linnet’s who only showed up in the very beginning:

That’s her! said Mr Burnaby, the landlord of the Three Crowns… “Millions she’s got… Going to spend thousands on the place. Swimming pools there’s going to be, and Italian gardens and a ballroom and half of the house pulled down and rebuilt…”

And Mr. Ferguson was a communist who thought it best that all of the people killed during the story were dead, since they were all parasites who did no honest work, by which he probably meant factory work. His answer to everything was that it was not the past that mattered, but the future.

This is, of course, a universal defeater. Anything that has actually happened is either in the past or will be in a moment, so really this is another way of saying that nothing real matters. If a man has been murdered, what of it? That is in the past. If a woman relied on a man’s promises which he now finds inconvenient, what of it? That’s in the past.

That last example, by the way, may even have been in Agatha Christie’s mind. She, herself, was abandoned by a husband who thought only of the future, and I suspect she saw all sorts of people who got screwed over by the same sort of thing.

Women are at their most attractive when young and unattached. Youthful beauty is not really a thing in itself but a promise (that is, hint) of what the woman can do, and wise women use their youthful good looks to secure things that will last longer: a husband and, God willing, children and eventually grandchildren. There is something, then, especially awful in a man who pretends to offer these things to a woman while she is still young then throws her away when she is older and her looks begin to fade. This is precisely the kind of cad that Mr. Ferguson is. He wants the benefits of being able to make promises and be believed, but not of the inconveniences in having to keep them.

This view was widespread, in one form or another, back in the 1920s and 1930s. You can see this is the fashion for divorce, which for all the screaming that people do about how important and necessary it is is just people breaking their promises and asking to be taken seriously on making new ones anyway. (When I say that this was widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, I mean giving justifications for it. These days people break their promises at least as often, but they don’t give it a second thought.)

This general theme does also show up in the desire of socialists to steal other people’s things. The justification for why anyone owns something is always in the past—he made it, he bought it, his father made it, etc. I suspect that the reason why anyone got any traction with this is that Europe suffered a great deal of trouble from the transition from feudalism to a modern industrial economy. In the aftermath of guns making the nobility useless on the battlefield, the nobility transformed into the much more familiar aristocracy, which were mostly just a bunch of parasites (this varied considerably with time and place). The question of “why should the aristocracy keep getting to extract as much value as possible from people merely because their distant ancestors were useful?” was a legitimate question.

The thing is, it was a legitimate question that was widely taken advantage of by bad people in order to help them get away with the evil that they wanted to do.

And we have characters like Mr. Ferguson because they didn’t waste any time in trying to apply that.

It is very curious, though, that the book ends by noting that it’s also true of people like Mr. Burnaby, as well. This points to the fact that such an attitude is, to a degree, inevitable. I’ve seen it in the closing of other murder mysteries, too; Saint Peter’s Fair comes to mind. After all of the labors of the murderer, after all the pain that they caused, after the detective sets right what can be set right—life goes on. The murderer threw away other people’s live, and quite often his own—and for nothing. And then the people who are left move on. There may be a hole in their lives and in their hearts, but there is still work to be done with whatever is left, and things to build. The past matters, but not to the exclusion of the future.

This is why, I think, murder mysteries so often involve romantic sub-plots. A young couple, coming together, represents that life goes on, for they will (we assume) go on to have children and raise them. While it is true that it can make good commercial sense for an author to include a romantic sub-plot simply because they are popular, they actually fit extremely well into a murder mystery.

Some Thoughts on Murder On the Nile

I recently watched the David Suchet version of Murder On the Nile with my oldest son, then out of curiosity read the novel so I could compare. While the movie version was quite faithful to a lot of the story, it did have some changes, I think mostly to make it shorter. Unfortunately, I think it cut some of the best parts.

The novel was published in 1937 and is, by my count, the fourteenth novel featuring Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie would have been approximately forty six years old when she wrote it, and the depth of characterization in it reflect both her experience as a writer as well as her greater experience of life. It is still, fundamentally, a murder mystery more than a novel—in distinction to Dorothy L. Sayers later work, especially Gaudy Night. That said, it certainly has a lot more meat on its bones than does, say, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. To be clear, this is in no way a knock against Styles; for that matter Dorothy L. Sayers’ first novel, Whose Body? was, as she put it, conventional to the last degree. My point is just that Agatha Christie has really developed as a writer; this book has not only the sort of brilliant plot that Christie’s books have always had, but also several human themes.

(As a warning, spoilers follow.)

The main theme of the book, of course, is how dangerous love is. Jacqueline really loved Simon Doyle too much, so she was willing to use her brains in service of his evil ends. Simon nearly got away with murder because she loved him too much. Jacqueline was willing to murder two people—one by stabbing—in order to protect Simon and help him to get away with his murder. Poirot tried to warn Jacqueline off from her course, but it was too late because she loved Simon too much. And then, finally, at the end, where Mrs. Allerton said, “Love can be a very frightening thing,” and Poirot replied, “That is why most great love stories are tragedies.”

This is all quite true. What’s really being described, of course, is not love, but idolatry. Jacqueline would do anything for Simon because, to her, he was God. A most inadequate God, to be sure. She recognized his flaws. Yet, she made her choice and would not go back on it.

Another interesting theme in the book is the immorality of Mr. Ferguson. He has the full measure of loathesomeness of a communist, and in one sense is merely a realistic portrayal of how bad such a man is, down to complaining about everything while he takes a pleasure cruise and pretends that he is “studying conditions”. It is interesting, though, that he is not merely malign. He has a curious trick of getting to know people; he relates all sorts of personal information about various people at different times. He has no pity and cares only for himself; his communism is merely an expression of that. This can also be seen, I think, in the way that his clothes were shabby but his underclothes were high quality.

Another aspect of his evil is his refrain that it is not the past that matters, but the future. (This is evil because it can be used to justify anything, and only people who want to justify evil use justifications that will justify anything. For people who mean well, ordinary justifications will suffice.) He has no pity for anyone, and no loyalty. All that matters is what people can do for him, now.

(As a side note, I also find it curious that this—presented slightly differently—is the theme of the Star Wars sequel Episode VIII: he Least Jedi.)

It is very interesting that the book ends with Mr. Furguson, and his philosophy of life.

[News of Linnet Ridgeway’s death spread.] …and it was discussed in the bar of the Three Crowns in Malton-under-Wode.
And Mr. Burnaby said acutely: “Well, it doesn’t seem to have done her much good, poor lass.”
But after a while they stopped talking about her and discussed who was going to win the Grand Nationa. For, as Mr. Ferguson was saying at that minute in Luxor, it is not the past that matters but the future.