I recently finished Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel, The 4:50 From Paddington. Published in 1957, it was the seventh Miss Marple novel which Agatha Christie wrote, though I’ve been reading them out of order so it’s the ninth that I’ve read. It’s an interesting story with an interesting premise. It moves quickly, with a lot of twists and turns. The odd thing is that it ends quite abruptly. In order to explain what I mean, I’m going to give a brief synopsis of, approximately, the first half of the book. If you don’t want spoilers, go read it now. (You’ve had more than 60 years to do it, so I’m going to go ahead.)
Miss Marple’s friend, Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, was travelling on a train from London a few days before Christmas when another train ran next to it on a parallel track. Suddenly the curtain in one of the private compartments flew open and Mrs. McGillicuddy saw a man strangling a woman. The tracks then separated and the other train went out of view. She told the porter, who clearly thought she was dreaming, so she did the only sensible thing: she went to her friend Jane Marple and told her. Miss Marple then did the sensible thing and waited a day or so for the body to be discovered, as it probably would be. When that didn’t happen, she took the investigation on, telling Mrs. McGillicuddy that she (Mrs. McGillicuddy) has done her duty and there’s nothing more she can do.
Miss Marple then enlists the help of the Vicar’s son (grown up from the end of the first Miss Marple novel, Murder At the Vicarage, published back in 1930), who is interested in cartography. He gets for her the necessary maps where she can look at where the murder might have actually taken place and where the body could have been thrown off from the train without being found. This plus a trip on the train that had to be the one Mrs. McGillicuddy saw lead her to conclude that the only plausible place for the body to have been thrown from the moving train (without being seen) was next to the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Not up to doing the investigation herself, she hires Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who is a professional domestic and a very interesting character (more on her later) to take a post at Rutherford Hall and try to find the body. This, Lucy does (including finding the body in a rarely used spot on the Rutherford Hall grounds).
The quest becomes one of trying to identify who the corpse was, since no one recognizes it. Lucy stays on because she’s become interested, and various clues turn up. The clothes on the corpse are mainly French, so it is a working hypothesis that the victim was French or had at least lived in France until recently. One possibility that various investigations the police do turn up is a french ballerina. Another is a French woman by the name of Martine who the eldest brother in the family had said in a letter to his sister that he was going to marry shortly before he was killed in World War 2. They never heard from her until about a month ago, when she wrote a letter asking for help for her son who was the child of the dead brother, but then she wrote a telegram saying that she unexpectedly had to return to France and they never heard from her again.
There are many twists and turns, with interesting clues, and a few of the characters turn into corpses before the end, too. Right as the identification of the corpse is nearly certain, it falls to peaces. With the mystery at an extremely high pitch, Miss Marple summons Mrs. McGillicuddy who was on vacation, and when she arrives plays a trick at Rutherford Hall that catches the murderer and gets him to confess. We then get a four-page final chapter with some explanation and a little wrap-up, and we’re done.
Now, while it is abrupt, it is not unfair. The wikipedia page for the book quotes a critic by the name of Robert Barnard who says, “Miss Marple apparently solves the crime by divine guidance, for there is very little in the way of clues or logical deduction.” This is unfair. There are sufficient clues and, while Miss Marple doesn’t show her logical deduction, I was able to guess the solution before it was revealed because it was possible to logically deduce it.
My objection isn’t really to the pacing of events in the book, but to the pacing of the book, specifically, the pacing of the last few chapters. After the murderer is revealed he tries to defend himself asking why he’d kill a woman he’d never met, and Inspector Craddock reveals his motive. What we’re never told is how on earth Craddock knew the motive, since the last we had heard of him was somewhere between hours and a day before (the exact time is not specified) and he was completely bewildered about every aspect of the case when he left Miss Marple.
It just feels rushed, like the last two chapters were written in a tremendous hurry because it was a day before the deadline and she had to finish it somehow.
In one sense, this is plausible. On the other hand, by 1957 Agatha Christie was enormously popular and sold extremely well, so if she told her publisher she needed an extra week or do, I doubt the publisher was in a position to tell her, “no.”
Lucy Eyelesbarrow was an interesting character. The premise of a highly competent person who did menial labor because she could do all of it well and deal with everything, and who charged enormously high prices for it because there was so little competition, is interesting. It would be difficult to call it realistic, but then consulting detectives are not realistic, so that’s a difficult complaint to make in a murder mystery. She has the plausibility of internal consistency, which is what we can ask for.
The other curious thing about it is that its instability makes sense in context. She is a young woman who is interested in marriage and can probably make a match where she will not need to work for pay. She enjoys domesticity, too, so probably will not want to work for entertainment. She’s not a marxist, so doesn’t believe that the worth of a human being is his economic output. In short, while she is not on the lookout for a husband as soon as she can get one, the long-term viability of her profession was probably not high in her list of considerations. (To put things in perspective, if she was in her early twenties in 1957, she would be in her mid fifties in 1990.) And I must say that Lucy does make an interesting detective, at least until Miss Marple comes on the scene and takes the more prominent role.
The method of disposing of the corpse is, I think, very interesting. It’s very strongly English, since it relies upon a very specific kind of change in circumstances to produce a stone sarcophagus in a barely-used barn on a lonely estate that’s falling apart. It would not be easy to come up with that in America. You can find abandoned buildings, of course—abandoned factories come to mind—but they don’t have the aspect of people regularly using them. It’s the people inhabiting the grounds which tends to make one not think of it as a place to hide a body. It would be possible, of course, to hide a body in a rarely-used shed on the grounds of some building one has access to in a modern American story, but there is the issue of how to avoid the stench of decomposition giving away the body’s location. One solution I’ve seen is sealing the body in plastic, which I suppose would work. That lacks the style of the sarcophagus, though.
How easily one could do it in a modern story aside, it is interesting that Miss Marple really has two triumphs, the second being the uncovering of the murderer. The first is the discovery of the body, and of the two it is the most satisfying. While part of that is the abrupt way in which the murderer is discovered, I think it makes for a very interesting story that the detective has a brilliant victory early on, that victory only producing more work for the detective to do.
Overall, while I don’t think that it’s the best Miss Marple novel, I do think it was quite a good one, aside from the abruptness of the ending. It has some very interesting ideas that, I suspect, could be used profitably.