Monday, 7 September 2009

The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side (1962)

PLOT: A filmstar moves to St Mary Mead, sees something awful, and it's not the lower middle classes.

James: As a Late Marple this is a smart contrast to Murder At The Vicarage, and proves that, whatever telly people think, Christie moved with the times.

St Mary Mead now has a modern housing estate and a supermarket. Jane Marple is forever starting stories about "how this is just like when the parlourmaid..." and then realising that no-one knows what a parlourmaid is.

This isn't a book about nostalgia, it's about the importance of Moving On and Letting Go, both for the murderer and the hero. Miss Marple may be very old, but she's determinedly "with it". Not, perhaps, as with it as Swinging Dame Margaret Rutherford, but quite determined to go and find out about the Housing Development. No sooner has she been introduced than she's off there on a visit and smartly prevents a murder.

Reassured that times may change, but human nature doesn't, Miss Marple sails through the rest of the book. This may be a story where Miss Marple takes a back seat, but she's the best back seat driver in the business.

Dear Dolly Bantree and Inspector Craddock rush around doing her work for her. Where Miss Marple used to rely on spying things from her garden and nipping out for gossip, now she must wait for events to be reported to her over sherry. She barely even meets the principal cast, but that doesn't stop her from Knowing Them.

The story itself (What Did Happen At The Village Fete?) rolls on without her. In another late book we see Miss Marple as Nemesis, and here she is the gentlest kind of Avenging Fury, popping round for a spot of tea and unravelling at the very end when events have played themselves out.

A big joy for the book is Miss Marple's live-in carer, Miss Knight. Jane Marple may have defeated serial killers and gun-wielding lunatics, but she's almost outwitted by dreadfully nice, frightfully mumsy Miss Knight. Against the patronisingly jolly tide of cushion-plumping and forced naps, we see Miss Marple at her most acidly rebellious. Oh, if only she could get away with pinning a murder on Miss Knight...

Miss Marple is as complicated as ever. Like a rural Buddha she dispenses wisdom ("People aren't really foolish. Not in villages"), but she's also not above dismissing best friend Dolly Bantree for extolling the virtues of marriage "with a spinsterish cough". Despite now having a reputation as The Old Lady Who Solves Murders, she's still the same sharp, practical woman, easily sidetracked from solving murder by an interesting dressmaking problem.

Despite being dedicated to Margaret Rutherford, this book is about a film star as unlike Rutherford as possible, the kind of fragile beauty David Niven wrote about. Christie depicts a *very* 60s world of pill-popping filmmakers living on nerves and cocktails. It's a milieu she depicts sharply but without ever going into great detail (Does she ever write about films elsewhere?).

This is also a book with a great number of villains. One doesn't even break the law, another commits a horrific crime accidentally, one goes on a killing spree, and yet another may even get away with murder. Above them all is Miss Marple who sharply and immediately understands each of them - indeed, spends a large amount of the book being oddly cruel about one character who we can only think quite fondly of.

There's some oddness here as well, most of it to try and make a fairly simple mystery more complicated - there's a remarkable coincidence about ex-husbands, abandoned children, some casual racism, and a good deal of talk about interior decorating, but the main thrust of the book is about Miss Jane Marple solving a crime without ever meeting the murderer.

NEXT: All abroad for Death on the Nile


  1. I discovered today (although actually Wikipedia could have told me:'d_from_Side_to_Side#cite_note-6) that 'The Mirror Crack'd' is based on something that actually happened to Gene Tierney, star of 'Laura' among other films.

    Her daughter was born disabled after she had German measles during her pregnancy and later found out she'd got it from a fan who slipped out to see her while in the infirmary with measles. Which makes a slightly far-fetched story seem less far-fetched.

  2. @Kate- and in fact the more horrifying for it really.

    Christie, queen of coincidences, actually did put some jaw dropping real life factoids in her novels.

    I am still occasionally blinking at her throwaway mention of the assassination of Count Bernadotte for example.

    She really was the best horror writer who ever wrote detective fiction. :)