Tuesday, 6 April 2010

At Bertram's Hotel (1965)

Plot: Can Miss Marple go on holiday without packing murder? Well, no.

At Bertram's Hotel is an unlikely companion piece to Passenger To Frankfurt. You expect certain things from a Miss Marple - murder, gossip and tea - and this book has all of those. But it's also UTTERLY BATTY.

You think it's going to be a sedate crime story and then you realise this is Christie pulling off one of her bizarre thriller capers. There are vast criminal conspiracies, counterfeit clergymen, money-laundering syndicates and even an entire hotel that isn't what it seems to be.

The central conceit of At Bertram's Hotel is that it is too good to be true - rather like a set from a bygone era ("Nne of this place seemed real at all"). This doesn't quite come across in either TV adaptation - after all how do you make a period drama look even more stylised?

It dominates the book as a character, represented through various mouthpieces, such as the glacially perfect receptionist and the far too brilliant maitre'd. The joy though is realising that almost the entire staff of the hotel and a good many of the guests are actors hired to play the part - an idea so wonderfully batty it turns up in a couple of episodes of The Avengers (one of them made before this was published).

Talking of The Avengers, say hello to Bess Sedgwick "she had been a member of the French Resistance... had once saved two children from a bruning house... was said to be the second-best dressed woman in Europe... she had successfuly smuggled herself aboard a nuclear submarine". If the book doesn't exactly feel authentically 60s, the rip-roading Bess is really something new, like the Plucky Young Gals of 20s Christie, but somehow brighter and colder - there's a lovely moment when Miss Marple and her friend look carefully at Bess, wonder if she's happy and decide "no."

Miss Marple observes all of this from an easy chair "Everyone's universal great-aunt" - and she's a perfect central character for this book, sitting there like the events are a play staged just for her. She doesn't miss a thing.

There's a lovely scene where she goes for a walk through a changed London. "She visited no picture galleries and no museums... What she did visit were the glass and china departments of the large stores" and remarks on everything that has changed. "There must be progress I suppose" she laments, quietly. Later on she comments "Life is really a One Way Street, isn't it?" - which is both the solution to the crime and also slight hint that Miss Marple's not so out-of-touch (I've wikipedia'd the phrase and it seems to have been invented in 1909, but I'm wagering only really caught on in England during the great 60s expansion in town planning).

This is then followed by a coincidence (remarkable in real life but fitting in this book) of having two characters play out a scene just when Miss Marple sits down to tea, and Christie has great fun in playing up Miss Marple's desperate attempts to eavesdrop.

The book has a remarkable heroine in the figure of Bridget, a sort of orhpan who plods through the book tracking down her parents. While not as straight down-the- line as other heroines such as Lady Bundle Brent, she's plucky, inventive and daring. She's the hare to Miss Marple's tortoise.

What is curious about having a parentless child is that the book's detective is nicknamed "Father" throughout, resulting in a remarkable scene where he stands in loco parentis for Bridget.

From a gender point, this is a very curious book. All the women in it are independent, strong willed and display various degrees of cunning, and are pretty skilled at deception (whether it's mere politeness or grand larceny).

With the exception of Father, the men are quite lacking. They're mostly well-meaning, but often baffled, or not seeing the full picture. Even the book's male villans are limp. This includes the obvious gigolo racing-car driver Ladislaus, who is oddly intangible despite clearly shagging a mother and her daughter. Which would be shocking if he were more of a character.

Father is a triumph - a roly-poly avuncular menace he's like Sgt Battle in some ways. He pretends to be the junior policeman, he potters around in plain clothes, he plays the fool ever-so-slightly, but he takes Miss Marple seriously in a quite remarkable moment when he says: "I'm not going to arrest you Miss Marple. You have an alibi". The old lady is quite put out - and this is the first policeman to get one over on the love.

There are a few interesting traces of modernity. The delightful Canon Pennyfather may have wandered in from Anthony Trollope, but he goes for a curry. Sexual liberation is everywhere - when Bridget proclaims her romantic adventures in an Italian Convent her mother sighs "Every girl your age has a Guido in her life." There's the villainous Ladislaus with his sexual appetites, and there's even mention of a dodgy doctor who got struck off "helping a lot of girls who were no better than they should be".

Another sign of this being late Christie is the freewheeling plot. At the same time as reading this I was trying a Ngaio Marsh. She's very good - but nearly all her books follow the classic "Crime / Interrogation of all the Suspects / Revelation" structure, which is somtimes incredibly tiresome (and may explain why I don't care for Five Little Pigs although everyone else loves it). At Bertram's Hotel has no such structural limitations - it's all over the shop, but in a way that's constantly engrossing and surprising. True, the denoument is a mixture of masterclass and magic, but it's never ever dull. Which is quite a surprise when you consider that there isn't a murder until two-thirds in.

"I am not really fond of interfering. Though well meant it can cause a great deal of harm."

There's a real sadness at the heart of the book. Frequently when Miss Marple brings someone to justice we feel only pleasure. But this time she's pitted herself against a building, and she feels real regret at having to bring it down. "She felt sad - for Bertram's Hotel and for herself."

1 comment:

  1. i am interested by your comment on gender - i had never thought of it but it is true. I seem to remember thinking that the TV version did not quite live up to the book. Interesting post thanks indeed for sharing