Monday, 19 July 2010

A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

Plot: Miss Marple finds murder in paradise.

Fundamentally Death On The Nile with a dash of Curtain, A Caribbean Mystery is a surprisingly subtle book that repeat At Bertram's Hotel's trick of plonking Miss Marple on a luxury holiday and has her watch the world fall apart. The hotel in the Caribbean Mystery is full of the same old types as the one in The Body In The Library -  sourpuss milionaires and unhappy wives and dull majors. But there's a rigid sense of "the fun must carry on" despite the rocketing death toll.

"Major Palgrave's death was already only an incident... Life here was sunshine, sea and social pleasures."

This is the story of a murderer who keeps getting away with crime because no-one wants to notice what they're doing. It's cunning and insidious and a little bit Gaslight.

Miss Marple is at her gossipy best. She's shameless in this story. There's a lovely chapter which begins with one character starting some scandal, and "looking carefully around. Miss Marple drew her chair a little closer". This is a story about the nature of gossip and how it can be used to cover up crime. So, we have a criminal who convinces everyone that Major Palgrave was poisoned by an accidental overdose of his medication - even though we later learn that Major Palgrave took no medication. The criminal does this several times, suggesting, insinuating and passing on misinformation - covering up tracks, laying false scents and burying the past. Miss Marple's challenge, fittingly, is to get to the truth of each misdirection, finding the source of each lie. It's similar in a way to when Hercule Poirot tackles the Hyrdra in the Labours of Hercules.

There's a lovely moment when the Canon upbraids his sister for gossiping with Miss Marple. "The two women sat in silence. They were rebuked and in deference to their training, they deferred to the criticism of a man. But inwardly they were frustrated, irritated and quite unrepentant." It's easy to dismiss Agatha Christie, but at moments like this she's EM Forster with a body count.

The book also features, remarkably, scenes of the unconventional home life of Victoria the Caribbean Maid. These are not the disaster you might be braced for, but show Christie not only being sensitive, but also doing patois. I KNOW! Thankfully Miss Marple does not at any point rap.

Talking of the old dear, we get a brief snatch of personal history, where Miss Marple remembers meeting a dashing young man at a croquet party. Later, she rejected him when she discovered that "after all, he was dull. Very dull."

The standout relationship is between Miss Marple and the dour Frederick Rafiel, the ailing millionaire. Rafiel is anything but dull, and clearly sees in Miss Marple both a tool and a challenge. It is he who nicknames her Nemesis, setting up the sequel. But the two have a wonderfully warm, sparky relationship, and it has echoes of the glorious pairings of early Christie when she's stick two bright young things in a motor car and let them have fun. But these are two bright old things and they're out for vengeance. The book really does belong to the two of them - and the scene when they say goodbye is genuinely touching.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely review. there is an excellent Joan Hickson adaptation of this.

    Thanks for sharing