Saturday, 4 September 2010

A Murder Is Announced (1950)

Plot: A murder is announced... please accept this, friends, the only intimation.

This is a book about spinsters. It's a subject tackled head-on in other crime of the period, such as Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night, with its sexual frustration and violence, but this is a different take entirely.

Is it a lesser work than Gaudy Night? Well, it's certainly a different one. The book also suffers from "Gone With The Wind"'s problem of there being a much-more-celebrated adaptation in existence. When you're up against a telly version by Alan Plater, you're in trouble. Maybe it's my personal prejudice - but the book is a disappointment in a way that The Body In The Library is a triumph. But this is all unfair - comparing A Murder Is Announced to an amazing television version and to Gaudy Night is, at the end of the day, merely comparing grapes, plums and bananas.

Let's start with the central concept, which is brilliant - another village trope, that of the local paper, and how regional gossip is more important than national events - bookends the work. We start off with dismissive mention of twenty-three dead in food-poisoning at a hotel, which is mere trivia compared to local adverts for false teeth and dachshunds.

Dropped into all this, like the hand of fate, is the announcement that a murder will take place. It's almost supernaturally creepy, and also, like The Body In The Library, a notion that's too fictional to be real, and yet it is. This bizarreness is both celebrated and played on - of course the doomed Rudi Scherz shouts "Stick em up", naturally everyone assumes he's holding a gun, and obviously the lights go out before the murder happens.

Now, all that aside, and girding our spoiler-loins, let's look at the women.

This is a story about single women. The book features only one happy marriage - that of Bunch to the Vicar. They're a loving couple (almost carbon copies of Vicar+Wife in St Mary Mead). Bunch even has the splendidly named Tiglath Pileser for a cat. The vicar and his wife are all that is good and harmonious about Chipping Cleghorn - and naturally aren't even suspected for a second.

We also get Belle Goedler, the dying widow in the remote Highlands. She's had a brilliant life and knows the fulfilment of being married, and as such can judge the quiet sadness of Letitia Blacklock.

And that's it for wedded bliss.

Colonel and Mrs Easterbrook harbour a dreadful secret that's never uncovered - she's much younger than him and is flustered about her alibi, but what her flaw is is never revealed.

Similarly, Phillipa Haymes is married - but her husband is an army deserter who dies unmourned in a hospital as a tramp. She lives a life of torment and sadness, never able to tell her son the truth, nor to move on. As such she's seen as beautiful, but frozen like a statue, waiting to thaw upon his death.

The central spinsters of the novel of Lotty and Letty Blackwood - only one of whom actually appears. Both kind, one amoral - both driven. Letitia is a financial and business genius who allies herself to the Goedlers, a genuinely good woman who lives for finance and who never interests herself in men. She's the happy spinster in the book - one who never realises that she is incomplete.

By contrast, the disfigured Charlotte drives herself indoors, a once-pretty woman who cannot bear the world to see her. Her crippled self-confidence curdles her soul. Her mainstay is her belief in her father, a doctor who refuses her the simple operation that will cure her deformity. Lotty becomes a truly pathetic figure - her betrayed worhsip of her father causing an odd sort of arrested development. We learn that her dreams are of "travel, to have a house and beautiful grounds - to have clothes and jewels and go to plays and concerts, to gratify every whim - it was all a kind of fairy tale". Charlotte's fairly tale world has no mention of an adult relationship with a man. Instead she moves in her childhood friend Bunny and they recreate the magic of the old days, spending idyllic afternoons blackberrying. Charlotte remains childish - giving Bunny a child's birthday party send off. Even the devising of the "Murder Is Announced" plot is prankish and immature.

Bunny is Charlotte's accomplice in setting up this fairytale world. It is she who colludes in Charlotte's impersonation and fraud, but to her it is all so simple and plainly just. Bunny is a child grown old without having grown up - a simple person who finds being old confusing and saddening. Bunny gets a remarkable speech to Miss Marple in the coffee shop about the poverty she was reduced to:

"Darning one's clothes and hoping it won't show. And applying for jobs and always being told you're too old. And then perhaps getting a job and after all one isn't strong enough. One faints. And you're back again. It's the rent - always the rent - that's got to be paid. Otherwise you're out in the street. And in these days it leaves so little over. One's old age pension doesn't go far."

Unworldly Bunny is actually the most worldly character in the book, broken by the true sadness of the world and hiding it all under fluff and good nature. It's a dramatic portrait of a sadly shabby life, aware of her own stupidity and yet unable to alter it and just bumbling on and living in her make-believe fairy castle with her childhood friend.

You'll have gathered by now that I'm banging on about this as a novel of character. Which brings us to remarkble Murgatroyd and Hinch. Two practical old ladies sharing a farmstead. Agatha Christie does lesbians of a certain age, but without trumpet or fanfare. Instead they're both marvellous. They're reflections of Charlotte and Bunny. Whereas the former live a fantasy life, Murgatroyd and Hinch are solidly practical. Hinch is the muddy-booted schemer, slaughtering pigs, running a black market ring, all grit and colourful language ("I'm standing against the mantelpiece with my tongue hanging out for a drink"), while Murgatroyd is Bunny ("Oh, dear, Hinch, you know what a muddle I get into!").

The slaughter of Murgatroyd is the most horrific murder in Christie (am I still biased by watching Joan Sims die the part on telly?), no more dreadful for Hinch's reaction. She is described as inconsolable:

"Nobody offered Miss Hinchcliffe sympathy or mentioned Miss Murgatroyd's death. The ravaged face of the tall vigorous woman told its own tale, and would have made any expression of sympathy an impertinence."

Hinch is a remarkable and a brilliant character. She feels real. Her reaction when she finds her friend's body is stunning - she's horrified, but still practical, insisting on telling Miss Marple what they'd been doing while they wait for the police to turn up. No hysterics, but also no doubt of the awful grief going on. She also gets the best line in the book when she turns up for the denouncement:

"[Inspector Craddock] said I needn't come unless I liked," said Miss Hinchcliffe. "But I do like."

I genuinely and utterly love Hinch. She's my second favourite "spinster" in the book.

My favourite spinster, naturally, is Miss Marple, even though she takes a subtle backseat. It's quite clear what she's there for, as soon as Sir Henry Clithering realises she's in town ("Ye Gods and Little Fishes, can it be...? My own particular, one and only, four starred Pussy. The super Pussy of all old Pussies.").  Marple is slower and quieter in this book (you get the feeling it's about two-thirds of the way through before she KNOWS who did it). I'm deducting points from the Pan edition for the back cover that reprints Miss Marple's end-of-book list of clues ("Lamp. Violets. Where is bottle of aspirin? Delicious Death. Maing enquiries. Severe affliction bravely borne. Iodine. Pearls. Letty. Berne. Old Age Pension.") - but it does at least prove the old dear is sharp as ever. She has her list of clues, but she's not quick enough to prevent a murder turning into a killing spree.

In the meantime she manages a lot of knitting, some cunning observations, and some slighting comments about the local cakes at the coffee shop. But it is Miss Marple who knows everyone - there's a neat section of village parallels and then a remarkable final chapter where she explains the psychology of the murderer in a way that's as sympathetic as it is heartbreaking ("She was quite a kindly woman... It's what's in yourself that makes you happy or unhappy.")

Finally, there's the servant problem. In a book stuffed full of remarkable characters there's Mitzi "the Mittel European", a character who makes it through to the end of the book surprisingly unscathed. She's outlandish and terrible and yet the sheer outpouring of her makes her very believable. Even the murderer finds her exhausting, and it's part of the book's astute eye on the 1950s servant problem and the agonies of rationing that the murderer has to placate Mitzi in the middle of at least three lethal plots as good cooks are just so hard to find.

Anyway, after a book all about miserable single women and unconventional relationships, we end with a wedding. Remarkably it's between two characters who, according to Miss Marple's judgment really shouldn't go anywhere near each other. What makes their union most peculiar is that they appear to get married in between pages - we assume that Chapter 22 follows almost immediately after the unveling of the murderer in Chapter 21, but then there's sudden talk of wedding presents. Is it really a happy ending, or simply a conventional one?

1 comment:

  1. This is my favorite Miss Marple adaptation. The one starring Joan Hickson of course, I discount any later Miss Marples - awful! It's also my favorite Miss Marple book. I just love the setting. And the quirky characters. Though the whole initial crime seems to me preposterous. (I mean, if you really think about it, wouldn't it have been easier and less messy to just kill the guy some night on a dark road?) I still love the book.