Sunday, 6 February 2011

4.50 from Paddington

Plot: Unique serial killer romp about British Rail and the National Health Service

Lucy  Eyelesbarrow. There's other stuff in 4.50 from Paddington, and it's all good, but it's Lucy Eyelesbarrow who dominates this book. She is Agatha Christie's ultimate answer to The Servant Problem - what if a really clever, independent woman took up domestic service. With a First in Mathematics at Oxford, Lucy is the perfect servant - her brains, tact and beauty amply rewarded by gratetful employers. She takes on the job of hunting down a murderer because it appeals to her and because she likes Miss Marple - recognising in her both her brains and her character

Lucy is a truly marvellous example of a really independent Christie heroine - and it is a crushing shame that she's landed with a romantic plot - will she pick boring-but-brave Brian or charming-but-caddish Cedric? You very quickly start yelling "Neither! Neither!" and even Christie chickens out of sentencing Lucy to purgatory with either of them. The only possible appeal of Brian is his charming son, who Christie writes gloriously, even allowing him and chum Stoddard-West a glimpse of a dead body ("One's only young once."). Possibly, Lucy should wait until Alexander comes of age and make her move. The charming Alexander, however, is most keen on the match:

Averting his eyes to the ceiling, he said rather self-consciously:
"I think, really, you know, it would be a good thing if he married again... Somebody decent... I shouldn't, myself, mind at all having a stepmother..."

Just because Lucy is some grand doesn't mean that Miss Marple takes a back seat. In the early stages of the book she does some great detective work in finding the location of the mysterious corpse - she draws up a charming plan of action ("4. Griselda's boy Leonard who is so very knowledgeable about maps.") and then travels on a lot of trains. The reliability and state of the Nation's railways places this book firmly in the 50s, with Miss Marple remarking on the decline of First Class ("This taxation... that's what it is. No one can afford to travel first class except business men in the rush hours. I suppose because they can charge it to expenses.").

This is a remarkably post-War novel. The Crackenthropes of Rutherford Hall are once-rich industrialists whose principal remaining asset is their estate - sat in the middle of an expanding town, it is eagerly wanted by developers to bulldoze and turn into new housing. Rutherford Hall itself is seen as valueless - a mouldering stately home mostly closed off and impossible to keep up due to taxation and The Servant Problem. The house is presided over by the archetypal decayed gentleman, Mr Crackenthorpe, a man who cackles when his children are bumped off ("I'll outlive them all," he crowed, "You see if I don't.")

We also see the remarkable effect of the brand new National Health Service on poor Dr Quimper, a man driven almost mad by overwork and sleeplessness.

The book also features one of the oddest coincidences in the revelation of just who Edmund Crackenthorpe's lover in the French Resistance was. It's honestly a moment that would have you throwing the book across the room were it not being handled by Agatha Christie. Even then, it's touch and go.

One of the oddest things about this book though is the tone - it's a deeply horrible, tragic tale, but it's told in a tone of almost constantly upbeat, light-hearted whimsy, which is as charming as it is unsettling. It still doesn't stop Lucy Eyelesbarrow from stealing the show. I just hope she didn't marry either of them in the end.


  1. The blog police have reminded me that I haven't let you know that I awarded you a "Stylish Blogger Award". Consider it awarded and deserved.