Thursday, September 6, 2018

Agatha Christie, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw

Agatha Christie, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw
(English title:  4:50 From Paddington)
© 1957 Agatha Christie Ltd.
As it happens, we’ll be off for a week-long jaunt in a few weeks, a program offered by Road Scholar (a/k/a elderhostel), “Agatha Christie, Classic Film Mysteries, and the Legacy of Sherlock Holmes”  So we thought it would make sense to read (or re-read) some of their stories.  The first one I managed to get sent to me by a used bookseller was this one, and, apparently, I had never read it or I read it so long ago I had no memory of it at all.  As with almost all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, this has gone through dozens of editions, both in hardcover and in paperback.  The edition I got was from the 1980s US reprint series under the general title of “The Agatha Christie Mystery Collection.
Miss Marple’s friend, Mrs. McGillicuddy, has a has had a startling, and very disturbing, experience while returning from London to her home in St. Mary Mead—as her train and another one, both going in the same direction, are side-by-side briefly, she sees a man strangling a woman.  All she sees is the man’s back, but she has a clear view of the woman’s face.  She dutifully informs one of the conductors on the train, and the police in the next town at which the train stops.  But no body is found on the train beside the train (on at least one side, there’s a considerable down-slope).  So she decides to confide in her good friend Jane Marple.  And then she leaves to visit family in Ceylon.  Miss Marple passes the information to Inspector Dermot Craddock, whom she has met before.  He is, in short order, assigned the investigation for Scotland Yard.  And she decides to do a little investigating on her own.
But not by herself.  She does travel from London, on the same train that Mrs. McGillicuddy took, and decides that her friend could very well have seen a murder and that the terrain is such as to make it possible that the body might not have been easily found.  We learn that she is feeling her years (we are quite explicitly told that she is 87) and so seeks out the assistance of Lucy Eyelesbarrow.  She is described as a “brilliant scholar,” but one who chose not to lead an academic life.  So she creates a niche for herself—a very high-class, very expensive temporary domestic servant (and she once worked for Miss Marple, whose nephew paid the bill).  She also finds this to be an intriguing assignment, and accepts.  The plan is for her to seek (and obtain) a temporary position in the home of Luther Crackenthorpe (the sole offspring of a maker of high-class appetizers).  Meanwhile Miss Marple will find a place to stay in the town that surrounds the Crackenthorpe estate, posing as Miss. Eyelesbarrow’s aunt.
Luther Crackenthorpe has three (living) sons—one died in World War II—and one living daughter.  The estate is complicated, in that Luther receives only the income, with the estate to de distributed, upon his death, in equal shares to his surviving children.  And there arises a question about the son who died in the war.
The investigations proceed.  The body is found, and needs to be identified—which is a problem.  One problem that (for me) needed to be resolved is how the murderer got the corpse off the train.  The answer Is that the individual cars were not what were called “corridor” coaches—passengers entered the individual compartments through doors specific to that compartment.  This is important, because getting the body off the train through a window would have been awkward.  (It’s still, to me, a little awkward.  The line must be double-tracked, at least for some of the distance.  And it’s unclear whether the door to the compartment was on the side that would have been between the trains.  If the door was between the trains, then hurling the body across a second track might be quite difficult.)  Whether there is a connection with the Crackenthorpes muse be established—and that is complicated by what we learn about the deceased son.  Progress is made on all these fronts, and, in the end (which I must confess, I found a bit ad hoc), the murderer is identified and arrested.
One thing that occurred to me, based on the character of Lucy Eyelesbarrow…I thought it at least possible that Christie might have decided that Miss Marple had aged enough that continued adventures for her would be difficult to make plausible.  So I wondered if Lucy might have become a new series character, perhaps continuing to work with Miss Marple or displacing her.  If Christie entertained the idea, I can find nothing that suggests she acted on it; there were 6 more Miss Marple novels and 2 short story collections to come.
I’ve always felt that the solutions in the Miss Marple books were a bit ad hoc, and not always well supported by the things revealed in the investigations.  And this book did nothing to change my mind.  Miss Marple, though, is a very engaging personality, and even if I can quibble about the path to a solution of the crime, I can’t argue that Miss Marple is anything less than a thoroughly entertaining person.

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