At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie

July’s theme for Read Christie 2022 is ‘a story which takes place on holiday’; I didn’t take part in last month’s read as I’d already read the suggested title (Murder in Mesopotamia), but decided to join in this month with At Bertram’s Hotel.

This late Christie novel, first published in 1965, begins with Miss Marple arriving for a two-week stay at Bertram’s Hotel in London courtesy of her nephew who thought she might like to get away from the village of St Mary Mead for a while. The hotel is one that Miss Marple remembers fondly from her youth and, having heard that it has changed very little over the years, she is looking forward to staying there again. However, it turns out not to be quite the relaxing break she expected; first an elderly hotel guest, Canon Pennyfather, goes missing, then Miss Marple’s attention is drawn to the unusual behaviour of two more guests – the notorious Lady Sedgwick and her estranged teenage daughter, Elvira. It seems that something is not quite right about Bertram’s Hotel, but can Miss Marple help the police to discover exactly what is going on?

I enjoyed this book, although I don’t think it’s one of Christie’s best. There’s no central mystery to be solved – there’s the murder of a minor character which takes place late in the novel, but otherwise we hear about crimes that have happened ‘off the page’ rather than witnessing them ourselves. The sequence of events surrounding the disappearance of the absentminded Canon Pennyfather was fascinating, but again more of a subplot than the main focus of the story. What we do get is a growing sense of unease and a feeling that something is wrong without knowing precisely what it is.

I loved the portrayal of Bertram’s Hotel, which at first appears to be a quaint, old-fashioned establishment that has deliberately tried to preserve its Edwardian charm with the sort of atmosphere, furnishings and food that will appeal to a certain age and class of guest. As the story progresses, Miss Marple’s pleasure at finding the hotel just as she remembered it turns gradually to disappointment as she discovers that you can never really go back and that things don’t stay the same forever, no matter how much you want them to.

Sadly, Miss Marple herself doesn’t have a very big role to play in this novel. Chief Inspector Davy – known as ‘Father’ because he’s close to retirement age – is the person responsible for carrying out the investigations and we see more of him than we do of Miss Marple. However, as usual, she is the one who provides the vital clues and observations that enable the crimes to be solved and the culprits to be caught.

August’s Read Christie theme is a book ‘set in a hot climate’, if anyone wants to join in!

This is book 8/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

They Do It with Mirrors by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for the Read Christie 2021 challenge is ‘a story set after WWII’. There were plenty of options for this one – any book published after 1945 would count – and I eventually decided on They Do It with Mirrors, a 1952 Miss Marple novel.

The story begins with Miss Marple meeting an old friend, Ruth, who tells her that she’s worried about her sister, Carrie Louise, although she doesn’t give any specific reasons for her concern. Carrie Louise, like Ruth, has had several husbands and her latest, Lewis Serrocold, has established a rehabilitation centre for juvenile criminals at their home, Stonygates. Miss Marple agrees to go and visit Stonygates to see if she can find out what’s going on and, on her arrival, she finds a large number of people assembled at the house, including Carrie Louise’s daughter, granddaughter and stepson, as well as several other family members and servants.

As Miss Marple gets to know the various members of the household, she also begins to feel that something is not quite right – and she is proved to be correct when Christian Gulbrandsen, the son of Carrie Louise’s first husband, is found shot dead in his room. At the same time, Lewis Serrocold is shot at in his study by one of the ‘juvenile delinquents’, a young man who claims to be Winston Churchill’s son. Lewis is unharmed, but as one of the other characters remarks, “you don’t expect murder and attempted murder in the same house on the same night!” The police, led by Inspector Curry, soon arrive on the scene and begin their investigations, but it’s Miss Marple, of course, who eventually solves the mystery.

I don’t think this is one of Christie’s best, but I did still enjoy it – and unlike my last Christie novel, Death on the Nile, where I guessed the solution almost immediately, I didn’t manage to solve this one before the culprit was revealed. The title of the book refers to the fact that things and people are not always what they seem and sometimes, like a magician, ‘they do it with mirrors’ to cause confusion and misdirection. Well, I certainly allowed myself to be misdirected, but I do think it would have been possible to work it out if I’d been paying more attention.

This book has an interesting setting which gives Christie a chance to explore Lewis Serrocold’s work with the young offenders and the way in which these young men were viewed by 1950s society. This doesn’t really play a big part in the story and it could have worked just as well as a conventional country house mystery without this element, but it does provide some extra interest.

December’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story set during bad weather’. The suggested title is The Sittaford Mystery, which is one I haven’t read yet.

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story starring a vicar’ and the chosen title is an obvious one – The Murder at the Vicarage, which was first published in 1930 and is the first book in the Miss Marple series. I have read most of the later Marple novels, but never this one and I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning and read the book that introduced Miss Marple to the world of crime fiction.

The novel is set, like many of the other Marple novels, in the village of St Mary Mead, a place where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s behaviour goes unnoticed! When Colonel Protheroe is found dead in the study at the vicarage, shot while waiting for the vicar to return home, Miss Marple and the other villagers immediately begin to gossip and to speculate on who the murderer could be. At first suspicion falls upon Anne Protheroe, the Colonel’s unhappy wife, and Lawrence Redding, the man with whom she has been having an affair. However, Colonel Protheroe was not a popular man and there is no shortage of other suspects – Miss Marple herself insists that she can think of at least seven.

The story is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, who is drawn into the mystery not only due to the murder victim being found in his study, but also because the people of St Mary Mead see him as a trusted friend in whom they can confide and share pieces of information they prefer not to give to the police. The vicar’s narrative is both intelligent and amusing, as he reflects on his household, his domestic arrangements and his relationship with his younger wife, Griselda, as well as carrying out his own investigations into the murder case.

Someone else who is investigating the murder for herself is Miss Marple – and of course she finds her way to the solution before the police do, using her knowledge of human nature and her powers of observation. Miss Marple as she appears in this first novel is slightly different from the woman we meet in the later books in the series and is not particularly well liked by her neighbours, who see her as someone who goes around poking her nose into everyone else’s business. Unlike in some of the other books, where she seems to have been added to the story almost as an afterthought and the plot would have worked just as well without her, in this one she is there from beginning to end – often just in the background, but everything she says and does and every suggestion she makes turns out to be vital to the solving of the mystery!

Although I did enjoy this book, particularly as I found it such a difficult one to solve – I think I suspected almost everyone and allowed myself to get distracted by all the red herrings Christie throws into the plot – it took me a while to get into it. There were so many characters to keep track of and apart from the vicar and his wife and Miss Marple I didn’t really engage with any of them. I found the second half of the book much more compelling, though, as the plot became more and more complex and clever. I have read three Miss Marple mysteries in a row now for the Read Christie challenge, so I’m in the mood for something different next month. The August theme is ‘a story set by the seaside’ and I’m thinking about the Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

This month, for Read Christie 2021, the theme is ‘a story featuring a garden’ and the suggested title is Nemesis, a late Miss Marple mystery published in 1971.

Nemesis is an unusual Marple novel because for the first half of the book it’s not really clear what the mystery is that she’s trying to solve. All we do know is that Mr Rafiel, a rich man whom Miss Marple met previously in A Caribbean Mystery (which I haven’t read), has died, leaving her a large sum of money in his will on the condition that she must agree to investigate a crime for him. The only problem is, he doesn’t tell her what sort of crime it is or what she will need to do – only that he remembers her flair for justice and her nickname ‘Nemesis’.

Intrigued by Mr Rafiel’s request and tempted by the money, Miss Marple decides to accept the mission – and promptly receives an invitation to join a tour of Britain’s historic houses and gardens. During the tour she gradually uncovers the details of a crime committed several years earlier and discovers at last what Mr Rafiel wants her to do.

I don’t really want to say much more about the plot of this particular Christie novel because I think part of the fun is in wondering what the mystery is going to be and which of the people Miss Marple meets on the tour are going to be involved in it. Once the crime is revealed and she is able to start her investigations, it becomes more of a conventional mystery novel and I don’t think it’s as strong as some of the other Marples. Several of the clues seemed very obvious and I was able to solve some of it (although not all of it).

I was pleased to find that Miss Marple is present in the story from the beginning all the way through to the end; I’ve often complained that she appears too briefly, so it was nice to spend an entire novel with her this time. I loved the way she uses her apparent absent-mindedness, frailty and ‘twittering’ to fool the people around her into thinking she is a harmless, silly old woman, while all the time her brain is working away, storing information, making observations and staying one step ahead of everyone else. I should warn you, though, that she does express some disturbing views on the subject of rape – views that, unfortunately, a lot of people still hold today. Apart from that, this is an entertaining, if not particularly outstanding, Marple novel and it looks as though I’ll be reading another one soon as July’s selection is Murder at the Vicarage.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

The May prompt for the Read Christie 2021 Challenge is ‘a story featuring tea’.  I would have had no idea which Christie novels fit that theme, but as ever the challenge hosts provided a list of suggestions and this one, A Pocket Full of Rye, turned out to be perfect.   

First published in 1953, the novel opens with London businessman Rex Fortescue being served his morning tea in his office by his secretary.  When Fortescue dies in hospital shortly afterwards and the cause of death is said to be taxine, a poison found in yew trees, the tea is naturally blamed.  However, the autopsy suggests that the poisoning must have actually taken place earlier that morning, while Fortescue was eating breakfast at his home, Yew Tree Lodge.  This widens the circle of potential suspects to include his wife, his three children and their spouses, and an assortment of servants.  Inspector Neele is brought in to lead the investigation, but his only real clue is a handful of rye found in Fortescue’s pocket.

Neele believes he is close to identifying the culprit, but a second murder forces him to think again.  It is only when Miss Marple arrives at Yew Tree Lodge, having read about the murders in the newspaper, that a connection is spotted with the popular children’s rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye”.  Inspector Neele may be a clever man with a sharp mind, but it will take Miss Marple’s knowledge of Mother Goose, blackbirds and human nature to solve this particular mystery.

I usually seem to prefer Christie’s Poirot novels to her Miss Marple ones, but I really enjoyed this book; it’s one of my favourite Marples so far, along with A Murder is Announced. I loved the nursery rhyme element – although it’s maybe not all that relevant to the overall solving of the mystery, it does add some fun to the plot. I can’t say that I loved the characters, but as Neele himself describes them as “all very unpleasant people”, we’re obviously not supposed to – and the fact that they are so unpleasant means that there are plenty of suspects. For once, I did correctly identify who was behind the murders, but I think it was really just a lucky guess; I certainly didn’t work everything out and I needed Miss Marple to explain all the details for me. Sadly, though, we don’t spend a lot of time with her in this book. She doesn’t appear until almost halfway through and then we don’t see very much of her actually investigating the mystery…which makes it all the more impressive that she manages to solve it ahead of Inspector Neele!

I’m enjoying taking part in Read Christie this year. I’ve read five great books in the first five months and am looking forward to another one in June!

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

I’m taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year and the prompt for January is ‘a story set in a grand house’. Christie wrote lots of those and I’ve already read some of them, including The Hollow, which is the one the challenge hosts have chosen as the book of the month. Fortunately, they provided a list of alternative suggestions and I decided on the 1942 Miss Marple mystery, The Body in the Library, as my January book for the challenge.

The ‘grand house’ in this novel is Gossington Hall in St Mary Mead, home to Dolly Bantry and her husband, Colonel Arthur Bantry. When the Bantrys are woken by the maid early one morning to be told that a dead body has been found on their library floor – the body of a blonde young woman in a white satin evening dress and silver shoes – suspicion immediately falls on the Colonel. But the Colonel insists that he has never seen the woman before and there is no evidence to connect him with the murder, so attention then turns to other suspects.

Could the culprit be Basil Blake, a newcomer to the village who is involved in the film industry and whose lifestyle has made him the centre of village gossip? What about George Bartlett, a guest at the nearby Majestic Hotel where the murdered woman, Ruby Keene, had worked as a dancer? Or maybe it’s Conway Jefferson, who had been planning to adopt Ruby as his daughter after losing his wife and children in a plane crash several years earlier. As the police begin to investigate, Dolly Bantry enlists the help of her friend Miss Marple because she’s ‘very good at murders’. And Miss Marple once again proves just how good she is at murders by using her usual blend of observation and knowledge of human nature to piece together the clues and solve the crime.

The Body in the Library is a short, quick read and like most of Christie’s novels it is cleverly constructed so that most of the information you need to be able to solve the mystery is there from the beginning, but very easy to overlook. As Miss Marple says once or twice, most people are too trusting and too ready to believe everything they are told; even bearing that in mind, I still didn’t suspect the right person and the murderer had me completely fooled! The murderer also had the police fooled – although we don’t actually see very much of Miss Marple in this novel and the focus is more on the police investigation, she is the one who provides the necessary insights that lead to the identification of the killer.

In the foreword to the novel, Christie states that the ‘body in the library’ story is a cliché of detective fiction and that she wrote this book as a variation on that cliché: ‘The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body, on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body.’ Well, the library at Gossington Hall certainly sounds conventional and the body caused plenty of sensation in St Mary Mead, so I think Christie achieved what she set out to do! This has not become a favourite Marple novel but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading February’s book for the challenge.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

I was doing so well with the Read Christie 2020 challenge earlier in the year. I read the suggested novels for January, February and March (Murder on the Orient Express, A Murder is Announced and The Hollow) but then, distracted by Covid-19 and lockdown, I never picked up April’s book – or May’s or June’s or July’s. I think I’ve officially failed this year’s challenge now, don’t you? Anyway, Sleeping Murder is the book I was supposed to have read in April. Published in 1976, it’s a Miss Marple mystery and was the final book in the Marple series.

The novel opens with a young woman, Gwenda Reed, arriving in England from New Zealand. Her husband, Giles, is due to come and join her soon, and Gwenda hopes to have found somewhere to live in time for his arrival. As soon as she sees Hillside, a house in the seaside town of Dillmouth, she decides she wants to buy it. There’s something about the house that feels strangely familiar and in fact, she seems to know things about it that she really shouldn’t know at all. When she suddenly has a vivid memory of seeing a dead body at the bottom of the staircase, Gwenda panics, believing that she is losing her mind.

After confiding in Miss Marple, who is related to Giles’ cousin, Gwenda discovers that there is a logical explanation for her recent experiences: Hillside had actually been her home as a very small child, before she left England for New Zealand. Convinced that a murder must have taken place in the house – and that she herself had witnessed the aftermath – Gwenda and Giles begin to investigate. However, Miss Marple has serious forebodings; she likes the young couple and is worried that they could put themselves in danger by trying to uncover secrets that have remained buried for almost twenty years. The only way to protect her new friends is to solve the mystery herself and catch the murderer before he or she has the chance to strike again!

I haven’t read all of Christie’s Marple novels yet, but this is one of my favourites so far. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery – I thought I had, but I was wrong – and I was surprised to find out who the murderer really was. The clues were all there, but I didn’t pick up on them; in fact, the biggest clue went over my head because I didn’t have the general knowledge to be able to interpret it. I can’t explain what I mean without spoiling the story, but if you’ve read the book you’ll know which clue I’m talking about.

I love the atmosphere Christie creates in this novel, with a sense of lingering evil from the moment Gwenda walks through the doors of Hillside. With the crime being one that took place in the past and which needs to be solved in retrospect, I was reminded of the Poirot mystery Five Little Pigs, although I enjoyed reading this one more, maybe because the present day characters are more actively involved in the story. We see most of the investigation unfold from Gwenda’s perspective, but Miss Marple herself has a large role to play in the novel. Although the book wasn’t published until the 1970s, it was actually written much earlier in Christie’s career (possibly in 1940) so Marple is actually younger and livelier than she is in some of the other books in the series which were published before this one!

Have you read Sleeping Murder? Which is your favourite Marple novel?

This is book 9/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.