Agatha Christie was 74 years old when she published her ninth Miss Marple novel, A Caribbean Mystery, by which time – as I said in my review of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side – she would have known a lot about the procedures of ageing. There were still 13 books to come from her pen (well, 11 really, since the final Marple and Poirot books had famously been written some years previously) and this belief in her own abilities is echoed in the treatment of her beloved elderly spinster as, in spite of the infirmities she suffers and the attitude others take towards her, she continues to outfox murders left, right, and centre.
Christie, of course, had less to prove by now than she would have done in her younger days and so this isn’t a “We’ve Still Got It” Oldies v. Whippersnappers cage match – the Clint Eastwood movie Space Cowboys comes to mind, and can thankfully be dismissed – but is instead a moderately elegiac reflection on old age, youth, and the folly of both (contrast it with the far earlier Partners in Crime, where Bright Young Things Tommy and Tuppence prove their worth at a range of investigative styles). And since I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk for a few weeks now (which I promise I’ll not mention again) I thought I’d try a bit of a textual analysis on this theme to see if it got me anything interesting.
Aunt Jane and Poirot both started out old, of course, and there’s no sense of how much time has passed between books or even where this falls in the canon, but there are enough early references to attitudes towards sex in society, to ‘modern novels’, and the social acceptance of ‘queers’ (used in both senses in the book, but at this stage undoubtedly a reference to sexuality) that it’s safe to assume it is set fairly contemporary to its publication. And it is undoubtedly a reflection on ageing from the very first introduction of ‘Old Miss Marple’ to its really rather moving – yes, moving, dammit – final page. I have no desire to go too deeply into the specifics of the plot – I’ll not be naming the murderer, or even talking too greatly in detail about what happens – but it may be worth considering that there is going to be a fair amount of direct reference to other aspects of the book and so you may wish to hold off on this until you’ve read it yourself. I don’t think of any of what follows as spoilers, more just sort of…details you’re better experiencing in context. Er, think up your own catchy name for that.
Arguably there are three aspects of referencing age that are going on here: the perception of the elderly, the reality of the elderly, and the perception and reality of the ‘young’ (loosely defined herein as ‘in your twenties and thirties’). The first is covered by not just Old Miss Marple – “At my age, you know, one feels very useless in the world” – but also Canon Prescott and his sister Joan, and the crotchety, sharp-tongued ‘Old Mr. Rafiel’ who:
[I]n beach attire was incredibly desiccated, his bones draped with festoons of dry skin. Though looking like a man on the point of death, he had looked exactly the same for at least the last eight years… Sharp blue eyes peered out of his wrinkled cheeks, and his principal pleasure in life was denying robustly anything that anyone else said.
In a way these four represent the broad strokes of the process of ageing. Miss Marple, of course, plays up to this deliberately – of which more later – but at the same time is unable to remember if something she says ‘was a quotation, or whether she had made it up’. She is the kindly old lady, given to twittering and going pink at the drop of a hat. The Canon takes time out to entertain and mediate for the children on the beach, but comes back breathless and worn out, in which time his sister has been free to gossip ‘avidly’ having been ‘frustrated, irritated, and quite unrepentant’ when rebuked by her brother for doing so earlier, possessing that streak of vehemence that delights in the affairs of others (as well as having ‘skin like a plucked chicken’). And then Mr. Rafiel turns out to be far and away the most interesting of the lot of them: starting off obstreperously brow-beating his valet Jackson and his secretary Esther Walters, bemoaning the presence of old ladies in the Caribbean when they’d be “quite happy” in Bournemouth or Torquay, and pegged quickly as one who would not care for ‘the idle twittering conversation of old ladies’ but then showing a wider, more compassionate side as things progress.
It is Mr. Rafiel who bears the most scrutiny when regarding Christie’s treatment of the elderly in this book. We know Aunt Jane will be sharper and keener of mind than the rest of them, but the utilisation of Mr. Rafiel takes a potential antagonist – a man for whom we don’t feel a great deal of sympathy when he moves the youthful, vain, arrogant Señora de Caspearo to declare “How ugly are old men! Oh how they are ugly! They should all be put to death at forty, or perhaps thirty-five would be better” – and turns him from rebuking Miss Marple for listening to ‘tittle-tattle’ into an unexpected ally come the close, a man with a ‘great will to live’ who is the first to realise he has been wrong in the assumptions made about Miss Marple and injects more than a little wryness into his frustration at their limitations when it comes to solving the murders:
“We you say? What do you think I can do about it? I can’t even walk without help. How can you and I set about preventing a murder? You’re about a hundred and I’m a broken-up old crock.”
And yet we know they can do something, because parallel to this catalogue of the indignities of old age runs the seam of how these perceptions are played up to in order to give a misleading impression of what these old folk can do. Awareness of her limitations here – “They would say that I was an old lady imagining things” – in no way prevents Miss Marple from turning it to her advantage because people would suspect nothing of her: ‘She had one weapon and one weapon only,’ we are told early on, ‘and that was conversation’. Of course, she also has a broken shoe and a kindly nature and a ‘gentle charity’ bestowed on everyone that leads someone to their doom. While Mr. Rafiel is exemplified by the observation that ‘he was a law unto himself and people accepted him as such’, it’s hardly less true of Miss Marple – never before has the ability to sit and knit been exploited so ruthlessly.
And, of course, a set of assumptions based on age are key to the Major’s murder, playing into this notion of how something can be assumed without question because elderly people invite preconceptions purely on account of their age. There are surely aspects of this that Christie saw around her and experienced daily (and probably still does, cf. “All late-period Agatha Christie novels are terrible”), and she doubtless delighted in working this into the key facet of her plot.
For someone so keen on the unseen talents of the elderly – the quote I’ve used a the title of this post sums up Christie’s argument quite thoroughly, I feel – she also has a lot sympathy for a younger generation concerned with relationships, running a business, and always expecting everything to happen the moment it is required (“Instant remedies, that’s what people demand nowadays. Sometimes I think it’s a pity we give them to them. You’ve got to learn to put up with things in life”). Of course their lack of experience in many matters leads to a great many tragedies unearthed herein and contributing to the unhappiness of several of the younger generation bound together by their shared impatience, but Christie is never one to simply write them off. Miss Marple enjoys the youth of Tim and Molly Kendall, crediting them with the perception to recognise who talks to which guests at dinner (old ladies prefer the presence of a younger man, it seems…) but also laments for young people in general who are stuck ‘studying, she supposed, at universities – or doing a job with a fortnight’s holiday per year’ and unable to afford the pleasures of time away.
But, inevitably, it is the carefree attitude of youth that causes so many of the problems. “One does need so much tact when dealing with the young,” Miss Marple laments – standing here in stark and deliberate contrast with Mr. Rafiel – and this is supported by Tim Kendall’s summation of his wife’s previous relationship: “You know what it’s like when you’re young. If people cut up a fuss it makes you so much keener on whoever it is”. And, indeed, we know how that works out.
Wider elements of youthful antics impose, too – the Hillingdons and the Dysons haven’t even got a look in here, and there’s probably another 2,000 words one could write about them – but I want to leave something for anyone venturing forth into this without first experiencing the book. Parallels could be drawn between this book and the younger generation of crime novelists Christie saw coming up beneath her, but I don’t want to overreach myself: it’s simply a delight, having been warned against anything from this stage of Christie’s writing from my very earliest experience of her, to find her in such fine fettle and on such rich ground. And the lack of self pity makes that final page all the more affecting, especially given the previous 200-odd pages of reflection on what we’re then asked to confront.