It is a truth universally acknowledged that as Agatha Christie approached the twilight years of her career the quality of her output dipped somewhat. And yet, as I’ve said elsewhere, what these novels appear to lack in merit from a plot perspective they arguably make up for in a kind of critical self-analysis of her own position in the firmament of crime fiction. And At Bertram’s Hotel, the tenth Miss Marple novel, provides yet more opportunity to potentially read too much into her writing from this perspective. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s no Douglas Hofstadter, but who’s to say this is a completely bad turn of events*?
So, while by no means a classic or even middle-tier Christie novel (it fared appropriately poorly in Puzzle Doctor’s recent Marple poll), I’d argue that At Bertram’s Hotel can be read as an honest reflection of her failing standing and falling popularity, and much like the two Marple books that preceded it, is deliberately saying far more about the author behind the characters than the characters themselves.
For the spoiler-averse I should say that there’s virtually no discussion of the plot herein; one very slight element it mentioned at the end of this post, but you should be able to read this and then go on to the novel without anything having been ruined for you in advance. In fact, I’d love to know if anyone reading it after this sees the same things I’m talking about here – let me know either way!
Start with the following, from the opening pages:
By 1955 it looked precisely as it had looked in 1939… There had, of course, been many other hotels on the model of Bertram’s. Some still existed, but nearly all had felt the wind of change. They had had necessarily to modernise themselves, to cater for a different clientele. Bertram’s, too, had had to change, but it had been done so cleverly that it was not at all apparent at the first casual glance.
Replace “hotel” with “authors” and “Bertram’s” with “Christie” and you could easily be reading an academic paper on her writing career – still even now turning out her classically-styled murder mysteries, a once-resplendent subgenre now beginning to show signs of wear, and working in more up-to-date concerns like drugs and crime rings and even a mention of the ‘long-haired Beatles’ (now there’s a crossover no-one needs to write…). And, of course, people flock to Bertram’s precisely because it provides what they seek – like ‘you had re-entered a vanished world’ – runs with clockwork efficiency, and is staffed by familiar faces…in the same way Christie sold novels by the wheelbarrow-load clinging to a model of crime writing that had kept her going for 40-odd years with only minor tweaks, filling her books with stock characters that were familiar almost at first glance (though that particular criticism has always struck me as a trifle harsh). In these ways, Bertram’s is Agatha Christie.
And then, perhaps most surprisingly, Christie herself – through Jane Marple, the elderly lady detective standing in for the elderly lady author as established in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and A Caribbean Mystery – doesn’t like it.
She had never expected, not for a moment, that things would be as much like they used to be…because, after all, Time didn’t stand still … None of this place seemed real at all … Would that account for that curious feeling of uneasiness she had had last night? That feeling that something was wrong…
Miss Marple is drawn to Bertram’s out of a childhood – some might say childish – memory, and then finds herself so firmly locked in the past that it unsettles her. This lack of progress, this pandering to the requirements of the clientele who have kept the place going precisely because it is unchanging as if trapped in amber, troubles her (and, before we get too deep into this, yes it also forms the basis of the plot). But then Aunt Jane finds herself later caught on the horns of a dilemma: visiting her youthful haunts around London, she finds grand old houses divided into flats, or in the case of a distant cousin’s once-beautiful home, that ‘a vast skyscraper building of modernistic design appeared to have arisen’ whereupon she shakes her head sadly and declares grudgingly “There must be progress, I suppose,” as if singularly unable to make head or tail of this necessity.
We are aware, of course, of how Christie felt about Poirot by this stage, writing him purely because her clientele demanded it, and so more than a little put out by this need to stick where she’d always been. The odd flourish here and there – the perfume of modernity dabbed beneath the ears with, say, the setting of Hickory Dickory Dock or the central enterprise of The Pale Horse – couldn’t fully reinvent that which was not desired to be reinvented. Whether reinvention was within her capabilities…well, we’ll come to that, but it would have been in the air: Truman Capote would explode the crime novel this year with In Cold Blood, and proceedural Scandinavian miserablism would rear its head with the first Martin Beck novel from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö; the previous year had seen the literary birth of Travis McGee and the publication of Jim Thompson’s masterpiece Pop. 1280…a shift was well and truly underway in crime fiction (we’ll ignore the wider social issues, precisely because they didn’t ever impact on Christie’s work…take out the Beatles reference and this could easily be 1939). And if there must be this progress, what’s to be done about it?
Sadly, sweetly – I’m a Christie devotee, and this honestly breaks my heart a little – she appears to admit that it’s beyond her. Dear, sweet Aunt Jane resigns herself to her typical activities:
It has to be regretfully noted that she did not avail herself of the wide cultural activities that would have been possible to her… What she did visit were the glass and china departments of the large stores, and the household linen departments, and she also availed herself of some marked down lines in furnishing fabrics… She went to places and shops she remembered from her young days, sometimes merely with the curiosity of seeing whether they were still there.
And, of course, in many cases they aren’t – this world she looks for has gone, and the one element that hasn’t changed causes her trepidation. She is a woman out of time, aware that the world she represents and has come from is no longer really a part of the world she inhabits and clearly out of touch with the current artistic mood. There’s an honesty in that which mustn’t be overlooked – Christie could no more write your typical 1960s crime thriller than could Aunt Jane move to New York and dress up like a bat to fight injustice – even if there is also the argument that Christie has placed herself into this corner by a) not diversifying appropriately during the more prolific part of her career and, crucially, b) by writing the final Marple and Poirot novels some years earlier and so effectively committing herself to those characters and that style of novel for the duration.
Is this an entirely melancholy read, though, when choosing to look at it in this way? Well…no. Christie had already enjoyed a writing career of phenomenal success – arguably unmatched before or since when looking at the wider issue of not just output and sales but also impact, endurance, and legacy – and acknowledging the flaws in her own method and approach is actually pretty ballsy. I’m choosing to read a certain amount of wry perception vs. reality into Chief-Inspector Davy’s comment on Bertram’s:
“I know – I know. No drink, no drugs, no gambling, no accommodation for criminals. All pure as the driven snow. no beatniks, no thugs, no juvenile delinquents. Just sober Victorian-Edwardian old ladies, county families, visiting travellers from Boston and the more respectable parts of the USA…”
…because, as we know, there has been all of that and far more in Christie’s work to this point, and she would have been no doubt all too aware of the genteel reputation her books – for want of a better verb – enjoyed. And then there’s plot lynchpin Canon Pennyfather – the 63 year-old clergyman dismissed by his 75 year-old author as an “old boy” – who is surely Dame Agatha winking at those who know when, after being hit on the head, has the following to say about it:
“Four whole days I seem to have lost out of my life. Very curious. Really very curious indeed. I wonder so much where I was and what I was doing. The doctor tells me it may all come back to me. On the other hand it may not. Possibly I shall never know what happened to me during those days.”