Agatha Christie famously wrote the final novels to feature her two biggest sleuths well ahead of their publication, and where Hercule Poirot’s swansong Curtain (1975) was a joyous return to the heights for a character she had grown weary of, Sleeping Murder (1976) — the last hurrah for Miss Jane Marple, a character you can’t help but feel Christie had a growing respect for as she aged — is…fine. Yes, it had a cogency and precision that At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) and Nemesis (1971) sorely needed, but in all honesty the sound and fury on display here signifies something that doesn’t even add up to a hill o’ beans, if you’ll forgive my mixing of classics.
It’s always a delight to read Christie is such robust health, however — something one comes to appreciate more and more having worked largely chronologically through her oeuvre. Late-era Christie would doubtless have fudged the central conceit here, that of newlywed Gwenda Reed coming to England in search of a house and finding the perfect specimen in ‘Hillside’ in the small town of Dillmouth…the idyll of which is undercut by an eerie sense of familiarity. When a trip to the theatre to see The Duchess of Malfi brings images of a strangled corpse and the name “Helen” shockingly to mind, Gwenda is forced to confront the idea of murder somewhere in her distant past…though, thankfully, since Miss Jane Marple was one of her theatre party, she’ll have some expert help along the way.
We’re immediately pitched into an investigation that follows the sensible course of action: Gwenda and her husband Giles trying to find out who Helen might be, and thus coming into contact with people who knew her and might be able to cast some light on what happened to her. Miss Marple leans in from stage left from time to time to make some helpful suggestions, and the while thing has a practicality about it that you find yourself wishing the Marple novels had retained.
“He was a widower with a small daughter. Helen was sorry for him or fell in love with him. He was lonely, or fell in love with her. Difficult to know just the way things happen.”
The Christie of old has some wonderful touches to add to her minor characters, too, such as Colonel Bantry who objects to Russians seemingly on the grounds that he “had once been given a novel by Dostoievsky to read in a nursing home”, or Inspector Primer suggesting that a search should be instituted for a dead body such that “from the tone of his voice, it might have been a case of giving his men some healthful exercise”, or Eleanor Fane being almost in Miss Marple’s image with her “steely grey eye, crisp white hair, and a baby pink and white complexion which masked the fact that there was no baby-like softness whatever about her”. Yes, precisely when this was written — or set — is up in the air, since Miss Marple is decidedly more active than in her earlier, later cases, but since servants are still of the type to touch their cap when encountering their betters it’s probably safe to assert that prime-ish Agatha penned this.
The shame of it all is how everything that unfolds has so little bearing on the answer — not only are we required to link information we didn’t have to realise how relevant a piece of dialogue is, the solution comes as a result of complete accident and sudden realisation rather than through any of the sleuthing that’s been done. There’s still some good work — the revelation that opens chapter 22 is great, though should surely have come at a much more crucial time — and Christie plants here a seed that would grow into By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) and should, perhaps, have therefore been pruned sooner, plus a fleeting reference to Miss Marple’s work in some poison pen business…it’s Christie Easter Egg heaven for the nerds who hang on these things. If this had built around something a little more complex it would be delightful, but equally this also feels very quintessentially Christie with its small village, old sins casting long shadows, and broad assertions about country folk being suspicious.
Where Curtain was a hurricane blasting away years of worry and delivering a deliciously savage final case for M. Poirot, Aunt Jane’s last novel-length adventure is more of a pleasant zephyr carrying the gentle scent of better days. Coming at a time where a reminder of the politesse of GAD served as a delightful reminder amidst the increasingly gratuitous forms crime fiction was beginning to take, I can understand the affection people have for this one. Put in the context of Christie as a whole, and of what the Golden Age novel of detection had achieved at the (undetermined) time of its conception, Sleeping Murder is merely fine — perhaps too vanilla to really stand out, which might explain Christie holding onto it so that she could explore more successful options while still around her peak.