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.”