#670: Sleeping Murder (1976) by Agatha Christie

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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.

~

Incidentally, now seems like a good time to provide the answers to the Poriot-based cryptic crossword I wrote the other week; I have added them to the original post for your elucidation.

32 thoughts on “#670: Sleeping Murder (1976) by Agatha Christie

  1. Erk! I know I should like Curtain, but I don’t. I really didn’t like Poriot being so decrepit and while Hastings is still Hastings, the idea that he’s willing to bump off anyone in more or less cold blood just doesn’t sit well with his character. The plot, is grant, is good and what’s behind it all dead interesting, but still…

    Sleeping Murder on the the other, has all the faults you find, Jim, but I really like it. I love the delving into the past and the whole discovery element of the the first bit of the book. And I do like Miss Marple coming to the rescue with a flit spray!

    I think the real reason I’m iffy about Curtain is that Poriot dies at the end and I hate the hero dying! I was completely traumatised at the age of eleven when, in total innocence and crazy about Sherlock Holmes, I read The Final Problem. I mean, it seems dead funny now, but none of the children I played with had heard of Sherlock and none of the family were bothered either. And I didn’t know he came back. Authors should be more careful….

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    • Curtain at least feels like more of an ending, even if Poirot’s sudden degradation is as unexpected as Miss Marple’s apparent rejuvenation here (she’s infinitely more mobile than in Nemesis…). This one feels, as I say, like a novel she knew would get lost in a stronger period of her writing and so was brought out of mothballs at the end of her career purely so that there was one more Marple story for the public to read (and, the cynic in me observes, for the publishers to profit from…).

      It’s interesting you talk about the death of Holmes, because that feels like something I just knew even before I started reading the stories. It’s as if I was born with an unconscious awareness of a) the need to breath,. b) the need to eat, and c) the death of Sherlock Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls — I don’t ever remember being told about it, and yet I knew it was coming long before reading ‘The Final Problem’. I suppose that’s popular culture for you…!

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  2. You make some valid points here. My memory of “Sleeping Murder” is tinged with nostalgia and as such not very objective. About 17 years ago, I was home alone reading Volume 3 of the Miss Marple omnibus (which I had bought after saving money for ages!). Just as I got to the scene at the theater with Gwenda, the power went out due to storm. At that moment, I felt genuinely uneasy about being alone in the house. It being a non-horror book, I was not expecting “Sleeping Murder” to have that kind of effect on me. It has remained a favorite since then.

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    • There’s certainly a Suspense element to this book, given how little any of the detection matters — the scene where the identity of the killer is revealed through nothing more than a combination of accident, coincidence, and bad timing is pure Domestic Peril.

      It makes me wonder if this is the book publishers are using as their reference when some moderately-mysterious thriller comes out these days emblazoned with Christie comparisons. Because this is different enough to the thing Christie is actually world famous for, and has enough in common with what I’ve read of modern thriller fiction, for that to be legally allowable.

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      • I think as a reader I put more emphasis on how I feel about the characters and atmosphere than the actual puzzle/detection element. For example, I don’t enjoy most of Georgette Heyer’s mysteries like “Footsteps in the Dark” because of the paper thin one-dimensional characters.

        Christie was great in creating the correct atmosphere where I felt the fear or suspense felt by the characters. Some of her plays like “And Then There Were None”, “The Mousetrap” or “Towards Zero” are my favorites precisely because of that particular element. It’s the same reason why I enjoyed Ethel Lina White’s “Some Must Watch”.

        I’m not sure, maybe I am more of a fan of the suspense genre.

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        • If you’re a fan of suspense, I hope you’ve read some Margaret Millar — she was the Christie of Domestic Suspense from the 1950s.

          I’m not opposed to suspense in principle, but it seems a waste to create a plot in which someone rigorously follows clues and inferences on the way to a conclusion…only for that conclusion to have nothing to do with the detection that preceded it. Why set up a detective plot if the detection has no bearing on the outcome?

          Christie could be utterly magnificent at mood, though, I have to agree. Even books of hers I’ve not loved benefit from magnificent rendering of suspicion or lingering evil — Towards Zero, Five Little Pigs, 4:50 from Paddingtin, Ordeal by Innocence, etc. And when she gets a bit airless, it’s usually because the plot takes over marvellously — c.f. Evil Under the Sun, Peril at End House. So she usually gets you one way or the other.

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  3. I sat down to write a response to this, which starts with my agreeing with your opinion. Then I found I had so much to say that I should probably do a post of my own, especially since I really haven’t written about this over at my own place.

    I will say this, however (even though I might repeat the point later at chez moi</i.): I never enjoy a book as much when I figure out the solution. Here, I figured it out before I even met the killer! That's not good. Maybe it wasn't Christie's fault, but it's still not good.

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    • Brad, did you figure out the solution because you knew beforehand about the John Webster play “The Duchess of Malfi” and immediately saw the connection? You figured out not only WHO did it but WHY as well?

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        • But I wonder if you would have solved it if you didn’t know about The Duchess of Malfi? Pure speculation and hard to know since you already had knowledge of the play.

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          • Not speculation at all! As JJ points out above, there is not much clueing going on here, and I think I can be almost certain that I would have not solved the case without this allusion. And that’s kind of the point in Miss Marple. You can divide the dozen titles into those that have good clues and those that don’t, and the “don’t” side will have far more names in it. This one has scarcely anything. Neither does 4:50 From Paddington, but at least that one proves you don’t need good clues to have a good time.

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            • This might be sacrilege, but I also feel A Murder is Announced lacks on the clue front. There are, from my memory, maybe two heavy implications and then one gigantic “Here’s how it was done” flashing arrow…and that’s yer lot. Shame, because that solution deserved better.

              And cue everyone telling me how wrong I am in 3…2…1…

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            • Blimey, Jim, you don’t mind courting controversy, do you? I have to (uber reluctantly) agree but it’s a terrific book! And I’d never noticed the lack of clues because I’d got carried along by the narrative. Also, there’s the feeling that “this is Agatha Christie so therefore there must be clues” – even if I’ve missed them!

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            • Ha, I’ll be honest — it took me a long time as a reader of detective fiction to notice the absence of clewing precisely for the reason you’ve outlined here: “It’s a novel with a detective, so obviously there were clues…” 😆 I know we all have our own notions of playing fair, and I suppose sufficient clewing is merley that restated. But, I will specify that a novel with only one clue can be much, much more fair than one with oodles that don’t mean what they’re “supposed” to…

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          • There’s nothing in the narrative to suggest the ending ahead of time, certainly. Maybe that’s why the Malfi reference is so explicit — an Easter Egg for those who know, and a convince for those of us who choose to look it up afterwards 🤔

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    • Yeah, I know what you mean. If Curtain was indeed written during WW2, there’s an element of the grimness of the time that creeps in to the tone. I hadn’t considered that before, mainly because it was just so great to have a Poirot novel with such an affecting plot once more.

      As I say above, I just wish more of the first 180 pages of Sleeping Murder had any relevance to the ending. It’s a shame, given that the Marple books often reveal a lot about psychology, that Gwenda accidentally-s herself into the solution when there could have been a nicely savage aspect to the resolution that Christie was really specialising in during the presumed era of its conception. Aaah, well, t’was ever thus.

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  4. In a way I am not surprised that you found this a less than ideal read, and not just because I really enjoyed it, (which often means you won’t). Like Dolores I love the fly spray moment, but I also found I got a lot out of it when I re-read it. The clues in the text became more evident and it is an interesting text to look at in light of the other novels of the 40s from Christie. They have quite a bit in common: deceptive respectable appearances, misinterpreted behaviour and words and killer with slow burning anger, with emotions cleverly concealed behind passivity, only to violently explode against specific individuals. Despite the cold case link the Marples of Nemesis and Sleeping Murder don’t entirely match up. Her ‘Nemesis’ role had not been properly developed in the 40s. I also think it is a great book story to look at through the lens of the uncanny i.e. something that is frightening ‘that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar’. As solving the newly re-surfaced memories of Gwenda, of things long suppressed, is kind of at the heart of the story.
    It is not an ending as such for Miss Marple – but like others have said here I am terribly fond of it.

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    • …solving the newly re-surfaced memories of Gwenda, of things long suppressed, is kind of at the heart of the story.

      I’m glad, in this regard, that Christie wrote this earlier in her career, because as an older woman she would have doubtless felt the need to work in something about memory and youth and How It Used to Be a la Elephants Can Remember and At Bertram’s Hotel. Gwenda’s slow realisation about the house is one of the best-handled elements of this story, and it took Christie in or near her pomp to sell that without being maudlin or too lachrymose about days gone by.

      But it really should have been published around the same time as The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side — there’s no reason to assume this is set chronologically after Nemesis, after all, and it works narratively better at that point in the Marple canon.

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      • The REAL ending to the Miss Marple series is NEMESIS and it’s a nice one considering the fact that she rightfully earns £20,000 to spend on her little indulgences!

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  5. Pingback: MINE EYES DIDN’T DAZZLE: Christie’s Sleeping Murder | ahsweetmysteryblog

  6. Does anyone prefer the title SLEEPING MURDER as opposed to “Cover Her Face” that Christie would have called it if P.D. James didn’t come out with the exact same one? Or what about the title “She Died Young”, another one I believe Christie had in mind.

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    • I’m quite a fan of Sleeping Murder as a title, or of Murder in Retrospect, the phrase which turns up throughout. They’re a bit generic, but the others don’t work as well for me despite their obvious relevance — and, indeed, as proved by Brad, might give the whole thing away before someone has even opened the book.

      This reminds me of the first time I read a book by a vertin author and the epigraph pretty much tells you that the central murder is in fact suicide. 358 pages later…ohmygod it was suicide!! And I’ve always wondered if I was the only one who ever thought that…but, spoilers 🙄

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      • I think the Agatha Christie title “They Do It With Mirrors” gives the solution away. I remember my brother watching the 90’s adaptation — with Joan Hickson — of the story and he easily guessed who the murderer(s) was. And he’s quite the amateur to mysteries, nevermind a seasoned fan. And it wasn’t even the title that gave the game away so I can imagine someone picking up the book and spotting the title and delve only a few pages in and able to guess the game away.

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  7. “. . . I also feel A Murder is Announced lacks on the clue front . . . And cue everyone telling me how wrong I am in 3…2…1…”

    Sorry, it took me longer than 3…2…1… because I needed to switch computers. Dude, you are wrong!

    You know me, JJ, I would never co-opt another man’s blog with lengthy responses! I had originally intended to break down which Marples are good cluers and which are not. A Murder is Announced, to my mind, is the best of them, and you can see the evidence from the laundry list Miss Marple leaves behind when she disappears: “Lamp, violets, Where is bottle of aspirin?, Delicious Death, “making enquiries,” “severe affliction bravely borne,” iodine, pearls, Letty, Berne, old-age pension.”

    My god, man, how many clues do you need???

    The Body in the Library has, like, one clue, but it’s a good one because it crumbles the murderer’s game like a house of cards. Most of the others rely on Miss Marple’s parallels about how villagers behave. The Moving Finger and 4:50 from Paddington are favorites of mine, but certainly not because of the clueing!

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    • The Moving Finger at least had the most wonderful example of negative evidence the genre ever utilised. And I honestly do not understand that list… 😂

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  8. “I think the Agatha Christie title “They Do It With Mirrors” gives the solution away.”

    It’s interesting you say that, Brian, because it comes on the heels of my listening to a favorite podcast where they pointed out that there are NO mirrors in the novel at all!! And yet, even as a kid, I figured this one out easily. The whole story seems like a purely domestic mystery, so why would Christie keep pointing out the theatrical elements of a magician’s act? The only reference to the theatre is that Alex Restarick works in the profession, but that information is so sketchy – and Alex is so tangential to the plot – that it hardly qualifies even as a red herring. No, the trick the killer uses sticks out so badly from the rest of the plot that you can’t help but keep coming back to it. Why does this happen, at this time, and in this way?? Good Christie is more subtle than that.

    Speaking of “subtle,” I have to head over to the Invisible Circle post now and give JJ a piece of my mind. Busy, busy.

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  9. I am always interested in the massive contrast between Curtain and Sleeping Murder: Curtain is grim and insubstantial and has virtually no setting – it’s Styles some years later, but there are no details of the world outside or inside, it’s as if Christie is thinking all the time ‘well I don’t know when this will be read, better not describe anything’. I much prefer Sleeping Murder because it is so plainly not written at publication date. Fair play, it is written during the war and not set then, but it is full of proper interiors and events and things and people. And (just for me & Clothes in Books) someone who doesn’t know how to pack convincingly for a woman: the maid knows the clothes didn’t make sense, but it’s just women’s stuff and a maid, so the point is entirely missed at the time. Plus I have always loved the point where someone says a character is ‘overfond of boys’ or similar, and Miss Marple thunders ‘NO!’ and puts a stop to that. Christie DID use paper-thin characterisation and stereotypes sometimes, here the ‘flighty’ girl, but then she also used it as a clue, a plotline.

    This is shaping up well for Brad and me battering you into submission on Styles… you will be forced to agree with us IN EVERY DETAIL. You think its being your podcast will save you? Ha!

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    • You make a series of excellent points here. I wonder if Christie learned from the experience of writing Curtain — she must have known that she’d written a deliberately airless book there, and so may have resolved to put a bit more atmosphere into this one (perhaps, maybe, possibly to make up for the weaker plot 😬).

      As for Styles, you’re imagining that we’re going to be on differing sides. I haven’t read that book in 20 years and have achieved — I hope — such a fuller appreciation of GAD in the meantime that, even if I could remember how I’d felt about it back then, I’d fully expect my views on it to differ now. It’ll be more fun if we disagree, but I’m not going in with any expectations since it’s been soooo daaaaamn looooong that I can remember next to nothing about it (not even the identity of the killer…!).

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  10. Sleeping Murder is a favorite of mine. It’s well told and kept my interest all the way through.

    Curtain is a much darker story and relies on the reader to connect an awful lot of abstract dots. It’s not really possible to compare the two stories.

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