September Books 7) A Murder Is Announced, by Agatha Christie

[Miss Marple said:] “Fifteen years ago one knew who everybody was. The Bantrys in the big house – and the Hartnells and the Price Ridleys and the Weatherbys… They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they'd been in the same regiment or served on the same ship as someone there already. If anybody new – really new – really a stranger – came, well, they stuck out – everybody wondered about them and didn't rest till they found out. But it's not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who've just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves. They've come, you see, from all over the world. People from India and Hong Kong and China, and people who lived in France and Italy, in cheap places and quaint islands. And also those who made some money and could retire. But no one knows any longer who's who…”
And that, thought [Inspector] Craddock, was exactly the source of his trouble. He didn't know. They were all just faces and personalities vouched for by rationing and I.D. cards… well-printed but without photographs or fingerprints. You could get an I.D. for the asking – and partly due to this the subtle ties that hold the structure of the rural society together were loosening. In a city nobody knows their neighbours; neither in the country, but sometimes you have the illusion that you do.

In my current run of Agatha Christies, this is the first I've read from after the second world war, and I must say I found it very interesting. It combines a particularly ingenious plot with some fascinating, if somewhat wrong-headed, social commentary. Christie puts words in her characters' mouths which suggest that she feels the world is going to pot as a result of the upheavals during and after the war (in a way that she doesn't do so much for the aftermath of the First World War; she was born in 1890 so experienced both in adulthood), and the story – the first murder being that of a Swiss immigrant – seems to be an indictment of how the general decay of morals in society works itself out in a specific case of corruption of the outwardly very respectable murderer. There is also another character who is a refugee from Nazi atrocity, and appears at first to be a complete stereotype but actually turns out to be one of the most helpful in solving the mystery.

Another point which is very deserving of note: the book features what I understand to be the most overtly gay couple in any of Christie's works. The omniscient narrator speculates as little about the sex lives of Miss Hinchliffe and Miss Murgatroyd as about any of the other characters, but it's pretty obvious what is going on, and it really takes some colossal blinkers to claim otherwise. And it's an absolutely clear statement from Christie, in 1950; true, the characters are somewhat stereotyped (though nothing like as badly as Mitzi the maid) but their treatment by the author is entirely sympathetic, and their relationship is accepted without comment by everyone else in the village.

This is also the only Agatha Christie novel which I've seen adapted for the stage. (I have seen The Mousetrap, but that is based on a short story which has not been published in the UK.) Back in February 1981, the newly reopened Grand Opera House in Belfast hosted the stage adaptation by Leslie Darbon, starring Hazel Bainbridge (mother of Kate O'Mara) as Miss Marple. I remember that both she and Margaret Ashcroft (niece of Peggy Ashcroft) who played the lady in whose living-room the murder takes place, were pretty impressive to my thirteen-year-old judgement. I didn't remember the names of the actresses, but was delighted to find that the programme book is preserved online. I see that the lesbian couple are dropped from the stage play, along with a number of other extraneous characters; my memory is that the climax is Miss Marple snatching away the covering for the murderer's embarrassing scar, and then explaining it all at slightly too great a length to maintain the dramatic tension.

Gosh, it's interesting to look at advertisements in a Belfast theatre programme in 1981. It's very nostalgic to see that Robinson and Cleaver have the best spot, inside the front cover, but it didn’t stop them closing three years later. I see that the Carriage Restaurant, located in the railway station at Helen's Bay, was offering "French, Jewish and Italian" specialties; I wonder how adventurous the Grand Opera House's clientele were in those days. (In a fit of curiosity I googled what had happened to the chef; he moved to Gloucestershire to breed Afghans, and the business was taken over by Michael Deane, who is still one of Belfast's best known restaurateurs.)

In 1950, "fifteen years ago" seemed like a completely different era (as Miss Marple actually says). The stage adaptation specifies the setting as being not 1950 but "Agatha Christie time". It's very weird to reflect that the story, published in 1950, was less than half its present age when I saw it at the Grand Opera House in 1981. Has the world changed more since 1981 than in the previous 31 years? I think so.