Time for another Agatha Christie – Sleeping Murder, written in the 1940s, but not published until shortly after her death in 1976, so I read it for the 1976 Club, organised by Karen at https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/ and Simon at https://www.stuckinabook.com/ way back in October, but didn’t get round to posting. Anyway, better late than never!
This mystery features newly-married Gwenda Reed, who has been brought up by an aunt in New Zealand, and has come to England to buy a house on the south coast, while her husband Giles completes his business abroad. The search leads her to Hillside, in Dillmouth, and she feels she has come home. Everything is just as she imagines it will be, right down to the mahogany surround on the bath. But there are some unnerving oddities. A blocked-off door is uncovered in one room, in the exact spot where she expected to find an opening; she is convinced there should be steps outside the French windows leading to the garden and, sure enough, there they are, hidden beneath soil and shrubs; and the walls of a sealed cupboard are papered with the design she wants for the room she has taken as a bedroom.
Shaken by the co-incidences, she accepts an invitation to stay in London with her husband’s relatives, the novelist Raymond West and his wife Joan. They take her to see Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, but she screams and runs out of the theatre when she hears the lines ‘cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young’. It seems the play has triggered a memory of herself as a child, peering through the bannisters at Hillside and listening to a man with monkey paws recite the words as he stands over a blonde woman with a blue face…. The woman is Helen, and she has been strangled – but Gwenda doesn’t know anyone of that name and has never been to England before! Fortunately, Raymond (as Christie fans will have spotted) is the nephew of renowned sleuth Miss Jane Marple and, even more fortunately, the theatre trip is her birthday treat. She is convinced Gwenda is not mad or imagining things, and suggests the young woman lived in the house as a small child, before moving to New Zealand, and really did see a murder almost 20 years ago, but the crime was covered up and has never come to light. “I always think myself that it’s better to examine the simplest and most commonplace explanations first,” she tells the couple.
She sets about helping them unravel the mystery. They discover that Helen was Gwenda’s stepmother, who was thought to have run away, and they track down the men who knew her. There is her brother, a youthful boyfriend, the fiance she jilted (not once, but twice), the man she fell in love in love with on a boat to India and, of course, Gwenda’s father, who believed he had killed Helen – but did he? It seems no-one’s account of the past can be trusted, and there is another death before the killer is finally unmasked, thanks to a helping hand from Miss Marple and a syringe full of soapy water intended for greenfly on the roses!
There are some lovely descriptions of Miss Marple in this book. “You’ll adore my Aunt Jane,’” Raymond tells Gwenda. And he adds, somewhat flippantly: “I should describe as a perfect Period Piece. Victorian to the core. All her dressing-tables have their legs swathed in chintz. She lives in a village, the kind of village where nothing ever happens, exactly like a stagnant pond.’‘ He goes on to explain that she adores problems. “Any kind of problem. Why the grocer’s wife took her umbrella to the church social on a fine evening. Why a gill of pickled shrimps was found where it was. What happened to the Vicar’s surplice. All grist to my Aunt Jane’s mill. So if you’ve any problem in your life, put it to her, Gwenda. She’ll tell you the answer.”
Gwenda is not quite sure how to take this, but she likes the look of Raymond’s aunt. “Miss Marple was an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner. Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them,” Christie tells us.
Actually, her eyes seem to reflect her mood quite a lot (a little like Miss Silver’s coughs). They are guileless, troubled, and they flash appraising glances, as well as shining brightly. I haven’t noticed this before, but I may re-read some of the other Miss Marple books, just to check!