“In the heart of the West End, there are many quiet pockets, unknown to almost all but taxi drivers who traverse them with expert knowledge, and arrive triumphantly thereby at Park Lane, Berkeley Square or South Audley Street.
If you turn off on an unpretentious street from the Park, and turn left and right once or twice, you will find yourself in a quiet street with Bertram’s Hotel on the right-hand side.”
And there you will also find Miss Jane Marple, who has left her home in the sleepy village of St Mary Mead for a holiday in London at Bertram’s Hotel, thus providing Agatha Christie with the setting (and title) of her 1965 novel At Bertram’s Hotel. Miss Marple has fond memories of staying there with an aunt and uncle, when she was 14 (nearer to sixty years ago than fifty, we learn). Bertram’s, dignified, unostentatious, and quietly expensive’, is not the sort of place she could afford now, but the vacation is a gift from her writer nephew Raymond West and his artist wife Joan. So she enjoys the unexpected luxury, chats to old friends, calls at the big stores to replenish household items (like bed linen and tea towels) and visits places she remembers from her youth. Many, unsurprisingly, have changed, and some have vanished completely.
But Bertram’s appears to be unaltered – quite miraculously so, thinks Miss Marple. It is just as it always has been: not merely pre-war, but pre-WW1 as well. Indeed, it’s positively Edwardian. It provides comfortable, old-fashioned service for the upper echelons of the clergy, dowager ladies of the aristocracy up from the country, and girls on their way home from expensive finishing schools. It is also hugely popular with wealthy Americans, fulfilling their dreams and fantasies about the traditional way of life in old England.
There are luxurious bedrooms; two writing rooms; a lounge with chairs to fit people of ‘every dimension’, and two bars – one serving Pimms No 1 for English guests, and the other offering cocktails to Americans. There is afternoon tea to die for, with a choice of teas to drink, real muffins (not the American sort) dripping with butter, seedcake made to cook’s own special recipe, and doughnuts that dribble jam down your chin as you eat.
Guests can even have breakfast in bed, At this point I should say that my idea of luxury is tea in bed, made and brought to me by someone else. As an early riser, this rarely happens because I am invariably up before anyone else. Tea, on its own, would be sheer bliss: breakfast, especially one like that delivered to Miss Marple, is something else again:-
“Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big pot-bellied teapot, creamy looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard shaped in tin cups, a good sized round of butter stamped with a thistle, Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors – they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world)! There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.
Miss Marple inserted a knife gingerly but with confidence. She was not disappointed. Rich deep yellow yolk oozed out, thick and creamy. Proper eggs!
Everything piping hot. A real breakfast.”
The chambermaid who brings the food is is just as real, but somehow looks unreal in her lilac print dress and her cap. She is, however, ‘highly satisfactory’, as are the rest of the staff. So why does Miss Marple think it’s all too good to be true, and why does she have a curious feeling of unease, a sense that something is wrong, and the people don’t look real? She wonders….
Chief Inspector Fred Davy of Scotland Yard also wonders… There has been a worrying increase in crime: daring bank raids, cunning jewel thefts and other audacious robberies, all with curious incidents that don’t quite add up. Well known people said to have been spotted at or near crime scenes were miles away at the time, and vehicles turn out to have been elsewhere. All leads are lost in a confusing trail of mistaken identities and car number plates which are almost identical – but not quite. And the name of Bertram’s keeps cropping up… So is it all coincidence, or is there a Mr Big masterminding the exploits of a huge criminal gang? And could Bertam’s, the perfect hotel, be a cover for something sinister? Then a mail train is robbed, and absent-minded Canon Pennyfather, an old friend of Miss Marple, leaves the hotel for a conference in Lucerne – and disappears!
And as the police step up their investigations, other mysteries are unfolding. There is unconventional Bess Sedgwick, who has had a string of husbands and lovers since running away with the groom on her father’s estate when she was just 16. Best described as an adventurer, she craves excitement and has flown planes, raced cars, ridden a horse across Europe, fought with the French Resistance, and rescued two children from a burning house. But her outrageous behaviour makes her an unlikely guest for Bertram’s – so what is she doing at the hotel?
And what about her daughter Elivira, handed to a guardian when she was a baby because Bess thought it the best course of action. Elvira, who has just been ‘finished’ at an Italian establishment, meets her guardian at Bertram’s, but is also arranging clandestine trysts with her mother’s friend, racing driver Ladislaus Malinowski, who police believe to be implicated in the crime syndicate. But why is Elvira so anxious to know how much money she will inherit from her dead father, and who will inherit if she should die? And why is she convinced someone is trying to kill her?
Complications and coincidences continue to pile up as we find that Mick Gorman, the hotel’s commissionaire, is the groom who ran away with Bess Sedgwick all those years ago! Then, on a foggy evening, shots ring out, a distraught Elvira claims Gorman lost his life protecting her, and police discover that the gun belongs to Malinowski – but are these the true facts? I won’t reveal the ending, although I’m sure the story is very well known, and even on a first reading the final denouement can’t be that unexpected.
This is the first book in my Miss Marple marathon (sparked by enjoyment of Murder at the Vicarage) and, I’m pleased to say, not only was it every bit as good, but it was pretty much as I remember (though I don’t like to say how many years have passed since I first read it). As I said before, it’s easy to forget how good Christie is, and why her crime novels have endured so well for so long. I’m not sure how she does it, but even though I know the story I was still gripped, and still kept turning the pages to see what happens. Miss Marple, as ever, sits quietly in the background, unobserved by others – but she notices them, listens in on conversations, watches their actions, and draws conclusions, based on her observations, and her experience of life in St Mary Mead. And she’s not above manipulating situations to gain a better view of thins or glean a snippet of information. Who would suspect a fluttery old lady of snooping when she drops her bag or returns to her room to get something she forgot!
The book was much tighter than the BBC television adaption starring Joan Hickson, but the TV show got the characters right and I thought it captured the feel of the novel – unlike the more recent ITV version, which featured a jazz band A jazz band! At Betram’s! I ask you! It misses the whole point about Bertram’s.