Moonlight Detective has an interesting roundup post of ruined detective stories: novels or stories that had the potential to be genre classics but failed to seal the deal. It caught my eye because Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was mentioned prominently. This one’s been sitting on my shelf unread for well over a decade, now – so I was prompted to finally give it a read.
And… Moonlight Detective is not wrong. It has the makings of a real classic, both in terms of the mystery itself as well as some of the social commentary, but there are flaws in the execution that can’t be overlooked. That said, I’m not sure I agree completely with the post about why they’re flaws.
The story takes place in Gossington Hall, making it a kind of unofficial sequel to The Body in the Library – technically Miss Marple’s second novel-length outing, but in many ways the first of the Jane Marple series, considering that Murder at the Vicarage was published a full 12 years earlier and featured a Miss Marple who was noticeably different in character from the sweet, perennially underestimated observer of human nature we know and love from the rest of the books. In this way it also parallels Curtain to some degree – Poirot’s final mystery which finds him returning to Styles, the estate at which he solved his first English case, to find it much diminished in status, no longer a country manor house so much as a hotel for tourists. Similarly, Gossington Hall has been sold to crass American Hollywood glitterati, and the murder takes place while the manor house is open to the public for a charity event for the local Ambulance. Our normally attentive hostess – an aging Hollywood starlet modeled to some degree after Gene Tierney – finds herself strangely dumbstruck in the middle of talking to one of her local fans who has come to the event just to meet her. The fan is in the middle of telling her the story of how she climbed out of her sick bed 11 years ago to see her in person once before, but rather than smile and thank her, Marina Gregg freezes up – perhaps because she saw someone or something further down the staircase. One observer describes the situation by quoting from Alfred Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott:
Out flew the web, and floated wide,
The mirror crack’d from side to side,
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Shortly thereafter, the admirer is dead, having drunk a poisoned daquiri. Since it seems unlikely that anyone would have gone to the trouble to kill this woman, annoying though she was, both the police and Ms. Gregg’s husband proceed under the assumption that Ms. Gregg was the actual intended victim, and the drinks simply got switched. But of course, at a crowded social event, the intended victim could really have been anyone standing nearby. The perplexing questions:
- Who was the actual intended victim?
- How did the murderer get the poison into the drink without being noticed in such a crowded room?
- Alternately, if he or she was noticed, why hasn’t anyone come forward to say anything?
- And of course, who committed the murder and why?
As a setup, it’s fairly conventional. Poisoned drinks, crowded room, big house, pretentious literary reference: all par for the course in "country manor" detective fiction. What makes this one special, as the Moonlight Detective aptly puts it, is that:
The relationship between the victim and murderer, combined with the powerful and well-hidden motive, stuck together with simplistic brilliance…
Indeed. But to that I’d add that the literary reference is also unusually apt for this genre. This all plays out much better than in Curtain (which also turns on a central literary reference – but that reference is so signalled, including directly by the detective to his dumb sidekick, that unless Christie means it as a wry commentary on how easily she tricks her readers, it’s too much). One of the people who is present to observe the strange expression on Marina Gregg’s face is simply reminded of The Lady of Shalott for reasons she doesn’t really understand. It doesn’t seem, at the time, like a particularly apt reference – but it turns out to be, especially the titular line. The murderer wasn’t a murderer when they arrived at the party. Rather, something happened at the party that fatally changed them, broke them – and to a degree precisely because they are a mirror, looking for content and identity in the outside world, so self-obsessed that they have no real personality of their own. In this sense, I think the Moonlight Detecitve possibly missed some of the significance of the later murders (there are two more before the book is done).
…the equally powerful effect the explanation could’ve achieved was ruined when Christie allowed the murderer to become completely unhinged – committing several additional murders along the way.
I’ll agree with the completely, but not with the unhinged. The murderer really did "crack from side to side;" anyone put into this situation after that life history would. They would not be quite the same person after the party – and after the murder at the party! – as they were before. But I will agree that the cold-bloodedness, and sheer guile in concealment, of the later two murders doesn’t quite fit. It’s already a bit of a stretch to believe this person would go on killing, even for self-preservation. But it’s completely unbelievable that they would cover up the murders in the clear-headed, premeditated way they do. I can’t quite see this murderer being this self-aware.
To me, though, the implausibility of the later two killings is the secondary flaw. The primary one is the sheer clumsiness of the red herrings. The premise of (and solution to) the book is nothing short of brilliant – as good a riff on the genre as any of Christie’s triumphs. She also satisfactorily pulls off her signature trick: of telegraphing the solution early on by telling you to look for the obvious (Miss Marple makes this point to an interlocutor on several occasions) while somehow managing to fool you into thinking that what’s obvious is not. As a puzzle book, this was eminently fair, and I was thrilled to have guessed wrong. Where it really falls short is in all the distractions that simply aren’t. There is, for example, absolutely no reason why Jason Rudd’s secretary should be in love with him, and the fact that Christie tells rather than shows here clues the reader in immediately that this plot thread will come to nothing. Ditto the last-minute, practically offscreen "revelation" that the murdered woman’s husband was previously married to Marina Gregg … like a thousand years ago. No one cares, and we know not to care because this "fact" is "revealed" to us with absolutely no prior hints at precisely the late-in-the-game moment we’re casting about for a plausible Person from Her Past that Marina could have seen that would’ve caused her face to freeze. These are distractions that distracted no one; they mostly make you feel irrtated that Christie is so transparently phoning it in.
Indeed, this is almost certainly one of the plots that Christie stashed away for later use and only dragged out to work on when she just couldn’t be bothered anymore. Which is a real shame, because the premise, as already stated, is one for the ages.
In a way, though, this book benefits from Christie’s late-life laziness. Because if there’s one thing aside from the premise that really, really works here, it’s the social commentary, and seems to work ironically because the author didn’t really think it through.
Throughout the novel there are references to "the Development," which is the new upcropping of council housing on the perimeter of St. Mary Mead (the village in which the story takes place), irritating the long-term residents for the fact that it occupies some former cow pastures that kep their village separate from the next one. In fact, the early section of the book involves the ancient Miss Marple distracting her caretaker with a rather long shopping trip so that she can go see it for herself. The reader is apparently supposed to be impressed by Miss Marple’s rather accepting attitude toward social change, but it isn’t very convincing in the end. She never actually finds anything positive to say about the council hosues – or her maid’s lack of consideration. As she makes excuses for these things to other characters, she mostly comes across as someone making a virtue out of necessity, which is what she undoubtedly is. Her aim isn’t to embrace change so much as to avoid being a stereotypical curmudgoen. But knowing you’re in a pattern isn’t the same as breaking out of it, and Miss Marple does nothing to convince us she’s broken the mould.
The closest she comes is a rather odd comment that the fact that the people who live in the Development seem no different to her than people of old is "comforting." Which is interestingly a conservative sentiment that inverts itself. On the one hand, it’s true that the major Conservative Principle is that human nature is not easily mutable. It is what it is, and trying to engineer a better species by changing the social circumstances is a fool’s errand. On this front, Miss Marple is an orthodox Tory. The problem is that someone who really believes that will not find it "comforting" to find the goverment attempting to do exactly that! Miss Marple is perhaps legitimately "comforted" to find that she is not wrong about the fundamental immutability of human nature, but if that’s true she can’t be, as she claims, "comforted" to see these social changes affirming this belief. Just the opposite: she’ll believe more fervently than ever that turning her natural inferiors into homeowners is a waste of time and resources. To a true Conservative, human nature can’t be changed, only channeled, and the part of the Postwar Consensus that erodes traditional institutions should be worrisome to someone like Miss Marple. And indeed, if you read carefully, she never has anything truly positive to say about the changes; it has more the feeling of schadenfreude: the Development will change nothing in the end.
This sort of social ambivalence feels unscripted, and so it comes across as one of the more genuine – least artificial – aspects of the novel. Christie the author is actually horrified by the changes taking place in England, but there’s nothing she can do about them. The novel doesn’t exactly rise to the level of an exploration of this ambivalence, but at least it records it accurately.
Agatha Christie wrote some damned entertaining thrillers, but she’s not one for the canon. That in mind, it’s safe to recommend this one, in spite of its flaws. No, it isn’t quite the genre contribution that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or The ABC Murders are, but it’s close enough that it shouldn’t be skipped. It’s only a shame she didn’t write it earlier in life, when she still did what she did for fun, rather than out of obligation.