To my absolute delight, I found out in December that apparently my memory doesn’t work as well as I thought it was. I realized that I no longer remember any of the details in the Miss Marple mysteries; I’m to the point where I’m not even sure anymore whether I ever read them at all. I know I watched the movies, but there, too, I remember little more than individual scenes. Hallelujah—this means I can read the books all over (again?) and they are like new to me. And let me tell you, in case you aren’t aware of this fact already, they make for perfect comfort reading, or comfort listening, for that matter. The stories are quick and entertaining, but smart, and the crime is straightforward, without any unnecessary violence, torture, or mutilation. After enjoying Miss Marple’s first foray into detective work, The Murder at the Vicarage (perfectly narrated by Richard E. Grant), I picked one of her later adventures, 4:50 from Paddington, for the Back to the Classics challenge I’m participating in.
In 4:50 from Paddington, Mrs. McGillicuddy is on her way to visit with her friend Miss Marple. When her train slows down, another train pulls up alongside it and during the few moments the trains drive side by side, Mrs. McGillicuddy sees a man strangle a woman. But when the station master and the local police look into the matter, they can find no suspect. In fact, they can’t even find a victim. Thankfully, Miss Marple believes her old friend and sets the wheels in motion for a thorough investigation. If there was no dead body on the train when it arrived at its destination, then it must have been thrown of the train before it got there. And there is a large old estate that offers the perfect setting: the body could have fallen down the embankment and then could have been removed from there without anyone noticing. It seems rather far-fetched, especially since no one has reported a woman missing. On top of that, Miss Marple herself is getting on in years and is no longer physically able to investigate personally. But anyone who knows Miss Marple knows that this won’t stop her.
Rather ingeniously, she hires Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a young professional housekeeper, to be her legs, eyes, and ears.
Lucy takes a position at the estate’s manor, which gives her the opportunity to search the grounds for any clues and become acquainted with the family who lives there to find out if one of them would have any reason to murder a woman. The characters who inhabit the manor are typical: an eccentric father, his dutiful daughter, three sons with various shady problems, and a grandson with his widowed father. Once Lucy does indeed find the body of a strangled woman, the mystery takes off. In typical fashion, there’s just enough doubt about each character—other than the grandson—that any of them could potentially be the murderer. I was happily guessing along, and of course I was wrong on all accounts and the deed was done by one of the characters I never even suspected.
Despite my enjoyment of the mystery, I do have one complaint, though. I love Miss Marple because of her astute observations and the comparisons she finds where no one else sees them. I don’t think there’s anyone else who can solve a crime simply because the actions of the bad guy remind her of the seemingly unrelated actions of a butcher’s apprentice 12 years ago. I love how she leaves me guessing and finally presents me with a solution that I should have seen all along but never saw coming. In 4:50 from Paddington, though, I had to suspend my disbelief a little too much for it to be entirely believable. It’s not that it seems almost ridiculous to solve a problem without a suspect, victim, or motive—I have no doubt that Miss Marple can do that. But to do so without being present? I’m not sure about that.
See, when Miss Marple hires Lucy to be her eyes and ears at the manor, she herself takes a room in a hotel nearby. Lucy does all the leg work and then reports to Miss Marple what she has found. For large parts of the story, Miss Marple is absent, and at one point, Lucy even comments on how little time she has had to update her on what is happening at the manor. When Miss Marple finally solves the crime, she has met the people involved only once before. Even for an outstanding judge of character, this is very little time to form an idea as to who the murderer might be and then rely on the infrequent reports of another to confirm the suspicion. I couldn’t quite buy into that.
Still, this has not dampened my enjoyment of Miss Marple, and I’m already looking forward to the next one. To make this a true escapist reading experience, I paired the book with one of my favorite cookies and one of my new favorite teas: chocolate chunk oatmeal cookies with dried cherries (recipe courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen) and plenty of my current favorite tea, Dream by the Fire (courtesy of The Republic of Tea).