Agatha Christie’s Last Marple Mystery: ‘Sleeping Murder’ and ‘Duchess of Malfi’

The edition of Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage I purchased online in order to read and review because of Val McDermid’s conversation with Robert Galbraith about it is a curious book. Murder at the Vicarage is the second book in this edition; the first is Sleeping Murder. I read Sleeping last night — I’m still waiting for the arrival of Christie novels visible on Rowling’s 2000 bookshelf which I have ordered — and rather enjoyed it. This morning I learned why this edition exists and a wonderful connection between Agatha Christie, P. D. James, and Rowling/Galbraith, namely, John Webster’s Jacobean Revenge Drama, The Duchess of Malfi.

Agatha Christie wrote and published at least a book a year for decades (Rowling in the McDermid conversation describes Christie’s work as being “patchy” in consequence to her writing feverishly to “escape the taxman;” for more on that, see ‘Hustle and Prose: Agatha Christie‘). She lived in London during WWII, naturally was concerned about the possibility that she might die during an air raid, and took steps to provide income after her death to her only child and her second husband. She wrote two books to be published after her death, novels that were to be the last Poirot and Marple adventures, the profits from which books were given directly to her heirs, thus escaping death duties. Curtain, Poirot’s swan song, was published finally in 1975, the year before Christie died, and Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple’s finale (she unlike Hercule survives her curtain call), came out in 1976 just a few months after the author’s death.

Sleeping Murder, though was the book’s third title. Originally it was Murder in Retrospect, which, frankly, is the best of the lot for this mystery both with respect to the action within the story and the curious quality of its writing and publication. In the book, a newly married woman from New Zealand recalls a murder she witnessed as a toddler and decides to investigate despite the pointed advice of Miss Marple that she should let ‘sleeping murders lie.’ It also, of course, is an odd ‘looking back’ or retrospect because, published as it was so long after its writing, it recalls a different age and quality of writing from Dame Agatha.

That first title had to be dropped, however, because Christie’s American publishers chose to use Murder in Retrospect as the title for the Poirot novel that was Five Little Pigs in the UK. The Retrospect manuscript, which Christie had locked away in a bank vault, was consequently re-titled Cover Her Face, an allusion to the exact line from Webster’s Duchess of Malfi that triggers the heroine’s recall of her step-mother’s murder (incredibly, the murderer recited the lines after strangling the woman to death). “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle; she died young.” She hears the line at a performance of Webster’s gore-fest of a play in London which she attends with her husband and with Miss Marple’s risibly literary nephew, Raymond West.

The book was published as Sleeping Murder, though, because — let me say “incredibly” again — P. D. James had in 1962 given her first Adam Dagleish mystery the title Cover Her Face, an allusion to the same play and the same line. But this gets better. Sleeping Murder comes out in October 1976. James writes The Skull Beneath the Skin in 1982, her second and last Cordelia Gray novel, which thriller and murder mystery turns around the performance of, you guessed it, The Duchess of Malfi. I’ll leave it to the serious readers of P. D. James to re-read Skull and Sleeping Murder to see how much of the Cordelia Gray piece is a Marple parody or hat-tip from the author so often cited as Christie’s heir, ‘The New Queen of Crime.”

For serious readers of J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith, though, this presents an answer to a question perhaps no one but me is asking. “How did J. K. Rowling become so interested in Early Modern Drama and specifically Jacobean Revenge Drama that she makes the genre the heart of her most literary novel to date, The Silkworm?” Oxford’s Beatrice Groves, a scholar specializing in Early Modern Drama and long-time reader of P. D. James, has explained this connection wonderfully in“Didst Thou Not Mark the Jest of the Silkworm?”: Literary Clues in “The Silkworm”.’ But the mystery remains. How did Rowling become fascinated by and relatively expert in recreating Jacobean Revenge Drama?

Having James as her model is one answer to the question, obviously; Rowling has been quite open about her admiration for James and as Prof Groves has explained there are several similarities between Robin Ellacott and Cordelia Gray. That both Agatha Christie and P. D. James, two authors Rowling has read closely and models her work after in several respects, embed performances of Duchess of Malfi in their novels around which the story turns suggests that the Classical Studies major and student of Austen, Nabokov, and Colette took a serious interest in the relatively archaic and anachronistic work of John Webster because her mentors in mystery clearly loved Duchess and used it successfully. Silkworm was the first of the Cormoran Strike novels Rowling wrote; in it, I think, you can see the art and soul of what she thinks great detective fiction is and does.

And a lot of that is the genius of Agatha Christie. If you’re a Serious Striker, you are all but obliged to read Sleeping Murder,  as well as James’ Cover Her Face and The Skull Beneath the Skin.

A Parthian shot to bring this post back to its beginning: the 1976 edition of Sleeping Murder I own, as I noted above, concludes with Murder at the Vicarage. I do not know if this was done at Christie’s direction but it is a wonderful bracketing. Just as her last Poirot novel, Curtain, returns to the scene and atmosphere of that detective’s first appearance, A Mysterious Affair at Styles, so Sleeping Murder includes a pointed reference to Murder at the Vicarage and both books repeatedly mention the Lizzie Borden murders. The 1976 edition of the book with Sleeping first and Vicarage last, in reverse order of their publication, points to this intentional bracketing as a kind of A-B-B’-A’ Murder in Retrospect looking back chiasmus. 

And perhaps a clue about Galbraith writing a seven part series in retrospect, i.e., looking back in parallel at Rowling’s seven part Hogwarts Saga?

Let me know what you think in the comment boxes below!

Comments

  1. Stray notes I neglected to include!

    Gwenda buys the house of her childhood from the agents Messrs Galbraith and Penderley. Rowling has said she always loved the name; in 1976, she would have been 11.

    Gwenda’s engagement ring is a “green emerald” because she was “an intriguing green-eyed little cat.”

    One of the suspects is described as seeming harmless and obsequious: “He behaves in the most forgiving friendly manner, is often at this house, has apparently become a tame cat around the house, the faithful Dobbin.” Dobbin, it turns out, means “a farm horse, a dull , plodding draft animal.” A source for Rowling’s Dobby, though, in the way Christie uses it, especially with a capital ‘D.’

    Miss Marple concludes in the end that they have all been “very stupid” because the murderer in ‘Duchess of Malfi’ is exactly the character who strangled Gwenda’s stepmother in ‘Sleeping Murderer.’

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