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!

Agatha Christie: Murder at the Manor

I’ve been reading Agatha Christie novels that Rowling has said she has read, that we see on her bookshelf, or which have an obvious connection to her work. I’ve reviewed, consequently, Christie’s The Moving Finger, Appointment with Death, Murder at the Vicarage, and The Pale Horse with an eye on names, plot points, and literariness, the formalist’s literaturnost.  If you’ve been reading these posts, I think you’ve been struck as I have at the number and quality of the connections that can be called ‘influence,’ ‘hat-tips,’ or ‘allusion.’ Rowling is much more vocal about her admiration for Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, even P. D. James, frankly, than she has been in her comments about the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, whose sixty-six novels have outsold any author other than perhaps Enid Blyton. Christie, though, seems to be her mentor much more than these others.

As an experiment, then, to gauge the breadth and depth of this influence, I pulled down a Christie anthology from my bookshelf, Murder at the Manor. It has three relatively obscure novels by the Master, hence the subtitle, ‘A Lost Classics Omnibus.’ The Mystery Guild edition on my shelf includes The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Crooked House (1949), and Ordeal by Innocence (1958). The books written across three decades are gathered together because (a) none of them include Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple so they do not sell as well from the publisher’s backlist as the famous detectives novels do and (b) they all feature a mystery set in an oversized house or country estate in which the manor is as important as most of the characters. My thought in reading these back shelf titles, besides filling time before the Christie novels visible on Rowling’s 2000 bookshelf I have ordered arrive, was to see if Rowling had read all the books by Christie, each and every one, even these ‘Lost Classics,’ and taken notes for names, plot points, and embedded literary notes.

My tentative findings are posted after the jump!

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Christie’s ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ Bellatrix Lestrange’s Debut in Fiction?

In the interview Rowling did with Val McDermid, the interviewer asked ‘Robert Galbraith’ what his favorite Agatha Christie novel was. S/he said it was Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), which I read and wrote about here. McDermid, though, offered up a different title, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), and Galbraith said he thought that was great as well:

V:  It’s hard to pick a favorite of Christie. I cleave to the one that made me fall in love with her and ultimately with the crime genre, The Murder at the Vicarage.

JK: Oh, God, that’s so good.

V:  What I love about The Murder at the Vicarage is the humor.

JK: Yeah, she is. She’s very funny.

V: There’s a wonderful bit right at the beginning when she’s introducing the four spinster women of the parish, and she says, “Miss Harknell, who was much feared by the poor.” You just know exactly what kind of woman this person was…

JK: … instantly…

V: …  And I think Christie is never really given credit for her humor…

JK:  …that’s so right…

V: …I think we pick up on that and we understand that you can use humor inside the crime format.

So I bought a copy of Murder at the Vicarage, read it, and, y’know, it really is very good. And funny. 

More important, I think Rowling really has read it. For the links of it with the works of Rowling and Galbraith, make the jump!

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Name that Not Quite Legible Book Title! The Mysteries on Rowling’s Book Shelf

The picture used for the back cover of the adult edition of Bloomsbury’s Goblet of Fire in 2000 features a picture of J. K. Rowling leaning against a bookshelf. The titles of the books on the shelf are just almost legible; with a little luck and maybe a reference list, you can read the letters on the spine if you magnify significantly and have any clue to guide you.

The two Ian Rankin paperbacks to the left of her right shoulder I’m afraid are indecipherable. Too many of the Rankin paperbacks are in just this format and the specific coloring of the books in question cannot be made out and the letters, beyond the oversized ‘Rankin’ are illegible.

Not so with the three Agatha Christie titles to the right of Rowling’s left shoulder. As Dolores Gordon-Smith first pointed out, these book titles can be read:

JG: Do you think [Rowling has] read any of the Christie Poirot or Miss Marple novels?

DGS: I’m absolutely certain she has. On the back cover of the adult UK edition of Goblet of Fire, because the books were published with two covers, one with the children’s covers and one with the adult covers, on the back cover of that, there’s a wonderful bookcase shot and, obviously, because I love looking at people’s bookcases, I looked at this in fairly close detail and I was delighted to see there were three Agatha Christie paperbacks. I recognized them immediately because I’ve got the same books.

And after some work with a magnifying glass, I got the titles. They were Three Act Tragedy which is a Poirot book, Dead Man’s Folly which is another Poirot book, and is actually set in Agatha Christie’s old home of Greenway in Devon, and Appointment With Death

[From the MNet Academia show on ‘Harry Potter as Detective Fiction (26 June 2012)]

I’ve discussed the great finds to be had in Appointment with Death here and here at HogwartsProfessor and I have ordered copies of the other two titles to see if there are any hidden jewels for Potter-philes to be found in those pages. Stay tuned for that discussion.

But what of the other books on The Presence’s shelf in 2000? Can we see make out any other authors and titles? Given how rewarding Gordon-Smith’s Christie finds have been, the picture deserves a close look.

I think I want to see a Ngaio Marsh book on the bottom shelf to Rowling’s right. One shelf up I’m all but certain of Peter Cook: A Biography. To the right of Rowling’s head is an Adrian Mole anthology (?) by Sue Townsend, I’d guess The Cappuccino Years. There is a guide to an exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on that shelf, too, but which one? No idea. Does anyone know what book by Sigmund Freud or about Freud is on the same shelf as Rowling’s three Christies? The Jane Austen’s… title obscured by Rowling’s head?

Have a look and share your best guesses in the comment boxes below! And your thoughts, especially if you think this is a fool’s errand and not Rowling’s bookshelf.

Christie’s ‘Appointment With Death:’ Reading Beyond the Ginny-Ginevra Find

I’m on something of an Agatha Christie binge this week (see my posted thoughts on the Queen of Mystery’s The Pale Horse [1961] for the ‘why’) and took up Appointment with Death (1938) yesterday to see if there was more to it than the red-haired youngest daughter named Ginevra but called Ginny. I think there are a few reasons for a Rowling/Galbraith reader to pick it up beyond the fun of touching imaginatively the point of origin for Ginny Weasley.

First, there is Hercule Poirot, the detective on the spot in this novel. It is set-up largely as was Murder on the Orient Express (1934) to which several allusions are made; Poirot is on vacation, stumbles upon a murder, is asked by the presiding gendarmes to solve the crime, and is confronted with a host of suspects all of whom have ample motive to do the deed, even to work together to kill the much-despised victim. The twists on the Orient Express model are masterful and worth the price of admission — and suggest lines of reflection for the Cormoran Strike reader who is aware that Galbraith is largely echoing and writing commentary of sorts on Rowling’s Hogwarts Saga in ‘his’ parallel novel numbers.

Then there are the references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet throughout the novel. If you read Christie’s earlier mysteries — and I’ve just finished Murder at the Vicarage (1930), her eleventh novel and first Miss Marple story — you find that they don’t feature the intertextual depth or number of literary allusions that the  so-called ‘mature’ works written after the war do. There are biblical passages quoted at length in Appointment and Shakespeare references playful and subtle, but we’re seeing the transformation of Christie from one kind of writer to another. By no means is this yet a story-about-stories as we get them in Rowling-Galbraith, if the jokes made about detective fiction merit more than a knowing smile from the reader. 

And, last, beyond Ginny-Ginevra and the wicked Mrs Boynton’s resemblance to Dolores Umbridge, both excellent catches made by Dolores Gordon-Smith (she read Appointment because she saw it on Rowling’s bookshelf in a Goblet of Fire publicity shot!), there no great Potter or Strike echoes to be found in this novel. Unless you think the description of a character as having “basilisk’s eyes” in the key scene of confrontation with Mrs Boynton merits a mention; that is, after all, the fantastic beast Harry must defeat to rescue Ginny-not-yet-known-as-Ginevra in Chamber of Secrets

The Pale Horse and Appointment with Death are not great Agatha Christie pieces, alas. Both seem liked hurried pieces to meet publisher deadlines, albeit always with wry observations, a rewarding twist, and an implicit and challenging moral. I recommend them to the serious student of all things Rowling and Galbraith, however, because they are I think undeniably in the author’s famous “compost heap” of everything she has read from which her imaginative works have grown. Please do let me know what you think about Appointment with Death if you’ve read it or decide to read it!