Decades before her death in 1976, Agatha Christie wrote two novels featuring the final cases of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Hercule Poirot’s last appearance was to be in Curtain, written in the 1940s and published some thirty years later, after the manuscript had been hidden away in a bank vault.
Christie also wrote the final volume in the stories of Miss Marple during the Second World War, Sleeping Murder, which similarly did not appear until just after her own death. So in fact the stories in this battered old library volume are not really Miss Marple’s Final Cases, although they probably are the last ones that Christie actually wrote.
Though these are late works, they still show Agatha Christie’s deft talent for characterisation, in which a single paragraph is enough to tell us everything we need to know about a character:
The vicar’s wife came round the corner of the vicarage with her arms full of chrysanthemums. A good deal of rich garden soil was attached to her strong brogue shoes and a few fragments of earth were adhering to her nose, but of that fact she was perfectly unconscious.
I particularly like the blunt local doctor, who is not one for indulging in the self-pity of his patients:
“I feel so terribly depressed. I can’t help feeling how much better it would have been if I had died. After all, I’m an old woman. Nobody wants me or cares about me.”
Doctor Haydock interrupted with his usual brusqueness. “Yes, yes, typical after-reaction to this type of flu.”
In her lifetime, Christie was enormously popular. Publishing on average one novel a year, her books sold in the millions all over the world. Part of her success comes from the fact that Christie saw the magic in English villages and country houses. She captured the appeal of the countryside, something which still brings enormous numbers of visitors to our shores every year. Somewhat to our astonishment, considering that we Brits associate the word ‘holiday’ with sand and sunburn, Britain is the world’s eighth most visited country. Authors like Christie have had a big part to play in attracting these tourists, even if the world she describes would have been unfamiliar to the majority of her readers at home:
Then he hurried away and I set to work to dive into my suitcases for my evening clothes. The Carslakes weren’t well-off; they clung on to their old home, but there were no menservants to unpack for you or valet you.
The mysteries themselves are tricky and perplexing, and as usual, the solution is staring you in the face all along if you only pay attention. Unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, where the reader isn’t expected to solve the crime, Christie is always playing a game with her reader, challenging you to beat her, rather like the setter of a cryptic crossword.
In this collection she even has a bit of fun with her illustrious forbear. In Strange Jest, some heirs of a recently deceased uncle cannot find his wealth. There’s buried treasure somewhere in his house and grounds, giving Christie a chance to have a little dig at the Holmes story The Musgrave Ritual:
But our problem lacks the usual romantic touches. No point on a chart indicated by a skull and crossbones, no directions like “four paces to the left, west by north.”
Though justifiably the Queen of Crime, Christie did have another string to her bow. She wrote ghost stories too, and two supernatural tales round off this volume. They are not as successful as the murder mysteries and are decidedly tame by modern standards. She really should have kept to stabbing people in the back in the vicarage.
The stories in this volume are: Sanctuary; Strange Jest; Tape-Measure Murder; The Case of the Caretaker; The Case of the Perfect Maid; Miss Marple Tells a Story (all Miss Marple) along with The Dressmaker’s Doll and In a Glass Darkly (tales of the supernatural).