A Murder is Announced, by Agatha Christie

>> Saturday, April 13, 2013

TITLE: A Murder is Announced
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 322
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: Late 1940s England
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: A Miss Marple book

The villagers of Chipping Cleghorn, including Jane Marple, are agog with curiosity over an advertisement in the local gazette which reads: 'A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m.'

A childish practical joke? Or a hoax intended to scare poor Letitia Blacklock?

Unable to resist the mysterious invitation, a crowd begins to gather at Little Paddocks at the appointed time when, without warning, the lights go out!
This is one title I've been looking forward to getting to since I've started my Marple Marathon. Not only does it have a fun setup, it's also one I have absolutely no memories of, even though I must have read it (the only thing I do remember is that the Spanish version my mum had was titled "Se Anuncia Un Asesinato", and if my mum had it, I read it).

So, how about that setup? Well, the book opens with the villagers of Chipping Cleghorn perusing that most invaluable source of gossip, the personal ads column in the local paper. This week, in between the offers of puppies and requests for domestic help, there is the following invitation:

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends, accept this, the only intimation.
It's a shocking way of inviting guests to a party, everyone thinks. What was Letitia Blacklock, owner of Little Paddocks, thinking? But at Little Paddocks, there is much surprise as well. None of the residents admit to having placed the advert, even though there is suspicion it must have been one of the young ones, probably Miss Blacklock's nephew (it's just the sort of thing he'd do, it's felt).

When the day comes, every single one of the villagers finds a reason to drop by the house. And at the appointed time, the lights go off, a shot rings out, and someone is dead.

I enjoyed this. I liked that though part of the investigation does depend on who-was-where-at-what-time machinations, most of it is about the characters and seeing them interact and develop. Christie is widely thought to be stronger on plot than on characterisation, but in this book, she did really well in the latter. Each of the villagers is distinct and interesting. She even has a large number of middle-aged and old spinsters, who, rather than being a type, are all completely different. Interestingly, Miss Marple is one of them, and she gets about as much space as they do. She's definitely very much in the margins, in these early books!

As for the plotting... well, the solution is extremely clever, and the way Christie salts her clues throughout the plot is nothing short of masterful. Even though I was listening to it very attentively, and as usual, I was trying very hard to catch her clues, I missed them completely and fell headlong for one of her red herrings. At first, it seems there are not that many possibilities, but soon all sorts of possible motivations and solutions appear, and it was one of them that I so mistakenly went for. On a purely intellectual level, it was quite satisfying to see.

However. I'm afraid when I finished admiring Christie's construction, I couldn't help but feel it was all maybe a bit too clever. Overcomplicated, I suppose. It was a brilliant plan, sure, but once you start thinking about it, the culprit could have accomplished their objective in a much simpler way, even if it would have been blunter and inelegant. It would have been easier and a lot less risky, since the way things actually happened relied a lot on things happening like clockwork, when they could have easily gone very wrong. So on a gut level, I couldn't really believe the story. I still enjoyed the book, but it's a reason why I wouldn't put it amongst my favourite titles by the author.

Finally, one of the things that has struck me the most since I've started this rereading Christie's books last year is that these books being so much of their time has its good and bad sides. On one hand, It's fascinating to see how a Christie presents her own time, all very matter-of-factly, since it would have been unremarkable to her readers (of course rationing meant a chocolate cake would be an extreme luxury! It didn't need to be said). However, some of the attitudes (racism, sexism, xenophobia, extreme class discrimination and snobbery, you name it) can be painful. Sometimes this can turn an otherwise good mystery into a complete wallbanger (see my rant about The Body In The Library), but mostly, it's something I can cringe at and then just continue reading. It was the latter case for A Murder Is Announced, fortunately. The portrayal of the couple of foreigners in the story is pretty cringe-worthy (especially the callousness with which the refugee woman who works at Little Paddocks is treated in the narrative), but it was something I was able to ignore quite ok.

AUDIOBOOK NOTE: The version I got from my library was an old one, from Chivers Audio Books, narrated by Rosemary Leach. The narration was acceptable, but not great. Leach read the text in what I can only call a languid manner, as if she barely had the energy to continue reading, with pauses which were a beat too long. I see audible has 2 versions, one read by Joan Hickson and a newly released one read by Emilia Fox. I've never heard an audiobook narrated by Hickson, but Fox narrated the version of They Came To Baghdad that I listened to a few months ago and she was fabulous. I'd say go for one of those two if you are interested in this in audio.



Barb in Maryland 13 April 2013 at 22:41  

If it is the same Joan Hickson, she was the actress who played Miss Marple in a number of television adaptations of the novels. They date from the mid-to-late 1980s and are my favorite version.

Rosario 14 April 2013 at 07:52  

Oh, it should be good, then! Yes, so either of the audible versions should be good.

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