As detailed in yesterday’s post, from time to time I’m going to pick a mystery and then compare all the different adaptations of it I can find, to see if I can pin down what works and what doesn’t. I’m primarily interested in what adaptations do the actual mystery: have they made it easier/harder, more/less believable, fairer/unfairer etc.? The aesthetic differences will be interesting too, but that’s not my main concern.
But before we can profitably compare adaptations, it’s necessary to look in detail at the source material. First up: Agatha Christie’s 1957 Miss Marple mystery The 4:50 from Paddington
[As you’d expect, thorough spoilers for The 4:50 from Paddington]
*Edit* Now that I’ve written this, I find that I’ve done a bit of a number on poor Christie and torn her plot to shreds. I feel I should point out that I really did enjoy reading it. Christie’s prose slips down as smoothly as ever, and the dialogue is sharp and amusing. Miss Marple isn’t in it much but she’s sprightly and enjoyable when she is, and there’s some genuinely good stuff in the middle. I really like the characterisation of Luther Crackenthorpe, especially when he proposes to Lucy. It was a fun read and I was never bored, even though I’ve read it many times before. It’s just… well, you’ll see!
(If you don’t know the book version or are in need of a refresher, here’s what happens. Marple experts might want to skip to the analysis section.)
On her way to visit her friend Miss Marple, Elspeth McGillicuddy sees a murder through the window of the train running parallel to her own. A woman is being brutally strangled by a man. When the police are unable to find any evidence of the missing woman, Miss Marple decides to investigate on her own. She deduces that, in order to have evaded discovery for so long, the body must have been thrown from the train on a particular curve of track behind a large, run-down estate called Rutherford Hall.
Rutherford Hall is owned by Luther Crackenthorpe, the curmudgeonly and miserly heir to the Crackenthorpe biscuit, confectionery and canapés fortune, who lives with his daughter Emma. His sons – Harold the banker, Cedric the artist and Alfred the spiv – visit every Christmas. Two other children – Edmund and Edith – have died, but Edith was survived by her husband Bryan and son Alexander. Luther is also regularly attended by Dr Quimper, who is rather fond of Emma.
Too frail to snoop about on her own, Miss Marple hires freelance domestic goddess Lucy Eyelesbarrow, who installs herself at the hall and quickly finds the body concealed in a sarcophagus in a dilapidated barn. Judging from her underwear, the police decide the dead woman was a foreigner, and Emma quickly makes the connection with a letter she received, purportedly from her dead brother Edmund’s French wife, Martine.
Lucy, along with Bryan’s son Alexander and Alexander’s visiting friend James Stoddart-West, continues to search for clues while the police, led by Inspector Craddock, try to find out more about the missing woman. Craddock eventually learns of a missing dancer called Anna Stravinska, who left her troupe at about the time of the murder. But he’s unable to find any definite information, and the investigation stalls.
Then one evening the whole Crackenthorpe family is taken ill. Doctor Quimper attends and the symptoms only seem to be mild, but Alfred dies in the night. A few days later, a package of pills arrives for Harold in London, allegedly from Dr Quimper. But these are poisoned and Harold also dies.
On the missing woman front, the police track down a postcard sent from Jamaica and signed ‘Anna Stravinska’, and James Stoddart-West’s mother reveals that she is Martine, although the letter Emma received was a fake. The investigation stalls again.
But Miss Marple has figured everything out. She calls on her friend Mrs McGillicuddy to return from Ceylon and stages an elaborate ploy. While having tea at the hall she pretends to choke on a fish-bone. When Dr Quimper comes to help her, Mrs McGillicuddy recognises him as the woman from the train. It turns out that the woman was Anna Stravinska. She was also Quimper’s wife. He murdered her so that he could marry Emma and inherit the Crackenthorpe fortune. Later, he got greedy, and murdered Alfred and Harold in order to increase his potential share.
So that’s it. There’s also a few romantic subplots involving Lucy Eyelesbarrow: almost everyone, including creepy Luther Crackenthorpe, seems to want to marry her. At the end she seems to have made up her mind between Bryan and Cedric, but the reader isn’t told which she’s chosen. Miss Marple claims to know, however…
Here’s a list of all the characters from the book (there are probably a few more names mentioned, but I think this is everyone with dialogue or an important part to play). There are more than you might think! I thought it would be interesting to have this full list so I can see which ones make it to the various adaptations.
The Crackenthorpes and Household
Lady Alice Crackenthorpe
Lady Stoddart-West/Martine Dubois
Very Minor Characters
The mystery here is a strange one, and a bit of a departure for Christie, who rarely goes in for the “anonymous victim” trope (in fact, does she try this at all elsewhere? I can’t think of one off the top of my head). In fact, we’re not really any the wiser about the victim by the end of the story, except that she was a dancer who was married to Dr Quimper. As Miss Marple herself pithily says,
“I don’t know who she was, but […] I’m fairly sure who she was.”
There’s nothing wrong with this lack of detail, of course. There’s no reason why we should know anything at all about the victim in a mystery. But it does make things much harder for the writer, since it’s common to rely on the personality of the victim to drive much of the early plot, especially with regard to establishing motives. Still, as I said, there’s no reason things have to be done this way.
But while the victim’s specific identity is ultimately irrelevant, the search for that identity takes up an awful lot of the plot. And none of the potential identities for the victim that the police consider – Anna Stravinska as an anonymous dancer or Martine, Edmund’s husband or Martine pretending to be Anna or any of the other suggested combinations – provide any inkling of a possible motive for anyone. There’s a vague suggestion of the existence of another heir if Martine turns out to be Edmund’s husband, but it’s quickly pointed out that killing Martine wouldn’t change this fact. Miss Marple talks quite a lot about the motive confusion, but she never offers any concrete hints or suggestions beyond a hazy intuition that they should be looking for something “much simpler”. But even this is disingenuous on Christie’s part: there’s not a single sensible motive suggested throughout the book before the conclusion, so any talk of making things simpler seems pretty premature. At the stage the police are at, they should really be glad of any plausible motive at all.
This complete void with respect to motive until the very end is a real problem, I think. Yes, a mystery is supposed to be baffling, but unless the investigation seems to be making progress, even towards an obviously false solution, it can also be a bit tiring. Christie usually manage to juggle this quite well, but here it often seems as though she’s treading water until she’s reached her word count and can spring the surprise. This could probably have be mitigated a bit by moving the mass poisoning forwards in the plot a bit, which could still have left the murder of Harold for later. I suspect Christie was worried that Dr Quimper’s plan would be too obvious if the reader was allowed enough time to think about it. But more on that later.
Another strange pacing quirk is Inspector Craddock’s handling of the alibis for the train murder and how this information is presented to the reader. He decides to keep the fact that there was a witness to the murder a secret, and so only vaguely quizzes the suspects about their movements around Christmas time (the murder happened on the 20th December). Harold and Alfred admit that they were home for Christmas and Cedric lies and says he flew home from Ibiza on the 21st. That’s during chapter 9. It’s almost a third of the book before Craddock bothers to check again, directly quizzing the brothers about their movements on the 20th. At some point in between these sets of interviews, he’s discovered that Cedric was lying about when he entered the country, but this is kept a secret from the reader, for some reason, and not revealed until his second conversation with Cedric. The upshot is that the reader again is left without any concrete facts to think over, and then they suddenly arrive all at once in a bit of a jumble. Usually Christie is an expert and drip-feeding the reader information at a steady pace, but here I think she drops the ball.
I probably should have done a separate post about the nebulous concept of fairness in mysteries before trying to use it here. But in the absence of that, I’m just going to go with the simplest definition I can think of, one which shows that I still haven’t quite escaped from the shadow of my Philosophy degree. Feel free to loudly disagree in the comments!
For a mystery to be fair, there must be sufficient information available to the reader before the solution is revealed to fulfil these two conditions:
1) Sufficiency: There should be enough information to show that the culprit(s) could be responsible. (“Could” here means not just physical possibility – opportunity, physical capacity, etc. – but also psychological. In Golden Age mysteries, which aren’t usually over-concerned with psychology and where anyone is considered capable of killing, this second usually amounts to “having a motive”.)
2) Necessity: There should be enough information to show that no other suspect could reasonably have been the culprit
If that all seems a bit of a mouthful, then the most pertinent implication is this:
Not only should it be clear that the culprit could have done it, it should be equally clear that no-one else could.
(One interesting upshot of this is that, if you accept this definition, some mysteries actually turn out to have no solution at all, because the necessity clause is fulfilled but not the sufficiency one. But that’s definitely a topic for another time.)
Christie expounds a lot of effort in showing that Quimper could be the guilty party. She’s very careful to demonstrate that he knew about Martine, and so could have written the fake letter. She’s very careful to mention that Quimper handles the cocktail jug and that it’s he who takes away the curry sample to be tested. But that’s just the sufficiency clause covered. There’s nothing whatsoever to demonstrate that Quimper is necessarily the murderer, beyond the fact that Christie says he is (through Marple and Quimper himself, but the fairness stipulation isn’t concerned with anything that happens after the solution is revealed).
It’s not ever clear how Miss Marple arrived at her dubious conclusion. She asserts constantly that the motive should be simple, and indeed it is in the end, but she had no reason to think that there was a simple motive, beyond “detective’s intuition”. There doesn’t seem to be any vital clue which tips her off to the doctor’s guilt, and she doesn’t really cite any clues in her explanation, instead relying on strange pronouncements like “so many men seem to murder their wives”!
Of course the detective doesn’t have to mention all the clues that are present in the text. In well-clued mysteries that would bog the ending down too much. But in this case the reason Miss Marple doesn’t mention any is basically because there are none.
There are no good clues to indicate that the dead woman is Quimper’s wife. Emma mentions that he had a wife who died, but there’s no reason to think that isn’t true. Anna Stravinska’s friends say that she claims to have had an English husband, but they also claim that she’s a habitual liar. I know that habitual liars and apparently senile old people always turn out to be speaking the truth in mysteries but, again, an author isn’t allowed to cite genre conventions as clues. Even if you do accept that as a clue, there’s still nothing to indicate that the husband is Quimper, rather than any of the other men.
There’s the vague idea, mentioned several times in connection with Edmund, that the war meant that records of marriage were more likely to be missing, but again it’s too much of a leap to draw any definite conclusions from that. There are several mentions of bigamy, although usually in connection with Harold. Again, this seems like too general a concept that simply mentioning it a few times should count as a clue. That Quimper had to kill her is indicated only by a few scant mentions that Anna was a devout Catholic. Add to that the fact that, for 80% of the book, there’s no reason not to suspect that the dead woman is Martine and I think you’ve got a pretty much unguessable connection.
The second part of the motive is inheritance. At no point in the book is Dr Quimper shown to be interested in money, material possessions or anything other than Emma Crackenthorpe. This interest in Emma is strongly clued, but presumably it’s fake (it’s not quite clear, but I guess Christie means by Miss Marple’s condemnation of Dr Quimper to imply that he was only interested in the money). I know there’s a tradition in mysteries that large inheritances are enough to sway anyone, but I think we expect better of Christie.
There is actually one clue here. When Quimper poisons the family, he tells Lucy to specifically look after Luther and Emma above all else. This is in keeping with his plan, because he needs both of them alive to maximise his gain. So maybe Christie intended it to be a strong indicator of his guilt. Unfortunately it makes no sense. If Quimper wants to ensure that Luther and Emma don’t die, the only option he really has is not to bloody well poison them in the first place! Interpreting this clue correctly requires the reader to either not notice this discrepancy or somehow realise that you’re supposed to ignore it.
This lack of clueing might make it seem like 4:50 from Paddington is an impossible mystery to solve. As is so often the case, it depends on what you mean by “solve”. I don’t think it’s hard to guess that Quimper is the murderer. He’s in it a lot but isn’t really a suspect. He also seems to have an alibi for the poisoning, and in Christie mysteries being the only person with an alibi is a huge indicator of guilt. I expect a lot of people guessed that he was the killer. But I’d be shocked to learn that anyone fathomed his entire plan. It’s all very, very thin.
There’s one other stand-out in terms of underclueing: the fact that Lady Stoddart-West is actually Martine. This is (as far as I can tell) indicated by a single reference: James Stoddart-West says:
“Mum’s French. She doesn’t really know about English architecture.”
Surely no-one is going to step up and defend that as a good clue? I know that there’s a certain economy of concepts and characters in murder mysteries which allows you to make connections that wouldn’t really be rational in real life, but I think that’s stretching it too far!
There’s also a fairly prominent “anti-clue”, by which I mean a sentence which seems to contradict the final solution. To give you a better example of what I mean, I’ll start with an example of a sentence which does work (just!).
Shortly after the body is discovered in the sarcophagus, Dr Quimper is invited to look at it by Inspector Craddock. Christie writes:
“The doctor stood by the sarcophagus and looked down with frank curiosity, professionally unmoved by what he had named ‘the unpleasantness’.”
Now the unsuspecting reader is likely to take this at face value: Quimper hasn’t seen the body before, and so he’s curious to see the details (who it is, what she’s wearing, what killed her etc. etc.)
But this sentence also has to be true in light of the fact that Quimper is the murderer! Is it? I think it just about is, although I’m not completely convinced that Christie wasn’t lucky, rather than devious. I can imagine a particular sort of murderer, especially one who was a doctor, looking down with “frank curiosity” to see how much his victim had decomposed since he last saw her. It’s a little bit of a stretch, but it fits Miss Marple’s description of Dr Quimper (although not his actual behaviour in the book – we really have to take Miss Marple’s word for a lot of stuff this time round!).
So that’s fine. But later, when the family are poisoned, Quimper is called at 3am by Lucy. Christie writes:
“He was tired – very tired. He looked appreciatively at his bed.
Then the telephone rang.
Dr Quimper swore, and picked up the receiver.”
I don’t think this has quite passed over into cheating, but I certainly think it could have been written better. None of these sentences are obviously lies. But there’s no convincing way to read them in sequence that doesn’t suggest genuine surprise on the doctor’s part. And there’s no reason why Quimper would be surprised, except in that offhand way that loud noises are surprising in the middle of the night. He knows he’s poisoned the family. He’s surely expecting the call. And in fact he wants to be called, because he needs to go back to the house to plant poison in the curry. So why does he swear? The only way to read this when you know that Dr Quimper is the killer is as a weird jumble of non sequiturs. Christie usually plays more fairly with her double meanings than that.
Much is made of Miss Marple’s declaration at the end of the story:
“Everything he did was bold and audacious and cruel and greedy, and I am really very, very sorry that they have abolished capital punishment because I do feel that if there is anyone who ought to hang, it’s Dr Quimper.”
I don’t have much to say about it. I don’t agree (in fact, Mrs Marple’s consistently wonky logic when nabbing murderers seems a pretty good reason not to have capital punishment) but it’s a nice bit of characterisation for Marple, who often seems like a bit of a cipher.
There are a few other controversial opinions dotted about the book. There’s the usual helping of anti-foreign sentiment, but that’s kept firmly in the dialogue and I think it’s genuinely used for characterisation rather than representative of Christie’s own opinions. Harold is brimming over with bigotry in this regard, but he’s offset by Cedric, who is quick to correct his brother’s stupidity.
What does seem like Christie’s opinion, though, is the unscientific notion that mental illness of all kinds can be attributed to hereditary factors:
“What I really need,” Craddock said, “is to know a little more about the Crackenthorpe family. Is there any queer mental strain in them – a kink of any kind?”
Now this isn’t just for characterisation. Christie is usually careful to keep her chief investigators sympathetic, so I think she genuinely means this to represent a sensible line of inquiry. This is borne out my the fact that Dr Morris immediately agrees with Craddock. Usually, if Christie gives her characters an opinion she herself thinks is dubious, she’s quick to have another character offer up the opposite point of view, as with Cedric and Harold above.
The “bad strain running through the family” motif comes up depressingly frequently in Christie, so much so that I’d be very surprised if she didn’t believe it herself. Miss Marple also offers up a particularly facile example earlier on in the story to try and demonstrate how people are of a good or evil disposition, and how that is completely separable from any illness they may be suffering from.
I’ve had enough dealings with mental illness in real life that I’m definitely biased here. I’m sure a lot of readers don’t notice this aspect of Christie’s writings at all. But I find it quite unpleasant.
(To be fair to Christie, I should point out that it isn’t just her attitudes towards mental illness I find off-putting. The mentally ill are rarely treated sympathetically in crime fiction. Nothing Christie ever wrote begins to approach the terrible and completely implausible travesties which seem to fuel an entire sub-genre of “serial killer” books.)
“Silly Old Biddy” Syndrome
After all this negativity, something which I think Christie handles really well.
The setup seems ripe for some clichéd treatment: a couple of old ladies think there’s been a murder, but there’s no evidence to suggest that they’re right. In a lot of mysteries, they would be summarily dismissed as silly old biddies.
Even the blurb on the back of my edition suggests that that’s what will happen:
“But who, apart from Jane Marple, would take [Elspeth’s] story seriously?”
But whoever wrote that clearly didn’t read the book. Christie explicitly doesn’t play on this cliché. True, the conductor doesn’t take Mrs McGillicuddy very seriously and is rather patronising at first, but he does offer to report her story to the stationmaster without complaint. After that, every single authority figure in the story treats Miss Marple’s story with respect. Lucy Eyelesbarrow also doesn’t doubt her for an instant when taking the job.
It helps that Miss Marple’s reputation has preceded her, but it’s still refreshing. I much prefer it when the police act sensibly, instead of being implausibly dismissive and stupid just so that the reader can feel a sort of smugness by proxy. I don’t imagine the adaptations will be as restrained here as Christie was.
I accept that I’m going to sound petulant here, but the tontine stuff really irritates me. Firstly, it’s introduced in an extraordinarily unsubtle way. Miss Marple is looking at her crossword and says,
“I wish I had a dictionary here. Tontine and Tokay – I always mix those two words up. One, I believe, is a Hungarian wine.”
For someone who is usually so good at everyday psychology as Christie is, that’s extremely unconvincing. Yes, people do confuse words, but never in that way. Tontine and Tokay sound completely different, and clearly come from different languages. The only thing they have in common is their first two letters. Christie clearly reached for the dictionary herself, looked up tontine, and then scanned the nearby pages for an interesting sounding word.
It’s also uncharacteristically irritating and cryptic; Christie teases the reader with the word several times but doesn’t reveal the definition for another 60 pages.
Anyway, that’s just my pet language peeve. What’s more relevant is that the Crackenthorpe will isn’t a tontine at all. A tontine (at least in fiction, in real life it isn’t really anything to do with wills) would leave the capital undivided and in trust. No-one would get it until there was a single surviving heir. The will in the book is just a completely unremarkable arrangement to share the capital equally between all the heirs, and this is explained clearly near the start of the story. I think readers might actually be confused as to how the ‘tontine’ stuff constitutes a revelation at all, and wonder if they’d misunderstood what was going on.
An interesting aside: the Wikipedia entry for “Tontine” cites 4:50 From Paddington as an example. It says:
“All grandchildren and their spouses have a share in the fortune, as long as they arrive at the family mansion once each year.”
Surely that’s completely wrong? I wonder if that’s from one of the adaptations. I guess I’ll soon find out!
Miss Marple’s Explanation/Dr Quimper’s Plan
I’ve said that Christie puts all her efforts into showing that Dr Quimper could have done it, rather than showing that no-one else could, but I’m not really convinced that she succeeds beyond proving that he had the physical opportunity. Miss Marple’s explanation doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and Dr Quimper’s plan is risky, stupid and in many parts unnecessary. If he hadn’t confessed, I’m not sure I’d believe it! He also misses out on a number of very obvious ways to improve it, ways which make me think that Christie didn’t really think as long and hard about this book as she did a lot of her earlier mysteries. Let me explain.
Dr Quimper’s plan is to marry Emma Crackenthorpe and thus have access to her part of capital that provides Luther’s income after the old man dies. Because he’s already married to Anna Stravinska, who won’t give him a divorce due to her religious beliefs, he decides to kill her. He arranges to meet her on the train to Brackhampton, where he strangles her. Then he pushes her out of the train into the grounds of Rutherford Hall. Later, he recovers the body and hides it in the Long Barn. He hopes that, when the body is discovered, the police will think that it’s Martine Dubois, Edmund Crackenthorpe’s French wife. To further this illusion he has earlier written to Emma Crackenthorpe, pretending to be Martine. Later, consumed with greed, he tries to increase his share of the inheritance by killing Harold and Alfred.
Exactly what part of this plan isn’t bonkers??
a) Keep Luther alive until he can…
b) …kill off some heirs to increase Emma’s share of the fortune so that she’ll be rich when…
c) … he marries her.
Now Quimper, as his doctor, presumably knows how ill Luther actually is. So he knows roughly what the time-scale on this plan is. But, as I mentioned earlier in the section on clues, it still defies reason that he would risk his whole plan by poisoning the old man with arsenic. As is mentioned several times in the book (and it’s a theme Christie often returns to) poisoning is not an exact science. You just can’t be sure how someone will react. It’s not even as though he would expect to pass it off as food poisoning; he’d already specifically planted the idea in Craddock’s mind that an earlier bout of gastritis was due to arsenic poisoning. It also seems incredibly stupid to poison Emma. If Luther dies early, Quimper gets less money. But if Emma dies his whole plan is ruined!
Speaking of Emma, it seems incredibly risky to just assume that she will marry him. Maybe this is supposed to be murder’s arrogance, but what if she refuses? Or what if she is reluctant to marry someone when there are three unsolved murders, probably with inheritance as the motive? The only person in the plot who seems completely convinced that the marriage will happen is Miss Marple!
Quimper has no apparent endgame: he doesn’t seem to have picked anyone to pin the murders on. Miss Marple says that he suggests that Luther was poisoned at Christmas “to get the ground prepared” but without a final suspect in mind, what on earth is the point of that? Sure, no-one suspects him now because he isn’t an heir, but is that really going to still be the case when he proposes to Emma? Could he really be sure that Emma (or anyone else) wouldn’t be suspicious? Far better, surely, to say that the first case probably was gastritis, and the second case probably was food poisoning, safe in the knowledge that there’s real no way to be sure and it wouldn’t be that suspicious to be mistaken if somehow the truth did come out.
So I think his plan is already a little… well let’s say naïve. And that’s before we come to the part involving his wife.
Miss Marple says “Doctor Quimper couldn’t risk marrying Emma bigamously”. Now I know I can get a bee in my bonnet about probability and coincidence in mysteries, but I think if your plot is a bit weak in that regard the safest thing to do is simply not draw attention to it. Conversely, I think it’s only reasonable that if the solution does make a direct appeal to risk-management, it should actually make an ounce of sense. What is Dr Quimper’s situation before the murder? His wife is a travelling French dancer who he’s been estranged from for years. She’s rarely in England, and no-one believes that she really has an English husband. Is it really less risky to marry Emma bigamously than to kill Anna on a crowded train, having planned in advance to push her onto the tracks at one very specific point, unsure whether he’ll be able to do so unseen, then return and collect the body and hide it in the barn?
There are more inconsistencies. Does Quimper want the body to be identified as Martine or not? If he does (and Miss Marple is quite firm on this point) then why hide it at all? He doesn’t know that Mrs McGillicuddy saw him and sparked an investigation. Was he planning to “discover” it himself later? Wouldn’t it be simpler to just leave it in the open? What if it’s never discovered? If, on the other hand, he’s happy for it not to be discovered, then why not strip the body so there are no identifying marks (the only reason the police decide she’s French is because of her underwear)? Of course the real answer to that question is that Agatha Christie wouldn’t write a mystery about a naked anonymous woman in a sarcophagus.
But if he does want it to be discovered at a later date and identified as Martine, then why didn’t he put the envelope, the one he planted later which was found by Alexander and James, on the body in the first place? Then there would have been no doubt at all. The answer to this is again down to Christie: if she’d revealed the clue sooner then half of the plot would go up in smoke. But that’s not a good reason at all.
So we’ll assume that he wanted the body to be found and identified. But what, exactly, is the point of trying to make it seem like she’s Martine? To draw attention to the Crackenthorpes, Miss Marple says. But why would Quimper want to do that? As we’ve already seen, he has no plan to pin the murder on a specific person. All that drawing attention to Rutherford Hall achieves is the certainty that, when he gets to the real part of his plan, the poisoning of Alfred and Harold, there’s no possibility whatsoever of disguising it as food poisoning, because everyone’s suspicions are aroused by the presence of a murdered woman. That’s just dumb.
And how can Quimper be sure that indicating it’s Martine won’t backfire? He doesn’t know anything about her. Getting the police to search for information about her seems the surest way to actually find her! And what if there really is another heir? All he would have done is reduced Emma’s share of the inheritance.
Surely a better plan is to kill Anna elsewhere. If he’s set on dumping her at Rutherford Hall, why does he have to kill her on the train and push her body down the embankment? That’s the most roundabout way imaginable of getting the body into the barn. Why not just kill her in private and drive her there in his car?
Two more things, then I’ll leave poor Agatha alone! Firstly, Miss Marple dismisses the faked postcard as easily arranged. But is it really? It requires another person to be in on the plan, which increases the risk. It also requires that Dr Quimper knows the address on one of Anna’s girlfriends so that he can send it. Considering that they’d been “estranged for years”, and the ballet troupe had a huge turnover of dancers, it’s hard to imagine where Quimper got the necessary information.
Finally, Christie makes a bit of a mistake when she has Miss Marple say “[then Dr Quimper sent] the tablets to Harold in London, having safeguarded himself by telling Harold that he wouldn’t need any more tablets.” That isn’t really a safeguard at all, because there’s no way for him to know that Harold will tell anyone else that he isn’t expecting more tablets. Of course Harold does tell his wife, and he also thinks it to himself many times. But if he’d just taken them without telling anyone he’d be dead, and no-one would be any the wiser. (In fact it isn’t at all clear how Miss Marple knows what Dr Quimper says. If this was Murder, She Wrote, Jessica would be on that discrepancy in a flash!)
Anyway, that’s it. This might seem like furious nitpicking, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to notice all these inconsistencies on a first read-through. But I think it would be a very trusting reader that didn’t at least furrow their brow for a second.
Please don’t misunderstand me, though. I’m just really interested in how mysteries work under the hood. I’m certainly not suggesting that it should affect anyone’s enjoyment. It’s a light read, designed to be entertaining and surprising. I think it succeeds on all those fronts. It’s a good story.
But can anyone really put their hand on their heart and say that a plot with so many holes is a good mystery?
Adapting the Book
So how is all this going to affect the adaptation process?
I think any potential adapter, assuming they agree with my assessment, is going to have to accept that not all of these problems can be fixed. Dr Quimper’s plan is really too inconsistent to correct without rewriting the entire plot. So the question becomes whether to just leave it as it is or to try and fix as much as possible and gloss over the rest. I’m not sure what I’d do. I’ll be interested to see what people have tried in this regard.
Then there’s the absence of clues. I think I’d certainly be inclined to add some more, although the problem is that Dr Quimper is actually quite an obvious murderer, it’s just that the indications are genre conventions rather than actual clues. Adding more clues might make the solution so obvious as to be an anti-climax. The few sections that I was worried about as being almost unfair won’t cause any trouble in a visual adaptation: it’s far more easy to be ambiguous when the information is being conveyed via a facial expression.
The pacing issues are quite easily fixed, I think. The initial section can be truncated, and the later murders can also be brought forward. If the investigation into the men’s alibis is also brought forward a bit, I think the information drip to the viewer will be much more evenly spaced. If the adaptation needs breaks (for adverts or because there’s more than one episode) this will also help to provide the necessary climaxes to each part.
The lack of a real motive is still going to be problematic, I think. One solution is to just not dwell on it much, which I think you can get away with more easily on screen. That’s a bit of a cop-out, though. It would be more satisfying to provide a credible false motive for the murder of Martine, but I can’t really think of one.
The plot itself has a good number of set-pieces, especially the very exciting opening scene with the parallel trains, which is certain to look good on film. The ending, where Miss Marple pretends to be choking on the fish-paste sandwich, is really quite ridiculous, though. I’d be inclined to replace it, although I suppose it’s not the silliest of Miss Marple’s gambits (the one in A Murder is Announced probably takes the cake there).
There are thirty characters in the character list, far too many for a ninety minute screenplay. Luckily, a lot of them can be cut without any trouble at all. There’s still the problem of Miss Marple not really being involved much. An adapter will have to decide whether to add more scenes, and also whether to keep the interactions with Lucy as telephone conversations from the Hall, which don’t translate very well to the screen (Miss Marple doesn’t really seem suited to any split-screen shenanigans!)
Adapters are also going to have to decide what to do about the themes I outlined in the “attitudes” section. The simplest thing to do is drop them. None of them are vital to the plot, and for a ninety minute adaptation anything that practically begs to be cut will probably seem like a blessing. The capital punishment line is famous enough that fans might notice if it was taken out, but I’d expect adapters to drop it anyway. The mental illness stuff might stay but be tactfully rewritten. The racist stuff seems ridiculous enough to modern ears that it tends to get kept in adaptations. No-one is likely to mistake is as commentary rather than quick and dirty characterisation.
One final oddity. The title is actually a bit strange, because the 4:50 from Paddington is Mrs McGillicuddy’s train, not the train on which the murder occurred. That was the 4:33. Which is a bit annoying from a dialogue point of view because really it’s handy to be able to name-check the title a few times. And I think viewers are liable to get a bit confused, because it certainly seems like the book ought to be named after the interesting train where the murder happened.
Phew. Well that’s it. Comments are always appreciated, even if it’s to vehemently disagree with everything I’ve said. Next up, we’ll see what happens when Margaret Rutherford is brought in to solve the mystery!