Monday, August 9, 2010

In The Spotlight: Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In the Spotlight. Since this new feature was the brainchild of Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere, I thought it only fair to focus on one of her suggestions. So today, the spotlight is on Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side). It’s a very interesting choice on a lot of levels, so let’s take a closer look at it.

In this novel, several changes have come to the village of St. Mary Mead. One of them is new council housing, and an entirely new population of people who live in the housing. Another is the arrival of famous actress Marina Gregg. She and her husband, Jason Rudd, have decided to purchase Gossington Hall, the former home of Colonel Bantry and his wife, Dolly. The purchase goes through, and Marina Gregg and her husband move in. Once they’re settled, they decide to host a fête as a benefit for a local charity, and all of the residents are invited. One person who’s especially excited about the fête is Heather Badcock, who lives with her husband in one of the new council homes. Miss Marple meets Heather Badcock quite literally by accident when she has a bad fall outside the Badcocks’ home. It’s then that Heather tells Miss Marple what a fan she is of Marina Gregg. On the day of the fête, Heather and her husband Arthur attend, and Heather is thrilled to actually meet her idol. She’s even more thrilled when Marina gives her a cocktail.

Shortly afterwards, the unthinkable happens. Heather Badcock sickens and dies. At first, everyone thinks the cocktail was really meant for Marina Gregg; it was hers originally, and Marina certainly had her share of enemies. It becomes apparent, though, that Heather was the intended victim all along. So now, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry look into the case, sift through the clues and find out who killed Heather Badcock and why.

Agatha Christie often commented on the social changes happening around her, and we see that element in
The Mirror Crack’d. At the beginning of the novel, there’s an interesting discussion of the coming of council housing, the increase in population and the way that the village has changed. Many villagers grumble about these social changes, but Miss Marple takes them in stride. Her view is that these kinds of changes are inevitable, so complaining about them too much isn’t productive. In fact, Miss Marple is even curious about this new council housing, and decides to explore it. That’s, in fact, when she has her fall and meets Heather Badcock.

As Christie describes some of the changes in the village, we also get a sense of some of the changes that have taken place in England. Christie mentions the coming of supermarkets, the modernization of stores, and even the re-naming of what used to be called the drawing room; it’s now called the living room.

More subtly, Christie comments on social change as she discusses the sale of Gossington Hall (the scene, by the way, of The Body in the Library). It had been the property of Colonel and Dolly Bantry, but in the decades after World War II (this novel was written in 1962), few people wanted to live in large homes like Gossington Hall any more. In fact, Dolly Bantry mentions that the days of those large homes have passed when she explains to Miss Marple that it didn’t disturb her at all to sell the home:

“We thought of it, I remember, as a house that would be easy to run. How we could ever have thought that, I can’t imagine! All those staircases and passages. Only four servants. Only! Those were the days, ha ha!”

Another element that makes this story interesting is Christie’s gentle sense of humor that we see in several places in the novel. For instance, at the beginning of the novel, Miss Marple has been ill, and is still recuperating. Her doctor has insisted that she have someone from the village look after her, so she engages Miss Knight, who lives in the new council housing development. Miss Knight is rather overbearing and condescending, and she has the habit of irking Miss Marple. So one day, when Miss Knight is doing her shopping, Miss Marple gives her a long list of errands, and sneaks out while Miss Knight’s gone. Miss Marple wants to explore the new housing development, and it’s quite funny to see how she gives Miss Knight the slip, so to speak.

Miss Marple is famous for her keen insight into human nature. In fact, that’s part of what’s made her such a beloved character. We see that element in The Mirror Crack’d, too. In fact, a short conversation with Heather Badcock is enough to remind Miss Marple of another villager she knew, and who

“Didn’t always see how things might appear to, or affect, other people.”

In that comment, she gives the reader a warning about Heather, so it’s not a real shock, if one’s paying close attention, when Heather Badcock turns out to be the victim. In fact, Miss Marple says of herself that she has

“…a certain knowledge of human nature – that is only natural after having lived in a small village all my life.”

It’s that knowledge of human nature that helps Miss Marple figure out who murdered Heather Badcock.

Another important element in this novel is the connection between past and present. Many of Christie’s novels explore the theme of the past affecting the present, and this novel is no exception. Miss Marple finds out some things about Heather Badcock’s past and if you will, stores them away. Later, when Heather is murdered, Miss Marple remembers what she’s been told, and finds out some other truths about the past as well. Once she connects the stories from the past that she’s learned, Miss Marple is able to find out who killed Heather.

One of Christie’s hallmarks is the plot twist. There’s nearly always something unexpected that happens in a Christie novel, and we see this in
The Mirror Crack’d. When Heather drinks the poisoned cocktail, it’s naturally assumed that Marina Gregg was the intended victim. She’d made her share of enemies, including rival actress Lola Brewster, who’s present at the open house. There’s also the relationship between Marina Gregg and her husband, Jason Rudd. But in true Christie style, it’s not as simple as that, and we find out that Heather Badcock, an apparently goodhearted, blameless woman, was the intended victim.

The Mirror Crack’d
is drawn together by the themes of social change and actions and consequences, among other themes. Its interest is, as much as anything else, in the characters we meet, Miss Marple’s insight into human nature and of course, the twists, turns and “red herrings” that made Christie a crime fiction genius. There’s also a subtle but real touch of humor.

Have you read
The Mirror Crack’d? If you have, what elements about it struck you?

Next week, I’ll be putting Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s
Rosenna in the spotlight. If you’ve got an idea for a novel that you would like me to spotlight, please leave a comment or send me an Email, and I’ll put it on the In The Spotlight list.


  1. Margot, I haven't read this one and have always thought of Christie as a 1920s and 1930s writer, but you have brilliantly pointed out how she reflected the social changes that occurred post war. I need to pick some later Christies when I go to Greenway next.

  2. I have read the book but it was long ago. I didn't pick out everything you did but I love how you find the sense of humor and the subtleness of her books.

    Love this series.


  3. Norman - I think some of Christie's most famous work was written in the 1920's and 1930's, so it' very easy to forget that she wrote for about fifty years. In my humble opinion, her topics, themes, and so on changed over the year, but I'm always amazed at how much she had to say after the war.

    Clarissa - I think it's easy to overlook the humor in some of Christie's work because it isn't obvious as it is in work like Carl Hiaasen's sand some others. But it's most definitely there. And thanks for the kind words : ).

  4. Hi Margot!

    I love Agatha Christie and her two famous characters: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple! I specially appreciate her plot twists, which make her novels thrilling and really worthwhile to read.

    Actually, The Mirror Crack'd was the first Miss Marple novel that I ever read. It was a very different experience because I've been used to reading about Hercule Poirot when suddenly, I'm reading about a old woman detective. I thought I wouldn't like it, but it turned out that Miss Marple is really sweet and intelligent.


  5. Scribexpress - I really like Christie's plot twists and unexpected happenings, too. They really set her novels apart, I think.

    It's funny; I started my "Christie career" with Poirot as well, and when I read my first Miss Marple, I wasn't sure what I'd think. But like you, I came to admire her. She certainly has her sweet side, and is every inch a lady, so to speak. But underneath? She's shrewd, intelligent and pretty much unafraid. I like that combination : ).

  6. I recently watched (but haven't gotten around to reviewing... yet) the movie version of The Mirror Crack'd. From what you've said the movie does a pretty good job of reflecting the themes of the book. And it stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple. It was one of the few Christie-based movies I've liked!

  7. Hi Margot, I am a fan of Agatha Christie, but what I really wrote to say is what a fan of your blog I've become. As an aspiring mystery writer and mystery fan, I've learned so much reading your very thoughtful posts. Thank you for the time and effort that obviously goes into each one.

  8. Karen - Oh, I know the movie version you mean! Oh, how interesting that you saw that one! I'm glad you liked it; I did, too : ). Want to know what's interesting? Christie dedicated The Mirror Crack'd to Margaret Rutherford, who played Miss Marple in four movies, but never a movie version of this novel...

    Suzanne - Oh, how kind of you : ). Thank so much for taking the time to say such nice things! I'm glad you enjoy the blog. And as you've probably sussed out, I'm a Christie fan, too : ).

  9. I haven't read this book yet but you have definitely peak my interest and even the movie version sounds interesting. I love this new series of yours. I always learn so much from your post. You give an insight to books that I sometimes overlook.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. I listened to this one earlier this year and agree with you that one of the most striking elements was Christie's very incisive commentary on the social changes affecting England. Like Norman I tend to forget that Christie was writing long after both wars and always had something to say about broader social issues.

    Another thing I remember from this book was showing how Miss Marple had aged and her frustration with people treating her as if she was stupid just because she was old and it seems to bug her (quite rightly) that she is missing out on things because she can't get around like she used to. I thought it was a quite realistic depiction of the problem of having a perfectly sound mind but a not quite perfectly operating body any longer.

    I haven't read Roseanna yet but I do have it on my TBR pile - you have given me an incentive to get to it before your post next week.

    I like this feature and I also like knowing which books you are going to tackle. Perhaps every now and again you could let us know what book you are going to tackle 3-4 weeks in advance and then those of us who want to can read the book too in readiness for your commentary...Margot's bookclub? Confessions of a Bookclub host? I admit this is a selfish request as there are lots of classic crime novels that I know I should read (and quite a few I have easy access to) but I need a bit of a push to choose them over shiny new books :)

  11. Thank you so much, Margot. A book I am really fond of, and you have got so much more from it than I suspected existed.
    You are so right about the humour. It is always there, specially in the Miss Marple books, but it is so subtle, you take it for granted instead of noticing and commenting on it.

    My favourite part of the book? Cherry Baker. Her attitude towards Miss Marple (and Miss Knight), her husband, their music, her cooking, and her seeking assurance that she is a good housekeeper, and finally she and Miss Marple agreeing that they would be happy together.

  12. Bernadette - Oh, you are so right about the way Christie tackles what it's like to get older. For one thing, she does address head-on societal prejudices that the elderly are somehow stupid or at least incompetent. And I, too, like Miss Marple's very human and real reaction to dropping stitches, falling and otherwise being painfully aware that there are things that she just can't do anymore. Thank you for bringing that up : ).

    And thank you for suggesting that I let people know a few weeks in advance what I am planning to spotlight. It makes sense, and makes for a much better discussion. I'll look at what I've got planned and post something up tomorrow. Great idea!

    Rayna - I just love the humor that Christie weaves throughout her work. One does see in the Miss Marple books, but also in some of her other work, too. That kind of subtle humor takes talent!

    And I like Cherry Baker very much, too. I like the way she and Miss Marple get used to each other, and yes, those scenes where she's anxious about her housekeeping are endearing : ). She's a great character : ).

  13. This is great Margot. I've taken the liberty of submitting it for the ACRC carnival for this month. You should get an email in confirmation

  14. Kerrie - Thank you : ). I'd hoped you might think it good enough for this month's carnival. I appreciate your submitting it very much.

  15. This is one of my favourite Christie books - the plot twists are unexpected and the murder victim is an actress (extra bonus for me!) I especially enjoy the observations that everyone is the centre of their own world and this can affect others in ways that cannot be imagined.

  16. Elspeth - Isn't this a wonderful book?! You're right, too, that Christie does a terrific job with the theme of people being unaware of - or at least not thinking of - the way their actions affect others. It's woven subtly throughout the novel and done quite well.

  17. This one is also one of MY favourites! The characters, the plot, the quotation (a poem my daughter and I love very much).

  18. Dorte - Oh it is a good story, isn't it? And I like the quote very much, too - and the poem.

  19. Have you ever thought of compiling your blog posts into a book, Margot?

    I really want to read this book. I love the idea of AC commenting on the social changes, and that Miss Marple doesn't complain. That's what keeps her young. The death knell in so many people when they get older is to start criticizing society, young people, politics, on and on. I love the Adlai Stevenson quote: 'Nothing so dates a man as to decry the younger generation.'