Monday, January 3, 2011

In The Spotlight: Agatha Christie's 4:50 From Paddington

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Agatha Christie's Jane Marple might seem like an unlikely sleuth; she's not young, she's not particularly physically strong and she has no official relationship with the police. And yet, she's smart, she's got her own kind of courage and she's got a wealth of wisdom about human nature gleaned from the people she's known in her village of St. Mary Mead. She's also non-threatening, which makes her all the more dangerous, you might say; criminals don't expect her to be as sharp, shrewd and capable as she is. Let's take a closer look at Jane Marple in action in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!).

The novel begins just a few days before Christmas. Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy has been shopping in London and is now taking the train to visit her friend Miss Marple. Mrs. McGillicuddy has just wakened from a short nap when another train going in the same direction on a parallel track approaches. For a few moments, the two trains run side by side and Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to look through the window at the other train. What she sees shocks her: a man is strangling a young woman. The man has his back to the window, so Mrs. McGillicuddy can't really describe him, but she knows what she has seen. She tells the ticket collector, who doesn't really believe her, and when she arrives at the train station she sends a note about what she's seen to the stationmaster. A cursory inspection is made, but since there is no dead young woman on the train and Mrs. McGillicuddy can't describe the man she saw, nothing much is done about it. Upset at this inaction, and at the way she's been treated, Mrs. McGillicuddy tells Miss Marple what she saw. Miss Marple believes her implicitly and the two women tell the story to Sergeant Cornish of the local police. But no body is found and there's nothing to substantiate Mrs. McGillicuddy's story. Since Mrs. McGillicuddy has to leave very soon for Ceylon, Miss Marple agrees to look into the matter.

She soon figures out that the body must have been thrown from the train, and probably landed on the property around Rutherford Hall, the home of Luther Crackenthorpe. So she enlists the help of Lucy Eyelesbarrow, a well-known housekeeper/household manager who's much in demand. Miss Marple convinces Lucy to take a job at Rutherford Hall and while she's there, look for the body. Lucy is duly hired and immediately sets to work putting the Crackenthorpe household in order and doing her own investigations. It's not long before she finds the body and when she does, the authorities begin a full-scale investigation.
No-one in the Crackenthorpe family knows the as-yet-unidentified dead woman, and at first, it seems that the body was just put there for convenience - so the murderer could get rid of it. But the more Lucy Eyelesbarrow, the police and Miss Marple learn about the Crackenthorpes, the more likely it is that there may be a connection between the family and the dead woman. In the end, the dead woman's identity proves crucial to the case and when Miss Marple figures out who the victim was, she finds out who the killer was, too.

One of the elements that runs through this story and might very well have been Christie's way of commenting on her society is ageism, especially when it comes to elderly women. Mrs. McGinty is a smart, very practical person who's neither a liar nor fanciful. That's part of the reason why Miss Marple believes her story. No-one else seems to, though, and her story is almost indulgently put aside, in part because she's an elderly lady. In fact, Inspector Bacon, who's called in after the body is found, says:

"As far as all that goes [Mrs. McGillicuddy's story of seeing the strangling], I dare say it's just make believe - sort of thing old ladies do make up, like seeing flying saucers at the bottom of the garden…"

…and he's even got a body to substantiate Mrs. McGillicuddy's story.

Another element we see in this novel is the dynamics in the Crackenthorpe family. Old Luther Crackenthorpe is a miser who had a falling-out with his father when he chose not to enter the family business. So his father left his considerable fortune not to his son, but to his grandchildren. Luther Crackenthorpe is bitter because of this and determined to outlive his children just to spite his father. For their part, Crackenthorpe's children bring a variety of different personalities into the family "mix." Harold Crackenthorpe is the "good son." He behaves circumspectly, has a prosperous job in the city and has married a "proper" wife. He is also desperate for money, since his firm is not doing nearly as well as it appears on the surface. Alfred Crackenthorpe is the "black sheep." He's has had his share of narrow brushes with the law and gotten involved in some shady deals but so far he's not been prosecuted. He, too, is in real need of money. Cedric Crackenthorpe is the family Bohemian. He lives on the island of Iviza and on the surface, has no respect for family traditions or his proper upbringing. Emma Crackenthorpe has never married. She's remained at home to care for the household and her aging father. She's no frumpy stereotypical spinster, though. She's smart, capable and has a distinctive personality. When these very disparate people are brought together for the Christmas holiday, conflicts among them are inevitable and those conflicts add an interesting layer to the story. The tension among them is ratcheted up, too, when it becomes clear that one of them may have murdered the victim.

Moving through it all, seemingly unruffled, is Lucy Eyelesbarrow. She's perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, and it's easy to see why Jane Marple asks her to be her "eyes and ears" in this case. Lucy has a first-class Oxford degree but has

"…a core of good, sound common sense. She could not fail to observe that a life of academic distinction was singularly ill-rewarded. She had no desire whatever to teach and she took pleasure in contacts with minds much less brilliant than her own. In short, she had a taste for people, all sorts of people - and not the same people the whole time…Lucy Eylesbarrow hit at once upon a very serious shortage - the shortage of any kind of skilled domestic labor. To the amazement of her friends and fellow scholars, Lucy Eylesarrow entered the field of domestic labor."

Lucy's sharp mind, calm and organised nature, strong skills and willingness to work have earned her a large and devoted following, so that she can pick and choose among jobs - and she does. Little wonder that in the course of the novel, three people show interest in her.

That interest (and an attempt by Miss Marple to match Lucy up) add some gentle, subtle humour to the story. Lucy is not at all the flirtatious type, and yet all three suitors are drawn to her, and their jockeying is funny at times. One of these suitors is Bryan Eastley, whose wife Edie Crackenthorpe died some years ago. Eastley's son Alexander makes a warm and hunourous attempt to "play Cupid" with Lucy and his father, and that, too, adds to the story. Alexander Eastley and his school friend James Stoddart-West also add humour as they eagerly explore and search for clues. Christie takes care not to show them as morbidly curious, and their naïve excitement for the case adds a gentle touch of humour to the novel.

The humour, the characters and the family dynamics are all woven throughout the novel and tied together, you might say, with Christie's trademark clues and plot twists. But what's your view? Have you read 4:50 From Paddington? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 10 January/Tuesday 11 January - The Tin Collectors - Stephen J. Cannell

Monday 17 January/Tuesday 18 January - Green For Danger - Christianna Brand

Monday 24 January/Tuesday 25 January - An Advancement of Learning - Reginald Hill


  1. It's been decades since I've read this book, but as soon as I saw the title to your post a few scenes flashed through my mind: the 2 trains passing and the scene Miss Marple sets up to catch the killer. Always loved that scene! :)

  2. Excellent post!

    I think the strong point of this novel is all these interesting characters you have sketched. In my opinion the quality of Agatha Christie´s work varies a lot, but in this one she has created several memorable characters - and named them extremely well. E.g. Elspeth McGillicuddy who sounds exactly as unimaginative as she is.

  3. Jemi - Oh that is a wonderful scene, isn't it? And it quite shows just how shrewd Miss Marple can be. I also like the scene where Elspeth McGillicuddy looks up and sees the trains and then the murder - eerie!

    Dorte - Thank you :-). I agree with you that Christie's work varies - and I'm a big fan of hers. This one has some of her best characters, I think. And you know, I hadn't thought about it, but yes, she's named them well, too. Elspeth McGillicuddy really does suit that personality. I happen to like Emma Crackenthorpe's name/character match, too.

  4. I did see the Paddington movie. If memory serves me, it was with Margaret Rutherford, whom I adore. What amazing characters Agatha Christie created. She was a "character" herself!!

  5. It's one of my favorite AC novels. When McGillicuddy sees the murder on the train, it's one of the most frightening scenes. Then when they go snooping, the tension is high. I love how the detectives and the older sleuths match wits.

  6. Ann - Christie did create some memorable characters, didn't she? And what's really interesting about your mention of Margaret Rutherford is this. Christie dedicated The Mirror Crack'd to her.

  7. Clarissa - You are so right about the way Christie builds tension in this novel. First, we get afraid when Mrs. McGillicuddy sees the murder and then, yes, when Lucy goes snooping, that ratchets up the tension considerably. It is a good battle of wits between the detectives and Miss Marple and Mrs. McGillicuddy, too. There's solid tension throughout the novel.

  8. I haven't read the book but I do love the character of Miss Marple. Another wonderful post and a great author to showcase.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. Great book. I love the way that no one believes Mrs. McGillicuddy except for Miss Marple. They just believe that an old lady has fallen asleep. It's never good to underestimate an old lady in Christie's books!

  10. Mason - Thanks :-). And this one shows Miss Marple at her craftiest, if I may say so. She finds a clever way to figure out what happened to the body and an even more ingenious way to prove who murdered the woman. This one's a good 'un.

    Elizabeth - It is a good book, isn't it? And it really does add to the tension that nobody wants to believe Mrs. McGillicuddy. You're right - never underestimate an old lady in Christie's books. Or yours ;-).

  11. I haven't read this book in at least 15 years, but you make me want to read it again! There is no one comparable to Christie--or Miss Marple, for that matter! How many writers can make an elderly woman, seemingly nosy and definitely stubborn, so likable and fascinating?

    Margot--do you know of any great Christie biographies you'd recommend?


  12. Michele - No doubt about it; Christie was a genius in a lot of ways. Lots of people absolutely love Jane Marple; and yet, as you say, she's nosy, determined and you wouldn't think she would come across as likeable. And yet, she does. She's got millions of fans.

    You asked about recommendations for biographies. First, I would suggest reading her autobiography Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. It's quite informative and not at all (or perhaps this is just my impression because I'm a fan) self-serving. I also heartily recommend John Curran's Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years Of Mysteries in the Making. There are other good ones out there, but those are, in my opinion, the best.

  13. Of course I'm familiar with this book - guess why?! Why oh why is my name always used for either old ladies, stick-like spinster headmistresses or Scottish nannies? *sigh*

    Seriously, I've always loved this book. It's a wonderful demonstration of not everything being what it seems - including first impressions.

  14. Elspeth - Well, if it's any comfort, I don't think of you as an old lady, a spinster or a Scottish nanny.

    I agree with you that one of the strong points of this book is that things are not what they seem...

  15. Thank you for this review, Margot.
    This is one of the first books of Agatha Christie that I read, and one which I find new depths to every time I re-read it. Frankly, the plot, though good, is not important. The book is a must read solely for the characters, and how they interact with each other.
    Lucy is of course brilliant, but so is Mrs. McGillicuddy in her seadfast belief that she did see what she says she saw. The daughter had hidden depths. And the two boys are just adorable (also like the French mother who has a walk on part). Doesn't the scatty vicar's wife also have a walk on part, or at least her son's train set?
    And, the way Miss Marple gets the man to confess is one of the most dramatic scenes I've read in a Christie book- didn't even know there was a movie made on the book, but can visualise the whole thing.

    Thanks for yet another brilliant spotlight.

  16. Rayna - *Blush* Thank you! And I agree, the characters in the novel really are absolutely wonderful. Lucy is such a well-drawn character and there are good reasons that she's the "star," but as you say, she's far from the only good character. I, too, like Elspeth McGillicuddy's no-nonsense determination that she saw what she saw. I also liked Emma Crackenthorpe's character, too. As you say, she's got depths and certainly isn't superficial. She's got strength of character, too. And I agree; Alexander Eastley and James Stoddart-West are wonderful characters. They're adorable without being cloying.

    And what a memory you have! Right you are that Griselda, the vicar's wife, has a walk-on. Miss Marple asks her son for maps of trains, as he has a passion for them. She uses the map he gives her to figure out where the body must have fallen.

    And I agree with you completely: the scene in which Miss Marple catches the killer really is quite dramatic and quite, one would have thought, unlike her. And yet, it works. It fits in with the story.

  17. Look who is talking about good memories! The way you trot out names and situations, anyone would think your brain is connected to an external database!!!

    But I am not sure I agree with you on Miss Marple not being dramatic. Sure, most of the times, she liked to stay in the background, but she is prone to the dramatic. Remember how she announces herself as Nemesis in Murder in the Caribbean, and about her dramatic line "with this letter I will bring a murderer to book" (or similar) in Pocketfull of Rye. The old lady had almost as much a sense of the dramatic as did the Belgian.

  18. Ryana - LOL *Blush*. do have a point about Miss Marple doing things with a flair. Perhaps it's because she's not a flamboyant dresser and she has a calm demeanor most of the time that she gives the impression of not being dramatic. But yes, come to think of it, she does come up with those dramatic ideas.

  19. This is one of my favorites, and you've written so well about it. Thanks, as always Margot.