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