Recent Reads, the Vintage Crime Edition – Agatha Christie and Margaret Millar

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

A classic Miss Marple mystery – possibly one of her best, although I’ll let other, more seasoned readers be the judge of that.

The appearance of a most unusual announcement in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette sets the residents of this sleepy rural village all of a flutter.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

Suitably intrigued, various friends of Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, gather together at the cottage at the appointed time later that day. The belief is that some kind of parlour game will take place – the sort of murder mystery where guests adopt various roles, someone gets ‘killed’, and everyone else has to guess the murderer’s identity. However, Letitia herself knows nothing about it. Maybe her cousin, Patrick, also resident at the Paddocks, has arranged it all as a joke? It’s hard to tell…

Just as the clock strikes 6.30 p.m., the lights go out, leaving the drawing-room in complete darkness. The door swings open with a crash; a powerful flashlight is shone around the room; a man’s voice shouts ‘Stick ‘em up, I tell you!’; and a series of three gunshots rings out. When someone flicks open their lighter, it is clear that the intruder – a masked assailant – is dead. Turns out he is known to Letitia, although not very well – a waiter she had encountered while staying at a hotel who subsequently approached her, unsuccessfully, with a sob story for money.

At first, the police are inclined to believe the incident was some kind of botched attempt at burglary. But once Inspector Craddock starts digging around, it seems that theory doesn’t quite add up. Murder is suspected, a crime almost certainly committed by someone attending the gathering on the evening in question. Before long, Miss Marple becomes involved in the case, gently probing the suspects in her own unassuming way. Her technique of subtly dropping ‘innocent’ questions into the conversation is very effective indeed.

As ever with Christie, the characterisation is great, and no one is quite who they might seem at first sight. Living at the Paddocks with Letitia are her cousins, Patrick and Julia, her childhood friend, Dora (a complete scatterbrain), a widow named Philippa, and the German cook, Mitzi, a suspicious/paranoid woman whose family were killed in the war. Among the guests, we have a retired Colonel and his partner, two busybodyish ‘country’ types who share a house together, and a kindly yet forthright vicar’s wife.

I’d quite forgotten how funny Christie can be – she really is very amusing! Here are the two ‘country’ spinsters trying to re-enact the murder to jog their memories of the scene.

‘Tuck your hair up, Murgatroyd, and take this trowel. Pretend it’s a revolver.’

‘Oh,’ said Miss Murgatroyd, nervously.

‘All right. It won’t bite you. Now come along to the kitchen door. You’re going to be the burglar. You stand here. Now you’re going into the kitchen to hold up a lot of nit-wits. Take the torch. Switch it on.’

‘But it’s broad daylight!’

‘Use your imagination, Murgatroyd. Switch it on.’

Miss Murgatroyd did so, rather clumsily, shifting the trowel under one arm while she did so.

‘Now then,’ said Mrs Hinchcliffe, ‘off you go. Remember the time you played Hermia in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream at the Women’s Institute? Act. Give it all you’ve got. “Stick ‘em up!” Those are your lines–and don’t ruin them by saying “Please.”

As a writer, Christie uses dialogue to great effect – not only to move the action forward but to reveal telling insights into character too. It’s very skilfully done.

The mystery itself is supremely well-plotted (surely a given where this author is concerned). Various subtle clues are dropped in along the way, from the significance of names and identities to the importance of little details in the drawing-room layout. The resolution, when it comes, is suitably twisty and satisfying, with Miss Marple’s deductions proving vital to Inspector Craddock’s investigations.

The post-war setting is beautifully evoked too, particularly the sense of a country undergoing social change. Fifteen years earlier, England was a different place, where everyone in the village knew who everyone else was. But in the late 1940s, things seem very different; nobody quite knows who anyone is anymore, especially as so many people effectively ‘disappeared’ during the war, making an individual’s real identity somewhat challenging to verify.

There were people, as he [Inspector Craddock] knew only too well, who were going about the country with borrowed identities—borrowed from people who had met sudden death by ‘incidents’ in the cities. There were organizations who bought up identities, who faked identity and ration cards–there were a hundred small rackets springing into being. You could check up–but it would take time–and time was what he hadn’t got…

A Murder is Announced ticks all the boxes for me, one of those mysteries where everyone is a suspect and longstanding secrets are revealed.

A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar (1960)

This wasn’t quite as satisfying for me, so I’ll aim to keep this summary reasonably brief.

The novel’s premise is an interesting one. Daisy Harker is tormented by a recurring nightmare, a dream in which she comes across a gravestone bearing her name and date of birth. According to the inscription, thirty-year-old Daisy died four years earlier in December 1955. Convinced that something highly significant must have happened on that date, she employs a private detective, Steve Pinata, to help her reconstruct the day as fully as possible. Maybe then she can deal with whatever consequences it throws up and hopefully move on.

Daisy is married, but her relationship with husband Jim is not a happy one. Jim and his controlling mother-in-law, Mrs Fielding (who lives in a cottage 200 yards from the Harkers’ house), treat Daisy like a child, casting her in the role of ‘happy innocent’ – a fact Daisy finds very frustrating. While Jim is somewhat sceptical about the wisdom of Daisy trying to uncover the meaning of her dreams, he plays along with it, just to keep her occupied.

As Pinata begins to investigate Daisy’s movements on the day in question, more information comes to light, bringing other characters into the mix. Perhaps the most notable of these is Daisy’s father, Mr Fielding, something of a drifter and alcoholic who been absent for the last three years.     

For the most part, the central characters are well drawn, particularly Pinata, an orphan whose parentage and family history are largely unknown. (Millar has a longstanding interest in issues of race and gender inequality.) Daisy, however, seems more lightly sketched. She is never much more than a cypher for me – someone to hang the narrative around as opposed to an individual with a real sense of depth. The plot too is rather convoluted. At 300 pp. this mystery could have benefited from a bit of filleting here and there to help keep things pacey and tight.

Millar’s prose, however, is very good. This author can write! Her dialogue is excellent; it’s well-crafted and naturalistic. There are some nice sinister touches along the way too, indications that Jim may be controlling the situation, effectively keeping certain information hidden from Daisy’s view.

I should play along with her, Jim thought. That was Adam’s advice. God knows, my own approach doesn’t work. (p. 74)

If you’re interested in reading Margaret Millar, then I’d suggest you try either Vanish in an Instant or The Listening Walls – both very good. They’re tighter than Stranger, and more satisfying as a result.

A Stranger in My Grave is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

21 thoughts on “Recent Reads, the Vintage Crime Edition – Agatha Christie and Margaret Millar

  1. Brian Joseph

    My wife is a big Agatha Christie fan. I really need to spend some time and dig into het work. Your description of this mystery makes me want to get started.

    Reply
  2. heavenali

    I love that Agatha Christie novel, though it’s a long time since I read it. She can be very funny, and her dialogue is always good. Such a shame that the Margaret Millar was a bit disappointing. I enjoyed Vanish in an Instant, and will read more by her in time. I agree 300 pages seems long for this kind of novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Christie’s a good one, isn’t it? I think I probably read it many, many years ago, back in the days of my youth; but that was far enough in the past for me to come back to it ‘fresh’, without any real memories of the plot or vital clues.

      The Millar was okay, just not as tight as the other Pushkin reissues. I didn’t buy the ending, so there was a credibility issue alongside the overly knotty twists and turns. That’s just how it goes sometimes…maybe I wan’t in the right frame of mind for it.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    So pleased you loved the Christie – it’s one of my favourites, and definitely the Queen of Crime at the top of her game. I think she’s so much better at characterisation than people give her credit for, and I remember loving Mugatroyd and Hinchcliffe! I’ve read it many a time, and oddly for me I think I can actually remember whodunnit!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Hinch and Murgatroyd are great; really well drawn in ways that make it easy fr the reader to picture them in their mind. And poor old Dora Bunner, too; she gets into such a muddle about everything. Funnily enough, it was one of her slips that put me onto the identity of the murderer in the end!

      Reply
  4. Jane

    I went through one of those Agatha Christie moments years ago when I just lapped them up and I haven’t been back since, I really should. I love the passage you’ve quoted between Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, both funny and endearing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I read whole bunch of her books back in the days of my youth, mostly because they were so entertaining and readily available at the local library. It’s a great passage, isn’t it? That scene where they try to re-enact the murder is quite significant, both funny and revealing! I thoroughly enjoyed my little return to the world of Christie after all these years.

      Reply
  5. buriedinprint

    I should probably give Christie another try. At one point, I was so serious about the idea of reading through her mysteries, but I didn’t love the first two Poirots and just never troubled to return to the project, even though I never clearly decided against it either (with too many projects underway, it’s easy to let some of them linger until they’re stale and nearly forgotten). Really, I likely just need to better situate them historically and try again.

    That Millar novel, I know I’ve read it and I think I remember it. For some reason, a cemetery scene is sticking in my mind. Certainly I remember the not-quite feeling you’ve described. The aspect that I do remember enjoying (if I’m placing the plot correctly) was the commentary on marriage, which was interesting to compare/contrast with some of the other marriages in her other mysteries.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Poirots are probably my least favourite of Christie’s franchises, I have to admit! There’s something about him as a character, but I’d have to reread a few to give a more precise view on that. Miss Marple is an old favourite though, and it was lovely to return to something comforting and familiar in these uncertain times.

      As far Millar, I agree she’s very perceptive on the nuances of marriages and family relationships. I liked the stuff about Jim and Daisy’s marriage here, but the plot and denouement not so much. It just felt too much of a stretch at the critical points; beyond the boundaries of credibility if that makes sense.

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    It’s many year since I read any Christie. A few years ago I revisited Dorothy Sayers and found it had lost all its charm for me, and I’m afraid that Christie would fair the same.

    Reply
  7. chita

    I grew up with Agatha Christie mysteries (thanks to my dad) and was horrified when my reader husband had never read any of her works! I told him to read ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ and he absolutely loved it. He found it funny and was pleasantly surprised by the plot twist. I felt like a winner after. Haha. He hasn’t been introduced to Miss Marple (she’s my absolute favourite) and I’m trying to choose her best case. So hard!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How funny! Roger Ackroyd was our book group choice for May, and everybody loved it – even the members who don’t usually read crime fiction as a rule. I think it’s a bit like True Grit by Charles Portis – a Western for people who think they don’t like Westerns.

      I’m glad your husband liked the Poirot. Good luck with the Marple – I hoe that proves to be a similar success

      Reply
      1. chita

        Ah I see, glad more people are getting to know Christie! I guess how the story represented in this book is a bit unusual from the classic template of cosy detective stories and that might have taken new readers by surprise. And thank you, I hope he’ll love Miss Marple too. :)

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Indeed. *****Spoiliers*****

          I think Roger Ackroyd was one of the first examples of the use of an unreliable narrator in crime fiction, so it was a really interesting book to explore from that perspective. We had a great discussion about it!

          Reply
  8. Liz Dexter

    Ali and my friend Gill is reading through all of Agatha Christie in order and it’s bringing back some lovely memories, even though I haven’t read her in decades. Two good reviews, I suspect the second one suffered in comparison!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, at first I thought that might the case too…but then again, I’d read the Millar before the Christie and had been a bit disappointed in it back then. The credibility issues towards the end definitely didn’t help!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. moira @ clothes in books

    Two of my favourite crime authors, and great reviews of both. I love Murder is Announced, it is one of my favourite Christies. Many people pick Stranger in my Grave as a favourite Margaret Millar, but – like you – there are others I like better. There is a certain kind of twist she does remarkably well. And – nice short books!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoy these writers, too. I really wanted to like the Millar more than I did, but it just felt too convoluted in the end, especially compared to some of her others. The ‘resolution’ didn’t quite pass the credibility test for me, and that undermined my faith in the book as a whole. Still, she’s a good writer, and I’m definitely open to trying more by her in the future.

      Reply

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