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a caribbean mystery

8 may 2024

Miss Marple first appeared in print in 1927. She didn't age perceptibly over the next fifty years, though the world forged ahead around her.

By the 1960s, this temporal warping allows for an odd, piquant counterpoint to the rapidly changing world "Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP," as Philip Larkin put it. Everyone is quite knowing and modern in the Sixties, but for all their reluctance to discuss it, folks in Jane Marple's youth knew quite a lot, too. Except that in her youth, she was already old, we seem to remember. It doesn't bear much thinking about.

And at that, the world of English and American tourists by the seaside, in 1964's A Caribbean Mystery, is scarcely datable, or distinguishable from similar sets back home in the Home Counties, or even in St. Mary Mead itself. There's the clergyman, the rich old eccentric with a mercenary staff, the young energetic hosts, the jaded middle-aged romantic square, the ruminative doctor. It could be the 1920s or the 1990s; it's just the world of the cosy murder mystery.

A garrulous old fellow named Palgrave is about to tell Miss Marple about a murderer of his acquaintance when they're interrupted. Before Palgrave can get back to his story, he's dead. Well, maybe it was blood pressure. But when one of the staff at Miss Marple's hotel is stabbed to death, it's harder to blame on blood pressure. A killer is on the loose, getting ready to kill again. Miss Marple joins forces with the rich old eccentric, and together they use their ample experience of human nature to identify the murderer.

A Caribbean Mystery is a little bit tired, though Miss Marple is as alert as ever. The novel is also a little bit racist: the Black characters are excitable, foolish, and indolent, and they speak in a eye dialect that stereotypes them. Or just perhaps: the novel represents a lot of racism. On the rare couple of occasions when the Black characters are alone, they are reasonable enough. But I don't think there's much progressive in Christie's character-building. She typed her Englishmen abroad as ignorant racists, but she also didn't try to draw fully-human locals of colour.

If A Caribbean Mystery is remarkable for anything, it's in a somewhat postmodern conception of character itself. The suspects are thrown together on holiday, an old staple of the murder mystery. What do any of them really know about one another?

"I mean—how shall I put it—one only knows, doesn't one, what they choose to tell you about themselves … you're really repeating what they told you, aren't you?" (160)

Once admit that you didn't believe a word that anybody had said to you, that nobody could be trusted, and that many of the persons with whom she had conversed here had regrettable resemblances to certain persons at St. Mary Mead, and where did that lead you? (188)
The murderer in A Caribbean Mystery is leading (at least) a double life, but it's hard to see through the impostures when every surface is as plausible as every other. I wasn't expecting existential anomie at the heart of a throwaway potboiler, but I should have been: such is the entire œuvre of Agatha Christie.

Christie, Agatha. A Caribbean Mystery. 1964. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

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