The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Body in the Library (1942)

The Body in the LibraryIn which the body of an unknown young woman is found in the library of Arthur and Dolly Bantry’s home, so, naturally, Mrs Bantry doesn’t hesitate to tell her old friend Miss Jane Marple. Several police from a number of forces lend a hand in identifying the culprit, but it is Miss Marple who, as always, follows her unique suspicions to get to the truth. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Bodies in a libraryThe book is dedicated to “my friend Nan.” This was Nan Kon, formerly Nan Pollock, née Nan Watts, whom Agatha Christie knew since they were children and whose friendship remained strong throughout their lives. The Body in the Library was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in seven parts in May and June 1941. The full book was first published in the US in February 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in May the same year. Unusually, the publication in America preceded the publication in the UK.

Majestic HotelI could only remember a little of the story; primarily the opening scene, which Christie herself described as “The best opening I ever wrote”, and some of the scenes at the Majestic Hotel – mainly those involving the professional dancers. Therefore, much of the book came fresh and new to me on this re-reading. And I’m pleased to say it’s pretty good! It’s hugely more entertaining than the dire N or M? which Christie was writing at the same time. There are some entertaining characters, nicely written scenes, enjoyable police banter, and a brief but surprise-packed denouement which contains bombshell after bombshell. Also, unlike N or M?, there is no reference at all to the war going on. This is a timeless tale that could have happened anywhere, anytime.

Old bootsAnd we get re-acquainted with St Mary Mead, and its most famous inhabitant. Arthur and Dolly Bantry, Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, Mrs Price Ridley, and the Reverend and Mrs Clement are also all still in place, twelve years after we met them in The Murder at the Vicarage, and some of them also appeared in The Thirteen Problems. Colonel Melchett is still Chief Constable, with the irascible Inspector Slack at his heels. Even though she’s absent for a lot of the book, this is undoubtedly one of Miss Marple’s Greatest Hits, were she to record that rather dubious album! We learn a lot more about her style and her Modus Operandi; she is ridiculed and insulted, and people talk about her behind her back; she comes up with some very wise insights; and when push comes to shove she’s as resilient as old boots.

HagDespite the fact that Miss Marple is very senior in years – “a bit funny in the head”, suggests Josephine – the police hold her in high regard. Melchett welcomes her wherever she goes because of her genius in Murder at the Vicarage, and Sir Henry Clithering, ex-Scotland Yard, convinces his friend Conway Jefferson that she brings to the table more than mere “women’s intuition”. “Specialised knowledge is her claim”, he says; “we use it in police work. We get a burglary and we usually know pretty well who did it – of the regular crowd, that is. We know the sort of burglar who acts in a particular sort of way. Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life.” Not everyone holds her in that high esteem though; during the first series of accusations at the end of the book, one of the suspects tells her: “be quiet, you old hag”. Well. That’s not very nice, is it?

trustMiss Marple tells us that she knows who the murderer is long before the police have an inkling, and at least 35 pages before the denouement. She convinces the police to allow a trap to be set in order to catch the killer – which is a degree of trust that Poirot could only dream of. Does Miss Marple have an additional skill that the others don’t? Clithering, Harper and Melchett all want to know the same thing. Her response: “I’m afraid you’ll think my “methods”, as Sir Henry calls them, are terribly amateurish. The truth is, you see, that most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself […] In this case […] certain things were taken for granted from the first – instead of just confining oneself to the facts…” She’s very wise.

level headedMiss Marple has another observation that she makes during a conversation with Dolly Bantry, Mark Gaskell, Adelaide Jefferson and Sir Henry. ““Gentlemen,” she said with her old-maid’s way of referring to the opposite sex as though it were a species of wild animal, “are frequently not as level-headed as they seem.”” That certainly seems an apt description for Conway Jefferson.

butlerBecause the crime is investigated by officers from more than one county – due to the various remote locations of the action – Christie allows us to watch some very entertaining interaction between police officers. Melchett, as we already know, is something of a bully and miserable so-and-so, liable to lose his temper and with a tendency towards impatience. His interrogation of the wheedling George Bartlett, for example, would certainly fail PACE rules today. But how does he get on with his fellow officer Inspector Slack? Not well! Consider when Slack is telling Melchett about his questioning the staff at Gossington Hall, including Lorrimer, the butler: “”they all seemed very shocked and upset. I had my suspicions of Lorrimer – reticent, he was, if you know what I mean – but I don’t think there’s anything in it”. Melchett nodded. He attached no importance to Lorrimer’s reticence. The energetic Inspector Slack often produced that effect on people he interrogated.”

Make upChristie is at pains to point out how Melchett can’t get on with Slack’s vigour. “The diligent Inspector Slack slid across to his superior officer a page torn from his notebook […] Melchett looked up and met the Inspector’s eye. The Chief Constable flushed. Slack was an industrious and zealous officer and Melchett disliked him a good deal.” On another occasion, Melchett is nonplussed by the amount of make-up and lotions on Josie’s dressing table. “”Do you mean to say?” he murmured feebly, “that women use all these things?” Inspector Slack, who always knew everything, kindly enlightened him.”

Make upAnd what about Melchett and Harper, the superintendent from another county? Again you get the sense of some tension. They’re trying to work out how the body got into the library: “”oh, yes, Harper, it’s all perfectly possible. But there’s still one thing to be done. Cherchez l’homme.” “What? Oh, very good, sir.” Superintendent Harper tactfully applauded his superior’s joke, although, owing to the excellence of Colonel Melchett’s French accent, he almost missed the sense of the words.” This implies that class difference might well cause some uncomfortable moments between them. Class is, of course, one Christie’s favourite topics, as we will see later!

Upper ClassAt least Constable Palk knows his social status; here’s what happens when Mrs Bantry tries to show Miss Marple the library: “She led the way rapidly along the long corridor to the east of the house. Outside the library door Constable Palk stood on guard. He intercepted Mrs Bantry with a show of authority. “I’m afraid nobody is allowed in, madam. Inspector’s orders.” “Nonsense, Palk,” said Mrs Bantry. “You know Miss Marple perfectly well.” Constable Palk admitted to knowing Miss Marple. “It’s very important that she should see the body,” said Mrs Bantry. “Don’t be stupid, Palk. After all, it’s my library, isn’t it?” Constable Palk gave way. His habit of giving in to the gentry was lifelong. The Inspector, he reflected, need never know about it.”

St Johns WoodThis is one of Christie’s better-written books, with some nice observations and amusingly creative passages. There’s an entertainingly bizarre conversation between the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley and the mild Reverend Clement where the former is clearly starting to spread rumours about Colonel Bantry, taking the making of mountains out of molehills to a fine art: ““No wonder you can’t believe it! I couldn’t at first. The hypocrisy of the man! All these years! […] oh, dear vicar, you are so unworldly! […] last Thursday […] I was going up to London by the cheap day train. Colonel Bantry was in the same carriage. He looked, I thought, very abstracted. And nearly the whole way he buried himself behind The Times. As though, you know, he didn’t want to talk.” The vicar nodded with complete comprehension and possible sympathy. “At Paddington I said goodbye. He had offered to get me a taxi, but I was taking the bus down to Oxford Street – but he got into one, and I distinctly heard him tell the driver to go to – where do you think? […] an address in St John’s Wood!” Mrs Price Ridley paused triumphantly. The vicar remained completely unenlightened. “That, I consider, proves it”, said Mrs Price Ridley.”

libraryWhen it’s become obvious that Colonel Bantry has been shunned by the local community because of his implied involvement in the crime, there’s a heart-warming sequence where his wife Dolly stands by his side. She’s so distracted that she cuts up her gloves as she listens in fury to the way he has been treated during her absence. But she encourages him to face the challenge directly when she suggests they spend the evening in the library: “her steady eye met his. Colonel Bantry drew himself up to his full height. A sparkle came into his eye. He said: “You’re right, my dear. We’ll sit in the library!”” A simple act of assertiveness that you know will put him back on track.

Dorothy L SayersWhilst thinking about Christie’s style with this book, I enjoyed the two tongue-in-cheek moments when she drew herself into the story; one obvious, one hinted. “Mark Gaskell looked at Miss Marple in a somewhat puzzled fashion. He said doubtfully: “Do you – er – write detective stories?” The most unlikely people, he knew, wrote detective stories. And Miss Marple, in her old-fashioned spinster’s clothes, looked a singularly unlikely person. “Oh, no, I’m not clever enough for that.”” And when young Peter Carmody enthusiastically tries to help the police, he offers: “do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy L Sayers, and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H C Bailey.” Cheeky Mrs Christie! Dorothy L Sayers is of course still well known as the writer of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. But Dickson Carr and H C Bailey are not so well known today. Dickson Carr was an American, whose most popular fictional detectives were Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. He died in 1977. H C Bailey created a medical detective, Doctor Reggie Fortune. He died in 1961.

DevonshireRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Nearly all the places in this book are in the locale of either St Mary Mead, or the Majestic Hotel in Danemouth. I can safely say that the only place that isn’t an invention of Christie’s is Devonshire, where Raymond Starr says he originates. Everywhere else – including Stane and Alsmonston in Devon, is fictional.

Brighton Trunk MurdersLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. At the beginning, Dolly Bantry is reading The Clue of the Broken Match, featuring ace detective Lord Edgbaston; sadly, although it sounds like a thrilling read, it doesn’t exist. Miss Marple refers to the Cheviot Murderer; this probably refers to a case back in 1896 in Ohio. She also brings up the Brighton trunk murders, two murders linked to Brighton, in 1934, in which the body of a murdered woman was placed in a trunk. Miss Marple is clearly well read in her true crime stories.

Alfred RouseGeorge Bartlett drives a Minoan 14, a very common car so that its presence in any car park or location would not stand out. Interestingly, this seems to be a completely fictitious model! I can’t find any reference to them apart from featuring in this novel. Superintendent Harper, on hearing of the burnt-out car, mentions Alfred Arthur Rouse, who was known as the Blazing Car Murderer, convicted and subsequently hanged in Bedford for the November 1930 murder of an unknown man in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire.

CophetuaMiss Marple likens Mr Jefferson to King Cophetua, who famously fell in love with a beggar-maid and together they lived “happily ever after” as the phrase goes. Copethua is a much-quoted figure in literature. Mark Gaskell also makes a quote, singing “but she is dead and in her grave, and oh the difference to me!” Christie has used this quote before, in Sad Cypress. This is from Wordsworth’s poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount Conway Jefferson has announced will be left to Ruby Keene. The amount left for Mark and Addie to scramble over would be in the region of £5-10,000. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.6 million; and the remainder to be shared between Mark and Addie equates to £165,000-300,000. So they’re all quite substantial sums.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Body in the Library:

Publication Details: 1942. Pan paperback, 3rd printing of the new edition, published in 1982. The cover illustration shows a woman’s legs lying on a fluffy rug, feet in extravagantly showy sandals; a rather salacious aspect of one part of the story. This edition omits Christie’s original foreword.

How many pages until the first death: 2. Straight in there. Wham bam, thank you Ma’am.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly absent.

Memorable characters:

There’s a charming relationship between Arthur and Dolly Bantry, which is poignantly written and gently amusing. The clashes between the policemen, especially Melchett and Slack, are also very enjoyable. In fact, in many ways, Melchett is probably the most memorable character in this book. The Jefferson family and their hangers-on are generally quite bland. Young Peter is quite a jolly lad though!

Christie the Poison expert:

Very little reference to anything to do with poison, as the murders are due to strangulation and being burnt alive in a car crash. However, a planned final murder, which does not take place, involves a syringe of digitalin, a poisonous mixture of digitalis glycosides, extracted from the leaves or seeds of the common foxglove.

Class/social issues of the time:

Two or three of Christie’s usual bêtes-noir crop up. Firstly, class. I’ve already mentioned how Constable Palk is prepared to disobey orders because he’s dealing with his social superiors. Much is made of how the character of the dead girl is clearly from a lower class. Everyone is critical of her cheap, trashy clothing, and of her bitten nails; in fact, no one is more critical than Miss Marple herself: “The sensible thing to do would be to change into trousers and a pullover, or into tweeds. That, of course (I don’t want to be snobbish, but I’m afraid it’s unavoidable), that’s what a girl of – of our class would do. A well-bred girl […] is always very particular to wear the right clothes for the right occasion […] Ruby, of course, wasn’t – well, to put it bluntly – Ruby wasn’t a lady. She belonged to the class that wear their best clothes however unsuitable to the occasion.” Ruby’s dress had already reminded Miss Marple of “Mrs Chetty’s youngest […] Edie was fond of what I call cheap finery too.” Mrs Bantry chips in with the remark “I know. One of those nasty little shops where everything is a guinea.” I have to point out, Mrs Bantry, that 76 years later we still have pound-shops; and in fact, a guinea in 1942 is worth £35 today. So, I think we know precisely the kind of shop to which Mrs Bantry objected.

As usual, we have one or two xenophobic remarks; Hugo McLean refers to exhibition dancer Raymond Starr as looking like a “dago”. No wonder Raymond explains why he changed his name from Ramon: “Ramon was my original professional name. Ramon and Josie – Spanish effect, you know. Then there was rather a prejudice against foreigners – so I became Raymond – very British”. But Sir Henry’s face lights up when he says he comes from a good Devonshire family, instantly changing his opinion of him. Sir Henry ought to know better.

Christie has an uneasy relationship with the notion of feminism. Most of the time, she’s devoutly against it; occasionally, she sees it may have some justification. In this book, I found one telling phrase that I thought suggested a social awakening. Colonel Melchett is interviewing Josie to find out how it was that Ruby started working at the Majestic. ““I do a couple of exhibition dances every evening with Raymond […] as it happens, this summer I slipped on the rocks bathing one day and gave my ankle a nasty turn […] naturally that put the stop to dancing for a bit and it was rather awkward. I didn’t want the hotel to get someone else in my place. That’s always a danger” – for a minute her good-natured blue eyes were hard and sharp; she was the female fighting for existence.” Female fighting for existence; a recognition of the difficulties a woman faced in the world of employment.

There’s one more curious aspect to the social issues of the time, that of marriage, and of couples being suspected of not being married, who are, and vice versa. I won’t go into much more detail on that one as it’s too spoilerish, but it’s an interesting elaboration that shows just how important perception can be over the truth.

Classic denouement: For me, the classic denouement is one where all the suspects are lined up in a room and the detective slowly goes through all the possibilities, lays a suspicious eye on a few people who object outrageously, and then finally accuses one, otherwise unsuspected, person of the crime, who then furiously retaliates in either fight or flight. From that point of view, this isn’t a classic denouement. However, it is a superb ending to the book, with a number of truly surprising revelations left right to the very last minute. Even when the murderer is about to strike a third time, Christie calls an end to the chapter without revealing their name. And when Miss Marple goes through the assumptions that we’ve all made throughout the book, our collective jaws drop in amazement.

Happy ending? Moderately so. Someone who desperately needs a cash boost gets one, and wedding bells are in the offing for one couple; however, that also means that another person misses out.

Did the story ring true? Yes! Unusually, this crime seems perfectly believable, including the activities of third parties who were not directly involved in it, but whose actions affected it.

Overall satisfaction rating: Good characters, good story-telling, a believable (albeit contorted) plotline and a humdinger of an ending. It just sags a little for me during the middle, otherwise I’d have given it top points. 9/10.

Five Little PigsThanks for reading my blog of The Body in the Library and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Five Little Pigs, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot to sort out which of five possible suspects is the killer. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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