The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side by Agatha Christie

MirrorTime has moved on in St Mary Mead. Gossington Hall, once home to Colonel and Dolly Bantry (and once having a Body in its Library) has been sold to Marina Gregg, the much-married movie star. While hosting a drinks party to meet the important people of the area, and some less important people such as Heather Badcock, Marina freezes, looking utterly horrified, like, so Dolly Bantry suggests, The Lady Of Shallot.

“Out flew the web and floated wide-

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Soon afterwards, Heather drops dead, poisoned after drinking from a glass destined for Marina herself. As the murder attempts continue and more deaths follow, it’s a good thing one thing hasn’t changed in St Mary Mead. There’s still a little old lady who knows one or two things about murder – if her carer will let her out of the house, that is…

One of the most popular posts on my blog is the Miss Marple Top Five – a list where this book doesn’t even get a mention. There’s a reason for this – my abiding memory of the first time that I read this one is that the central plot was a rehash of at least one other Christie novel that I had previously read. And as I’d read the other two books, this one failed to make an impression.

So, my second review in a row where I call my younger self an utter idiot.

This is a rather wonderful example of Christie’s writing. Not just her plotting, where she dangles countless clues to the truth of the matter under the reader’s nose, but in her characterisation as well. There’s a lot more Miss Marple than you usually get in one of her books, and her battle against the infirmity of encroaching old age is rather charming. Her non-antagonistic relationship with Chief Inspector Craddock (rather oddly referred to by his forename Dermot far too often) is rather sweet as well.

It’s rather odd that the next book she wrote after this was the deeply dull The Clocks, as this is one of the most readable of all of her mysteries. You could make a case that she could have developed some of the non-guilty parties a little more, and, as I said, the trick is an old one, but those are minor niggles. In fact, of the eight Marples re-read and reviewed to date, this is probably the best so far. Highly Recommended.

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18 comments

  1. I haven;t re-read this since my teens and my reaction at the time was pretty much the same as yours – it was one of the few, as I recall, where I guessed the ending too – but now you make me think i need to revisit this – but I’ve got some remedial Carr reading before this one (just as soon as HINGE shows up) 🙂

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  2. I regard this novel as brilliant. I would definitely put this in my Miss Marple Top 5.
    Incidentally, the story is based on a real-life tragedy.

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    • Thanks for the info, Santosh. Just read about this on Wikipedia – don’t check it if you haven’t read the book yet. Apparently the entire motive is lifted exactly from an event from actress Gene Tierney’s life. Now I do have a reservation about the book – the woman suffered a tragedy in her life and less than 20 years later, someone puts it verbatim into a mystery novel. Tacky.

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  3. It’s hard to know how to judge this one. Taken as a standalone book away from the context of Christie’s other output, and ignoring for the moment the appropriation of personal tragedy, it really is pretty good. It’s got some of her strongest writing and best observation about changes to village life, which is the best feature of the Marples. The weakest point to my mind is the Lady of Shalott angle, which seems shoehorned in for the sake of the title.

    (You could easily keep the great puzzle of the stare without bringing in Tennyson, which requires a lot of explaining and doesn’t even make much sense. How is it like the Lady of Shalott, except that Dolly Bantry says so? There’s nothing about staring in the poem, and Marina Gregg’s tragedy isn’t anything like the Lady of Shalott in any other ways, except the rather facile connection of her being beautiful and rather isolated. It feels like trying to force thematic depth where there is none, which is a shame because it actually is a tragedy (tacky appropriation or not) and with a better choice of allusion Christie could have done something very clever).

    Anyway, that’s a minor quibble. Taken on it’s own its a solid clash of two cultures murder mystery pulled off with a lot of flair.

    But can you divorce it from the rest of Christie’s books? If this was the first or only time she’d pulled this trick it would be brilliant, but by my count this was the 6th time in the novels (9th if you broaden the criteria slightly). Heck, there’s even a Miss Marple with the same basic idea a few books before! And unlike other Christie standards, there’s hardly any variation to the basic structure when she pulls this trick. It’s just brazen recycling, and I think the book suffers a lot for it.

    (Also, isn’t Inspector Craddock Henry Clithering’s nephew or godson or something? That might explain why Miss Marple is on such familiar terms with him.)

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    • Good point about the Lady Of Shallot – it does give Miss Marple the closing line as well, although that only really has effect if the reader is familiar with the poem.

      I only count two obvious uses of the trick before this (although there are some non-series that I haven’t read) – maybe three if you stretch it – but knowing this was the sort of thing that Christie might do makes it very easy to spot here. You could make a case that she uses the “only one person couldn’t have done it” trick even more often, but you’re right, this one is more specific. Each of the books that I’m thinking of works well in its own right, but I think I spotted all three the first time through, having read what I consider the most obvious one first.

      And it’s the third person narrations use of Dermot which is odd, not Miss Marple. He’s often described as Dermot when he’s interviewing suspects!

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  4. I look forward to reading this book. I have two more Miss Marple books to read before I get to this one, and I will probably read a Poirot and a Tommy and Tuppence and a stand alone in between too, so I guess it will be a while. But thanks for this review.

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