Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Caribbean Mystery

By Agatha Christie Copyright 1964

This mystery story by Agatha Christie features her famous amateur detective, the elderly spinster, Miss Jane Marple. In this story, the clever Miss Marple takes a holiday at a Caribbean resort. It is a classic who-done-it mystery that includes a collection of interesting suspects. The locale is somewhat exotic and the expatriate English characters and their culture are very engaging.

The plot of the book is as follows. Miss Marple is spending much of her time at the beach knitting and observing and conversing with the other guests. One of the guests is a retired army Major who is boring Miss Marple with stories about his past adventures. One of the Major's stories is about a man whose first wife died suspiciously and how this same man's second wife also died. The Major tells Miss Marple he has a picture of this suspected murderer in his wallet. But before he shows her the picture, he appears to notice someone behind Miss Marple. He then quickly puts the picture away and changes the subject. The next day the Major is dead, supposedly of a heart attack.

However, it is soon discovered the Major was actually murdered by poison. Local officials conduct an investigation while Miss Marple conducts her own informal investigation. Her investigation, and the mystery, become more complicated when other murders occur.

The suspects include the holiday resort owners, who are a married couple. The wife appears to be losing her mind, or is at least pretending to lose it. Another suspect is a wealthy elderly business man who has two employees with him, a secretary and a valet. There are two married couples that are apparently friends, but who in fact have very complicated relationships with each other. And finally there is a vicar and his sister.

Miss Marple engages everyone in conversations and makes general observations about life which reveal rather wise insights into human behavior and the nature of the world. For example, Miss Marple tells another character that we only know things about other people which they have told us about themselves. If someone says they are from California or England, we think we "know" they are, when in fact we only have their word for it. Which is an obvious point, but it is also very true.

This book was written in 1964, prior to the media and publishing industries becoming politically correct and obsessed with race. Since this story is set in the Caribbean, it includes several Afro-Caribbean characters. One of the rather interesting aspects of the book is how it treats the issue of race and culture. In the first chapters there are several references that contrast the culture and values of the European characters with the Afro-Caribbean characters. Agatha Christie made no attempt to portray the two cultures as equivalent. The superiority of the European culture over the Afro-Caribbean culture is presented rather matter-of-fact. In one scene a character makes observations about the lack of discipline, work ethic, and sophistication of the Afro-Caribbean characters. In other scenes, readers will notice the European characters express anxiety about the survival of marriages and families, while the Afro-Caribbean characters are implied to have little understanding of the concept of formal marriage and families. The European characters are also presented as taking pride in their professions or skilled occupations, but the Afro-Caribbeans are presented as interested primarily in leisure and obtaining money.

Readers will suspect that if this book had been written in the present day, the European culture and values would have been vilified and the Afro-Caribbean culture and values would be glorified. Although in either case, there seems to be an implication that culture and values are determined by racial differences, rather than a recognition of individuals each choosing their own culture and values.

Irregardless, this is a good book, as are almost all Agatha Christie's mysteries. It is a fine story, well written, and thoroughly enjoyable.

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