by Catriona Mills

Puzzles in Agatha Christie, Part One

Posted 18 November 2008 in by Catriona

And by puzzles, I mean unanswered questions—the sort of questions that would help fuel a Jasper Fforde novel set in the 1920s, or would provide fuel for John Sutherland if he abandoned the Victorian puzzles for Edwardian ones.

I’ve been re-reading a couple of neglected Agatha Christies while I’ve been marking, ones that I rarely re-read but which intrigue me slightly. And, for some reason, my brain’s been punctuating the reading with a series of “But whys?”

(Actually, that’s probably because, since all the courses I teach focus heavily on sentence-level writing, I spend the semester saying, “But why? Yes, you’re quite right: that does need a comma. But why?” I’m clearly not out of teaching mode quite yet.)

I meant to write this up as a single post, but the more I jotted down, the more I remembered. This, then, is the beginning of a short series of puzzles in Agatha Christie.

So here they are, in no particular order. I don’t have any answers to these, but I’m hoping someone, somewhere does, if the questions aren’t unanswerable.

Be warned: I’m not sure I can go into all these puzzles without spoilers, if anything said about an Agatha Christie novel can really be said to be a spoiler: I think even her last novels are my age.

1. Who does Lucy Eyelesbarrow marry? (4.50 From Paddington, 1957)

Lucy Eyelesbarrow is the one-off sleuth, working in conjunction with Miss Marple, in 4.50 From Paddington. With a degree in mathematics from an ancient seat of learning, she’s making her living as a “domestician,” exploiting the simultaneous shortage of domestic servants and the excess of people who grew up expecting there to be domestic servants, and she makes a fortune doing so.

Miss Marple makes her acquaintance prior to the book when Lucy is hired by Raymond West to care for his aunt as she recuperates from pneumonia: in this novel, she hires Lucy to locate a dead body.

Lucy is a fascinating character: a thoroughly modern counterpart to Miss Marple.

She’s also likely to marry one of the characters in the novel, but we never find out who she chooses. The house in which she works contains three people who either explicitly propose to her or seem likely to: the elderly Luther Crackenthorpe; his second son, the painter Cedric Crackenthorpe; and Luther’s son-in-law (husband to his dead daughter, Edith), the former fighter pilot Brian Eastley.

(Alfred Crackenthorpe, who also proposes to Lucy, is no longer in the running by the end of the book.)

Luther seems an unlikely choice but, Christie makes clear, Lucy is strongly attracted to both Cedric and Brian. The situation is not resolved in the book but, in the final section, Dermot Craddock—the Scotland Yard detective in charge of the case (as well as two others involving Miss Marple)—wonders aloud whom Lucy will marry: Miss Marple asks, “Don’t you know?” and twinkles at him.

Well, I don’t know. And I’d like to: I’m the sort of person who likes text at the end of a movie, telling me that everyone lived happily ever after.

And is Dermot himself in the running? Certainly, the recent BBC adaptation showed him as the successful suitor. There are, perhaps, hints in retrospect that he was attracted to Lucy, though I’m not certain I read their interactions in that fashion prior to seeing the adaptation. And Miss Marple’s final comment is rather pointed, though the fact that Craddock asks in the first place suggests he isn’t one of the hopeful men.

I’d be quite happy to conclude that Lucy married Dermot Craddock, though; I was always sorry not to see her again in later books and at least this way she’d be floating around invisibly in the back story.

2. How old is Lady Ravenscroft? (Elephants Can Remember, 1972)

In Elephants Can Remember, Poirot, with the assistance of Ariadne Oliver, investigates a crime some twelve or fifteen years old: the apparent double suicide of Sir Alistair and Lady Ravenscroft, the latter an old friend of Mrs Oliver’s from their schooldays.

In an early account of the crime, we’re told that Sir Alistair was approaching sixty at the time of his death and Lady Ravenscroft (Molly) was thirty-five.

When I first read that, I assumed it was simply an error, that the couple had been closer in age. Yet Molly’s age in reiterated later in the book as being thirty-five or, perhaps, closer to thirty-six.

The more it’s reiterated, though, the less plausible it sounds to me.

Certainly, there’s nothing implausible about an age difference of some twenty-five years. But it doesn’t seem to fit with the character of the relationship, which is described as mellowed, calm, sedate—an old, established marriage.

True, the Ravenscrofts have been married some years: they have a school-age son and a slightly older daughter who, since she is twenty-six when the suicide is being investigated, would have been about thirteen when it occurred. That certainly fits with Molly’s age, though the marriage is described as though it were one of some forty years’ duration, not fifteen.

But then there’s Molly herself. We’re told she’s rather vain and spends an enormous amount of her private income on clothes.

Fair enough. Vanity is not limited to relative youth.

We’re simultaneously told, however, that she wears a wig with gray streaks.

(Minor spoiler: the wig is, it is revealed, actually worn by another woman. But, since it is worn with a view to making a woman Molly’s age look much more like Molly, I think my coming point is valid.)

A wig streaked with gray does not, to me, sound like something a rather vain thirty-five-year-old woman would wear. It seems to belong to an older woman, a woman closer to her husband’s age.

From the information given, we’d have to accept Molly’s age as thirty-five. But it seems to me her marriage and her wig both belong to an older woman.

Share your thoughts [5]

1

Tim wrote at Nov 24, 01:22 PM

> Certainly, the recent BBC adaptation showed him as the successful suitor.

In the 1987 version, however, Miss Marple (Joan Hickson) predicts that Lucy will marry Brian.

As for Elephants Can Remember, it’s one of the very late Christies, and they tend to be poorly constructed.

2

Catriona wrote at Nov 24, 01:40 PM

The later ones tend to repeat the motifs and plots of the earlier ones, too.

Brian would be, I’d say, the frontrunner. The possibility of her marrying him is addressed more fully in the novel, with her conversation with his son Alexander, and she has more direct interactions with Brian—Cedric, it’s suggested, has a sort of magnetic attraction for women, but otherwise he just seems to irritate her.

But Brian doesn’t seem satisfactory to me. He’s a little irritating, whether because at this distance I simply can’t relate to that “fighter pilot frustrated by peace-time” type of character or whether he’s simply poorly realised, I don’t know.

3

Tim wrote at Nov 24, 02:24 PM

Brian is a bit of a dill, but he was my pick when I first read it.

4

Catriona wrote at Nov 24, 09:39 PM

Well, I suppose Christie seems to have a strong belief that, for some types of women, the desire for marriage is almost equally a maternal instinct, by which I mean an expression of (in part) a maternal impulse towards the intended husband, not a desire for children: there’s David Lee’s wife Hilda in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (though she’s rather a reluctant example of the breed), Timothy Abernethy’s wife Maude in After The Funeral, and a much more modern version (detected by Poirot’s keen eye under all the make-up and modern clothes) in one of the alleged murderer’s suitors in Mrs McGinty’s Dead—all these women content to baby their husbands! Actually, even actively keeping their husbands infantile, in some cases. It’s almost disturbing.

I wouldn’t say Lucy goes that far, but perhaps she does have a maternal streak—otherwise, the excitement of Brian following you around like a faithful hound and being melancholic about old kitchens would rapidly wane, I would suspect.

5

Deidre wrote at Dec 21, 02:45 AM

I took it for granted that Lucy married Dermot. None of the others seemed attractive at all, and at the end, why would Miss Marple “twinkle” at him? It seemed obvious to me…

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