#74: “Old people know how valuable life is, and how interesting…”, portrayals of age in Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

Agatha Christie was 74 years old when she published her ninth Miss Marple novel, A Caribbean Mystery, by which time – as I said in my review of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side – she would have known a lot about the procedures of ageing.  There were still 13 books to come from her pen (well, 11 really, since the final Marple and Poirot books had famously been written some years previously) and this belief in her own abilities is echoed in the treatment of her beloved elderly spinster as, in spite of the infirmities she suffers and the attitude others take towards her, she continues to outfox murders left, right, and centre.

Christie, of course, had less to prove by now than she would have done in her younger days and so this isn’t a “We’ve Still Got It” Oldies v. Whippersnappers cage match – the Clint Eastwood movie Space Cowboys comes to mind, and can thankfully be dismissed – but is instead a moderately elegiac reflection on old age, youth, and the folly of both (contrast it with the far earlier Partners in Crime, where Bright Young Things Tommy and Tuppence prove their worth at a range of investigative styles).  And since I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk for a few weeks now (which I promise I’ll not mention again) I thought I’d try a bit of a textual analysis on this theme to see if it got me anything interesting.

ACM highlightedAunt Jane and Poirot both started out old, of course, and there’s no sense of how much time has passed between books or even where this falls in the canon, but there are enough early references to attitudes towards sex in society, to ‘modern novels’, and the social acceptance of ‘queers’ (used in both senses in the book, but at this stage undoubtedly a reference to sexuality) that it’s safe to assume it is set fairly contemporary to its publication.  And it is undoubtedly a reflection on ageing from the very first introduction of ‘Old Miss Marple’ to its really rather moving – yes, moving, dammit – final page.  I have no desire to go too deeply into the specifics of the plot – I’ll not be naming the murderer, or even talking too greatly in detail about what happens – but it may be worth considering that there is going to be a fair amount of direct reference to other aspects of the book and so you may wish to hold off on this until you’ve read it yourself.  I don’t think of any of what follows as spoilers, more just sort of…details you’re better experiencing in context.  Er, think up your own catchy name for that.

Arguably there are three aspects of referencing age that are going on here: the perception of the elderly, the reality of the elderly, and the perception and reality of the ‘young’ (loosely defined herein as ‘in your twenties and thirties’).  The first is covered by not just Old Miss Marple – “At my age, you know, one feels very useless in the world” – but also Canon Prescott and his sister Joan, and the crotchety, sharp-tongued ‘Old Mr. Rafiel’ who:

[I]n beach attire was incredibly desiccated, his bones draped with festoons of dry skin.  Though looking like a man on the point of death, he had looked exactly the same for at least the last eight years… Sharp blue eyes peered out of his wrinkled cheeks, and his principal pleasure in life was denying robustly anything that anyone else said.

In a way these four represent the broad strokes of the process of ageing.  Miss Marple, of course, plays up to this deliberately – of which more later – but at the same time is unable to remember if something she says ‘was a quotation, or whether she had made it up’.  She is the kindly old lady, given to twittering and going pink at the drop of a hat.  The Canon takes time out to entertain and mediate for the children on the beach, but comes back breathless and worn out, in which time his sister has been free to gossip ‘avidly’ having been ‘frustrated, irritated, and quite unrepentant’ when rebuked by her brother for doing so earlier, possessing that streak of vehemence that delights in the affairs of others (as well as having ‘skin like a plucked chicken’).  And then Mr. Rafiel turns out to be far and away the most interesting of the lot of them: starting off obstreperously brow-beating his valet Jackson and his secretary Esther Walters, bemoaning the presence of old ladies in the Caribbean when they’d be “quite happy” in Bournemouth or Torquay, and pegged quickly as one who would not care for ‘the idle twittering conversation of old ladies’ but then showing a wider, more compassionate side as things progress.

It is Mr. Rafiel who bears the most scrutiny when regarding Christie’s treatment of the elderly in this book.  We know Aunt Jane will be sharper and keener of mind than the rest of them, but the utilisation of Mr. Rafiel takes a potential antagonist – a man for whom we don’t feel a great deal of sympathy when he moves the youthful, vain, arrogant Señora de Caspearo to declare “How ugly are old men!  Oh how they are ugly!  They should all be put to death at forty, or perhaps thirty-five would be better” – and turns him from rebuking Miss Marple for listening to ‘tittle-tattle’ into an unexpected ally come the close, a man with a ‘great will to live’ who is the first to realise he has been wrong in the assumptions made about Miss Marple and injects more than a little wryness into his frustration at their limitations when it comes to solving the murders:

We you say?  What do you think I can do about it?  I can’t even walk without help.  How can you and I set about preventing a murder?  You’re about a hundred and I’m a broken-up old crock.”

ACM firstAnd yet we know they can do something, because parallel to this catalogue of the indignities of old age runs the seam of how these perceptions are played up to in order to give a misleading impression of what these old folk can do.  Awareness of her limitations here – “They would say that I was an old lady imagining things” – in no way prevents Miss Marple from turning it to her advantage because people would suspect nothing of her: ‘She had one weapon and one weapon only,’ we are told early on, ‘and that was conversation’.  Of course, she also has a broken shoe and a kindly nature and a ‘gentle charity’ bestowed on everyone that leads someone to their doom.  While Mr. Rafiel is exemplified by the observation that ‘he was a law unto himself and people accepted him as such’, it’s hardly less true of Miss Marple – never before has the ability to sit and knit been exploited so ruthlessly.

And, of course, a set of assumptions based on age are key to the Major’s murder, playing into this notion of how something can be assumed without question because elderly people invite preconceptions purely on account of their age.  There are surely aspects of this that Christie saw around her and experienced daily (and probably still does, cf. “All late-period Agatha Christie novels are terrible”), and she doubtless delighted in working this into the key facet of her plot.

For someone so keen on the unseen talents of the elderly – the quote I’ve used a the title of this post sums up Christie’s argument quite thoroughly, I feel – she also has a lot sympathy for a younger generation concerned with relationships, running a business, and always expecting everything to happen the moment it is required (“Instant remedies, that’s what people demand nowadays.  Sometimes I think it’s a pity we give them to them.  You’ve got to learn to put up with things in life”).  Of course their lack of experience in many matters leads to a great many tragedies unearthed herein and contributing to the unhappiness of several of the younger generation bound together by their shared impatience, but Christie is never one to simply write them off.  Miss Marple enjoys the youth of Tim and Molly Kendall, crediting them with the perception to recognise who talks to which guests at dinner (old ladies prefer the presence of a younger man, it seems…) but also laments for young people in general who are stuck ‘studying, she supposed, at universities – or doing a job with a fortnight’s holiday per year’ and unable to afford the pleasures of time away.

But, inevitably, it is the carefree attitude of youth that causes so many of the problems. “One does need so much tact when dealing with the young,” Miss Marple laments – standing here in stark and deliberate contrast with Mr. Rafiel – and this is supported by Tim Kendall’s summation of his wife’s previous relationship: “You know what it’s like when you’re young.  If people cut up a fuss it makes you so much keener on whoever it is”.  And, indeed, we know how that works out.

Wider elements of youthful antics impose, too – the Hillingdons and the Dysons haven’t even got a look in here, and there’s probably another 2,000 words one could write about them – but I want to leave something for anyone venturing forth into this without first experiencing the book.  Parallels could be drawn between this book and the younger generation of crime novelists Christie saw coming up beneath her, but I don’t want to overreach myself: it’s simply a delight, having been warned against anything from this stage of Christie’s writing from my very earliest experience of her, to find her in such fine fettle and on such rich ground.  And the lack of self pity makes that final page all the more affecting, especially given the previous 200-odd pages of reflection on what we’re then asked to confront.

~

Coincidence ahoy!  Be sure to check out Brad’s perfectly-timed reflections on this one, too, over at AhSweetMysteryBlog – frankly, things are getting a bit too spooky for my liking…

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24 thoughts on “#74: “Old people know how valuable life is, and how interesting…”, portrayals of age in Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

  1. I quote from chapter 1 of the book:
    A friend who was writing a book wanted a quiet place in the country. “He’ll look after the house all right. He’s very house proud. He’s a queer. I mean—”
    He had paused, slightly embarrassed—but surely even dear old Aunt Jane must have heard of queers.

    Though there may be suggestions of homosexuality in other novels, this is the only novel where a character is actually referred to as a homosexual.

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  2. Quite a treat having yours and Brad’s reviews to read so close together. I enjoyed your examination of age, especially old age and how Miss Marple uses the stereotypes to her own advantage. I think her old yet indeterminate age makes it easier to accept her self-label of Nemesis. Still find the bit where she wakes up Rafiel in the middle of the night informing him of her Nemesis status amusing, as she just looks so unthreatening and Nemesis like – but then again that is the point I suppose.

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  3. Are you gluten free? Do you also have cats? Which is YOUR favorite Doctor??? I feel, JJ, that we must examine this potential doppelganger situation: you and I might actually be sitting in the middle of our own Helen McCloy novel! I distinctly remember dropping the Tim and Molly Kendall stuff from my article, thinking that 1600 words were quite enough, thank you! Did I also think, in passing, that this material was being covered so well by the OTHER ME?!?!?

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      • Okay, so now this is getting weird: I am also gluten free. And dairy free. Which makes me GF and DF, both of which are suspiciously close to BF…draw your own conclusions.

        But I don’t really go in for cats, and my favourite modern Doctor is…well, it’s between Matt Smith and Capaldi but as I’ve loved Peter Capaldi since Neverwhere I’ll go with Smith as he won me over post-Tenant so quickly and found very interesting things to do with the character (Capaldi was absolutely jaw-dropping at times in his second series, though).

        Kate – still time to put up something on ACM. You read so damn fast that you could have it finished by lunchtime if you wanted to refresh your memory and started now. Just sayin’…

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        • Are you more of a dog person then? Weird how the three of us are all on gluten free diets – sure you can work out the mathematical odds for us, JJ. Tempting as it is to complete this triumvirate on ACM, I wonder whether there is anything else to say after you and Brad have so wonderfully examined it already.

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  4. Kate, for me Tennant is THE MAN- there is no other – and I would adore reading your thoughts on ACM!

    So would I, said JJ. Oops, I had better let that separate person from th UK “speak for himself.” (Wink, wink.)

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  5. An excellent look at this book, thank you. I agree particularly with your observations about the idea that “her only weapon was conversation”. Little old ladies like Misses Marple and Silver can drill into people’s antecedents and profession, where their parents used to live and exactly when someone had twins, because it is expected that as little old ladies they will take an interest in even the most minute detail of someone’s family and history. And these ladies can enforce the tone and path of a conversation — you just can’t tell Miss Marple that you’d rather not talk about something, because she’d have you spilling the beans in five minutes and apologizing for holding her up. She just has to let the slightest hint of reproach appear in those china-blue eyes.

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    • …you just can’t tell Miss Marple that you’d rather not talk about something, because she’d have you spilling the beans in five minutes and apologizing for holding her up.

      You are of course absolutely spot on here, and I wonder if this is an aspect of why the Spinster Detective died out. As much as police officers and other characters alike would complain about the “interfering old pussies”, they’d never stoop so far as to do so to their faces (which is what make Mr. Rafiel such a refreshing presence here). Modern social niceties probably don’t extend that far, though, and so the weapon of choice had to be put away and the old dear packed off to the retirement home!

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    • Stands to reason – there’s an unlucky thirteen left, after all! I have a good feeling about the remaining Marples, but we shall see how that plays out as I read them…

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      • I think another 9 novels were written after this.. Another two, Curtain and Sleeping Murder though published last were written much, much before. I give a 5 star rating to Sleeping Murder.

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        • Yeah, it’s nine novels, two short story collections, and those two goodbyes from some time in the 1940s or 50s.

          I’ve typically been more of a fan of her short stories than the average Christie reader, so I’m sure I’ll be pleased with those no matter what. And I’ve been prepared for Postern of Fate already…!

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  6. I agree with Santosh. As for Noah’s remark about conversations, I notice that in the later Hercule Poirot novels, he frequently remarks on the power of conversation to catch a killer! In After the Funeral, he pretends to be someone else so that the suspects will talk with him freely. And in The Clocks, he tells Colin Lamb to “talk to the neighbors!”

    I really feel this tactic is more appropriate to miss Marple or Miss Silver, as Noah says, and that Poirot should have stuck to ferreting out clues. But since Agatha Christie was so good at using conversations as clue droppers, I forgive her.

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    • Interesting to reflect that two excellent Miss Marple novels utilising this approach come at a time when Poirot has been in decline and Christie is clearly losing interest in him (cf. Cat Among the Pigeons, where he turns up in the last 80 pages, The Clocks where he just sort of sits in the background until the explanation is required).

      The observation that an old lady sleuth appears more appealing to an old lady author won’t be new, but it very much seems that the separation requited to write about Poirot – the very differentness that made him so rich to begin with – is now becoming rather too much like hard work.

      This is seven years on from 4:50 from Paddington and 11 years from A Pocketful of Rye, both cases where Christie didn’t seem to know what to do with Marple and Poirot was enjoying boom days in Dead Man’s Folly, Hickory Dickory Dock, After the Funeral…but now the worm definitely seems to’ve well and truly turned.

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      • Are you really reading in order, JJ?!?!? There are nine “new” novels left: two Marples, three Poirots, two Tommy and Tuppences, and two stand-alones. You’ve got some tough going before you get to the “dessert” from the ’40’s. (The short story collections are of old stories re-collected.) I would hazard an opinion that there’s not another great novel to be found till then, (Sleeping Murder is good, not great Marple, but there is a LOT to discuss around Curtain), but it all depends on what you think about Endless Night. Yesssss, my precioussss, it all comes down to Endlesssss Night . . . . .

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        • I am indeed reading them in order, except for the two posthumous short story collections which I’ve already done. Got Bertram and Third Girl before Endless Night, so…probably the summer before I get there.

          Oh, and I’m fairly sure someone has already spoiled Curtain for me, the bloody idiot.

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  7. Pingback: #83: “One gets to remembering things in a place like this…” – a meta-analysis of Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) | The Invisible Event

  8. Pingback: #92: Character v Plot | The Invisible Event

  9. Pingback: #115: “You can’t change a person’s nature, especially at the end of a long life” – Perceptions of the elderly in Death at Crane’s Court (1953) by Eilís Dillon | The Invisible Event

  10. Pingback: #125: A Sudden Flush of Youth (or Two) in Agatha Christie’s Endless Night (1967) | The Invisible Event

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