Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Coach Tours to Crime

There has been a change in the Tuesday Night Bloggers' community: we are now writing about a theme every month rather than a particular author and this month's theme (which I managed to miss last week) is travel and holidays. There is so much one can say about that as so many of the Golden Age Detective Stories are set on holiday resorts, domestic and foreign, or on ships, trains and aeroplanes. One Gladys Mitchell story, Daisy Bell, involves a tandem bicycle as well as Mrs Bradley being driven along some rolling English roads by her chauffeur George.

So, let us consider coach tours. Whenever I hear of a friend deciding to go on a coach tour for holiday I try to warn him or, more likely, her: if one of your fellow passengers is a rotund little man, with an egg-shaped head and luxuriant moustaches or a tall, thin, elderly lady with snowy hair and surprisingly shrewd blue eyes, do not go. Ask for your money back. They mostly think I am mad but humour me and promise to do so.

After all, if one of those people is on a coach tour (or a ship, train or aeroplane) there will be crime, probably murder and you will be lucky to get away with only one. The 1974 collection Poirot's Early Cases includes Double Sin, first published in Sunday Dispatch on September 23, 1928 and in the US under the title By Road or Rail in the March 29, 1929 edition of Detective Story Magazine.

Poirot, on a brief holiday in Ebermouth, in south Devon, is asked by his friend the theatrical agent Joseph Aarons to visit him in Charlock Bay in north Devon to discuss certain confidential matters. Poirot, who prefers comfortable and, above all, warm travel is reluctantly persuaded by Hastings to join and a motor bus tour and what happens? Well, no murder but certainly a crime, which involves a pretty young girl whom Hastings, needless to say, had noticed at boarding. I rest my case. And don't think him feeling travel sick will save you, as Death in the Clouds makes clear.

Let us move to Miss Marple, who, as it happens, travels from St Mary Mead quite a lot. She goes to neighbouring towns and villages, she goes to London (in one story Sanctuary she seems to be staying in London for some time) and she goes to the Caribbean. She also joins a coach tour once though not to take a holiday but to respond to a posthumous request from the millionaire, Jason Rafiel, whom she had met in the Caribbean.

The book is Nemesis, in which Miss Marple investigates a murder of which Mr Rafiel's unsatisfactory son has been found guilty; during the coach tour another murder happens and she finds out many things. Undoubtedly the other passengers did not take the sort of advice I hand out to my friends, either.

There are interesting aspects to Nemesis, though it cannot be called one of Christie's better novels - the coach tour seems a bit of an anomaly. It was published in 1971 and was the last Miss Marple book Christie wrote. The last one to be published was Sleeping Murder, which was supposed to have been written during the war and hidden away, like Curtain. Both were supposed to be the final novels in their respective series though the Miss Marple series hardly existed at that point. There was a collection of short stories, one early novel, Murder at the Vicarage and one published in 1942, Body in the Library. Why would Christie be thinking about an ending to the series?

John Curran showed quite conclusively in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks that Sleeping Murder was written in the late forties, possibly in 1950 though that still does not explain why it was put into storage, not to be published till after Christie's death. Unlike Curtain, the ending of the Poirot series, Sleeping Murder does not give that impression. It ends with the solution and a clever explanation by Miss Marple and the young Gwenda and Giles Reed settling down in their home. Nemesis, on the other hand, has the definite feel of a final episode. At the end, Miss Marple, having successfully fulfilled Mr Rafiel's request, inherits a large sum of money and refuses to to invest it. She is going to spend it and have a good time. Undoubtedly, the good time will involve treats for various members of the family such as her super-generous nephew Raymond West and his wife.
She looked back from the door and she laughed. Just for one moment Mr Schuster, who was a man of more imagination than Mr Broadribb, had a vague impression of a young and pretty girl shaking hands with the vicar at a garden party in the country. It was, as he realised a moment later, a recollection of his own youth. But Miss Marple had, for a minute, reminded him of that particular girl, young, happy, going to enjoy herself. 
It is pleasant to think of Miss Marple going out to enjoy herself and to have fun in a much pleasanter ending than that of Curtain. Had Christie perhaps forgotten that she had written an end to the Miss Marple series and wrote another one? Or did she think that Sleeping Murder was unsatisfactory and decided to improve on it? Because the odd thing is that those two books have exactly the same plot. Christie often used similar plots but gave them different twists. Not in this case. It was exactly the same: Miss Marple is called upon to investigate a past murder where a young girl has been killed, as it turns out, by her guardian whose love for her was unhealthily possessive. The young girl's fiance or husband is assumed to be the killer and is suitably punished. Everyone assumes that justice has been done until something happens to revive the case and bring Miss Marple in, at which point one or two other murders happen and the killer is unmasked in a final attempt.

[Let me now put in a SPOILER ALERT: if you have not read these books, skip the next paragraph.]

There is, however, one big difference: in one the real killer is a man, in the other a woman but what Miss Marple sees as wrong is the unhealthily obsessive love, not the gender of the person who feels it. Christie showed several times that her attitude to lesbians was considerably more tolerant than that of many of her contemporaries. In A Murder is Announced the gay couple are seen as just another village household and when one is murdered, her friend's desperate grief is not stinted or criticized by anyone. In Nemesis, Miss Marple is not in the slightest disgusted by Clotilde's love for Verity that turns her into a murderess; on the contrary, she feels very sorry for her. Curiously enough, she has very different feelings for Dr Kennedy in Sleeping Murder, whom she describes as mad and wicked.


Where does all this get us? To the beginning of my discussion and that is, if you happen to be going on holiday on a coach tour, do be careful about your fellow passengers. You just never know.


  1. Helen, this is great! I was just ruminating on NEMESIS as the true finale for Marple and how I wish it had been a better book. I totally agree about the iffy use of the coach tour, as most of the travelers are unimportant to the story. The horrible second TV adaptation of that book sought to "remedy" this with disastrous consequences!

    Nice job!

  2. Excellent! I'm glad to see the coach tours getting some limelight. It really isn't safe to travel in any fashion during the Golden Age...trains, cruise ships, coach tours, planes...there's danger everywhere!

  3. Thank you for your comments and praise. Indeed, no form of transport was safe. The only Miss Marple TV episodes I have ever seen were the one with Joan Hickson who was the perfect actress for the part but some of the adaptations were a bit off. Nemesis was not too bad, I thought. They developed Michael Rafiel's character and that added an extra dimension to the story but, of course, it meant that the ending with Miss Marple going off to have some fun was lost.

  4. There are so many nice things in Nemesis, even though it definitely has its structural issues, as you note.

  5. Great comparison between Sleeping Murder and Nemesis, very interesting. Sleeping Murder really does have the feel of the time it was written rather than when it was published and I always feel it should slot in there rather than at the end. Nemesis at least tries to be a bit more uptodate, and as you say has much more of a feeling of a final book in the series.