4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie (1957)
Spoiler alert. In this review I describe the early parts of the novel, but do not reveal whodunit.
Sherlock Holmes was born about 1854, and by 1927 had retired to Sussex to take up beekeeping. As one great detective left the stage, another one entered. Jane Marple was born around 1860, and the first accounts of the super sleuth’s activities appear in The Royal Magazine in 1929, when she would have been about 69. It only goes to show that you’re never too old to take up a new activity. The book I am reviewing is 4.50 from Paddington (1957), by which time Miss Marple is grumbling about her infirmity and uses a proxy to do most of the leg work; not surprising really as she would have been 97. Yet her mind is as sharp as a winter’s morning in Yorkshire (minus 3 degrees as I type).
Miss Marple was the first female serial sleuth I read, although Marian Halcombe from the The Woman in White (1859) dabbled a bit in the art. I was interested to learn on historian Lucy Worsley’s blog that the first female fictional professional detective was probably Mrs Gladden, appearing in The Female Detective (1864) by Andrew Forrester. Now happily republished via the British Library.
For my first Jane Marple I chose 4.50 from Paddington (1957). Perhaps it is train titles that attract me, previously I reviewed Murder on the Orient Express (a Hercule Poirot mystery). If it is, I wasn’t disappointed. I had barely settled down in my armchair before someone had been strangled on a commuter train from Paddington station. Yes, the very same railway station in London upon which the delightful “Paddington Bear” was found the following year (1958).
Like P. G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie is good at names. It is one of the less obvious little pleasures that she offers. In this novel we get Elspeth McGillicuddy, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Emma Crackenthorpe and Dr. Quimper. It’s enjoyable just saying those names aloud, go on try it, no one will mind. And again! I’m looking forward to reviewing Christie’s ‘Partners in Crime’ stories when I will be introducing the alliterative husband and wife team, Tommy and Tuppence.
So – Elspeth McGillicuddy was in an empty compartment of a railway train on her way to see her friend Jane Marple in the village of St. Mary Mead. Having had a brief nap, Mrs McGillicuddy was gazing idly out the window as another train pulled up alongside hers. Looking into the first-class carriage now opposite, she beheld a shocking scene:
Standing with his back to her was a man. His hands were round the throat of a woman who faced him, and he was slowly, remorselessly, strangling her. Her eyes were starting from their sockets, her face was purple and congested. As Mrs McGillicuddy watched fascinated, the end came; the body went limp and crumpled in the man’s hand. At the same moment, Mrs McGillicuddy’s train slowed down again and the other train began to gather speed .. a moment or two later it vanished from sight.
A very filmic passage, all the information a film director would need to go to work. Christie and most of her 1950s readers would have known that a similar scenario was used in a well known film from 1945, Lady on a Train (based on a story by Leslie Charteris). In the film a woman on a train, that has come to a temporary halt, witnesses a murder taking place in a building opposite. Just as in Christie’s novel the witness is reading a lurid novel before hand, a blind hides some of the action and the authorities don’t believe her story. So Christie is surely providing us with a playful variation of the 1945 movie set-up, something the contemporary reader would have likely recognised immediately.
Clip from Lady on a Train (1945) via Youtube. See from 1 min 15 secs.
Mrs McGillicuddy reports the murder she has seen, the problem is that no physical body is found at the next station or anywhere else. How could a man in a train compartment without a corridor possibly get rid of a body before reaching the imminent next stop? It seems as if only Miss Marple believes her friend’s strangulation story. And no one will believe the two elderly ladies; they seem to be on their own.
After some detective work with maps and railway timetables, the likely location for the deposit of the body is narrowed down via a process of elimination. Surely the corpse can only have been thrown out of the train window, down a steep bank and into the grounds of Rutherford Hall? At this point Miss Marple realises that her fragile health will not allow her to investigate “on the ground” and so she calls in the redoubtable Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to gain employment at the Hall and locate the body.
By this point in the novel I was gripped. And Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a wonderfully drawn character, a blend of a young Miss Marple and Mary Poppins. She has a first class degree in mathematics, but declines academia for the freedom and income of life as a temporary housekeeper to the rich and famous. This was the mid-1950s, a time when there was an extreme shortage of people prepared to be domestic servants. Miss Eyelesbarrow has that magical gift of bringing a happy, well ordered atmosphere wherever she goes, turning a house into a home. Plus she cooks like a dream. And for this she can ask and receive outrageous wages, thereby facilitating control over her own life and multple exotic holidays.
I do think that Agatha Christie was highly wasteful with Miss Eyelesbarrow’s undoubted possibilities, forcing her creation to share a single story with a large cast of characters. But I suppose Conan Doyle did the same with Professor Moriarty. Indeed it would have been fun to have had Lucy Eyelesbarrow pitting her wits against that master mind criminal from the Sherlock Holmes tales.
MORIARTY: At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the Binomial Theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the Mathematical Chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearance, a most brilliant career before him. [The Adventure of the Final Problem from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes]
EYELESBARROW: Lucy Eyelesbarrow was thirty-two. She had taken first in mathematics at Oxford and was expected to take up a distinguished academic career. But she realised that the life of academic distinction was singularly ill rewarded.
Lucy Eyelesbarrow is the nearest Christie got to writing a ‘Jane Bond’ character, but in my view she never got full use out of her. Ian Fleming published the first James Bond novel in 1953 (Casino Royale). It’s hard to believe that Christie didn’t read some of them as she seems to have had an interest in the world of spies and secret intelligence. We know now that Christie had a close friend in Dilly Knox, one of the leading wartime codebreakers at Bletchley Park. “The name’s Eyelesbarrow, Lucy Eyelesbarrow – 008″. An opportunity missed. Alternatively, Lucy could have put that logical super brain, emotional intelligence and fearless sense of adventure to work as a super sleuth. Her cover as short-term housekeeper provides a wonderful excuse for getting into posh houses when jewels go missing, bodies lie bedaggered on the library floor or the kedgeree has been poisoned.
I’m new to crime fiction, but the first murder described in 4.50 from Paddington (described above) I found gruesome reading. And yet apparently Agatha Christie is considered low on goriness and brutality and high on cosiness and entertainment. Her most popular method for dispatching victims was poison (more than 80 victims), perhaps Christie had a preference towards this method of exit because she had a pharmacist background.
‘Gruesome’ and yet I know there must be much stronger stuff out there today as I understand graphic depictions of violence are usually expected in the crime genre. I thought this article in The Atlantic interesting. It states that women read between 60% and 80% of crime fiction and psychological thrillers; it also suggests women prefer stronger and more direct violence in their crime fiction.
Over the last decade, female writers have come to dominate crime fiction, a genre traditionally associated with men … Sarah Weinman, the editor of the anthology Women Crime Writers, says one factor that defines these books is “a tremendous lack of sentimentality.” At that time, she explains, “the men writing were the romantics. The women just told it like it was. They saw it, they relayed it, and they didn’t sugar-coat it.” [ARTICLE: ‘Why Men Pretend to Be Women to Sell Thrillers’ by Sophie Gilbert]
.. Women readers, Weinman notes, have always been drawn to darker stories. “There’s a running trope,” she says, “that the gorier the serial-killer narrative, the more likely that little old ladies are reading it.” One of the biggest surprises for Waites when he adopted the persona of Tania Carver was learning how much women readers enjoyed, even craved, brutality in stories. At one event, a woman asked him if his books were particularly violent, adding, before he could respond, “Because I’ll read them if they are.” [ARTICLE: ‘Why Men Pretend to Be Women to Sell Thrillers’ by Sophie Gilbert]
This article in the Guardian suggests what the explanation for this, perhaps unexpected, predilection (if it exists) might be:
Crime fiction allows us to explore those looming horrors .. Reading about grisly sex murders and mutilation is a safe way to explore the threats we sense in the world around us .. [ARTICLE: ‘Why women are hooked on violent crime fiction’ by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett]
In Talking about Detective Fiction [See review], P.D. James is critical of Agatha Christie for not depicting the full horror and dreadful consequences of murder, or providing “the disturbing presence of evil”. As I have only read two Agatha Christie novels I’m not in a good position to judge the overall flavour of her books but, from what I have read, P.D. James may have a point; the murdered are usually anonymous or obnoxious, thus we don’t grieve too much at their being despatched, we don’t linger at post-mortems, funerals, or hang out with grieving relatives. In 4.50 from Paddington, as the family gets bumped off, no one seems unduly distressed. Depending on the character in the novel a body found in a sarcophagus is either: (1) a mystery; (2) an inconvenience; (3) an outrage; or (4) a great lark [the small boys]. To me there don’t appear to be any likeable male characters, but if you think otherwise let me know – so all ripe for culling. Surprisingly, even a deadly poisoning doesn’t disturb dinner arrangements or a birthday tea. That said, many of those reading Christie’s books as they were published had lived through at least one world war, possibly two. Perhaps attitudes to death, and how they wanted it presented, were different.
Does this apparent lack of realism and casual attitude to death matter? Are our streets any less safe because hoards of Agatha Christie readers are lulled into a false sense that “murder is fun”? Are folks encouraged to add thallium to the breakfast marmalade or dispatch vicars in rectory libraries? Highly unlikely. As for realism, this isn’t the Queen of Dragons offering a Game of Thrones bloody gore-fest, this is the Queen of Crime Fiction, whose books are there to provide us with a cosy mystery and a puzzle – a satisfying whodunit, rather than gritty realism. As Agatha Christie has sold between 2 to 4 billion copies, and her stories are still regulars on TV and cinema around the world, I would say she’s probably still giving people what they want.
Interesting plot and characters. Wonderful beginning, the story gets a little slow in the middle, before it picks up again. Despite their efforts the police don’t come up with anything at all, it’s left to the Misses, Eyelesbarrow and Marple. The reader is mostly left to enjoy the characters bumping into each other, with new revelations, murders, red herrings and a little romance. The reveal comes suddenly and only lasts a couple of pages, that might frustrate some people. Surprisingly little of Miss Marple in this story, but Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a worthy stand-in. Lovely moments of post-war history – food and drink, tax, job and money struggles, details of life at Rutherford Hall. Not much opportunity for readers to test their detection skills in this one, I am not sure how anyone could guess whodunit, but an enjoyable light read – bravo.
This review is part of a series covering classic detectives in fiction (for complete list see below):
1. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie [Hercule Poirot] Book review
2. Talking about Detective Fiction by P.D. James Book review
3. The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn by Colin Dexter [Inspector Morse] Book review
4. 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie [Miss Marple] Book review
Film and TV versions of 4.50 from Paddington (a not necessarily exhaustive list)
Verson 1 (1961) – below:
All the filmed versions have something to offer. Here is an trailer for the first attempt at the story, retitled Murder, She Said. This movie simplifies the novel by removing Lucy Eyelesbarrow entirely, replacing her with extra Miss Marple. It also plays up the lightness and whimsy in the story.
What an actress Dame Margaret Rutherford was! Every second she just eats up the camera. Where is her modern equivalent today?
Verson 2 (1987) – below:
For many people the definitive Miss Marple was played by Joan Hickson (BBC). Here is a short clip from her 4.50 from Paddington – introducing the character of Lucy Eyelesbarrow to the story.
Joan Hickson (as Miss Marple)
Mona Bruce (as Mrs. McGillicuddy)
Jill Meager (as Lucy Eyelesbarrow)
Verson 3 (2004) – below:
In 2004 British TV made a glossy new version (this time ITV, not the BBC).
This clip is a “fan video” with music. [Song: “Crush” by David Archuleta]
Amanda Holden (as Lucy Eyelesbarrow)
John Hannah (as Inspector Tom Campbell)
Michael Landes (as Bryan Eastley)
Plays up the romance in the story (yes, it’s in there).
Version 4 (2008): below:
The most revent version (as of 2018) is a curious French film released in 2008 – Le crime est notre affaire [‘Crime is our business’]. Curious in the sense that Miss Marple has been removed as a character and replaced with Agatha Christie’s married detectives Tommy and Tuppence – nevertheless it is an adaptation of 4.50 From Paddington.
Short trailer below, looks rather fun.
Agatha Christie is a world famous author with an extensive back catalogue. Sir Ken Branagh seems to be preparing to reprise his Hercule Poirot for the cinema. The BBC and Agatha Christie Productions Ltd are signed up for seven new Christie dramas. And in 2017 Amazon Video “struck a multi-show deal with Agatha Christie Productions for U.S. rights to seven dramas” (presumably the same seven productions ?). Plus Netflix might like to get in on the act at some point.
So, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more versions of 4.50 from Paddington to come. Who would you like to see in the cast for the next one?
BELOW: A young Agatha Christie contemplates the world
BELOW: Some of the book covers for 4.50 from Paddington