[Inspector Craddock is interviewing everyone who attended a fatal social event. Philippa is a landgirl]
He turned away and the [gardener] called after him grudgingly:
'Maybe you'd find her in the apple orchard. She's younger than I am for getting the apples down.'
And sure enough in the apple orchard Craddock found Phillipa Haymes. His first view was a pair of nice legs encased in breeches sliding easily down the trunk of a tree. Then Phillipa, her face flushed, her fair hair ruffled by the branches, stood looking at him in a startled fashion.
'Make a good Rosalind,' Craddock thought automatically, for Detective-Inspector Craddock was a Shakespeare enthusiast and had played the part of the melancholy Jaques with great success in a performance of As You Like it for the Police Orphanage.
A moment later he amended his views. Phillipa Haymes was too wooden for Rosalind, her fairness and her impassivity were intensely English, but English of the twentieth rather than of the sixteenth century. Well-bred, unemotional English, without a spark of mischief.
'Good morning, Mrs Haymes. I'm sorry if I startled you. I'm Detective-Inspector Craddock of the Middleshire Police. I wanted to have a word with you.'
'About last night?'
'Will it take long? Shall we - ?'
She looked about her rather doubtfully.
Craddock indicated a fallen tree trunk.
'Rather informal,' he said pleasantly, 'but I don't want to interrupt your work longer than necessary.'
commentary: This is my book of 1950 for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme over at the Past Offences blog. He chose this book too, but I will resist reading his review till after I’ve written mine.
A Murder is Announced is the one with the great setup, and the great opening. The local paper is delivered to the whole village of Chipping Cleghorn (goodness Christie did good place names, when she wasn’t being careless about them) on Friday mornings, and this time it contains a most unlikely classified ad:
A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks, at 6:30 p.m. Friends accept this, the only intimation.But that’s today! We are introduced to all the important people of the village as they read this and decide what to do. Well, obviously, with a murderer on the loose, you turn up at the place where violent death is promised, right?
So they do. As they are all sitting there uncomfortably – the host family claim to know nothing of the advertised event – the lights go out, and when they go back on again, someone is dead.
I think this is a favourite Christie for many people. It is beautifully worked out and structured, with a whole host of interesting characters. Some of them seem like stereotypes, but then you can never be sure with Christie. And of course it is a ludicrous plot – talking about Body in the Library recently I said this:
Fictional murders are almost always crazy in this sense: however they pan out, would anyone actually sit down and plan to commit a murder in that way? – why wouldn’t they just find a quiet moment and hit the victim in an alley? Of course we as readers want the details that make the books such fun – the overheard conversations, the blackmailers who know something, the phonecalls with the speaker saying ‘I will tell you something important when I see you – oh the doorbell is ringing’. So I don’t really mind those elaborate plots – but for Christie surely The Body in the Library takes some kind of prize for bizarre planning. Who in their right minds could possibly plan a murder that way? It is completely unworkable, and ridiculous, and would actually have gone wrong in several different ways.
And I think every word of that applies equally to A Murder is Announced. I also love Robert Barnard’s description in his indispensable book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive, where he pokes fun at the fact that there is an unlikely amount of impersonation going on in this tiny village.
Great book though.
But none of that spoils it. The murder is ridiculous, but the social observations - always one of my favourite aspects of Christie, an interest I share with blogfriend Lucy Fisher – are spot on. People think she’s writing about a ‘cosy’ village, but her point in this one is that WW2 has shaken everything up, nothing is as it was, and nothing is as it seems – for example, these law-abiding people are all prepared to operate on the black market.
In this entry on Christie I wrote about her use of clothes – the trousers in this book mark a new stage in their acceptability as garments for women. And, even more surprisingly, there is a very sympathetically portrayed gay couple, even if they are rather stereotyped in their appearances – one has a mannish haircut and wears the trousers, the other is fluffy and wears a tweed skirt.
I love pictures of landgirls – there are many wonderful ones at the Imperial War Museum (a frequent resource for me, most recently for my homefront photos for the Rainbow Corner entry last week). The one above shows Doreen Bacchus in Suffolk in the 1940s.
My all-time favourite is this one, which I have used several times: