Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Mirror Crack'd, by Agatha Christie


Movie star Marina Gregg has just bought Gossington Hall, the big manor at the edge of St. Mary Mead. The whole village is agog with the news, and turns out en masse for the big fundraiser on the grounds. The event is a huge success ... until a local woman winds up dead, after drinking a poisoned cocktail. Before long, the authorities have concluded that the lovely Marina was the intended victim--a conclusion that is bolstered by the threatening letters she receives and the arsenic-laced coffee she narrowly avoids drinking. Chief-Inspector Craddock is stumped--and not above consulting his favorite adopted aunt, Jane Marple. Miss Marple is more housebound than she use to be, but still sharp as a tack and perfectly willing to lend her not inconsiderable talents to the solving of this mystery. But who could have done it? One of Marina Gregg's many ex-husbands? Someone on her staff? One of the children she impulsively adopted and just as abruptly rejected, all grown up and bearing a grudge? A crazed fan? Her current husband seems to adore her, but perhaps appearances aren't what they seem ...

The title to this work comes from Tennyson's beloved poem The Lady of Shalott (familiar to many modern readers largely because of its appearance in the television adaptation of L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables):
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shalott.
One of Miss Marple's good friends uses these lines to describe the frozen look that passes across Marina Gregg's face during the fundraiser. Much of the book is devoted to speculation about that look--what did it mean? What could have caused it? Did it have anything to do with the attempt on the actress's life? I've no wish to spoil the answer to that question, but you may be interested to know that Christie is presumed to have based this story on the real-life tragedy of film star Gene Tierney (don't read about her until after you've read the book--unless you don't mind spoilers, of course).

The conclusion of the mystery is clever enough, as these things go. The big reveal is certainly worth it. But it's not the main focus of the book. For the first thirty or so pages, the reader is treated to a touching picture of the challenges and indignities of old age. Miss Marple has never been young, but our favorite lady detective has reached the point where she has trouble with her knitting and must have someone to live with her and keep an eye on her--the rather obnoxious--if good-natured--Miss Knight. Now, Miss Marple has to stoop to subterfuge just to get a few minutes alone or take a walk by herself--an aspect of aging that had never occurred to me, and a trying circumstance to be sure for one whose method of detection relies heavily on village gossip, observation, and knowledge of human nature.

Long before we ever even get a smell of the mystery to come, we are given the opportunity to sit with Miss Marple and ruminate on time and change. She mourns the loss of the past--grocers are being traded in for supermarkets, servants no longer care about proper cleaning, etc. The most glaring representation of time and change is The Development, a housing community outside St. Mary Mead, full of cookie cutter houses on postage stamp lots. Miss Marple is by no means prejudiced against the residents of The Development (and indeed, one of its residents proves to be quite a blessing to her), but she can't help being aware that Times Have Changed. Her wistful contemplation of life and aging is profoundly affecting and quite well-written.

In addition to this meditation on aging, we also get a glimpse into the life of a Hollywood actress--her struggles and hardships, the way she thinks and feels, etc. In Marina Gregg's case, her life has revolved around first her unfulfilled desire to have a child, as she was unable to have children for many years, and then her only natural child was born severely mentally handicapped. She is selfish, temperamental, and fundamentally incapable of seeing the world as it is--everything is either the absolute worst or the absolute best, and there is nothing in between. And yet, for all her idiosyncrasies, there is something lovable about her. Christie lays out the reasons for Marina Gregg's character flaws, and in so doing speculates on what really makes movie stars tick. It is a surprisingly affectionate take on an oft-maligned group of individuals.

Though I admit it's been a while since I've read a lot of Christie--especially her Miss Marple stories--I can't remember any that contained this level of personal and social commentary. Usually her stories are just about the story--there is no real character development. Poirot is Poirot is Poirot, just as Holmes is Holmes is Holmes. Yet in The Mirror Crack'd, we see Miss Marple growing and changing, and responding as the world around her grows and changes. It is a fascinating piece of literature.

Because the (admittedly clever) resolution of the mystery feels rather tacked on, and doesn't have all that much to do with Miss Marple's aging or people's reactions to The Development, many folks don't consider this one of Christie's best works. And the mystery itself doesn't merit such an honor. But The Mirror Crack'd is, to my mind, one of her more literary works, and fully deserving of honor on those merits alone.

The audiobook is ably narrated by Rosemary Leach, who sounds remarkably like Dame Judi Dench. In other words, she does a fantastic job.

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