Monday, October 17, 2011

Agatha Christie's Last Mystery

It is fitting, I suppose, that a certain amount of mystery surrounds the final books that were published by the all–time best–selling mystery writer, Agatha Christie.

Many people, you see, think — erroneously — that "Sleeping Murder," which was published 35 years ago this month, was the last book that Christie wrote. But it was not. It was the last of her books to be published — and it was published nearly a year after her death.

And that is an entirely different thing.

In fact, if what I have heard and read is true, "Sleeping Murder," which featured Christie's elderly sleuth, Miss Marple, may have been written as many as 35 years before it was published.

Long before they were published, Christie wrote novels that were intended to be the final cases for her primary detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. The manuscripts, so the story goes, were sealed away for decades until Christie, in the final years of her life, authorized the publication of "Curtain," Poirot's final case.

I don't think Christie ever confirmed the details about when she wrote the books, but devotees of her work deduced, in true mystery reader fashion, that she must have written both during World War II — although some have speculated recently that "Sleeping Murder" may have been written after the war.

No matter. It presented no major continuity problems in the story line of Miss Marple. She didn't die in the end (unlike Poirot) which might have been something of a problem.

Death is so final, as any fan of Agatha Christie must surely know.

And, as many of her fans have observed, the general timing of the story's penning could be determined by the references to a play that opened in London in the mid–1940s.

If Miss Marple died at that time, it would have made it awkward to explain things in novels that had been written since "Sleeping Murder."

But nothing in the story remotely suggested that it was Miss Marple's last case. At the end of the book, the reader could only conclude that Miss Marple had returned to her home in a fictional village near London and resumed her life.

At the time it was published, some people said it was the perfect swan song for Christie. I never thought it was a particularly remarkable story. It was all right, but I really think she wrote better books in her life.

Essentially, the story was about a young woman who purchased a home for herself and her husband — without realizing that she had lived there once as a small child.

Her memories began to come back to her, and it occurred to her that she had witnessed a murder there when she was small — and she and her husband began investigating whether her "memories" were real or imagined.

The story reminded me of so many reports that I have heard in recent years — of people who have repressed memories since childhood and something summoned them to the surface.

I have often heard such people speak of the places where these repressed memories were based as if the places themselves were possessed by restless spirits. Sometimes, when those spirits were "appeased" in some way, they left in peace.

That was the sense I got from the conclusion of "Sleeping Murder:"
"Poor Helen ... poor lovely Helen ... who died young. ... You know, Giles, she isn't there any more — in the house — in the hall. ... I could feel that yesterday before we left. ... There's just the house. And the house is fond of us. We can go back if we like ..."