20 Books of Summer 2020: Book 1
4:50 from Paddington might be my favorite Miss Marple so far…
In the opening chapter, Mrs. McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on a passing train. Fortunately, she was on her way to see her dear friend Miss Marple, who is the best person to consult about this sort of thing. They wait for the morning paper before calling the police in case it has news of a body or missing woman, but there’s nothing. Though the police are dismissive and say there’s no evidence that anyone has died, Miss Marple is certain that her friend is neither lying nor mistaken.
Without a body, there can’t be any talk of interviewing suspects or finding motives because there’s no starting point for a theory. Miss Marple, with her usual cleverness and understanding of human nature, determines the most likely area for the body to be hidden and hires a young woman, Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to look for it. Lucy is described as clever enough for a distinguished academic career but more interested in money. She’s carved a niche for herself in domestic labor and charges a lot for short stays in wealthy homes:
The point of Lucy Eyelesbarrow was that once she came into a house, all worry, anxiety and hard work went out of it. Lucy Eyelesbarrow did everything, saw to everything, arranged everything. She was unbelievably competent in every conceivable sphere. She looked after elderly parents, accepted the care of young children, nursed the sickly, cooked divinely, got on well with any old crusted servants there might happen to be (there usually weren’t), was tactful with impossible people, soothed habitual drunkards, was wonderful with dogs.
At Miss Marple’s request, Lucy takes a job in a home near where the body should be. She searches while becoming acquainted with the household. It’s the usual setup for a murder mystery: a stingy old patriarch and a bunch of children set to inherit his wealth. This is to say that everyone in the house has a motive for one type of murder, but what could they have to do with the unknown woman? What does it even mean if her body is hidden on the property—it wouldn’t immediately implicate the family.
Though most murder mysteries are dark—someone’s dead, after all—the tone of 4:50 from Paddington is charmingly light. Lucy is wonderfully efficient and lives up to her reputation. She meets periodically with Miss Marple, who usually has an idea that she’s not quite ready to explain. Miss Marple’s tendency to wait before talking to other characters (and the reader) is fine in a side character and tedious in a main character. If Miss Marple were leading this story instead of Lucy, her judicious silences would feel like Christie withholding vital information from the reader for no other reason than to delay the reveal. As is, the pacing is perfect.
Best of all, there’s enough information for the reader to attempt solving the murder from their couch. Without giving titles and therefore spoiling them, I’m not a fan of mysteries with secret characters or hidden pasts that aren’t revealed until the protagonist is ready for their big “Here’s What Happened” speech. That kind of thing always feels cheap, as though the author gave up on red herrings and subtlety.
Also, I really loved this line from a detective’s POV about halfway through, because I was having a similar worry:
All the motives suggested so far seemed either inadequate or far fetched.
This put me right at ease, because it meant that all the theories that had crossed my mind were definitely wrong.
Overall: 4.8. What a fun start to my summer reading.
Quotes from The Complete Miss Marple Collection. Image credit: Amazon