In 4:50 From Paddington
all the elements that made Agatha's writing so remarkably effective are on display in full force. Suspense builds; characters are interesting, but not too complicated to be confusing; clues are sprinkled throughout; and, perhaps most importantly, Miss Marple is an active presence, rather than a peripheral observer as we've so often seen her lately.4:50 From Paddington
was first published in 1957 and originally appeared in the United States under the title What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!
. Frankly, I prefer that rather jaunty title; and so that's how I'll refer to it from here on out.And what, exactly, did
Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy see when she was traveling by train back to her home in Milchester after a day of Christmas shopping? As another train comes alongside and runs parallel to hers for a few moments, she looks out her compartment window and sees…Standing with his back to the window and 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 hands.
It's that word "remorselessly" which Agatha inserts in almost an off-hand fashion, that illustrates just how brutal and determined her killers can be. This murderer is no exception; by the time the book has run its course, bodies will be littering the landscape.Mrs. McGillicuddy immediately reports the murder to the train's ticket collector. Then, when she's disbelieved, she hails a porter and tells him to inform the local constabulary of the crime on the other train. By Chapter 2, she's sitting at Jane Marple's hearth telling her all about the deadly episode of trainspotting. Jane Marple, she knows, will believe her. After all, "Everybody in St. Mary Mead knew Miss Marple; fluffy and dithery in appearance, but inwardly as sharp and as shrewd as they make them." If Miss Marple can't make something out of nothing, then no one can.The two old ladies decide to wait for an announcement about the discovery of the body to appear in the local papers. When nothing hits the press, they tell the police about the incident, but they're still greeted with raised eyebrows and mild skepticism. As one inspector says, "I dare say it's just make believe—-sort of thing old ladies do make up, like seeing flying saucers at the bottom of the garden, and Russian agents in the lending library."Without a body, who can prove a crime has even been committed? Inquiries at the train companies prove equally fruitless.Miss Marple sticks by her friend, determined to get some proof that there's truth behind What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw
. Through a clever bit of mathematics and engineering, Miss Marple determines the precise spot along the route where the killer could have conceivably tossed a dead body off the train before it pulled into the station.It's at this point the novel takes a decisive leap forward into the typical patterns of a Christie investigation. On the one hand, you have the police who are initially bemused and skeptical; then there is the amateur sleuthing that takes place, each chapter adding more and more characters to the list of suspects; eventually, Scotland Yard stops smirking and pursues the case with all official fervor and bluster; while dear dithery Miss Marple quietly solves the mystery by paying attention to the small details of human behavior.For this case, Miss Marple enlists the aid of a younger and spryer version of herself to do the actual legwork and gather the clues. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a smart, sassy girl who has earned a reputation for being one of the best freelance domestic laborers in all of England. "Once she came into a house," we're told, "all worry, anxiety and hard work went out of it." Miss Marple hires Lucy to plant herself in Rutherford Hall, the gone-to-seed estate near the spot where she determined the body must have been tossed. Lucy insinuates herself into the Crackenthorpe clan and is soon doing a good job dusting, cooking, eavesdropping and poking around old, dusty barns.The Crackenthorpes are the typical dysfunctional family we find in many of Agatha's novels. There's a miserly, cantankerous patriarch; there's his long-suffering and devoted daughter who never married; there's the renegade artist son just in from Spain; there's the stuffy son who's a respected financier; there's the ne'er-do-well son who leads a double life; there's the widower of old Crackenthorpe's daughter who was killed several years earlier; and there's the family doctor who also has a tender eye for the spinster daughter. They all have motive (MONEY!) and opportunity (SHAKY ALIBIS!) and they all rotate in and out of the Prime Suspect Number One slot as Lucy gathers clues and feeds them to Miss Marple.Part of the intrigue in What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw
is the fact that initially there's no evidence of a crime. And then, once a body is
discovered at Rutherford Hall, no one is able to identify the dead woman. This is the big question mark which looms over most of the book-—not only do we not know how
the murder was carried out, we don't even know who
was strangled (or, indeed, if the corpse is the same one Mrs. McGillicuddy saw through the train window). There are certainly some shady goings-on in the Crackenthorpe family, but Agatha strings us along for most of the novel with what could feasibly be unconnected events.By the end of What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw
, all the tumblers are clicking into place in Miss Marple's mind...."I have been wondering whether it might perhaps be all much simpler than we suppose. Murders so often are quite simple, with an obvious rather sordid motive...."At this point, you'd think the murderer would be buying tickets on the next train out of town. But of course that doesn't happen; besides, that would spoil all our fun of watching Miss Marple tighten the noose around the neck of the killer.more