Book: The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side
Author: Agatha Christie
Summary (from back of Harper Edition): One minute, silly Heather Babcock had been babbling on at her movie idol, the glamorous Marina Gregg. The next, Heather suffered a massive seizure, poisoned by a deadly cocktail. It seems likely that the cocktail was intended for the beautiful actress. But while the police fumble to find clues, Miss Marple begins to ask her own questions, because as she knows-even the most peaceful village can hide dark secrets.-Harper, 2011.
In order to recover from my disappointment over Dare to Die (see review for details), I turned to the Queen of Crime - Dame Agatha Christie. You can never go wrong with Christie. What Carolyn Hart did wrong with a murder mystery, Christie does right. Every time. I adore Agatha Christie. The first book I read of hers was And There There Were None (absolutely brilliant, perfect mystery), one of her non-famous detective novels. Before I had read Christie, I grew up reading Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes.
Naturally, Christie was the next logical option for classic mystery novels. So, I read a few of her works. And Then There Were None - Brilliant. Murder on the Orient Express - Brilliant. The Murder at the Vicarage - Amazing. I also watched several of the famous PBS screen adaptions of Poirot stories featuring David Suchet. Nothing, in my opinion, can wrong with Christie. In my personal view, if you don't like Christie, you must not like the mystery genre. You either love Christie or you hate her. Granted, I'm not much of an expert on Christie, but what I've read/seen is perfect storytelling, especially for mysteries. I would say that a review of a Christie novel is practically pointless since there's nothing wrong with it, but even perfect books are reviewed; so this book will receive the same treatment.
Let's start with the reason why I chose this particular mystery, ignoring the facts that it's a) Christie and b) a mystery. I saw this mystery at my local Barnes & Nobles and as soon as I saw the title, I picked it up. I knew The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side was a line from the famous Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, "The Lady of Shalott". I adore "The Lady of Shalott" so finding a Christie novel written with this poem as the background material was a dream come true. Reading the back of the novel confirmed my interest and I bought the novel, looking forward to reading it. Christie does not disappoint. As usual, reviews will be as spoiler free as possible.
Now, I'll be honest. I prefer Poirot over Marple, mostly because he's more travel oriented whereas Marple is purely domestic. The Marple novel I read before this one was equally charming and fun, but it just doesn't live up to my own personal taste as a major thrill novel. This one has the same kind of feelings. It was charming, thrilling in its own way, and engaging. I felt my eyes twinkling in glee at the same time Miss Marple's do, mentally chiding the people who think Miss Marple is a simple, harmless old lady. Her way of crime solving is unique and clever too. Rather than making it her "business" to solve mysteries, she simply focuses on the premise that "all humans behave the same, regardless of age, sex, race, etc.". Marple focuses more on human behavior rather than the typical details of the crime. She's like the forensic psychologist rather than the crime scene investigator. To make it more modern and cheesy, if Poirot were on CSI (he and Grissom would be great buddies I'm sure), Marple would be on Criminal Minds. Like Sherlock Holmes, she observes people and their habits, deducing their motives and life choices based on their behavior and the facts presented to her by her entourage of neighbors and friends. She's a sweet lady, but she's got a sharp mind and wit to match.
Here, Marple is declining even more so in age (the whole premise of Marple mysteries is that she's always an old woman). She has two caretakers and is not allowed to go out very much. At the same, the English countryside is being modernized and new apartment buildings and home complexes (suburbs?) are being built by her village of St. Mary Mead. The times are changing and Marple is determined to keep up with it while still hanging onto the old ways. It's not that she's against modern advances, she just prefers the old fashioned way of doing things.
Things get exciting when the village finds out that the movie star, Marina Gregg, is coming to the old mansion located on the outskirts of the village. Marina Gregg's background information is limited, but one can assume she's a silent and talkie film star. Though she is beautiful and graceful, she is prone to nervous tempers. Christie makes celebrities and the public's worship of them feel as timeless as ever whenever she describes the locals reacting to anything involving her. Nothing ever changes through the years. Everyone wants to see her, everyone wants to know what she's like in person, everyone knows everything about her life from tabloids - you know, the usual. Marple, since she's not from the young and hip generation, isn't as gaga about Gregg as the rest of the village is, but she has seen a few of the star's films. In most mystery novels I've read concerning celebrities, the main detective character is almost never starstruck by the celebrity, even if they meet. It's a typical trait (in my experience), so the lack of ecstasy over Gregg from our lady detective was not surprising at all.
Now, here's where Christie does things right, as opposed to Hart (the author of Dare to Die). Whenever she wants to expose us to prevalent or relevant information, she does it through other characters. If our Miss Marple isn't doing anything relevant to the mystery, she's not featured. In fact, I think almost half of the novel doesn't even involve Miss Marple. It's mostly focused on the lead police detective, the locals of the village and the ones associated with Marina Gregg. Through the eyes of the major players in the mystery, we are able to collect the clues we need to piece together the mystery for ourselves. Nothing is coincidence. Even the smallest, seemingly mundane detail or subject could be vitally important. Sometimes, you don't even realize it's important until something related pops up. Christie allows us to be our own detectives while reading the movements of the fictional detectives inside the novel. It's one of the traits of good mystery novels. Instead of just reading the detective solving the mystery, we get to be the detective solving the mystery. I'm sure we've all had that one mystery novel where we figure out who the culprit is even before the characters do. With Christie though, you're always kept guessing. You can think you're right, but then she brings in a new detail or event and you're left scrambling to figure out who it really was.
Christie doesn't dumb us down with unimportant details about the characters' lives or pasts. For example, the woman who witnesses the murder used to own the house Marina Gregg lives in. Instead of listing her feelings and thoughts about the house and her past with it for pages and pages, Christie just gives us a few short sentences. These sentences only contain what is necessary to the plot, give or take a few personal details to make the characters less like fact machines and more like human beings. The only side plot in this novel is Marple's struggle with her caretaker, Miss Knight. It's brought back from time to time to give us a breather from the grim murder, but it's not the central focus of the novel. I wasn't wondering if Marple would prevail over Miss Knight for the majority of the book.
Another critical trait of a murder mystery (or any mystery really) is suspense. Christie is a master of suspense. When there's foreboding foreshadowing or spine chilling suspense, you feel it. An example would be when Marple incidentally meets the future murder victim. Marple says that the woman reminds her of someone. The woman asks Marple what this person does now and Marple chillingly replies, "Oh, she's dead." And the chapter ends. If that doesn't make the room slightly colder, I don't know what does. It makes the mystery so much more interesting and it really makes this novel a page turner.
Before I finish, I'll briefly look over the mystery itself. I promise there won't be many spoilers.
The mystery is interesting, even its simplicity. Everyone knows the "poison the famous celebrity" trope. It's a pretty common one nowadays, but Christie always made her take fresh. You're made to think one thing, but it's the opposite. This is not your typical celebrity involvement murder mystery. Everyone has secrets and most of them are revealed in one way or another. The developments rise and fall like a roller coaster - sometimes the trail is hot, other times it's stone cold. But Christie doesn't make the cold parts boring. Rather, she makes them meaningful. If the police inspector hits a dead end, Christie takes us to the next potential clue that has yet to be discovered, whether we know it or not. The actual murderer and their reasoning for the murder are genuinely surprising once you get to the big reveal. Part of what makes Miss Marple so meaningful as a "detective" is that, despite her age, she knows when to act. She may sit in her house for most of the novel, but when she acts and leaves it - it's for an important reason. The big reveal is her important moment and she takes full advantage of it. That being said, once you find out the whole story, it leaves you torn. You're not sure whether to pity the murderer or to feel indignant at their crime. There is no black and white in this - only grey.
All in all, The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side is a brilliant, first class murder mystery from a brilliant, first class mystery writer. Agatha Christie has yet to disappoint me.
I give The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side an A+.
As always, please support the author by buying the book or borrowing it from your local library.