I’m slowly reading my way through Agatha Christie’s books, not in chronological order, but just as I come across them and this month I’ve read They Do It With Mirrors which was first published in 1952.
I don’t think it’s one of her best, but I did like it. It begins with Miss Marple reminiscing with an old friend, Mrs Ruth Van Rydock, an American. Miss Marple has known her and her sister, Carrie Louise since they had been together at a pensionnat in Florence. Ruth is worried about Carrie Louise, who is now living in a country house in the south of England with her husband, Lewis Serrocold, which he has turned into a home for delinquent boys. She can’t put her finger on what is wrong, she just felt the atmosphere wasn’t right, whether it was the boys’ home – ‘those dreadful young delinquents‘ or something else and she asks Miss Marple to visit Carrie Louise to see if her fears are justified.
Miss Marple finds an unhappy household, including Mildred, Carrie Louise’s widowed daughter, Stephen and Alex, her stepsons, and Gina, her adopted daughter’s daughter, married to an American, Wally Hudd. Lewis Serrocold is Carrie’s third husband, described by Ruth as a
‘crank’, a ‘man with ideals’, ‘bitten by the bug of wanting to improve everybody’s lives for them. And, really you know, nobody can do that but yourself.’
All is not well with the boys either – one of them, Edgar Lawson is suffering from delusions, saying his father is Churchill and then that he is Montgomery. He loses control and Lewis takes him into his office, but their raised voices are heard by the others, culminating in the sound of gunshots. But it is not Lewis or Edgar who is killed, but one of the trustees of the home, Christian Gulbrandsen, the brother of Carrie Louise’s first husband who was alone in his study. So Ruth’s fears materialise when Christian is found shot dead and it seems that someone is trying to poison Carrie Louise.
As I expected from the title not everything is as it appears. The layout of the house is of importance and there is a plan showing how the rooms are connected, but even so I was still in the dark. I hadn’t worked out who the murderer is and had even ruled out the person in question quite early on in the book. Miss Marple, however, was not deceived and had sorted out the reality from the illusion and seen through the misdirection.
… all the things that seemed to be true were only illusions. Illusions created for a definite purpose – in the same way that conjurers create illusions to deceive an audience.
There are a number of points that struck me as interesting as I read the book, not essential to the plot, but maybe revealing Agatha Christie’s opinions and her views of post-war society. There is the subject of self-help and the issue of expecting things to be granted as a right, focussing on providing education for the juvenile delinquents by men crazy with enthusiasm like Lewis Serrocold:
One of those men of enormous will power who like living on a banana and a piece of toast and put all their energies into a Cause.
She makes the point that just because a person comes from a deprived background doesn’t mean they’re going to turn into criminals and it is the honest ones who could do with a start in life – ‘But there, honesty has to be its own reward – millionaires don’t leave trust funds to help the worthwhile.’
There are comments on the oddness of the English, being prouder of defeats and retreats than of their victories, using Dunkirk as an example and the Charge of the Light Brigade. At the same time as I was reading this I was also reading Jeremy Paxman’s The English: a Portrait of a People, in which he also comments on this trait – turning the consequence of catastrophe into a ‘victorious retreat’.
On a more personal level there are her views on the vulnerability of women:
Women have a much worse time of it in the world than men do. They’re more vulnerable. They have children and they mind – terribly – about their children. As soon as they lose their looks, the men they love don’t love them any more. They’re betrayed and deserted and pushed aside.
I can’t help thinking that really was Agatha Christie speaking from experience.