My comfort books of choice are mysteries.
This is in part because a good mystery can engage your mind while being separate from the real troubles of your life. But it’s also because when I was around 10 or 11 I graduated from reading Nancy Drew to diving into my mother’s extensive pile of Agatha Christie books.
That is, I associate those books with the somewhat simpler time of childhood.
As a kid, I vastly preferred the Poirot novels to the ones featuring Miss Marple, and I continued in that preference until after my mother died and I ended up with a bunch of her books. I picked up a Marple and discovered I liked those stories much better than I had as a kid.
It might have been because I had reached the age that Jane Marple is in some of the early books. Christie wisely never quite specifies her age, but at a guess she’s in her late 50s in the early ones and maybe pushing 90 by the end. I was ready for stories about a smart old woman.
And Miss Marple is very smart, a reminder that the misogyny of the 20th century wrote off a large number of intelligent women with a lot to offer society. Christie’s plots are always absurd, but that doesn’t take away from Miss Marple’s powers of observation and detection.
I recently discovered that one of the ebook providers through my library has the Miss Marple books and, in need of some comfort reading, I’ve been going through them. Last week I finally decided to try The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, one of the later books, published in 1962 when Christie herself would have been in her 70s.
As a rule, when I re-read a mystery, I’ve forgotten who actually “done it,” though pieces of the story come back to me. (This rule does not apply to books I’ve read multiple times, such as Gaudy Night.) But in this case, I not only remembered who the murderer was, I also remembered that I really hadn’t liked the book when I was young. So I wasn’t sure what I’d think.
I did like it better this time, though I was also much more aware of the ableism, racism, and issues of social class that permeate the story.
On the other hand, it wasn’t ageist. One key subplot involves the companion who now lives with Miss Marple because of her health. This companion is the sort of person who talks to her charges as “we” and ignores their preferences because she doesn’t believe they are mentally competent. Since we see her from Miss Marple’s POV, we understand just how grating that behavior is for an old person, even one who needs some assistance.
But the real reason I’m writing about this book is that it slipped out of the comfort reading category because of a key element of the plot that feels all too relevant in a time of ongoing pandemic.
Discussing that requires a major spoiler for the book, which I might not do except for the fact that it was first published 60 years ago and I suspect that very few people who really want to read it and be surprised have not already read it.
If you fall into that small class, don’t keep reading.
In the book, a famous movie star has moved into the manor house in St. Mary Mead. Early on, Miss Marple falls down outside the house of a Mrs. Badcock, who, in the process of helping her, tells the story of how she met the movie star and got her autograph some years back.
It seems Mrs. Badcock was ill when the opportunity for the autograph arose, but got out of her sick bed and put on makeup to disguise her illness so that she could meet the star. And meet her she did.
A few weeks later, there is a gala at the manor house to raise funds for charity and Mrs. Badcock is introduced to the star. She immediately bursts out with her story of meeting the star while sick. A few minutes later, her drink gets spilled down her dress, and the star presses her own glass — from which she hasn’t drunk — on the woman.
Another few minutes and Mrs. Badcock is dead. After a bit of investigation, the general consensus is that someone was trying to kill the star. Who would kill Mrs. Badcock?
However, Miss Marple notes that while Mrs. Badcock was a kind woman who always tried to help people, she was also someone who was convinced that her ideas of what to do were right, whether it was putting sugar in someone’s tea because they’d had a shock even though they didn’t like sugar in their tea or going to an event despite being unwell.
In fact, it is pretty clear that nobody much likes Mrs. Badcock, even though she is the sort of person who is always doing things to “help.” It’s obvious how self-centered she really is.
To cut to the chase: when Mrs. Badcock went to see the star on the earlier occasion, she had German measles, usually called rubella today. And the star was pregnant at the time.
The movie star caught the measles. When her son was born, he was found to be an “idiot” — a part of the book that will enrage people, as will the fact that he was apparently put in an institution and his mother the star never saw him again.
Rubella during early pregnancy often causes babies to be born both deaf and blind and can cause other birth defects. The thought of a child being put in an institution for life because of that is sickening, though it happened.
One could write a dissertation on the ableism underlying this plot. It is easy to get the idea that the star wanted a baby for show. She is not a nice person at all.
When she finds out how she got the measles, she decides to kill.
But what strikes me, in these pandemic times, is that Mrs. Badcock had measles, a highly contagious disease — something well-known at the time — and covered the spots on her face with makeup so that she could go see the movie star.
She thought only of herself, not of the fact that she was contagious and could make other people sick simply by leaving her house. And she did make someone else sick.
As Miss Marple said of her: “She thought always of what an action meant to her, never sparing a thought as to what it might mean to somebody else.”
And that kind of behavior underlies so much of what we see with the pandemic today. Far too many people are behaving like Mrs. Badcock. They don’t expect to get seriously ill from Covid, so they don’t have any compunction about being careless and spreading it around.
That’s why more than a million people have died in the richest country in the world. It’s inconvenient for people to wear masks, so they don’t. It costs money to improve ventilation in schools, so it hasn’t been done.
Older people and the disabled are at greater risk of serious illness. Further, no one is yet sure about the long term effects of the disease.
It is not unreasonable for people to do their best to avoid getting this disease.
Unfortunately, there are all too many Mrs. Badcocks in our world today, people who don’t want to wear a mask or take any effort to avoid spreading disease. They even mock those who are making efforts to stay safe.
Miss Marple would probably say there have always been people like this in the world. She’s probably right, but it never occurred to me that there were so many of them.