‘4:50 from Paddington’ is the last train based book from Agatha Christie. Unlike the others that I have covered this one doesn’t feature Poirot but rather Miss Marple. Published in 1957 it is set in that early Cold War climate, the launch of Sputnik is even commented on.
Marple stories tend to be more sedate than those of Christie’s other characters. Jane Marple herself is an elderly woman who trains young girls as maids in St Mary Meade. She rarely, in print, gets involved directly with the scene of crime and just listens to what people are telling her, to gossip and tittle tattle and reads reports in the press.
Through this process Marple is able to make an educated guess as to who the culprit is, then causes them to expose themselves. Normally by putting someone else in apparent danger.
Poirot almost always has proof to back up his theory, Marple rarely does. She relies on the murderer giving themselves away. Because she is held in high regard by influential people high up in the Police and the Home Office she is able to pull off her little schemes, even if gathering evidence that way isn’t really legal.
Christie’s post war novels tend on the whole to be smaller in scale that the earlier ones. At the outbreak of war she had attempted to sign up as a nurse, the role she had filled in the First War. Told she was too old she instead retrained as a dispenser and worked in the pharmacy at University Hospital London.
Her husband Max Mallowan served with the RAF Volunteer Reserve in North Africa, using his skills in Arabic and his knowledge of the Middle East. Eventually gaining the rank of Wing Commander.
This meant that Christie was alone in London, she found the Blitz terrifying and developed a conviction that she would die in an air raid. However she stayed in London, and was able to write as well as work, throughout the war.
In ‘4:50 from Paddington’ a friend of Miss Marple’s Elspeth McGillicuddy thinks she sees a woman being strangled, when her train passes another train sitting in a siding, while travelling to stay with Miss Marple.
The police look into the matter, but only because of Marple’s reputation, do not find a body and quickly decide McGillicuddy was imagining it. Marple is not convinced and realising the siding overlooks Crackenthope Manor decides to put someone on the inside.
A former student of Marple’s, now a respected housekeeper, Lucy Eyelesbarrow quickly installs herself with the family, finds the body and gets entangled in a love triangle with two of the family members.
What follows is a bizarre will stipulation, a lot of intrigue and misdirection a second murder, a suspicious death and it all ending with Marple able to work out the solution and enact one of her little schemes forcing the culprit’s hand and once again saving the police from embarrassment.
In 1961 ‘4:50 from Paddington’ was the first Miss Marple novel to be filmed, as ‘Murder, She Said’ starring Margaret Rutherford. This omits both McGillicuddy and Eyelesbarrow with Marple herself being the witness and the one to get into the house. Played as a comedy of manners it set the tone for Rutherford’s other outings as Marple.
The BBC adapted ‘4:50 from Paddington’ as part of it’s ‘Miss Marple’ series starring Joan Hickson in 1987. This version sticks close to the plot, although has some minor differences. For many Hickson is the definitive Marple, indeed in the 1940s when Hickson was appearing in the stage play of ‘Appointment with Death’ Christie wrote her a note saying “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.”
ITV produced their version of ‘4:50 from Paddington’ as part of the ‘Agatha Christie’s Marple’ series in 2004 starring Geraldine McEwan as Marple. This version has major deviations from the plot and even adds another character to turn the romantic sub plot from a triangle to four way dance.
Agatha Christie continued to write until 1973. She died at the age of 85 in 1976. Her final two novels, ‘Sleeping Murder’ and ‘Curtain: Poirot’s last case’ which had been written during World War Two and then kept in a bank vault were published during the last two years of her life.