They Do it With Mirrors is an Agatha Christie novel. You know what to expect.
Miss Jane Marple, little old lady and amateur sleuth extraordinaire, is sent by an old school friend, Ruth, to Stonygates, a dilapidated mansion belonging to Ruth’s sister Carrie Louise. Ruth is worried about her sister, but can’t put her finger on why. Is it because Stonygates now plays host to a home for delinquent boys? Because of Carrie Louise’s adopted granddaughter Gina’s sulky American husband, newly come to a country he doesn’t like? Because of Carrie Louise’s husband’s unstable secretary Edgar Lawson?
Before Miss Marple can work it all out – but still probably quite a bit later than we were all expecting – the inevitable corpse turns up: that of Christian Gulbrandsen, Carrie Louise’s stepson and a trustee of the home for delinquent boys. What’s more, someone’s been slowly poisoning Carrie Louise. Who is the murderer?
I do like the occasional Agatha Christie: there’s something inexpressibly cosy about her novels, a combined function of their being set in a time more polite, more formal than the present day and their core pretence that something as inexplicable and excessive as murder is rational and solvable. They posit a world that is essentially logical, one where everything makes sense and everything can be worked out and where there are only ever a limited number of variables. They posit a world that runs on rules: there is a deviation from the rule of law, but by the end of the novel justice has been served, the offender has been punished, and order is restored.
This is a lie, of course, and not a particularly elegant one. They Do it With Mirrors is not a particularly renowned Christie, probably because it is both underbaked and overworked: I couldn’t help thinking, when the solution of the murder was revealed, that it all seemed like a lot of effort to go to, when there were probably a host of better and less obvious ways of going about it.
Of course, those ways wouldn’t make half so good a story. Or, at least, they’d make a different kind of story. As the title suggests, They Do it With Mirrors is slightly aware of its own artifice: its plot hinges on stagecraft and on misdirection, after all. It knows itself to be a magic trick, a way of telling us that the world looks one way when actually it’s something quite different.
Only, you know, this is an Agatha Christie novel. If you’re looking for profound meditations on the nature of murder and the ineffability of the world, you’re in the wrong place. It’s a tiny pocket universe where everything runs like clockwork, like a magic trick, and everyone has reasons for doing what they do, and poetic justice and rational thinking come neatly to package up the messiness of the real hermetically and hygienically. It’s cosy. It’s an escape. Some days, that’s enough.
(Really, though: not my favourite Christie. Try The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side instead.)