A local theater known for presenting edgy, adventurous plays surprised many of its fans by opening “The Mousetrap” late last year. What could be less cutting-edge than Agatha Christie’s 65-year-old war horse? Nevertheless, this theatrical comfort food proved as popular in Berkeley, California, as it has been in London’s West End, where “The Mousetrap” has run continuously since 1952; it sold out every performance, and if the theater didn’t have a new production scheduled for early February, I have no doubt that it could have continued packing ’em in for weeks to come.
Christie’s books still attract millions of readers who love her breezy writing style and ingenious mysteries. Some of the solutions she presents are so memorable that I can remember exactly whodunit and why, even years later. Others are a little more prosaic. I’d put They Do It with Mirrors in the latter category—it’s clever, of course, but not knock-your-socks-off clever. A reader who spent a year reviewing every single Christie novel ranked it at #54 (out of 78).
Like so many of her books, Mirrors takes place at a country house, in this case Stonygates, home to one of Miss Marple’s old school friends, Carrie Louise Serrocold. Carrie Louise’s sister Ruth begs Miss Marple to visit Stonygates and figure out what’s going on there. Ruth is rather vague as to what the problem might be—”Something is wrong down there. But I don’t know why or what”—but Marple readily agrees to investigate. “You’re not a fanciful woman, Ruth,” she declares.
Carrie Louise is on her third marriage, and the book is chock-full of stepchildren and offspring from previous relationships. Her current husband, Lewis Serrocold, has turned Stonygates into a home for wayward juveniles. “There Lewis and Carrie Louise are, living there, surrounded by these boys—who aren’t perhaps quite normal,” says Ruth. “And the place stiff with occupational therapists and teachers and enthusiasts, half of them quite mad. Cranks, the lot of them, and my little Carrie Louise in the middle of it all!”
The “juvenile delinquents” aren’t as big a part of the story as I had imagined they would be. Instead, most of the suspects in the inevitable murder are family members, including Carrie Louise’s granddaughter Gina and her American G.I. husband, Wally; Carrie Louise’s stepsons from her second marriage, Alexis and Stephen; and her spinster daughter Mildred. (The book could have benefited from a family tree in the front, instead of a diagram of the house.)
Mirrors was published in 1952, and to the modern-day reader, it can be surprising to note how the characters’ ethnic backgrounds are handled. Gina is the offspring of Carrie Louise’s adopted daughter Pippa and an Italian count, so of course she is stereotyped because of her father’s nationality: “Gina would say anything. The Italians are never truthful,” Mildred tells the police. “And she’s a Roman Catholic, of course.” Later, Mildred accuses, “I daresay it’s the Italian in you that makes you turn to poison.” Meanwhile, the Inspector investigating the crime notices one of the stepsons’ “un-English Mongolian type of face” (Alexis and Stephen’s mother was Russian). “Anything to do with Russia was bad in Inspector Curry’s opinion.”
These attitudes might elicit a chuckle from the 21st century reader, but one line was downright jarring. Inspector Curry is discussing the crime with Miss Marple, and wants to know who she thinks the culprit is. “Well now, let’s have your point of view. Who’s the n—– in the woodpile? The G.I. husband?”
Anyone who reads Golden Age mysteries has encountered similar slurs, especially those aimed at racial, religious and sexual minorities. Personally, I feel that throwaway “woodpile” line could easily be changed to something less offensive to modern readers, whereas other stereotypes (like Gina’s Italian heritage) are, for better or for worse, important parts of the plot. There’s precedent for this, since Christie’s And Then There Were None had a much more offensive title when it was originally published in 1939. I had no awareness of the original title until long after I’d read the book, so it’s not like the renaming affected my enjoyment in any way.
British crime writer John Worsley Simpson wrote a thoughtful blog post about bigotry in the works of Raymond Chandler, concluding, “[M]aybe what we should take away from this aspect of Chandler’s writing is that it’s an accurate reflection of the values and attitudes of the time, and, on that basis, actually a valuable record of the mores of an era, and we should recognize with gratitude that we are alive at this time in the history of the world and not then, and acknowledge that: there but for the fact we were born later go we.” The same, of course, can be said about Agatha Christie.