Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in the BBC production in 1987

The plot, the characters and the action seem as muddled as the minds of Canon Pennyfather or General Radley who inhabit the traditional environs of Bertram’s Hotel in Pond Street near Piccadilly Circus.

The over complicated plot detracts from the mystery of the disappearing Canon, a murder, a train robbery, a jewellery theft, a young woman’s quest to discover her inheritance and the use of the hotel for a front for criminal activity. The various strands seemed more like ideas jotted down from Agatha Christie’s book of storylines which hadn’t yet been used – so she thought she might as well stick them all in at once.

The main character of the novel and the one best drawn is the hotel itself. An establishment, the author lovingly creates. Set sometime in the early 1960s Bertram’s Hotel is a throwback to Edwardian England when the well healed sought the comfort of their country houses in its, ‘rich red velvet and plushy cosiness,’ and its ‘magnificent coal fires.’ Despite the antique nature of the hotel (and its guests) it had been modernised: ‘There was of course central heating, but it was not apparent.’

Miss Marple listens in to the conversations of the guests from one of the high backed armchairs designed for arthritic old ladies as she pieces together vital information about the dodgy racing driver Ladislaus Malinowski who works for adventuress Lady Sedgwick and her daughter the financially ambitious Elvira. Instead of following the deductive powers of the redoubtable Miss Jane Marple the detective work is largely done by Chief Inspector Fred Davy known as Father who slowly puts together the baffling case of criminality, murder and robbery.

It’s as confusing as Canon Pennyfather’s powers of recall caused by a blow to the head. For such a posh hotel there’s a surprising level of crime although despite its obvious undertones of evil Miss Marple sticks it out for a fortnight. The average tweed wearing visitor to London up from the country would be better advised to sleep on a park bench or book into a Premier Inn type of establishment so as to avoid being coshed, shot or robbed.

Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple and Martine McCutcheon as the maid in the 2007 production

Apart from the hotel’s character and description there is another attraction and that is Christie’s turn of phrase such as: ‘Mr Hoffman’s eyes rested for a moment on the rotundity of Father’s figure with disapprobation.’ And when Father interrogates the sexy actress turned maid Rose Sheldon he ‘ran an approving eye over her pleasant person.’ Such a genteel description – and such a genteel if complex spoof-like Cluedo-esque whodunit with a hallmark Agatha Christie surprise twist at the end.

Harry Mottram

+ Published in 1965 by the Collins Crime Club At Bertram’s Hotel is one of Christie’s last novels and unusual for being set in 1960s London. It had mixed reviews suggesting it was not one her best. The BBC made a film adaption of the story with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple in 1987 and ITV screened a much altered version with Geraldine McEwan as the detective spinster in 2007.

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