This isn’t the first time I’m reviewing one of Agatha Christie’s books, which probably has something to with the fact that I’ve read dozens of them. As I mentioned in my review on The Pale Horse, which you can read here, my grandfather left me his entire collection of Christie books, but long before that I was already hooked. And it’s a family thing: we all love to read murder mysteries and on Saturday evenings, we would often watch some kind of detective adaptation on TV. I was very young when I first became engrossed by this macabre but mind-probing kind of mystery and long before my grandfather’s death, I started reading Christie on my own. I think I was around 12 years old when I first read At Bertram’s Hotel and it left a lasting impression on me, because I believe it is one of the best books, plot-wise, that Agatha Christie has written.
Our favourite innocent but nosy old lady, Miss Marple, is taking a vacation in London and staying at the fancy Bertram’s Hotel. As soon as she arrives, she is struck by how the hotel hasn’t changed one bit since she stayed there before the war! This special charm appears to attract all kinds of interesting characters, because the hotel is filled with politicians, clergy and other famous Brits. Among them is Lady Selina Hazy, an old friend of Miss Marple, whom she meets for tea at the hotel. Strangely enough, Lady Selina keeps on thinking she recognises people, only to realise she is mistaken. However, she does spot Bess Sedgewick correctly, a gorgeous woman famous for her adventurousness and her many, many husbands. At the same time, a young girl by the name of Elvira Blake checks into the hotel with her guardian, Colonel Luscombe. And Miss Marple discovers another friend of her is staying at the hotel: the forgetful Canon Pennyfather. The old lady only starts to get suspicious when the famous race car driver Ladislaus Malinowski begins to hang around at the hotel with young Elvira.
Slowly, we learn more and more about these colourful characters. Elvira finds out that she will inherit a great deal of money from her estranged mother as soon as she turns 21. This makes her decide to set up some sort of scheme with her best friend, that will allow her to fly to Ireland for reasons still unknown to the reader. On that same day, Canon Pennyfather is expected on a congress in Lucern. However, forgetful as he is, he has mixed up the dates and misses his flight, so he returns to Bertram’s a day earlier than expected. As he returns, he not only finds an intruder in his hotel room, but he is also knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, a few days later, he is accused of a robbery by the police, but can’t remember anything! In the meantime, Bess Sedgewick has managed to discover a man from her past, now a hotel attendant. Miss Marple is conveniently at the library when she hears the two argue loudly about their past. The next night, two shots ring through the street on which Bertram’s Hotel is located.
As soon as the noise has sounded, people start running towards the screams. They find Elvira Blake next to the body of the hotel attendant, claiming that the killer was aiming for her and that the attendant has tried to save her. It doesn’t take long for the police to find out that the gun that was used belongs to Malinowski. Miss Marple, always noticing things that others ignore, talks to Canon Pennyfather. She tries to help him regain his memory to remember what happened to him on the night he was attacked. For a long time, nothing comes, but then a word pops up into his fragmented mind: doppelganger. From this moment on, Miss Marple starts to believe that a sinister operation takes place at Bertram’s. In fact, Bertram’s Hotel with all its pre-war charms might be nothing more than a front, and the daring Bess Sedgewick is right at the centre of this scandal.
Agatha Christie has written two types of books, in my opinion. Some are great fun, spine chilling, but plot-wise, not that good. I’d say the Pale Horse fits nicely into this category. Read the review, but I’ll say that I thoroughly enjoyed that book, though I didn’t think it was very cleverly written. At the end of the book, I still had many unanswered questions and many plot points simply didn’t make any sense. At Bertram’s Hotel is the complete opposite. When it comes to plot, it’s absolutely at the other end of the spectrum, because once you read the end, literally everything fits! Just like the hotel fools its guests, the same thing happens to you while you’re reading the book. The wool is being pulled over your eyes and it takes a while before you realise it is happening. In fact, I needed Miss Marple to tell me it was happening before realising it myself. Another problem Christie’s books sometimes have is that a character appears at the end of it all of a sudden and resolves a plot line or a family relation is explained of which you, as a reader, couldn’t possibly know. Again, this isn’t the case in this novel. All the elements are there and at the end you’ll slap yourself, saying: of course! Everything about this book is cleverly constructed, nicely built up and fantastically executed, until the very last and unexpected plot twist.
Of course, I have to say something about the absolutely brilliant character of Miss Marple, if only because I haven’t had the chance to do so before. Jane Marple is a kind, elderly spinster, who lives in the tiny village of St. Mary Mead. This means that she is completely ordinary and hardly ever noticed. She herself remarks at one point that “anyone asking questions might be seen as inquisitive and suspicious, but an old lady asking questions is nothing but an old lady asking questions.” In fact, she is by no means ordinary and this has everything to do with her exceptional skills of observation. She notices small things, little habits people have, when they break their daily rhythms and she has an incredible knowledge of people in general. Her strength comes from that tiny village she lives in and the ordinary but unique villagers: she compares everyone she comes across to those villagers and through this method she is able to see what other people fail to notice. So, the entire world can be found and known through the lens of that tiny English village. I think that this might be one of the most original characters I have ever had the pleasure of reading about and for the invention of Miss Marple alone, Agatha Christie deserves eternal glory in my opinion.
But Miss Marple is not the only marvellous character in this book, and I have to say that I loved each and every character in At Bertram’s Hotel. Canon Pennyfather is just so incredibly lifelike, a kind but forgetful clergyman that everyone would like to have in their village, so when he gets attacked, I was simply appalled! Bess Sedgewick is another wonderful invention by Christie: a runaway aristocrat who doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t be allowed to do certain things, just because she is a woman and born into the upper class. I couldn’t agree more. Ladislaus Malinowski! When I first heard his name, I couldn’t stop saying his name over and over to myself, because it sounds wonderful and sort of slides off the tongue. And it fits him perfectly: a foreign, mysterious and beautiful man, with his own vintage sportscar with a gun in the glove pocket, who might be too good with women for his own good. Elvira properly scared me, as does the Colonel to some degree I think, because she may be young, but incredibly calculating when it comes to money, men and getting her own way. And, lastly, Lady Selina! She is only a minor character, but the book wouldn’t be the same without her hysterical commentary on some of the hotel guests. This book does exactly what the hotel does to its guests: the characters are so dazzling, that you fail to see the bigger picture, but still, who wouldn’t be dazzled by these people, whether in real life or just on the page?
It’s a shame that hotels like Bertram’s no longer exist. It would be wonderful to stay at a hotel where it seems like nothing has changed for over a hundred years. It would be lovely to have a kind and engaging staff watching over you, to have breakfast in bed and to have tea with proper scones, not just the American teacakes that they call scones. But it would be exceptionally great to find out about the criminal organisation organising everything behind the scenes. If only a hotel like that still existed, I would spend every one of my holidays there. But, a book about it is nice too, I suppose.
American Horror Story: Hotel – Award: Because Agatha Christie manages to outdo them from the grave
Agatha Christie, At Bertram’s Hotel (London, 1965)