"I've just seen a murder"
It's 1957. Christmas is 5 days away, and Elspeth McGillicuddy forces her way through the hustle and bustle of Paddington railway station to reach Platform No. 3 for The 4:50 to Brackhampton, on her way to visit an old friend. She boards. As the train begins it's long journey she has a short nap. A porter passes down the corridor offering refreshments. Another train passes by going in the same direction... for a moment they almost appear stationary side by side...
And as Mrs Gillicuddy looks into the first class carriage opposite, she watches with horror as a woman is strangled to death...
"Oh Jane," she distressingly says later to Miss Marple, "I've just seen a murder!"
After a somewhat lacklustre series of books (After the Funeral, Destination Unknown, Dead Man's Folly), Agatha Christie returns to form somewhat with 4:50 From Paddington.
First published in 1957, it was her 58th book published and the 8th to feature Miss Marple.
This is one of Christie's more famous books and deals with Miss Marple's attempts to track down a murderer despite not having a body or any evidence that such a murder has taken place. When the police cannot find any evidence of a body either on the train or along the railway line, Miss Marple is the only one who believes Elspeth's claim and takes it upon herself to investigate. She discovers that the only place a body could have been thrown from the train without being found is near old Crackenthorpe Hall.
Miss Marple recruits friend and freelance housekeeper Lucy Eylesbarrow to go undercover at the Hall and investigate. The Hall is owned by elderly Mr Crackenthorpe, who lives with his daughter Emma. Coming to visit are his sons Harold, Alfred and Cedric and his widowed son in law Bryan plus his son Alexander. Plenty of suspects.
Miss Marple appears sporadically from here on in, mostly as she works with Detective Inspector Craddock (a Marple regular) when a body finally turns up. One of the best aspects of the book is that the identity of the victim is a mystery throughout and it's fun trying to work out who she could be, why she was killed and what her connection with Crackenthrope Hall is.
Indeed, Christie lays out many red herrings in the book with links to various members of the Crackenthrope family, alive and dead, and you'll be running through all kinds of connotations in your head until the end of the books when Christie turns everything around and surprises you as usual. Which is the trademark of a great mystery novel.
While all this is happening, two of the sons fall in love with Lucy which forms a secondary story to the murder, and of course it's perfectly possible that one of them may be the murderer, an idea that Christie has enjoyed using in the past to great effect. Naturally I'm not going to give the game away!
It's not often in a Christie book that you have an eye witness to the murder right from the get go, but no body, no evidence and no murderer - as if the whole thing never happened! But Miss Marple knows her friend is very down to earth and sensible so there must be something in what she says, so continues with dogged persistance. Another idea that sets the book apart from the usual mystery.
Occasionally the book does peter out occasionally - you'll be waiting for more revelations or another murder - then something happens to engage your interest again, for example when everyone is poisoned with arsenic in the curry (!)
The only disappointment is the denouement.
I don't mean the identity of the murderer but the way they are revealed to us; I much prefer everyone gathering together as the detective outlines the solution to the case, building up to the revelation of the killer at the end. In this book however, the denouement is very short - it's simply 'you're the murderer', followed by a brief explanation from Miss Marple much later. All very plausible (and works out fine when re-reading the book) but disappointing.
It's rather a shame, really, that so few Miss Marple books were written as she is quite a good detective.
Advantages: Good idea for a murder story, Plenty of red herrings
Disadvantages: Disappointing end