Gwenda gets off the boat at Plymouth, hires a car, looks for village to live in. And finds one: a perfectly charming cottage with aga, a kitchen garden and flowered wallpaper. Gwenda moves in with her rosewood, her mahogany, her papermache, her chintz and all the fabrics of domesticity. She feels from the start that the house and the garden are familiar; she knows in advance where the doors are and where they ought to be, she imagines the wallpaper of a room and then discovers the very same wallpaper in a boarded up cupboard. There is something uncannily familiar about the house from the start.
By the end of the first week she has had one or two hallucinations, and thinks perhaps that she is going mad. She meets Miss Marple who suggests that there may be another way to explain her familiarity with the house. Perhaps she has lived in the house before. Which is of course a perfectly sensible English alternative to Freud: “You are not mad; your house is old, your ancestors are ugly, your hallucinations are memories and best avoided.” But this is impossible. Gwenda is from New Zealand, and she is curious.
What she finds unsurprisingly is murder.
There are very few perfect beginnings to a story. Beginnings which move through images at the same rate as they move through text, rolling into a plot detectibly, sensibly, unhurriedly. A boy, for example, making the rounds on his bicycle, delivering the daily papers:
…At Colonel and Mrs Easterbrook’s, he delivered The Times and the Daily Graphic. At Mrs Sweatenham’s he left The Times and The Daily Worker. At Miss Hingecliff’s and Miss Murgatroyd’s he left The Daily Telegraph and The News Chronicle. At Miss Blacklocke’s, he left The Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail. At all these houses, and indeed in practically every house in Chipping Cleghorn, he delivered every Friday, a copy of the North Benom News and The Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, known simply as The Gazette. Thus on Friday mornings, after a hurried glance at the headlines in the daily paper…. most of the inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn eagerly opened the Gazette and plunged into the local news. After a cursory glance at correspondence, in which the passionate hates and feuds of rural life found full play, most of the subscribers then turned to the local column.
We can easily sketch in our mind a series of houses, in front of which stand assorted sizes of mailbox, and in which kitchens sit the inhabitants of this happy English village, eating their singular English breakfasts, reading the headlines, the correspondence, the local news, and then, more likely than not, the Classifieds, in which are published up to the minute or almost up to the minute ads, as relevant and localizable as Tweets.
After the funeral, there is the family and the village. There is a batty aunt, a hysterical and heirless English lord, his ancient butler, and a smattering of inadequate and weak-willed in-laws, waiting for their share. These are the leftovers of the comfortable class, who married badly and relied on unreliable servants. Unlike Miss Gilchrist, who knew how to cook, and ran a pretty little teashop before the war.
A wagonful of new Agatha Christie audiobooks (“lesser” works?) shows us an Agatha knee-deep in Freud, perhaps, indeed, an “English Freud”. Here she experiments with the entire merde ridden hagiography of psychoanalytic terms: pathologies, neuroses, perversions, deviances, persecutions. Sarah has just finished her M.B. and is interested in psychology. She looks on as an old obese mother, an ugly wheelchaired figure wields a regime of psychological oppression over her “nervy” “nervous” unnerved family. The ugly Mrs. Boynton continues to perform her chores as the warden of a women’s prison, although she no longer performs them inside a prison. Instead she institutes prohibitions against the emotions, liberties, impulses, movements, of her step sons and daughters.
Sarah complains of the rudeness of Raymond Boynton, who ignores her in the presence of his mother, despite their earlier conversation. The tradition of English manners comes to Jerusalem not in opposition to rudeness but rather as a prophylactic to madness; madness is the excess of civilization, the bad habit of civilization. As the narrator in An Appointment With Death tells us about the horrific Mrs. Boynton: “In a savage tribe they would have boiled and eaten her up her years ago”.