“There was no unkindness in Miss Marple, she just did not trust people. Though she expected the worst, she often accepted people kindly in spite of what they were.“ Agatha Christie – An AutobiographyWell, apparently I devour Agatha Christie books just as fast now as when I was thirteen. This lasted only the day but was a lovely reminder of why I loved Christie's books so as a much younger woman. Many readers view At Bertram's Hotel as a lesser Christie, written near the end of her career but I do not find that true at all. In fact, it is in many parts an insightful reflection on aging and misplaced sentiment, and a quietly held reminder that the present holds a higher value than often assessed.
The novel begins with Miss Marple checking in to the understated but elegant Bertram's Hotel in London for a fortnight stay courtesy of a gift from her niece and nephew. She remembers the hotel from a stay in her girlhood and is initially eager to re-visit those memories. Stepping into the lobby is a step backward into Edwardian England complete with impeccable service and an old world charm that draws both an older clientele like Miss Marple and moneyed tourists from across the globe seeking not the comforts of home in their lodging but an indulgence of English stereotype held in their novel-fed minds. Bertram's Hotel is so lavishly described as to immediately place its physical existence in the place of protagonist in the book. It is the principal character here but one we are to realize that is not simply what its exterior suggests.
What would a Miss Marple vacation be without intrigue? So of course there is an vanishing absent minded cleric, a thrill-seeking socialite who does not quite belong in this setting as she works at avoiding her estranged daughter, a European race car driver and shadows from everyone's pasts. Whether it ends in the resolution of a crime syndicate investigation being conducted by Scotland Yard or an answer as to the whereabouts of the missing canon or a revelation of the evil that Miss Marple predicts is an aside to the insights on aging in the present day (mid 1960s):
"All those elderly people - really very much like those she remembered when she had stayed here fifty years ago. They had been natural then - but they weren't very natural now. Elderly people nowadays weren't like elderly people then - they had that harried look of domestic anxieties with which they are too tired to cope, or they rushed around to committees and tried to appear bustling and competent, or they dyed their hair gentian blue, or wore wigs, or their hands were not the hands she remembered, tapering, delicate hands - they were harsh from washing up and detergents ...."To the fusion of memory to the present:
"A French phrase came back to her: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. She reversed the wording. Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ca change. Both true, she thought. She felt sad - for Bertrams's Hotel and for herself."And in the end, a refusal on Christie's part to idealize her own history as a writer through Marple who remains as oddly unsentimental as ever even when the temptations of age and nostalgia present themselves. Christie delivers the same razor sharp human insight for which we rely upon her and delivers a tightly constructed mystery that kept me reading hungrily all the while embracing a narrative present as well as a career present on a personal level. And Bertram's Hotel? Well, who doesn't appreciate a well-appointed luxury hotel? The Agatha Christie website suggests that Bertram's was rumored to have been modeled upon famed Brown's Hotel, another travel lust to add to the list.