This is probably one of the blander titles Christie has done. At least “Sittaford” sounds unfamiliar.
A Caribbean Mystery is one of Christie's later Marple novels, and already I was feeling a bit of dread going in. I like Christie, like all sane and rational people do, but very few can deny the quality drop in her later years. The fact that this was a Marple novel, which tend to be weaker on the mystery side of things, didn’t help with that. Still, I haven’t read a bad Christie yet*, so I had hopes.
Also I enjoyed Third Girl. My taste is already numb.
As the title states, Miss Marple is currently on a Caribbean cruise, courtesy of her nephew. She’s also bored out of her mind, and stuck listening to an old major ramble about his times in Africa and all that. At one point he mentions having a photo of a murderer on him, and is about to show it when he looks behind Miss Marple, freaks out, and suddenly shoves it back where is came from. Sadly, the tropical air has addled Miss Marple’s brain, and she doesn’t think anything of it until the Major turns up dead from high blood pressure.
Of course, while everyone knows he had it, no one can remember where they heard it. And the picture is gone.
Now, JJ at The Invisible Event took a look at this book, and did a post about nostalgia, Christie in her old age, and many thematic things, which is good and you should read. It also gives me an excuse to focus on the mystery aspect, which I’m fine with.
The main problem with the mystery is that Marple does very little in the way of investigating for half the book, only seriously getting involved after the obligatory second murder. To be honest, it doesn't even feel like her investigation accomplishes much, as little of the information she learns is important to solving the case. I think like one conversation is actually useful, in the long run. At one point, we learn that two characters conspired to poison another in the backstory. Do we learn this from Marple’s tireless investigation, or at the very least intuition? Nope, we learn it in third person narrative, and it proves to be of no importance to the plot.
Speaking of suspects, they’re...there. A mix of couples, nothing much interesting to say, barring Mr. Rafiel, a cranky old man who proves to be both entertaining and interesting. I’m not one who argues that Christie used 2-D characters, but the suspects here remind of The Body In The Library, mainly how everyone was more or less cardboard. The set-up off the story also limits the potential suspects, and while Christie makes a valiant effort to call into questions what we “know” to extend the net, it feels strained, especially when you consider we get this discussion almost halfway into the book.
Even the pure mystery aspect feels, perhaps not weak, but easy. I can’t imagine what goes on here challenging, say, Poirot for more than a day**. I read in A Catalog of Crime that this is more or less a short story as a novel, and I agree with that. It feels like a short story, from the lack of suspect focus to the more minor mystery to the way it’s resolved. The clue that breaks the case is a simple bit of reasoning, more suited to the shorter form. The culprit is also easy to see coming, thanks to a third murder that more or less gives everything away. And another….aspect that I can’t say without spoilers. It’s the sort of information that the author is assuming you’ll forget, which is fair in a 800-page beast, but not so much in a 200 some page book you can read in a few hours.
In spite of that, I still enjoyed it, to an extent. Most of the flaws I mentioned didn’t hit me until after I was done reading, so it was at least able to maintain plausibility. I attribute most of this to Christie's skill at plain writing, a skill all wannabe (and actual!) authors would kill to have. I would know. The narrative keeps moving, and it all passed by so quick that you don’t notice the flaws in the set-up until you’re long past.
All in all, slightly below average Christie. Of course, “slightly below average Christie” is still better than most, but nonetheless, this is Partly Recommended at best.
*except for Dumb Witness, and that was more boring than anything.
** This comes with the disclaimer that I expect two different detectives to have very different styles/types of cases, it only makes sense.