Death in the tropics

Fifty years ago, the crime novel A Caribbean Mystery was a hit for popular British writer Agatha Christie — and surprisingly revealing about the Caribbean of that time, says James Ferguson

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

The British crime writer Agatha Christie was, and remains, a publishing phenomenon, with over four billion books sold, making her the world’s third-best-selling author, after Shakespeare and the creators of the Bible. She wrote sixty-five novels and fourteen collections of short stories under her own name. Of these, twelve novels and twenty short stories feature the spinster detective Miss Jane Marple, who travels outside England only once — and this is to the Caribbean island of St Honoré.

You may be forgiven for not recognising this particular territory. It forms part of a long tradition of fictional Caribbean islands (to which we will return later), but is apparently based on the very real island of St Lucia, which Christie is said to have visited on holiday. Note the “is said” — because no biographer of the author seems certain about this trip (like many other aspects of her life, there are unexplained gaps and imprecise details). The only real clue is that the novel in question is dedicated to John Cruikshank Rose, “with happy memories of my visit to the West Indies.” Cruikshank Rose, whom Christie had first met in 1928 at an archaeological dig in Iraq, spent time in St Lucia years later, and indeed was involved in plans to redevelop the centre of the capital, Castries, after a catastrophic fire in 1948.

Whatever the inspiration, the novel, A Caribbean Mystery, was published exactly fifty years ago, in November 1964. It came on the back of a couple of badly received books, but was generally well reviewed and seen as a return to form by the ever-popular Christie. Sales were brisk.

The novel, despite its exotic setting, works according to the classic Christie formula. A small group of people — in this instance, the owners and guests of the Golden Palm Hotel — are involved in a series of murders. The hotel, with its enclosed grounds and bungalow accommodation, provides a small, almost self-contained community in which relationships and motives are explored. There are, of course, a great many red herrings: almost everybody, it appears, has a good reason to kill everyone else. At the centre of this web of murderous intrigue sits Miss Marple, ostensible a meek and mild-mannered old lady, but in reality a shrewd sleuth.

There is, of course, more to it than a fictional version of Cluedo. There is plenty of ingenuity, including the use of poisonous plants, the problems associated with raised blood pressure, and the unlikely difficulties of having a glass eye. Christie is good at characterisation (less so at dialogue, in my view), and excels at the unexpected. Her trademark denouement always consists of the least suspect character being exposed as the murderer — and in this sense, A Caribbean Mystery does not disappoint.

But what of the Caribbean? Here you may well be disappointed. At first sight, there is little apparent empathy with either landscape or people. The few “natives” are hotel staff, prone to having children but not to getting married, the prudish Miss Marple notes. There are palm trees, a beach, a gulley (in which a murder takes place), and some tropical flowers, but little else. If Agatha Christie did indeed visit St Lucia, the magnificent Pitons, those volcanic giants, left little impression on her — or certainly not enough to merit a mention in the book. There is, on the other hand, a mention of Pigeon Point, a site that does exist to the north-west of Castries, but that is as far as it goes.

A sense of what the Caribbean is really about is strangely lacking in the book. The guests at the hotel enjoy — or endure — a routine of sitting on the beach, then drinks and dinner accompanied by a steelband (which Miss Marple, predictably, finds too loud). In truth, she is bored by the whole experience:

Lovely and warm, yes — and so good for her rheumatism — and beautiful scenery, though perhaps — a trifle monotonous? So many palm trees. Everything the same every day — never anything happening.

Like some pioneer of today’s all-inclusive vacations, Miss Marple finds the gilded cage of luxury tedious — until murder strikes.

Yet despite a distinct lack of cultural detail, the novel is almost inadvertently revealing for anyone interested in Caribbean history, as it evokes a particular period in the region’s development. It is clearly post-Second World War, and the tourism industry, soon to dominate small island economies, is on the rise in the shape of the Golden Palm Hotel. In St Lucia, the foreign ownership of hotels — as is the case here — was beginning to create friction in the 1960s. The 1959 Cuban Revolution has probably happened, as one of the chefs is a Cuban migrant. There are flights to St Honoré from Trinidad, suggesting that the LIAT service from Port of Spain to Vigie airport near Castries is what Miss Marple (and Christie herself) took. “Things were somewhat informal here”, Christie writes, “you just walked out from the little flower-covered pavilion on to the tarmac” — an accurate description of how things worked then at Vigie.

St Honoré is thus a fictional replica of pre-independence St Lucia, a place on the cusp of modernity (the millionaire businessman Mr Rafiel can conduct his daily affairs by telegram), but devoid of any political or cultural identity. From reading A Caribbean Mystery, you are none the wiser as to what it was really like in 1960s St Lucia. The book is fifty years old, but its strangely confined and claustrophobic setting offers something both timeless and unreal.

To return to the name, there have been many other fictional Caribbean islands in the last half century. Paule Marshall’s 1991 novel Daughters features a politician from Triunion, while H. Nigel Thomas’ 1993 Spirits in the Dark takes place on the Spanish-sounding Isabella. A classic account of running a hotel (coincidentally contemporaneous with Christie’s whodunit) is Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival: this tropical farce is situated on the island of Amerigo (formerly Kinja). Patrick Leigh Fermor disguised Martinique as St Jacques in 1953, while St Lucia (again) appears as All Saints in James Michener’s 1989 blockbuster Caribbean. The habit of making up often silly names is not confined to foreign novelists. One of the BBC’s more popular recent detective series, starring Ben Miller and then Kris Marshall as expat British policemen, was filmed in scenic Guadeloupe, which became the implausibly English-speaking Sainte-Marie.

St Honoré or St Lucia? Anyone who wants to know more about the latter would do well to read Omeros by Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning bard of the authentic Caribbean.