At Bertram’s Hotel, Agatha Christie. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2011 (reprint).
Summary: Bertram’s is a quietly elegant hotel from the Edwardian era that seems utterly respectable from the outside and yet is the center of a nefarious crime syndicate and a murder late in the story that Miss Marple and Chief Inspector (Scotland Yard) Davy attempt to unravel.
As I noted, this is an unusual Agatha Christie story. The murder occurs late and actually is not at the heart of the plot. This change of pace alone caught my attention, just to see what Christie was up to.
The center of the action is Bertram’s Hotel, a throwback to an Edwardian past. There one receives refined, understated service from the helpful attentions of the commissionaire, former military Michael Gorman, to the tea service with exquisite muffins, to Miss Gorringe’s front desk and Mr. Humfries’ efficient management, to the kitchen which serves a proper English breakfast. It has done so since Miss Marple’s childhood and to it she returns for a holiday. It is a place that the well-to-do visiting London come for good service out of the public spotlight.
Yet things are not as reputable as they seem as Miss Marple soon becomes aware. She runs into old friend Selina Hazy who speaks of all the people she sees who appear to be old acquaintances only to turn out to just look like them. She observes the reckless race car driver Ladislaus Malinowski in a public encounter with his love interest, the adventuress Lady Bess Sedgewick. Then there is the heiress Elvira Blake, in fact the estranged daughter of Lady Sedgewick, eluding her guardians to make an overnight trip to Ireland to make enquiries related to her estate and to make rendezvous with love interests including race car driver Malinowski. She becomes the object of Miss Marple’s grave concern.
While all this is occurring there have been a string of jewel heists, bank robberies and a daring robbery of the Irish Mail train that all seem to be the efforts of a mysterious crime syndicate. Chief Inspector Davy has been charged to discover who is behind this. When absent-minded Canon Pennyfather, a guest at Bertram’sm does not return from a trip to Lucerne for a conference, Davy becomes involved in the investigation, and, as he interviews Miss Marple, who witnessed Canon Pennyfather leaving the hotel the night he was supposed to be in Lucerne, he begins to share Miss Marple’s suspicion that things are not as they seem at Bertram’s and that there is a connection between the rash of crimes and this respectable hotel.
The one murder in this story occurs late as Elvira Blake, who has mentioned fears for her life, is apparently shot at and narrowly missed, only to have Michael Gorman come to her aid, and take a bullet in the chest protecting her. Yet all is not as it seems, neither in this instance nor with the cast of characters at Bertram’s and much of the enjoyment of this story comes from seeing how Miss Marple and Chief Inspector Davy team up to piece together this mystery.
Not all of the reviews I’ve seen of this have been favorable, suggesting a plot that is a bit far-fetched. Be that as it may, I enjoyed the change of pace of a story where a murder was not the center of the plot. Like all Christies, it is a page-turner with interesting characters, a memorable place (Bertram’s), and of course, the inimitable Miss Marple! Great for a summer vacation read.