I’m not a one for detective fiction or whodunits. The plethora of detective/police/mystery fodder on television these days leaves me bored and bewildered. I quite like the Poirot series with David Suchet, but this is because of the glimpses of my favourite Art Deco style. Quite often I’ll be so enamoured of a building that he’s visiting that I miss a vital piece of plot and get lost. But I don’t really care, I’ll just look at the scenery. Similarly, with the Miss Marple films of the 1960s, everything else is second fiddle to the leading lady. Margaret Rutherford IS Miss Marple. Others may disagree, but to me, her casting in this role is both Rutherford and Marple’s finest hour. The plot of the film is almost irrelevant. The jowl-wobbling, cape-tossing, murder enthusiast spinster is everything. Especially sat on the train at the beginning of ‘Murder She Said’ (1961); being in turn haughty, playful and incredulous.
It is during this scene that Miss Marple witnesses the murder, around which this first film in the series pivots. An express train is in the process of overtaking the slower stopping train on which she is travelling. One compartment which draws alongside hers on the adjacent track has the privacy blinds drawn. Suddenly, one shoots up to reveal a woman who is being strangled and in the final death throes. On my most recent viewing of this film I found myself musing that this simply could not happen anymore. The days of private compartments in which you could carry out a pre-meditated murder are long gone. I’ve always quite hankered after the old train compartment, which I vaguely remember from my 1970s childhood – particularly travelling to Cornwall in one on a Golden Rail holiday circa 1979. A compartment with just room for around 8 people seems a bit cosier and more civilised than our completely open carriages of today, where you are continually subject to 80-odd peoples’ conversations and opinions. And if you are unlucky enough to have to take an aisle seat there is the constant by-pass of large-hipped people and their myriad forms of baggage.
However, viewers of ‘Murder She Said’ are reminded that this old sort of carriage seating had its dangers. Originally, compartments didn’t even have a connecting corridor, which did lead to attacks. The first railway murder, described in the fascinating book “Mr Briggs’ Hat” by Kate Colquhoun, shows how the closed compartment style of travel sealed the poor Mr Briggs’ fate. Even with a connecting corridor, blinds could be drawn by those seeking privacy. Very unsafe indeed.
The 1963 follow up film ‘Murder at the Gallop’ showcased another obsolete form of pre-meditated murder. That is, poisoning by town gas. A disembodied hand attempts to finish off Miss Marple herself (noooo!) by turning on the unlit gas supply to her bedroom heater as she naps. Given a long enough exposure in a poorly ventilated room, this would have been a killer, much more so than today with our natural North Sea gas. Town (or coal) gas was produced as a by-product of burning coal, and contained a hefty dose of carbon monoxide. Suicide by placing the head in a gas oven was extremely common before the mass change over to natural gas in the 1960s and 70s. Of course, Miss Marple woke up while in the midst of being gassed. Many wouldn’t have and would have found themselves efficiently and cleanly murdered, with little evidence to go on to track down the perpetrator.
It is interesting to see how changes to the way that we live our lives has also resulted in a change to the way that murderers could plan their crimes. It’s just as difficult to envisage a modern-day Marple…as it is to envisage her as anyone other than magnificent Margaret.