Agatha Christie often liked to use lines from plays, nursery rhymes or poems as clues, plot-devices and titles for her books. One quotation that made an early impression on me was the reference to the poem “The Lady of Shalott” in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (which was possibly based somewhat on a tragic incident involving Gene Tierney). The second quotation that made a deep impression on me was:
“Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”
This was from John Webster’s play, “The Duchess of Malfi,” first performed in 1613, and is quoted in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder. Sleeping Murder is one of my favorite Miss Marple novels and I’ve long wanted to read the play. I was curious if knowledge of the play would furnish extra clues pointing towards the murderer.
(I will try not to overtly give away the identity if the murderer, but through the act of discussing both stories unintended spoilers might occur)
The Plot of “Sleeping Murder”
Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, after Agatha Christie’s death, but was actually written in 1940 during the Nazi blitz of London. Newly married Gwenda Reed was raised in New Zealand and has just arrived in England for the first time to look for a house for her and her husband, Giles. She finds the perfect house, which seems to draw her to it, but she keeps experiences odd little moments of seemingly psychic insight. She seems to know things about the house, as if she had visited it before. The existence of a door now plastered over. The existence of steps that were moved. The exact pattern and color of the wallpaper hidden under another, uglier wallpaper.
But when she attends a production of the play “The Duchess of Malfi” and hears the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young,” a memory flashes through her mind of standing on the stairs, looking through the banisters, at the strangled corpse of a young woman, while the murderer stands over the corpse and quotes that line from the play. Gwenda is sure the young woman was named Helen.
Except Gwenda doesn’t remember knowing anyone named Helen. While she and her husband begin to dig into the mystery of the house and of Helen, only their friend Miss Marple is able to put everything together.
What I’ve always loved about the book is the sense of haunting, how the past still hovers over the house and the idea of stirring up an evil that lay dormant for many years. It’s a poignant concept and although Sleeping Murder is not one of Agatha Christie’s most mind-bending puzzles (it’s one of her few novels where I correctly guessed the identity of the murderer), her sense of atmosphere is marvelous.
The Plot of “The Duchess of Malfi”
“The Duchess of Malfi” is, in the words of Miss Marple’s nephew, “a bit grisly.” And a bit macabre. And salacious. Everyone is obsessed with the widowed Duchess’s sex life, but no one is more obsessed than her brother, Ferdinand, who eventually has her murdered when he discovers she’s secretly married again. A trail of corpses is the ultimate, with the Duchess making the most poignant one.
It is when Ferdinand sees his sister’s strangled body that he utters the lines,
Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.”
And then goes mad with lycanthropy (he’s convinced he’s a werewolf).
Incest is one of the themes of the play and this theme comes out in Sleeping Murder, as well.
One character even made me think of a potential Norman Bates type (possibly because I was reading the book the same day I watched Psycho for the first time). He is a reliable, shy and very nice solicitor who never married and seems dominated by his mother. Could he kill anyone?
The entire play is also drenched in a sense of haunting, of doom, dreams and warnings and evil that seeks to destroy what is good. Some of that mood can also be found in the novel. And Miss Marple is the only one who sees it clearly.
One of the things that I always love about Miss Marple is how utterly conversant she is in all aspects of human nature. Nothing shocks her. Not even Webster. She looks like a nice, curious, nosy, fluffy old lady, always knitting shapeless woolly things, but there’s nothing shapeless or woolly about her mind.
But what is interesting to me is how Miss Marple manages to combine an essential goodness with a sharp and trenchant mind. Considering how many murders have occurred in her time and how deep-seated her insight is into humanity and its many depravities and weaknesses, she never loses a deep compassion for people. This quote near the end of the book always makes me laugh, when she explains that Gwenda and Gile’s mistake was to believe what they were told.
It is really very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.
And yet she’s not a cynical old misanthrope! Amazing.