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Murder at the Matinee Monday

What I've Finished Reading

So I knew there was going to be some vintage bigotry in Enter Sir John, but it's mostly fairly subtle in the first half of the book. Thus I was completely unprepared for the nature of the HIDEOUS SECRET that Martella Baring heroically risked her own life to conceal, and which drove the real murderer to start smashing people's heads with a poker in the first place.

[SPOILERS for the entire plot of Enter Sir John!]

”In love with him?” cried Martella wrathfully as the accusation with all its implication soaked well into her consciousness. “Why, you must be lunatic – completely lunatic!”

“Why must I be a lunatic?” demanded the owner of the Sheridan.

“But the man’s a chi-chi,” said Martella, with her air of ‘Heaven give me patience!’

“Chi-chi?” broke in Trenny Rice clutching his head.

“Half-caste – a Eurasian,” said Sir John quickly; and Martella added kindly, indulging his ignorance:

“It doesn’t show. At least – you wouldn’t notice. But if one’s lived in India– ”

The horror! Anyway, it turns out Martella was also conked on the head by a poker, and that’s why her head hurt and she couldn’t remember anything, and she heroically refused to name the guy at her trial because “mud sticks” and presumably learning about his mixed heritage would spoil his chances as a leading man (among "people who count"). Would it have? Maybe, maybe not. But when Sir John tricks the murderer into confessing (by inviting him to read for his own part in a play based on the murder), he reveals that his motive was only to prevent Martella from learning the truth:

”It was because I loved her, and because of a look I saw in her eyes once when a lascar brushed against her in the street. She can’t help the feeling. She was born in India. She was brought up to look at us – so! But I love her. And if ever she’d looked at me – so! one of us would have died. As it was, that poor meddling fool of a woman died instead. She’d have let her know; and I’d rather she hanged than knew. Yes, when it came to that, I was ready to let her hang rather than let her know.”

Even apart from the frank racism of the heroine and the heavy-handed racial self-hatred of the killer, as a mystery it’s just ok. The idea of a famous theater manager buying his way into a criminal investigation by promising jobs to all the principal witnesses is entertaining in theory, but Sir John is more of an idea for a character than a character, and that goes double for most of the survivor-suspects. Martella Baring is a character - an absolute nightmare for the defense, who regards everything about the trial with contempt, sighs irritably at all questions, flatly refuses to provide important information, and reacts with scorn to any attempt to commute her sentence when she'd just as soon be hanged and have it over with. But given that the entire plot turns on her racism, and the narrative largely excuses it, I don't think she's likely to become a reader favorite.

So it was an interesting book to read, but it’s not hugely surprising that it’s fallen out of print. I'm sure the introduction will be worth reading if it ever gets the British Library Crime Classics treatment, though.

What I'm Reading Now

Lord Edgeware Dies begins with an actress attempting to hire Poirot to help her get rid of her husband, the eponymous Lord Edgeware. No, not kill him - though really it would be more convenient if he did die - but just convince him to divorce her so she can get on with her life. Will she turn out to be the killer, or would that be too obvious a twist? So obvious it just might work? Christie's good at making you think she won't do things and then doing them. Anyway, it's perfectly breezy fun with Poirot and Hastings. As usual, Poirot's presence attracts a lot of gruff or anxious people with something not quite right about them - always the first sign of a murder brewing.

What I Plan to Read Next

Orient Express, maybe Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, maybe something else!


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 22nd, 2017 03:58 pm (UTC)
Maybe not? Sessue Hayakawa did alright and there was Merle Orberon. I think she did hide her Indian heritage?
Also if the book is set in the 1920s silent films were big on 'exotic' characters. I don't know about the theatre, but the theatre is usually more forgiving? So Sir John, fight!
May. 22nd, 2017 04:59 pm (UTC)
Realistically, I don't think being rumored to be 1/4 Indian would have harmed his career very much - it's more that Martella thought it would damage his standing among "the right people" and that the guy in question (correctly) thought that she would hold him in contempt if she knew.

It's interesting that the book pretty clearly presents Martella's attitude as extreme for her own time and place, but also as something that an Englishwoman raised in India "can't help" and shouldn't be expected to help.
May. 23rd, 2017 12:16 am (UTC)
Nasty! especially that it was "people who count" who are in question.

The "one of us would have died" is nonsense, of course - otherwise there wouldn't have been all the Eurasians to make a fuss about, in the theatre and in business and in society as well. Though (miserably) such heritage was concealed if possible. :( (Following what liadtbunny has said above - there was Vivien Leigh, too.)
May. 23rd, 2017 12:07 pm (UTC)
Yep. I think by "one of us would have died," we're meant to understand that either he would die (of embarrassment or suicide) or he'd kill her - or at least that he feels that way. Why exactly he's in love with the one person he most expects to loathe him on racist grounds is never really clear, except that we're invited to understand admiration of Martella as a marker of good taste in general. Well, and sometimes people are irrational - but the characters in this book aren't strong enough to activate my "sometimes people are just like that" defense.
May. 23rd, 2017 11:25 am (UTC)
Sounds like a book destined for reading as part of social history courses more than Eng Lit...

I'm glad you liked Lord Edgeware Dies, I did too :)
May. 23rd, 2017 12:22 pm (UTC)
Lord Edgeware Dies is a delight so far. I'd say "Poirot at his best," but when is Poirot not at his best? Hardly ever!

It would be interesting to have a social history course all about murder motives in crime fiction. I'm sure somebody's already doing it and having a great time. I don't know that I'd recommend assigning all of Enter Sir John unless you were really keen to get it back into print - but it does have an entire chapter of jury deliberations, and probably some other points of interest to the social historian.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


blase ev

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