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The Body in the Library

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Christie, Agatha - The Body in the Library (1942)



Review by Nick Fuller


One of Christie's most accomplished parodies of a convention of the genre: the body in the library. The corpse, however, is that of a very tarty young woman, Ruby Keene (née Rosie Legge), and the library is that of the highly respectable stick-in-the-mud Colonel Bantry. Although the telling is staid and sober, there is plenty of detective interest to be found as the police investigate movements and motives of the guests at the Majestic Hotel; the unravelling of an ingenous yarn is done by Miss Marple, relying on her feminine knowledge of nails and teeth. The reader will almost certainly spot the identity of one of the murderers, but not of the other.




The novel's main virtues are a well-hidden murderer (Josie, that is, not her accomplice Gaskell), and that "Christie moment" when we learn that the whole puzzle has been put wrong-way round. The bodies of the two victims turn out to have been reversed: the first body is Pamela Reeves, not Ruby Keene, and vice versa. That's a clever and delightful surprise . . . but does it hold up? Let's stipulate (what would have been believed, if not likely, in 1942) that forensics were so primitive that the police really had no way of determining who was who. Thus the identity of the first body rests solely on Josie's (false) identification, and that of the second on (deliberately misleading) articles of clothing found in the burned car.


I'll give a pass to the second ID, though it means that the murderers relied on a "perfect storm" of a fire – one that left the body unrecognizable but the tell-tale clothes not. The first ID, though, simply won't do. To begin with, why would Josie have supposed that she, and she alone, would be called upon to (falsely) identify the body? Ruby Keene was well known to any number of the other characters at the hotel where she worked: Prestcott, the hotel manager; Raymond Starr, her dancing partner; George Bartlett, her occasional swain. And this is to say nothing of the members of the Jefferson family, including Conway Jefferson, who regarded her as a daughter. So how, in fact, does it come about that Josie is picked to ID the body? Well, Josie is her nearest relative. Here we must accept that this was standard police procedure, and that even though the police talk first with Prestcott, they nonetheless pass over him and instead choose Josie to view the body. I myself would have expected some 1940-ish reservations about "putting a woman through the gruesome business" when Prestcott was readily available . . . but OK, let's allow that Josie was chosen for good reason. Still, could she have *counted* on it, when so many other candidates were available? Suppose Prestcott had offered to come? It seems a huge stretch.


But grant all that. The question still remains, why in the world would Josie believe that *no one else* besides herself would ever get a look at the body, afterwards? Christie never establishes that Josie is Ruby's *only* relative, merely her "nearest." Wouldn't there be a huge risk that some other family member would want to pay respects? More significantly, what about all those other characters who knew Ruby well? Given the loose procedural standards of the GA world, any one of them (especially the Jefferson clan) might have come calling on the Bantrys in the wake of the murder, waltzed into the library, and blown the gaff. (There is a time interval during which the body remains in situ, though it's not clear just how long.) For that matter, how did Josie satisfy herself that Colonel Bantry himself had never met Ruby? In fact, we know the risk was enormous: Bantry did indeed dine at the Majestic Hotel a week before the murder.


Taken all together, these risks just don't seem plausible, especially when the next point is considered: The reason for the shenanigans with the two bodies – indeed, the entire reason for killing the second girl, Pamela Reeves, at all – is to establish alibis for Josie and Gaskell. Two problems here: First, could any murderer really believe that committing a second, extremely complicated murder, one involving lies, deception, false identities, a credulous teenager, and a lurid car-fire, would be safer and smarter than simply coming up with another way to alibi oneself? Second, consider the necessary psychology involved. Even by GA standards, it's grotesque: Josie and Gaskell are willing to lure away and murder an innocent 16-year-old girl for absolutely no reason other than to establish an alibi for their first murder – which is motivated by monetary gain, not lust or anger or revenge or vainglory or any other "hotblooded" motive that might somehow be stretched to include such psychopathological wantonness.


Both the above points raise one of the most vexing, but fascinating, problems with GA stories. We can all come to reasonable agreement about what "fair play" means, and what the "rules" for puzzles are, more or less. (Barring the inevitable test cases, of courses – I'm speaking in general.) But here, as in so many other GA novels, the issue is *plausibility,* and that's not a word that's easily defined. It's especially problematic because we can't judge plausibility using the standards of either reality itself or "realistic" novels. Nothing in the GA world is plausible in *that* sense. So is there any way to, if not codify, then at least talk reasonably about what "plausibility" means here? Are there arguments I could offer to defend my charge that the murderers' plan, and psychology, in "The Body in the Library" are simply not plausible? I frankly don't know, and would be interested to hear what others think.


Oh, one more defect in TBITL, one which doesn't really affect the core puzzle: How does the first body wind up in the Bantrys' library? Why, it's moved there by Blake, who finds it in *his* house. (Josie and Gaskell wish to implicate him in the crime.) Blake, we learn, "was a bit drunk," and this is meant to explain what he calls "a good idea at the time": to move the body to the Bantrys' library. Now the problem is, his being drunk cuts both ways. You can use it to explain this absurd decision, but you can't then forget about it when he carries it out. *You* try it: Drive your car to some stranger's house in the dead of night, chisel open a window, carry or otherwise propel a corpse inside, dump her in the library, and drive away – all while drunk. In fact, try it sober, and see if, in this quiet country setting, with who knows how many sleeping servants and family members, someone doesn't rather notice the car pulling up, the body being hauled inside . . . well, enough said.


{PS: I asked how Josie would have been able to satisfy herself that Colonel Bantry had never met Ruby Keene. But I was forgetting that Josie had no reason to expect the body to show up at his house. She and Gaskell had left it at Blake's, who had no connection with the Bantrys. So . . . sorry, Dame Agatha! Full marks for that one.}


John Morris

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