- By Agatha Christie
- First published: UK: Collins, November 1957; US: Dodd Mead, November 1957, as What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!
Mrs. McGillicuddy – stout, stolid, and unimaginative – sees a woman throttled to death through the window of a passing train. Nobody believes her, except her friend, Miss Marple. The spinster sleuth is too frail and old to look for bodies herself, so she engages Lucy Eyelesbarrow, the perfect lady help (like Mary Poppins), to look for the body. She finds it in a sarcophagus at Rutherford Hall, home of the Crackenthorpe clan. But who is the victim: Parisian ballerina Anna Stravinska, or a Crackenthorpe’s widow, come to claim a share in the family fortune for her son?
4.50 from Paddington was published in 1957. Christie was 67, and nearing the end of her fourth decade as a writer. Her glory days were behind her. Paddington reads well and smoothly; there is much to enjoy; dialogue and characters are excellent, as always; but it’s a minor Christie.
It’s almost archetypal (a polite way, perhaps, of saying that it’s stock but feels fresh): the family murders, the tontine will, the rich old man and his disaffected sons, Miss Marple dithering in the background, railway trains, income tax, and arsenic in the curry. But Christie has done it better before. The Crackenthorpe clan are the Lees left in the vintage wine of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas: the invalid patriarch who despises his children; the conservative businessman, the Bohemian painter living abroad; the names ‘Alfred’ and ‘Harold’. Ex-RAF pilot Bryan Eastley is a ‘Monty’ (Christie’s brother), a lost young man who hasn’t adjusted to peacetime. But the two boys are delightful.
While it’s fun, the plot is slender. The main deception (is Martine the victim?) is solved out of the blue, when a very minor character reveals her secret. There are no criminal subplots or alibis. Miss Marple intuits, rather than deduces. There is no definite pointer to the murderer, no real evidence. The principal clue – one the reader can’t share – is that Mrs. McGillicuddy recognizes the murderer from behind. Francis Iles (pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley Cox) lamented the absence of detection, while Collins’ reader could not see how anyone could know the murderer’s motive (see John Curran, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, 2009).
Late Christie and a dithery, fluttery Miss Marple who is only peripherally involved do not make a good combination. Although Miss Marple does some surveying and map-reading to discover the house where the body of the woman seen strangled on board a train has been hidden, she does not apply reason to the problem of the woman’s identity and the two murders caused by a tontine will (two fairly standard ploys), but experiences a revelatory flash — not, of course, shared with the reader, who has no chance of spotting the culprit among the three surviving men. Note strong similarities to Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.
Having done her Christmas shopping, Mrs. McGillicuddy relaxes happily in a train. Then another train, going in the same direction, draws abreast and for some minutes the two trains proceed side by side. That has happened to all of us. But in a first-class carriage of the second train, Mrs. McGillicuddy sees, to her horror, a man strangling a woman… Then the second train gathers speed and vanishes into the night.
Who was the woman? Who was the man who strangled her? And why is the body not found for so long?
As Mrs. McGillicuddy is going to stay with her old friend Miss Marple, you may be sure that these questions all get answered—in the end.
Once again Agatha Christie demonstrates the ingenuity and mastery which have made her the most famous of crime writers. Once again she presents a story that will grip every reader from its exciting and unusual opening to the convincing solution at the end.
“Somebody,” said Miss Marple, “has committed a very successful crime. There has been no hue and cry, no real suspicion. Two elderly ladies have told a rather improbable story, the police have investigated it and found nothing in it. So everybody is nice and quiet.”
But for Miss Marple, fluffy and dithery in appearance but inwardly as sharp and shrewd as they make them, murder by strangulation was neither nice nor quiet. From the moment that redoubtable amateur sleuth enters the pages, the story is in full stride. With her usual technical brilliance, Miss Christie leads her and Inspector Craddock through a series of baffling red-herring by-passes while the suspense rises to the breaking point. The solution, as usual a complete surprise to the reader, is acceptable and satisfying. “Superb entertainment” is once again the acclaim for Agatha Christie’s latest!
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 10th November 1957): One of Miss Marple’s tweedy pin cushiony chums sees a strangling in a passing train. The needle-sharp old spinster puts a young domestic economist on the trail, popping in herself to conduct the smelling-out in the odd, tontine-motivated household. At least an average Christie. There is plenty of rum in the old baba yet.
Evening Standard (Philip Oakes, 12 November 1957): Cosy whodunit which begins with a sensible shopper seeing murder done on a passing train. Developments when the corpse is found in a sarcophagus by a superior home-help. Miss Marple investigates. Reasonable, readable and lightly whimsical. Fine of its type – if you like the type.
Spectator (Christopher Pym, 22nd November 1957, 60w): Miss Christie is always readable—even in this story of a murder in one train seen from another, and solved by a dear old drinker of cowslip wine.
NY Herald Tribune Bk R (James Sandoe, 24th November 1957, 180w): Agatha Christie’s latest is precisely what one expects: the most delicious bamboozling possible in a babble of bright talk and a comprehensive bristle of suspicion all adeptly managed to keep you much too alert elsewhere to see the neat succession of clues that catch a murderer we never so much as thought of.
NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 24th November 1957, 280w): This is Miss Marple’s silver anniversary…but the diminution of physical strength and energy obliges her to rely on an efficient young leg-woman, Lucy Eyelesbarrow—and I see no reason why this newly inaugurated team of Marple & Eyelesbarrow should not flourish as long as that of Wolfe & Goodwin.
Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 29th November 1957):
CHERCHEZ LA FEMME
In three of the detective novels under review, the pursuers are ladies, one very young indeed, the second very marriageable and the third of a certain age; in the fourth, another lady, also marriageable, sets the plot in motion by vanishing. Without the female of the species, indeed, detective fiction would be in a bad way, for the classical puzzle of crime rarely poses itself without being entangled with the romantic puzzle of love. The latter, however, is not allowed to interfere with the intellectual processes of the redoubtable Miss Marple. In 4.50 from Paddington that admirable woman investigates the story told her by a Mrs. McGillicuddy, witness of the strangling of one passenger by another in a train running momentarily parallel with her own.
The necessary field-work being beyond Miss Marple’s powers, she seeks the assistance of a young prodigy called Lucy Eylesbarrow, who has turned her back on the brilliant academic career promised by her Oxford degree in mathematics to take up the more remunerative calling of being a superlatively good domestic help. Stationed amid a household of nicely differentiated characters in an interesting state of testamentary expectancy, Miss Eylesbarrow proves herself an able observer on the best Marplesian lines. Mrs. McGillicuddy’s veracity is vindicated, body and murderer are discovered with this author’s usual blithe logic and Miss Marple is left twinkling at her grateful public.
New Yorker (30th November 1957, 70w): Even the experts have given up any attempt to outguess Miss Christie, but it is still fun to try.
Manchester Guardian (Francis Iles, 5th December 1957): I have only pity for those poor souls who cannot enjoy the sprightly stories of Agatha Christie; but though sprightliness is not the least of this remarkable writer’s qualities, there is another that we look for in her, and that is detection: genuine, steady, logical detection, taking us step by step nearer to the heart of the mystery. Unfortunately it is this quality that is missing in 4.50 from Paddington. The police never seem to find out a single thing, and even Miss Marples [sic] lies low and says nuffin’ to the point until the final dramatic exposure. There is the usual small gallery of interesting and perfectly credible characters, and nothing could be easier to read. But please, Mrs. Christie, a little more of that incomparable detection next time.
The Times (5th December 1957): Mrs. Christie’s latest is a model detective story; one keeps turning back to verify clues, and not one is irrelevant or unfair. Murder on a train was actually witnessed by a friend of Miss Marple, and although the old lady cannot get about as she used, she has an assistant, a formidable young lady from Oxford who has sagely realised that her domestic qualifications are more remunerative than her high academic ones. So Miss Marple has her private peephole in the family mansion, where a complicated will has been a positive inducement to crime. Perhaps there is a corpse or two too many, but there is never a dull moment.
Booklist (15th December 1957)
Daily Mail: The suspense is agonising.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A Miss Marple story and one of the best latter-day Christies. It owes something to Garve’s Cuckoo-Line Affair, dealing as it does with something seen to take place in a passing train and (naturally) misinterpreted.
A small and curious point, in view of the original English title, is that the U.S. version has the train leaving at 4:54.
Agatha Christie: A Talent to Deceive (Robert Barnard): Another locomotive one—murder seen as two trains pass each other in the same direction. Later settles down into a good old family murder. Contains one of Christie’s few sympathetic independent women. Miss Marple apparently solves the crime by divine guidance, for there is very little in the way of clues or logical deduction.