"Let sleeping murder lie": this is the proverb (a variation on "Let sleeping dogs lie") which is not obeyed by twenty-one year old New Zealander Gwenda Reed (née Halliday), who has recently married and now comes to England to settle down there. She believes that her father took her directly from India to New Zealand when she was a two year-old girl and that she has never been in England before. While her husband Giles is still abroad on business, she drives around the countryside looking for a suitable house. She finds an old house in the small seaside resort of Dillmouth, in Devon, which instantly appeals to her, and she buys it.
After moving in, Gwenda begins to believe that she must be psychic, as she seems to know things about the house which she could not possibly know: the location of a connecting door that had been walled over, the pattern of a previous wallpaper, a set of steps in the garden that are not where they should be, and so on. Becoming increasingly uneasy, she accepts an invitation to stay for a few days in London with Miss Marple's somewhat pretentious nephew Raymond West and his wife Joan (who appear also in other stories with Miss Marple).
Miss Marple's interest is piqued when, at a performance of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, Gwenda screams and flees the theatre — for no reason that even she understands — when she hears the actor speaking the famous line, "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young." Gwenda tells Miss Marple later that as she heard those words, she felt she was looking down through the banisters at the dead, blue face of someone named Helen, strangled by a man uttering the same line. She insists that she does not know anyone named Helen, and she believes she is going mad. Miss Marple suggests that she may be remembering something she witnessed as a small child (looking through rather than over the banisters), and that it may have happened in the house she has just bought, despite her belief that she has never been in England before.
The Reeds and Miss Marple do a bit of research, and they discover that Gwenda is not psychic at all, but in fact she did spend a year during early childhood in the house she was later to buy. Her young stepmother, Helen, disappeared, having presumably run off with a man. Her father, devastated by his wife's disappearance and convinced he murdered her, sent Gwenda to New Zealand to be raised by an aunt and died soon afterward in an asylum. The young couple realize that there may be an unsolved crime to investigate. Miss Marple, who first advises the young couple to "let sleeping murder lie", later suggests to her own doctor that he prescribe her some sea air, and she travels to Dillmouth.
The investigation that now sets in is completely in the hands of amateurs: Giles and Gwenda Reed and Miss Marple. The police are absent, as it has not even been established that a crime has been committed; officially, Helen Halliday ran off with one of her lovers and either died sometime later or made a clean break with her brother and never contacted anyone at home.
The amateur sleuths find two old gardeners who remember the Halliday family and some of the former household staff. The young couple talk to many witnesses, including Dr Kennedy, Helen's much older half-brother, who seems still heartbroken over the disappearance of his wild younger sister. He presents two letters posted abroad which he says he got from his half-sister after her disappearance, and which seem to prove that she did not die that night. But the amateur detectives still believe that Gwenda's memory is fundamentally reliable, and that Helen was murdered. It is later revealed that Dr Kennedy forged the two letters. The three other men in Helen's life at the time of her disappearance were Walter Fane, a local lawyer; JJ Afflick, a local tour guide; and Richard Erskine, who resides in the far north of England. It seems very likely to Giles and Gwenda that one of them must be the murderer: they were all "on the spot" when Helen disappeared eighteen years earlier.
SPOILER ALERT! DON'T READ AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOK!
When Lily Kimble, who used to be in Halliday's employ, reads an advertisement, placed by Gwenda, seeking information about Helen, she senses there could be money in it; and after a second advertisement appears looking for her personally, she writes to Dr Kennedy asking for his advice. Kennedy interprets her letter to him as a blackmail attempt. He writes back to her, inviting her to see him at his house and including a train timetable and exact instructions on how to get to his house. He misdirects her to a deserted stretch of woodland, where he meets and strangles her. He then replaces his original letter with a fake one and is back at his house in time to "wait", together with Giles and Gwenda Reed, for her arrival.
When Lily Kimble's body is found, the police start investigating. (When the police inspector sees Miss Marple he comments on a case of poison pen near Lymstock; thus Sleeping Murder is set after the happenings in The Moving Finger, which was published in 1942.) Now it dawns upon the Reeds that with a murderer still at large, their lives are in danger. This proves true: after Dr Kennedy unsuccessfully tries to poison them (it is Mrs Cocker, the cook, who takes a sip of the poisoned brandy instead and who consequently has to be hospitalised), Dr Kennedy tries to strangle Gwenda when she is alone in the house. But Miss Marple has foreseen this: she remained hidden in the garden, and when Gwenda screams she runs upstairs and disables Dr Kennedy by spraying soapy liquid into his eyes.
Miss Marple explains that she believes that Helen was an ordinary, decent young woman, trying to escape from Kennedy, who was unhealthily and pathologically obsessed with her, and that the only evidence of her being "man-mad" came from him. He strangled her to prevent her moving to Norfolk in the east of England to live an ordinary, happy life away from him with her husband.
Writing and publication processEdit
It is generally believed that Christie wrote Curtain (Hercule Poirot's last mystery, which concludes the sleuth's career and life) and Sleeping Murder during World War II to be published after her death, and that Sleeping Murder was most probably written sometime during the Blitz, which took place between September 1940 and May 1941. But the Agatha Christie/Edmund Cork and Harold Ober literary correspondence files, currently held at Exeter University in Devon, indicate Sleeping Murder was written early in 1940.
Christie's notebooks are open to imaginative interpretation and coloring in hindsight, and John Curran argues in his book Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks that Sleeping Murder was still being planned at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s. But this argument is not supported by Janet Morgan's biography, Agatha Christie, or by Laura Thompson's biography, Agatha Christie: An English Mystery; both biographers state unequivocally, without further explanation, that Sleeping Murder was written in 1940. Jared Cade provides much greater detailed proof of this in the paperback and e-book versions of his biography Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days: The Revised and Expanded 2011 Edition.
The original manuscript of Sleeping Murder was entitled Murder in Retrospect after one of the chapters in the book. The correspondence files of Christie's literary agents, Edmund Cork and Harold Ober, show that Christie's royalty statement for 15 March 1940 states that the secretarial agency hired by Edmund Cork to type up Murder in Retrospect charged £19 13s. 9. On 7 June 1940 Edmund Cork wrote to Christie advising her that he would have the necessary 'deed of gift' drawn up so her husband Max would become the owner of the unpublished Miss Marple novel. Christie eventually visited Edmund Cork's offices at 40 Fleet Street, London, on 14 October 1940 and signed the document transferring ownership of the copyright of Murder in Retrospect to her husband in consideration of what was termed her "natural love and affection for him". This was before Christie’s American publishers appropriated the title for Five Little Pigs in 1942 (a year ahead of the release of the UK edition that retained the nursery-rhyme title). Christie duly renamed her Miss Marple novel Cover Her Face. One of Christie's notebooks contain references to Cover Her Face under ‘Plans for Sept. 1947’ and ‘Plans for Nov. 1948’, suggesting she was planning to re-read and revise the manuscript. On the basis of these dates John Curran argues that Christie had still to write the manuscript.
But according to Jared Cade and Janet Morgan the manuscript was written in 1940 and Christie did not undertake these alterations until early 1950. After arriving in Baghdad with a heavy cold and feeling very ill for a fortnight, she traveled to Nimrud and drafted most of the book that became Mrs McGinty’s Dead. She also thought about plans for another Mary Westmacott novel and wrote to Edmund Cork saying that, as she was well ahead of her normal writing schedule, she had gone over the Miss Marple novel thoroughly, ‘as a lot of it seemed to have dated very much’. She had removed all the political references and remarks that emphasized the period, although she stressed that the story must remain set in the 1930s, as so much of the action depended on houses with plentiful servants, ample pre-war meals and so on. She observed that it was especially catchwords and particular phrases that seemed to make a book old-fashioned. On rereading this one she thought it was quite good, and she added she was not sure her writing talents hadn’t gone downhill since then.
Following the publication of P.D. James's début crime novel Cover Her Face in 1962, Christie became aware of the need to think up yet another title for her Miss Marple book; she duly wrote to Edmund Cork on 17 July 1972 asking him to send her a copy of the unpublished Miss Marple manuscript and a copy of Max's deed of gift. So much time had passed that she was unable to remember if the manuscript was still called Cover Her Face or She Died Young. On page 509 of her autobiography Christie refers to the last Poirot and Miss Marple novels that she penned during the Second World War by saying she had written an extra two books during the first years of the war in anticipation of being killed in the raids, as she was working in London. One was for Rosalind, she says, which she wrote first – a book with Hercule Poirot in it – and the other was for Max – with Miss Marple in it. She adds that these two books, after being composed, were put in the vaults of a bank, and were made over formally by deed of gift to her daughter and husband.
The last Marple novel Christie wrote, Nemesis, was published in 1971, followed by Christie's last Poirot novel Elephants Can Remember in 1972 and then in 1973 by her very last novel Postern of Fate. Aware that she would write no more novels, Christie authorized the publication of Curtain in 1975 to send off Poirot. She then arranged to have Sleeping Murder published in 1976, but died before the publication.
Literary significance and receptionEdit
George Thaw in the Daily Mirror of 22 October 1976 said, "Agatha Christie's last novel is very good. Sleeping Murder is the last of Miss Marple's excursions into detection. But perhaps it is her best. Agatha Christie wrote it years ago but if I was going to pick a swansong book this is certainly the one that I would choose. It's her best for years."
Robert Barnard: "Slightly somniferous mystery, written in the 'forties but published after Christie's death. Concerns a house where murder has been committed, bought (by the merest coincidence) by someone who as a child saw the body. Sounds like Ross Macdonald, and certainly doesn't read like vintage Christie. But why should an astute businesswoman hold back one of her better performances for posthumous publication?"
Film, TV or theatrical adaptationsEdit
BBC "Miss Marple" seriesEdit
Sleeping Murder was filmed by the BBC as a 100-minute film in the sixth adaptation (of twelve) in the series Miss Marple starring Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. It was transmitted in two 50-minute parts on Sunday, 11 January and Sunday, 18 January 1987.
Adapter:Ken Taylor Director: John Davies
- Geraldine Alexander as Gwenda Reed
- John Moulder Brown as Giles Reed
- Frederick Treves as Dr James Kennedy
- Jean Anderson as Mrs Fane
- Terrence Hardiman as Walter Fane
- John Bennett as Richard Erskine
- Geraldine Newman as Janet Erskine
- Jack Watson as Mr Foster
- Joan Scott as Mrs Cocker
- Jean Heywood as Edith Paget
- Georgine Anderson as Mrs Hengrave
- Edward Jewesbury as Mr Sims
- David McAlister as Raymond West
- Amanda Boxer as Joan West
- Esmond Knight as Mr Galbraith
- John Ringham as Dr Penrose
- Eryl Maynard as Lily Kimble
- Ken Kitson as Jim Kimble
- Kenneth Cope as Jackie "JJ" Afflick
- Peter Spraggon as Detective Inspector Last
- Sheila Raynor as shop assistant
- Donald Burton as Bosola (onstage)
- Struan Rodger as Ferdinand (onstage)
- Gary Watson as Major Kelvin Halliday
BBC Radio 4 AdaptationEdit
The novel was adapted as a 90 minute play for BBC Radio 4 and transmitted as part of the Saturday Play strand on 8 December 2001. June Whitfield reprised her role as Miss Marple. It was recorded on 10 October 2001.
Adapter: Michael Bakewell Producer: Enyd Williams
- June Whitfield as Miss Marple
- Julian Glover as Dr Kennedy
- Beth Chalmers as Gwenda Reed
- Carl Prekopp as Giles Reed
- Hilda Schroder as Mrs Hengrave
- Caroline Pickles as Aunt Alison and Mrs Erskine
- Joan Littlewood as Edith
- Derek Waring as Richard Erskine
ITV 'Marple' SeriesEdit
A new adaptation was transmitted on 5 February 2006 as part of ITV's Marple, starring Geraldine McEwan and Sophia Myles, as Miss Marple and Gwenda, respectively. This adaptation had numerous plot changes. Some of Helen's suitors were not included, whereas a travelling company of performers called The Funnybones was introduced. Dr Kennedy became the half-brother of Claire Kennedy, the first wife of Kelvin Halliday, who had assumed the name of Helen to avoid blackmail. Helen and Claire were different people in the novel.
Adapter: Stephen Churchett Director: Edward Hall
- Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple
- Russ Abbot as Chief Inspector Arthur Primer
- Geraldine Chaplin as Mrs Fane
- Phil Davis as Dr James Alfred Kennedy
- Dawn French as Janet Erskine
- Martin Kemp as Jackie Afflick
- Aidan McArdle as Hugh Hornbeam
- Paul McGann as Dickie Erskine
- Sophia Myles as Gwenda Halliday
- Anna-Louise Plowman as Helen Marsden
- Peter Serafinowicz as Walter Fane
- Una Stubbs as Edith Pagett
- Julian Wadham as Kelvin Halliday
- Sarah Parish as Evie Ballantine
- Emilio Doorgasingh as Sergant Desai
- Harry Treadaway as George Erskine
- Richard Bremmer as Mr Sims
- Harriet Walter as the Duchess of Malfi (onstage)
- Greg Hicks as Ferdinand (onstage)
- Mary Healey as Shop Assistant
- Helen Coker as Lily Tutt
- Nickolas Grace as Lionel Luff
- Vince Leigh as Jim Tutt
- Darren Carnall as Dresser
- 1976, Collins Crime Club (London), October 1976, Hardcover, 224 pp; ISBN 0-00-231785-0
- 1976, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 242 pp; ISBN 0-396-07191-0
- 1977, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 192 pp
- 1977, Bantam Books, Paperback
- 1978, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 358 pp; ISBN 0-7089-0109-3
- 1990 GK Hall & Company Large-print edition, Hardcover; ISBN 0-8161-4599-7
- 2006, Marple Facsimile edition (Facsimile of 1976 UK first edition), 2 May 2006, Hardcover; ISBN 0-00-720860-X
In the US the novel was serialised in Ladies' Home Journal in two abridged installments from July (Volume XCIII, Number 7) to August 1976 (Volume XCIII, Number 8) with an illustration by Fred Otnes.
- Czech: Zapomenutá vražda (Forgotten Murder)
- German: Ruhe unsanft (Rest unpeacefully)
- Turkish: Uyuyan Ölüm (Sleeping Murder)
- Dutch: Moord uit het verleden (Murder from the past)
- Polish: Uśpione morderstwo (Sleeping Murder)
- Russian: Спящее убийство (Sleeping Murder)
- Ukrainian: Забуте вбивство (Forgotten Murder)