Julia McKenzie is back for three new films as spinster detective Jane Marple. First cab off the rank: A Caribbean Mystery.

“Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant.”

 — Jason Rafiel

6.01 A Caribbean Mystery

written by Charlie Higson
directed by Charlie Palmer

It struck me first while watching the Poirot season opener, and again here: in the world of ITV’s Agatha Christie canon, no-one ever ages. For many of these episodes, it’s easy to place them in any chronological order we so desire. It may have seemed disappointing that this series did Nemesis before A Caribbean Mystery, but now it makes perfect sense – they simply happened in the correct order but we’re seeing them out of turn, like a Christie newcomer finding the books arbitrarily amongst the bookshelves of a library. Still, the blatant nostalgia of the series is about the worst thing that can be said for this atmospheric, well-constructed little piece.

Whereas the Joan Hickson Caribbean Mystery was one of that series’ few failures, withering on the vine with a pace that exhausted even a lover of languid British Play of the Days like myself, Charlie Higson’s script keeps this story buoyant throughout. The film starts in the middle of a delightful evening at the Caribbean resort, quickly introducing us to the vast array of characters and plunging us straight into the set-up for a murder. This is no quiet character study but a true desert-island murder mystery, and Charlie Palmer’s richly-textured direction creates a very real sense of the prison the Western holidaymakers find themselves in.

The death of stodgy old Major Palgrave (Oliver Ford-Davies) shortly after he suggests to Marple he can identify a murderer among the guests is one of Christie’s most classic set-ups. The mystery element is strong, partly because this isn’t one of Christie’s puzzle-piece murders (where one red herring rules the entire investigation) but a series of distantly connected characters, any of whom could be the murderer for half-a-dozen different reasons. Watching Marple gather her information is also particularly enjoyable, as each day of investigation opens entirely new chapters of the case. The cast are impeccable throughout: Daniel Rigby as the defiant Canon Prescott, Hermione Norris (looking particularly angular and striking) as a jaded wife and Alastair Mackenzie (in a reasonably unwritten role) as her dashing husband, Pippa Bennett-Warner as maid Victoria, and the dynamic team of MyAnna Buring and Charles Mesure as sneering Americans. (Mesure, particularly, finds some decent gruff nuances to  his character.) I’m also taken by – in smaller roles – Kingsley Ben-Adir and Warren Brown. There’s a sensibility to the performances that have perhaps been lost in some of the more melodramatic Marple stories. While everyone – except, perhaps, poor put-upon Molly Kendall (Charity Wakefield) – is a suspect, no-one is reduced to that “ambiguous” acting that characterises suspense programs like 24. Mackenzie could simply be arrogant and illicit, or perhaps he’s a prolific wife-murderer. Canon Prescott may be simply a challenged man of god, or a man of madness. The MVP award surely goes to Robert Webb, in the challenging role of resort owner Tim Kendall, who constantly portrays what may be a kind man with a flash of anger, or a disturbed man with traces of goodness.

Palmer’s direction is forever catching quietly affecting little moments: Marple and the Canon as the only two attendees as the Major’s burial, f0r instance, and an ominous blonde dead in the ocean late in the piece. Higson’s script – taking its cue from the restrained Britishness of the book – perhaps doesn’t create enough of a sense of urgency amongst the characters (after two, and then three, murders, people don’t seem as claustrophobic as they should be!) but the direction certainly captures the incoming storm – both literal and figurative – beautifully. Palmer particularly revels in the “death in paradise” theme, with gorgeous green scenery throughout unable to hide the feeling of lurking shadows, and a particularly iconic shot of the women sunbaking in front of a storm. It’s not haunting in the same way as, perhaps, Hallowe’en Party or The Pale Horse, but it aptly suggests these people are out of their element.  Similarly, this isn’t the fastest-paced story, but it feels as if it captures every aspect of the book while still sparing moments for the entire cast. (As secretary Esther Waters, Montserrat Lombard gets her role reduced from in the books, admittedly.)

“Sex may not have been mentioned in my day, but there was plenty of it about. And enjoyed far more than nowadays where it seems to have become a kind of duty.”

— Jane Marple

Occasionally, of course, the melodrama shines through. Occasional rote lines pop up during the personal conversations (“You couldn’t love me; you’ve never loved anyone.”) but the cast are old-school enough to make it work. The series continues to revel in its odd running gag of having celebrities drop in on the proceedings; in this case a certain famous author gets a crucial idea during a lecture on birds. (It’s a diverting gag, I’ll concede, but still an odd one for someone like Marple, who has comparatively little interest in celebrity.) Yet these moments are more quirks than annoyances; similarly the rather garish killer flashbacks at episode’s end actually do create a sense of the insanity of the killer. (And increasing one secondary character’s role in the murders, at the expense of Esther, actually makes a great deal of sense in this particular locale!)  It’s really quite terrifying. The strongest Marple novels have always been those where she actively investigates, and A Caribbean Mystery is hugely relevant in that respect. Julia McKenzie (72, if you can believe it) has really matured in this role, and I truly hope this won’t be her final season. Just because David Suchet’s time in the Christie world is coming to a close, we shouldn’t lose the spinster too!

Like 4.50 From Paddington, A Caribbean Mystery is unusual in that Marple doesn’t quite figure out who the killer is – she ultimately sets up a risky gambit and lets the murderer out themselves. Thankfully, unlike that unusual book’s denouement, this allows her  choice to be somewhat less rash – it’s bound to catch the killer, even if she doesn’t quite guess who it is! Overall, then, I’m very happy with this adaptation – particularly as it’s the first good adaptation of the novel. The script allows the guests to reach their own conclusions; they’re not merely the passive suspects of most Christie mysteries set in an isolated location. By the climax, when the gang of characters has settled on a likely chain of events, it’s clear that we’ve been watching a well-crafted piece. Charity Wakefield, particularly, shines. Molly is one of those middle-era Christie characters who truly develop a psychological presence, and the actress is given a great range of emotions to play as things stretch on. She’s really very good.  Finally, I should mention Sir Anthony Sher, who is effortlessly incredible as rich chemical magnate Jason Rafiel. He’s much kinder than in the book, I should say, and – like the book – the character isn’t given nearly enough to do (he all but disappears from the middle third here). Sher and McKenzie have such a workable chemistry that it’s a shame this is the character’s only appearance. Sher plays Rafiel’s initial frustration with the old woman ever so nuanced while also being great fun. And when they pair up, the entire film gains a great sense of urgency about it. Their final conversation is particularly touching and, in fact, uses our knowledge of Nemesis to be more poignant.

I’m very happy with this adaptation (much stronger than the start of Poirot‘s season). Next up: the series returns to the Marple short stories for Greenshaw’s Folly.