Finally, a Miss Marple story where Miss Marple doesn’t suddenly appear in the last couple of chapters to solve the mystery and receive her accolades. Miss Marple enters this story on the first page and is a constant presence across the whole book. Oddly, however, she isn’t able to make her trademark instant-association-of-suspects-with people-she knows-in-St-Mary-Mead, so it does feel like she’s a little lost at times.
They Do It With Mirrors is a classic country house murder, with the setting a huge Victorian monstrosity of a house, with a large cast mainly made up of extended family members. Miss Marple is set on the case by an old school friend, the wealthy and much married (and much divorced) American, Ruth Van Rydock. Ruth has been visiting her sister, Carrie Louise, at Carrie Louise’s home, Stonygates. Stonygates was originally used as a college for educating the sons of working men, founded by Carrie Louise’s first husband, Gulbrandsen. With improvements to State education post World War 2, charitable education facilities became less needed, and so the buildings are now used by Carrie Louise’s third husband, Lewis Serrocold, as a correctional facility/reform school for juvenile delinquents. Ruth feels that something is wrong at the house, although she can’t identify just what is troubling her. So she asks her old friend, Jane Marple, to visit Carrie Louise, to see if she can find out what is wrong at the house.
Carrie Louise has lots of family members living with her, or visiting frequently, such as her daughter from her first marriage, Margaret, her stepson from her first marriage, Christian – several year's older than she is – her two stepsons from her second marriage, Stephen and Alex, her granddaughter, Gina, daughter of Pippa (a child adopted with her first husband), the granddaughter’s husband, Wally, an American, fresh out of the army, and a loyal retainer Miss Bellever. It’s a disparate group, with frequent clashes between family members, the staff and the inmates. Miss Marple feels the various undercurrents and quickly understands Ruth’s concerns. But before she can identify just what the problem is, someone is murdered.
The victim is Christian Gulbrandsen. Apart from being Carrie Louise’s stepson, he is also the main trustee of the Gulbrandsen trust, the philanthropic trust that funds the facility. Everyone assumes he is visiting to discuss trust business with Lewis Serrocold, but after the murder, Lewis reveals that Christian had somehow discovered that Carrie Louise is being slowly poisoned. The assumption is that he was killed to prevent him revealing what he knows. When arsenic is found in the tonic Carrie Louise takes every day, the most likely motive seems to be money, and with all of the family looking to inherit, there is a big suspect pool. Of course, it is never going to be that simple!
The twist used in this book is one that Christie has used in another, and to be honest, it was much better executed in that other book. It’s disguised differently, but anyone who thinks about the meaning of the book’s title and realises that it’s a reference to how stage magicians use illusion to direct attention away from what they don’t want you to see, and who has already read a few of Christie's mysteries, will spot the misdirect and work out ‘whodunnit’ quite quickly. The motive is better hidden. We need that explained at the end.
The end is unusual, as there is no big reveal scene in front of everyone. Miss Marple simply tells the Inspector what actually happened and who the murderer is. We then get some details of what happens after this in a letter written to Rut. The ending, as a whole, feels very abrupt: there are a lot of conflicts that are suddenly cleared up, without anything happening to clear them up. Suddenly, several groups of people who seem to have irreconcilable differences are all just magically reconciled. It gives me the feeling that Christie was rushing to get it finished; perhaps she had a deadline to meet, and just didn’t take the time to finish off the story properly. Overall this was an entertaining mystery, but not one of Christie’s best.