Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple's Last Case is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in October 1976 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed for £3.50 and the US edition for $7.95. The book features Miss Marple in her last mystery. It was the last Christie novel published — posthumously — although not the last one Christie actually wrote.

Plot summary[edit | edit source]

"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.


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.

Characters[edit | edit source]

  • Gwenda Halliday Reed: 21 years old and newly married woman from New Zealand, settling in England with her new husband.
  • Giles Reed: Husband of Gwenda, who met her in New Zealand. Orphaned as she is, and in a business requiring travel.
  • Mrs Cocker: Cook for the Reed household.
  • Raymond West: Well known author and nephew of Miss Jane Marple.
  • Joan West: Painter, wife of Raymond, and cousin to Giles Reed.
  • Miss Jane Marple: Aunt to Raymond, loves to garden, and an old woman with a way of finding out murderers.
  • Dr Haydock: Miss Marple's physician, who she talks into advising her to take a trip at the seaside.
  • Edith (Edie) Pagett: Cook to the Halliday home St Catherine (now called Hillside) years earlier, who still resides in Dillmouth.
  • Leonie: Young Swiss woman who was briefly nurse or nanny for the child Gwenda at St Catherine house, and saw something out the nursery window the night Helen disappeared.
  • Lily Abbott Kimble: House parlour maid in the Halliday household, who is now married.
  • Manning: Gardener, now 75 years old, to the Kennedy household when Helen was alive.
  • Major Kelvin Halliday: Married to Megan, and father of Gwenda. After Megan died, he remarried to Helen Kennedy, a young woman he met on the ship back to England with his daughter. He died under the delusion that he murdered his second wife.
  • Alison Danby: The aunt who raised Gwenda in New Zealand, sister to her late mother.
  • Helen Spenlove Halliday (née Kennedy): Young blonde woman, half sister to Dr Kennedy, wife to Major Halliday, and stepmother to Gwenda. She was a lively and loving young woman.
  • Dr James Kennedy: He is the older half brother to Helen, who raised her once both parents died. He retired from practice soon after his sister disappeared, and now lives in Woodleigh-Bolton.
  • Jackie (J. J.) Afflick: Local boy, first working as clerk in Fane’s law firm, dismissed for cause but possibly framed. He briefly socialized with Helen when she returned from school. He is now married to Dorothy, and a businessman with a coach tour service in Devon and Dorset, based in Exeter.
  • Walter Fane: Son of the local lawyer, he tried a tea plantation in India, failed at that, returned to Dillmouth to practice law in his father’s firm, always a bachelor. He proposed to Helen, she went out to marry him, but turned him down when she arrived there, realizing she did not love him at all.
  • Richard Erskine: Married man who met Helen on the ship to India, when he was travelling alone. They both knew their strong attraction had no future, so gave it up. He resides in Northumberland.
  • Mrs Janet Erskine: Wife of Richard, and mother to their two sons. The family vacationed in Dillmouth at the time when Helen disappeared.
  • Dr Penrose: On staff at Saltmarsh House nursing home in Norfolk where Major Halliday spent the last years of his life.
  • Inspector Last: First officer to appear on the scene when Lily's body is found.
  • Detective inspector Primer: Takes the lead on the investigation of Lily's murder and the suspicion of where Helen is buried once Gwenda tells the police all of the story. Colonel Melrose had once pointed Miss Marple out to him.
  • Beatrice: The maid of Eleanor Fane.
  • Evelyn: The maid of Miss Marple.
  • Esther: The cook at Gossington Hall.
  • Mr Penderley: A house agent in Dillmouth.

Title changes[edit | edit source]

Christie’s original manuscript of Sleeping Murder was entitled Murder in Retrospect after one of the chapters in the book. When the Hercule Poirot novel Five Little Pigs was later serialized in the US in Collier's Weekly from September to November 1941, the magazine’s editing board retitled it Murder in Retrospect. This was also the title used by Christie’s American publisher Dodd Mead and Company, presumably in order to capitalize on the recent US serialization. Christie's original manuscript of Sleeping Murder was duly retitled Cover Her Face.

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 the last Miss Marple book. She 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.

Allusions to other works[edit | edit source]

  • When the police inspector sees Miss Marple he comments on a case of poison pen near Lymstock, which is the plot of The Moving Finger.
  • Early in the novel, Miss Marple has a brief conversation with Colonel Arthur Bantry, her neighbor in St Mary Mead, whose death was referenced in The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side, published in 1962, emphasizing the 1940s setting of Sleeping Murder. Detective inspector Primer mentions that Colonel Melrose pointed her out to him in the past, after telling Gwenda that Miss Marple was well known to the Chief Constables of three counties, who relied on her, but not yet his chief.
  • In Sleeping Murder, the concept of an unknown person, X, is briefly used by the characters figuring out what happened to Helen. In Curtain, Poirot's last case, written about the same time, Captain Hastings refers to the murderer Poirot seeks as Mr X. The notation is used throughout Curtain, but just briefly in Sleeping Murder. In both novels, X proved to be a character already well-known to other characters in the novel.
  • The plot of the early 17th century play, The Duchess of Malfi, concerns a woman who is strangled by her brother because of the man she married, exactly Dr. Kennedy's situation as to his sister. Miss Marple at the end says she should have known all along it was Kennedy, because of the words he uttered, the words that triggered Gwenda's deeply held memory.
  • There is a slight plot similarity to her 1968 novel By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which featured her characters Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. When Gwenda visits the sanatorium to find out about Kevin Halliday, a lady says, “was it your poor child? Behind the fireplace?”

Writing and publication process[edit | edit source]

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: A biography, 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 reception[edit | edit source]

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 adaptations[edit | edit source]

BBC "Miss Marple" series[edit | edit source]

Main article: Sleeping Murder (Miss Marple episode)

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.

BBC Radio 4 Adaptation[edit | edit source]

Main article: Sleeping Murder (BBC Radio 4 adaptation)

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.

ITV 'Marple' Series[edit | edit source]

Main article: Sleeping Murder (Agatha Christie's Marple episode)

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.

Publication history[edit | edit source]

  • 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.

International titles[edit | edit source]

  • Czech: Zapomenutá vražda (Forgotten Murder)
  • Dutch: Moord uit het verleden (Murder from the past)
  • French: La Dernière Enigme (The Last Riddle)
  • Finnish: Neiti Marplen viimeinen juttu (Miss Marple's Last Case)
  • German: Ruhe unsanft (Rest unpeacefully)
  • Italian: Addio Miss Marple (Goodbye Miss Marple)
  • Norwegian: Miss Marples siste sak (Last case of Miss Marple)
  • Spanish: Un crimen dormido (Sleeping Murder)

Worldwide covers[edit | edit source]

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