Agatha Christie’s “At Bertram’s Hotel” Barely Has a Plot

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Briallen Hopper at Public Books: Unlike Agatha Christie’s best known novels, At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) barely has a plot. Its one murder takes place almost three-quarters of the way through the book, and it is solved more through intuition than detection. Though Miss Marple is present, she has little to do beyond eating muffins and shopping for tea towels—or, as she calls them, “glass cloths.”

But I have been rereading Agatha Christie for decades, and I have a special admiration for At Bertram’s Hotel. Christie’s more streamlined Art Deco style of the 1920s and ’30s yields here to the expansive nonchalance of a late-career writer whose sales figures were on track to rival those of Shakespeare and God. What makes it unsatisfying as a work of detection paradoxically makes it excellent as a case study of why one might read mystery novels—and, more to the point, why one might reread them.

W. H. Auden’s famous essay on detective stories begins “For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol.” However, for Auden the fix can’t be a familiar one: “I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.”

For Christie fans like me, rereading is the point. We are not on tenterhooks to find out whodunit. We are on familiar terms with every murderer and red herring, and in the absence of suspense, we can afford to savor every page. We spend our lives cycling through the same 66 Christie mysteries the way devout readers cycle through the 66 books of the biblical canon. In this we resemble Miss Marple herself, who during her stay at Bertram’s Hotel “picked up the small devotional book that always accompanied her, and read as usual the page and a half allotted to the day.” This scene of continuous rereading is one of the many moments in the novel that feel like metafiction.

At Bertram’s Hotel is a book about the dangers and delights of choosing known pleasures over the dubious thrills of novelty. Miss Marple has been given a holiday by her nephew and his wife, but instead of going to the seaside as they suggest, she requests a week at an old London hotel she once stayed at during her Edwardian girlhood. Miraculously, despite two world wars and the ambient popularity of “long-haired Beatles,” Bertram’s appears unchanged, its rhythms and rituals implausibly preserved in amber: “It really seemed too good to be true. She knew quite well, with her usual clear-eyed common sense, that what she wanted was simply to refurbish her memories of the past in their old original colors. Much of her life had, perforce, to be spent recalling past pleasures. … In a queer way, it made her come to life again.” Although the novel is set in the Swinging Sixties, it evokes the material remnants of a lost world with Christie’s trademark satire-tinged attentiveness. Its lush opening scenes revel in “magnificent coal fires,” “rich red velvet and plushy coziness,” authentic baked goods (Bertram’s serves “real seed cake” and is the “only place in London where you can get real muffins”), and some seriously comfortable chairs:

The armchairs were not of this time and age. They were well above the level of the floor, so that rheumatic old ladies had not to struggle in an undignified manner in order to get to their feet. The seats of the chairs did not, as in so many modern high-priced arm-chairs, stop half-way between the thigh and the knee, thereby inflicting agony on those suffering from arthritis and sciatica; and they were not all of a pattern. … People of almost any dimension could find a comfortable chair at Bertram’s.

Like Christie’s own varied oeuvre, Bertram’s offers something for everyone. Yet there is something unsettling about all this comfort: “If this was the first time you had visited Bertram’s, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had re-entered a vanished world. Time had gone back. You were in Edwardian England once more.”

As always with Christie, the alarm and unease are part of the pleasure—a warning sign that all is not well. The initial restorative wallow in nostalgia is followed by a double reveal. In the very first chapter, we find out that rather than being a carefully preserved relic, Bertram’s is an elaborate and carefully calibrated modern moneymaking scheme designed to cater to rich American Anglophiles while offering discounted rates to shabby-genteel British guests like Miss Marple who unwittingly function as part of the décor.

Much later in the novel (spoiler alert!), after a desultory yet somehow restful couple hundred pages of vague coincidences and spinsterish eavesdropping, we learn that Bertram’s is also the headquarters for an international robbery syndicate. The hotel’s respectable Englishness is a cover for cosmopolitan criminality involving mysterious Swiss investors and Eurotrash race car drivers. The higher-up hotel workers are crooks, and the fresh-faced chambermaids come from central casting.

Christie’s biographer Laura Thompson sees the central conceit of At Bertram’s Hotel as a “great sad joke.” She champions Christie as an innovative and ambitious modern writer, an insightful social historian and the author of at least one “minor expressionist masterpiece” who is too often dismissed as trapped in the past. She reads At Bertram’s Hotel as a protest against readers and critics who would dismiss Christie as merely a nostalgic genre writer—a kind of tea tray for the soul.

I prefer to see Christie as a nostalgic genre writer who knew exactly what she was doing—who was well aware of the art, the artifice, the performance, and the profit involved in creating novels that offer reliable, predictable, well-known pleasures, and who wanted us to know she knew. Both modern nostalgia merchants like Julian Fellowes and classic mystery writers like Dorothy L. Sayers are genuine believers in the timeless goodness of country estates, Oxford colleges, and English village churches. Christie knows better. The Anglophilia and noblesse oblige of Downton Abbey are cloying because they are earnest. In contrast, At Bertram’s Hotel admits and even revels in its anachronistic con game. Its unpretentious pretense is strangely reassuring.

We are not young anymore. Britain is not especially “Great.” The past is gone, and it was laudable more for its muffins than its morals. Yet we still want the muffins, and Christie will still give them to us. This is not Proust, and the baked goods in this book are just present pleasure, rather than a portal to lost time. But At Bertram’s Hotel allows us to have our nostalgic cake and read it too. It evokes a lost past while at the same time showing us why we should be wary of anything that promises to give it back to us.

Much has been written during the pandemic about the comfort of rereading and rewatching. For me, the most profound reading experience of the past two years was not being able to read at all. That first week when the world shut down, I decided to cope by rereading the complete Christie in chronological order. Then the sirens began. For the first time in my literate life, I couldn’t read for months. When I could finally focus on a paragraph again, I picked up At Bertram’s Hotel, which consoled me with its vision of fraudulent comfort: Welcome to Bertram’s Hotel. Sit down and have a scone! But also: Beware of people who promise you old pleasures. The past is gone.