As the story opens, Miss Jane Marple is paying a visit to her old friend Ruth Van Rydock. Miss Marple, Ruth, and Ruth's sister Carrie Louise were all friends together at the same school in Italy when they were girls. Ruth is worried that something is very wrong at Stonygates, the Victorian mansion where Carrie Louise lives with her husband Lewis Serrocold. She can't explain any real reason for these worries, but she fears that Carrie Louise may be in danger of some kind. Ruth asks Miss Marple to visit her and find out what is going on.
Carrie Louise is delighted to have Jane for a visit at Stonygates. The old Victorian mansion, though owned outright by Carrie Louise, has been converted into a home for delinquent boys which is, run by Carrie Louise's husband, Lewis Serrocold. Lewis Serrocold is actually Carrie Louise's third husband; she was also once widowed and once divorced. Carrie Louise has always been attracted to men who had their minds on noble causes. Her first husband, Mr. Gulbrandsen, was a great philanthropist, and Mr. Serrocold is devoted to the idea of reforming juvenile delinquents and teaching them how to contribute to society. The boys are involved in theatrical productions and many other activities around the estate during the day, but at night they are confined to their own quarters. The family has the central block of the house to themselves.
The family includes many people who are connected to each other only through Carrie Louise. Mildred Strete is the only blood relative of Carrie Louise who is resident at Stonygates. She is Carrie Louise's daughter by her first marriage. Carrie Louise also had an adopted daughter, Pippa, who died after giving birth to her own daughter, Gina. Now an adult, Gina is married to an American named Walter Hudd and has recently returned to Stonygates. Juliet Bellever, a long time companion, caretaker, and friend of Carrie Louise is also a permanent fixture at the mansion. Stephen and Alex Restarick, Carrie Louise's stepsons from her second marriage, are also frequent visitors.
Also frequently present at Stonygates is Lewis Serrocold's assistant, Edgar Lawson. Edgar is an awkward young man who the others dismiss as pompous and half-mad. He seems to suffer from both a persecution complex and delusions of grandeur. On several occasions he confides to others that he is the illegitimate son of a great man, and claims that powerful enemies are conspiring to keep him from his rightful position.
Christian Gulbrandsen, a member of the Stonygates Board of Trustees and the son of Carrie Louise's first husband from his previous marriage, arrives unexpectedly to see Lewis Serrocold. Everyone assumes he is there on business, but no one is sure exactly why. After dinner Mr. Gulbrandsen retires to the guest room to type a letter. Miss Marple and the others gather in the Great Hall. A fuse blows out, and Walter goes to repair it.
Edgar Lawson bursts into the darkened room, screaming that Lewis Serrocold is his real father. Edgar and Mr. Serrocold go into the study and Edgar locks the door behind him. Everyone in the Great Hall listens intently as Edgar screams accusations at Mr. Serrocold, then they hear multiple gunshots. When the door is finally opened, they are surprised but relieved to see that Mr. Serrocold is alive and well, Edgar in tears, and several bullet holes in the walls.
Yet there has been a murder at Stonygates that night after all. When Juliet Bellever goes to check on Christian Gulbrandsen, she finds him dead. He was shot while working at his typewriter, and the letter he was writing is gone.
Mr. Serrocold later reveals to the police that he took the letter to keep his wife from learning its contents. He explains that he and Mr. Gulbrandsen were both concerned that Carrie Louise's recent poor health was due to deliberate poisoning.
At that point, Alex Restarick arrives. Alex is Stephen's brother, also associated with the stage, and the most likely suspect since the police who come to investigate find an unaccounted period of time between his arrival in the car and his appearance in the Great Hall.
Alex Restarick's remarks about stage scenery lead Miss Marple to reflect on all kinds of stage illusion, such as conjurers who perform magic by using mirrors and assistants who are in on the trick. She soon works out how Mr. Gulbrandsen's murder was accomplished, and who is behind the poisoning attempts. The murderer is at last discovered –- only to die attempting to save an accomplice before either can be brought to trial.
No review of this book appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.
Maurice Richardson of The Observer of November 30, 1952 summed up thus: "First half is lively and the trick alibi for the murder of the stepson neat enough; there is a marked decline in sprightliness later on, but half a shot is better than no dope.
Robert Barnard: "Unusual (and not entirely convincing) setting of delinquent's home, full of untrustworthy adolescents and untrustworthy do-gooders. Christie not entirely at home, perhaps because she believes (in Miss Marple's words) that 'young people with a good heredity, and brought up wisely in a good home…they are really…the sort of people a country needs.' Otherwise highly traditional, with houseplans, Marsh-y inquisitions, and second and third murders done most perfunctorily. Definite signs of decline.
Some elements of the plot were also incorporated into the 1964 film Murder Ahoy!, starring Margaret Rutherford - along with a token tribute to The Mousetrap. Instead of a sprawling Victorian estate, the delinquent boys are housed on board a retired ship called the Battledore, and they go ashore periodically to commit mischief under the direction of their criminal mastermind. Apart from these elements, however, this film is not based on any of Christie's works.
A condensed version of the novel was first published in the US in Cosmopolitan magazine in the issue for April 1952 (Volume 132, Number 4) under the title Murder With Mirrors with illustrations by Joe Bowler.
In the UK the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in six abridged instalments from April 26 (Volume 91, Number 2391) to May 31, 1952 (Volume 91, Number 2396) with illustrations by George Ditton.
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