Sleeping Murder

Sleeping Murder: Miss Marple's Last Case

Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
Author Agatha Christie
Cover artist Not known
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Crime novel
Publisher Collins Crime Club
Publication date
October 1976
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 224 first edition, hardback
ISBN 0-00-231785-0
OCLC 2904600
LC Class PZ3.C4637 Sm PR6005.H66
Preceded by Curtain
Followed by 'An Autobiography'

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[1] and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year.[2][3] The UK edition retailed for £3.50[1] and the US edition for $7.95.[3]

The book features Miss Marple. It was the last Christie novel, published posthumously, although not the last one Christie wrote featuring Miss Marple. The story is set in the 1930s, though written during the Second World War. She aids a young couple who choose to uncover events in the wife's past life, and not let sleeping murder lie.

Plot summary

Newlywed Gwenda Reed travels ahead of her husband to find a home for them on the south coast of England. In a short time, she finds and buys Hillside, a large old house that feels just like home. She re-opens the view to the sea from the terrace and renovates with new bathrooms and improved kitchen, staying in a one-time nursery room while the work progresses. She puts off painting and wallpaper, though she forms a definite idea for the little nursery. When the workmen open a long sealed door, she sees the very wallpaper that was in her mind. Further, a place that seems logical to her for a doorway between two rooms proves to have been one years earlier. She goes to London for a visit with relatives, the author Raymond West, his wife, and his aunt, Miss Jane Marple. During the play, The Duchess of Malfi, when the line "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young" is spoken, Gwenda screams out; she saw an image of herself viewing a man saying those words strangling a blonde-haired woman named Helen.

Gwenda tells her story to Miss Marple. She was born in India where her father was stationed, then raised in New Zealand by her mother’s sister from a toddler, once her mother died. Her father died a few years after her mother. She has memories of being on a ship, but it is clearly two ships. Miss Marple suggests that for at least a short time, Gwenda lived in England with her father and his second wife, which proves to be the case. Her stepmother, Helen Kennedy Halliday, met her father travelling from India back to England, where their shipboard romance led to marriage upon arrival in England. They rented a house in Dillmouth, the seaside town where Helen grew up. The coincidences prove to be memories from Gwenda’s stay in that house 18 years ago as a very young child. Now Gwenda ponders her frightening image and the closing words of the play: are they real memories as well? Her husband Giles arrives from New Zealand and the couple decide to pursue this mystery.

Helen was raised mainly by half brother, Dr. Kennedy, now retired from practice and moved to another village. He replies to an ad placed by Giles seeking information about Helen. He, too, wants to hear from Helen.

Miss Marple arranges to visit friends in Dillmouth. Miss Marple is often at the house, pulling out bindweed from the neglected garden. She finds the man who once gardened for the Kennedy family, brother and sister, who supplies several useful descriptions of events then. Miss Marple finds the cook from the Halliday household, Edith, who remembers that time well. The Hallidays had purchased a house in Norfolk and were soon to move, before Helen disappeared. Helen was heard to argue with a man that he had always frightened her, and she wanted to get away. The servants presumed this was her husband, but it was not. Helen had a few other men in her life before she married Halliday. One was a local boy, the other the son of the local lawyer trying out India for a while, and third was a man she met on board ship on her way out to India to marry that lawyer’s son. She married none of them, and was mainly interested in escaping her brother. She did fall in love with Halliday, and loved his daughter.

The Reeds advertise, seeking the maid Lily. She writes first to Dr. Kennedy, thinking he is a friend who will explain to her what might be in store if she replies. She says that she does not believe that Helen ran off, as the clothes packed in her suitcase made no sense (taking an evening gown but not the shoes and belt that go with it). The Reeds and Dr. Kennedy agree he should write back to her to arrange a meeting at his present home. Lily never arrives.

The police find Lily’s body in a copse near the train station. She has been strangled. She came by an earlier train, but had Dr. Kennedy’s letter with her, for the later arrival time. Miss Marple advises Gwenda to tell the police everything. Soon, they are digging up the garden, at the end of the terrace, to find Helen’s body. Gwenda is in the house alone when Dr. Kennedy approaches her, ready to kill her by strangling when his attempt to poison her failed. Miss Marple arrives with a container of soapy solution, which she sprays in his eyes to stop the murder attempt.

Dr. Kennedy had strangled his sister, saying the closing words from that play, unaware of the toddler Gwenda at the stair railing above. He buried Helen in the garden. He set up her husband to think he had strangled her, but there was no body, so he was taken as insane, and died in a nursing home. His diary from that time showed him to be quite sane, but he could not explain what he had seen, his strangled wife next to him. Kennedy had first given drugs to make Halliday paranoid, and then drugged his drink so Dr. Kennedy could pose him next to the strangled Helen. Then Kennedy moved her body again. The letter found with Lily was not the one she received from Kennedy; he switched it after he killed her. He did not want the police involved, as they would see through his scheme. He sent the nanny Leonie home with medicines that killed her. Miss Marple explains all this to the Reeds, the full confession from Kennedy and how they should have seen it from the start, from those words in the play.


Writing and publication process

Agatha 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 Sleeping Murder was written sometime during the Blitz, which took place between September 1940 and May 1941. Agatha Christie's literary correspondence files indicate Sleeping Murder was written early in 1940.[4][5]

Christie's notebooks are open to interpretation in hindsight; John Curran argues that Sleeping Murder was still being planned at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s.[6] His basis is the many changes to the title of the novel, as other authors used her first title ideas: One of Christie's notebooks contain references to Cover Her Face (second title) under ‘Plans for Sept. 1947’ and ‘Plans for Nov. 1948’, suggesting she was planning to re-read and revise the manuscript. It is on the basis of these dates John Curran argues that Christie had still to write the manuscript.

His argument is not supported by two biographers, who state unequivocally that Sleeping Murder was written in 1940.[7][8] This view is further supported by Jared Cade.[9]

Support for the story being first written in 1940 is found in the correspondence files of Christie's literary agents: Christie's royalty statement for 15 March 1940 states that the secretarial agency hired by Edmund Cork to type up Murder in Retrospect (first title of manuscript) charged £19 13s. 9.[4] 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".[4]

Christie refers to the last Poirot and Miss Marple novels that she penned during the Second World War in her autobiography. She writes that 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 her daughter, Rosalind Hicks, 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.[10]

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 authorised the publication of Curtain in 1975 to send off Poirot. She then arranged to have Sleeping Murder published in 1976, but she died before its publication in October 1976.

By contrast to Poirot, who dies in the final novel, Miss Marple lives on. This last published novel is set in the 1930s, but follows novels that show Miss Marple to have aged. In Nemesis, Miss Marple does no gardening on the advice of her doctor, showing the effects of her more fragile health; in Sleeping Murder, Miss Marple is frequently on her knees pulling bindweed from the neglected garden at the home of the Reeds, showing her to be stronger, and in the chronology of the fictional character's life, not working on her truly final case. There is a reference to a wireless set as being a special purchase by Lily were she to receive money by responding to the newspaper notice seeking her, which reinforces the story's setting in the 1930s as the author intended in her final revisions done in 1950.[7][9]

Change of the Title from Writing to Publication

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

Literary significance and reception

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."[11]

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?"[12]



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. This adaptation is fairly true to the plot of the novel.

Adapter: Ken Taylor Director: John Davies


A second television adaptation, set in 1951, 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 Kelvin's first wife, (whose name is changed from Megan to Claire). The biggest change of all is at the end it is revealed that Gwenda's mother and stepmother were one and the same person. Claire was a jewel thief and to escape the Indian Police-Detectives, she faked her death and assumed the identity of "Helen Marsden". Giles is not seen, and at the end, Gwenda leaves him and becomes engaged to member of his company, Hugh Hornbeam. Dr Kennedy does not try to kill Gwenda and does not appear to be crazy, merely that he was in love with his sister and killed her so no one could have her. Kelvin is not taken to hospital and drugged by Dr Kennedy with Datura. Instead, Kelvin Halliday is murdered when Dr Kennedy pushes him over a rocky cliff.

Adapter: Stephen Churchett Director: Edward Hall


The novel was adapted to a Syrian drama series, "جريمة في الذاكرة" "Crime in the Memory" that was broadcast in 1992.


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 (she played Miss Marple in several radio adaptations in the 20th century). It was recorded on 10 October 2001.

Adapter: Michael Bakewell Producer: Enyd Williams


Publication history

In the US the novel was serialised in Ladies' Home Journal in two abridged instalments from July (Volume XCIII, Number 7) to August 1976 (Volume XCIII, Number 8) with an illustration by Fred Otnes.


  1. 1 2 Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 16)
  2. Cooper and Pyke. Detective Fiction: the collector's guide: Second Edition (pp. 82, 87) Scholar Press. 1994; ISBN 0-85967-991-8
  3. 1 2 American Tribute to Agatha Christie
  4. 1 2 3 "Agatha Christie Papers (EUL MS 99) (correspondence between Dame Agatha Christie and her agent 1938- 1976)". Special Collections - Modern Literature Archives. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter.
  5. "Agatha Christie papers". Retrieved 28 March 2014.
  6. John Curran (2009). Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks. HarperCollins.
  7. 1 2 Janet Morgan (1984). Agatha Christie: A Biography. Harper Collins.
  8. Laura Thompson (2007). Agatha Christie: An English Mystery. Headline Review.
  9. 1 2 Jared Cade (October 2011). Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days: The Revised and Expanded 2011 Edition. Peter Owen Publishers.
  10. Agatha Christie (November 1977). An Autobiography. London: William Collins, Sons. p. 509.
  11. Daily Mirror, 22 October 1976 (p. 19)
  12. Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive: an appreciation of Agatha Christie, Revised edition (p. 205). Fontana Books, 1990; ISBN 0-00-637474-3
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