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Literature / The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

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The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side is a 1962 novel by Agatha Christie, featuring Miss Marple. The American version (and its adaptations) use the shorter title The Mirror Crack'd.

Miss Marple investigates the murder of Heather Badcock, who consumed a poisoned cocktail apparently meant for American film actress Marina Gregg, Heather's idol. As Marple investigates, she discovers dark secrets in Marina's past, secrets which also link to other seemingly innocent citizens of St. Mary Mead.

The title of the novel comes from the poem "The Lady of Shalott" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The character of Marina Gregg is generally assumed to be based on the American actress Gene Tierney—and the central plot points are based on events in the life of that actress. Christie herself denied this and insisted the similarity was a coincidence.

The story has been adapted for the screen three times, with Angela Lansbury (1980), Joan Hickson (1992), and Julia McKenzie (2010) variously playing Miss Marple. For examples from the 2010 adaptation, see Marple. It has also received a stage adaptation.

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Ambiguous Situation: It's implied that given Marina is a Mood-Swinger, she possibly has either a form of bipolar disorder or simply cannot handle the celebrity life with the pressure it entails. Her grown adopted daughter says that Marina treated them more as things and not as children when she got pregnant with her own baby, and Marina's husband at the time was well aware of that. Granted, having a baby born with permanent defects from rubella is bound to be traumatizing, but her adopted daughter says that Marina was always like that.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: This trope provides a crucial clue regarding the testimony of Gladys Dixon, who was standing by Marina and Heather Badcock when they met. A minor collision caused Heather to spill her drink, which Marina replaced with her own. Recalling the incident, Gladys remarks, "She did it on purpose!" It's Miss Marple who understands that Gladys wasn't referring to Heather deliberately spilling her drink, but rather to Marina bumping into Heather in order to have an excuse to give her the poisoned one.
  • Asshole Victim: Downplayed with Heather Badcock, who was never malicious in the slightest. Nevertheless, she selfishly sneaked out of her hospital wing, which was quarantined for rubella, in order to meet Marina Gregg, her favorite movie star, inadvertently infecting the pregnant Marina with German measles and ruining her life and the life of her unborn child. Played completely straight with Giuseppe and Ella Zielinsky, both of whom tried to blackmail the murderer for money.
  • Beneath Suspicion: Marina successfully makes herself look like the intended victim, taking her off the suspect list completely. It is remarkable that Ella Zielinsky even thought of calling her at all.
  • Blackmail: Attempted separately by Italian butler Giuseppe and Jason's secretary Ella Zielinsky. Giuseppe is shot after a trip to the bank, while Ella is poisoned with cyanide in her inhaler. Christie always kills off her blackmailers.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: The blackmailer Ella just called several people who could have been the killer and dropped hints to test their reactions.
  • But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Jason uses this explanation when asked about the "previous relationship" between Marina and Heather. He explains that Heather was a fan of his wife's, and as a result, it was a big deal for her to get Marina's autograph. However, Marina has done hundreds of receptions with fans and signed thousands of autographs, so she simply has no memory of the event Heather described of one more autograph seeker among thousands. Subverted, in that Jason is well aware that while Marina didn't remember Heather specifically, the earlier meeting was even more significant to her than it was to Heather — as Heather had recently suffered German measles and was still contagious, that was how the pregnant Marina was infected. German measles causes birth defects, and Marina was forced to give up the child she'd wanted to have for years.
  • Chekhov's Party: Shortly before Heather was killed by a poisoned drink meant for Marina Gregg, she told Marina and Miss Marple about a previous time where she had snuck out while ill in order to meet Marina during another of her appearances. She infected Marina with German measles, which stunted the development her fetus and forced her to give the child up despite wanting him for years. This is why Marina killed Heather.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title: No mirror plays a significant role in the mystery; the allusion is to the line of the poem that follows the quoted line, referring to Marina's stricken look shortly before the attempt on her life:
    The mirror crack'd from side to side;
    "The curse is come upon me," cried
    The Lady of Shalott.
  • Condescending Compassion: Ms. Knight means well but she considers Ms. Marple too be more old and infirm than she is and behaves accordingly.
    Cherry: You don't want kindness rubbed into your skin, so to speak, do you?
  • Crying Wolf: Miss Marple correctly deduces that Marina exploited this trope during the poisoning—if anyone saw her slipping drugs into a cocktail, they'd simply assume that it was for herself, given that Marina was almost constantly taking pills and concoctions for her nerves. As such, eyewitnesses would never imagine that she might be trying to kill someone else. Gladys Dixon is the only person who interprets Marina's actions somewhat correctly, and Miss Marple hurriedly gets her out of town once she realizes that the knowledge makes her a target.
  • Dedication: Christie dedicated the book to Margaret Rutherford, who played Miss Marple in the 1961 film Murder, She Said.
  • Driven to Suicide: The killer is found dead of an overdose after The Reveal. It is implied that this was actually orchestrated by Jason Rudd, to prevent Marina from committing more murders and to save her from suffering further.
  • Exact Words: Heather will tell anyone that she was sick but went out to meet Marina to get an autograph. Miss Marple reveals that it wasn't an inconvenience like the common cold, but rubella aka German measles, a highly contagious disease that can cause birth defects.
  • Feigning Healthiness: Heather Badcock once caught German measles and was told to stay at home, but went out to a party to meet her favorite actress Marina Gregg anyway. Unbeknownst to her, Marina was pregnant, caught German measles from Heather, and the child was born with severe birth defects. Years later, they meet again, with Heather proudly recalling the time she proved no sickness would prevent her from meeting her idol, which quickly gets her murdered by Marina. This was possibly based on a similar incident that happened in real life to Gene Tierney (though without the murder).
  • For Want of a Nail: The entire novel, which includes three murders, one suicide, and general chaos and grief in St. Mary Mead, stems from a single, seemingly unimportant incident: Heather Badcock being sick with German measles and going to meet Marina Gregg for an autograph anyway. The same incident also destroyed Marina Gregg's sanity and career, as it led to her unborn child being infected with the illness and coming out mentally and physically impaired.
  • Gossip Evolution: One of the keys to unraveling the mystery. Everyone who's questioned about the crime remembers Heather Badcock's lengthy, involved story about meeting Marina previously in a different way—she's told the tale so often that they've learned to tune it out and often fill in details with their own experiences or ideas. Miss Marple eventually learns the version that Heather herself told originally—most importantly, that Heather was under a strict quarantine for German measles when she got Marina's autograph. Marina heard those words at the party, realized that the woman who ruined her life was standing in front of her, and lashed out fatally. It's heavily implied that Jason Rudd deliberately spread Heather's story with incorrect details to protect his wife.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Both the victim and the murderer are sympathetic to some degree, but both of them have fatal flaws that collectively bring about the tragedy. Heather failed to recognize how her actions would destroy Marina's life and the life of her unborn child, and Marina poisoned her in a fit of rage without thinking.
  • Happily Adopted: Deconstructed. Marina adopted three children, and the kids were happy while it lasted, but were hurt when it ended, because they had originally been taken away from their own families. It turned out she was more in love with the idea of being a mother than she was good at it; furthermore, what she truly wanted was a biological child of her own. Once she finally became pregnant, Marina was all too quick to throw out her "unofficial" children to replace them. Her husband at the time, Izzy, "was worried sometimes about us. He was kind to us, but he didn't pretend to be a father. He didn't feel like a father."
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Regarding the real reason for Heather being accidentally —actually deliberately— killed: Quarantines exist for a reason! No, they're not nice and can make a person feel cooped up and missing out on life, but they are necessary to protect other people from contagious diseases. Safe to say that if Heather had followed the rules and waited to meet Marina at a later time, she would have not caused The Chain of Harm that plagued Marina, her biological baby and her adopted children.
  • He Knows Too Much: After Heather's death, there are two other murders, both of which occur because of this trope. Oddly, only one of the two people killed— Giuseppe the butleractually knew something; the other, Ella Zilensky, was just Bluffing the Murderer and inadvertently hit upon the right person while randomly calling suspects. Miss Marple later learns that a third person—Gladys Dixon—also possesses important information about the crime scene, but it's a subversion as she's able to arrange for Gladys to get out of town until the danger has passed.
  • Heroic Safe Mode: Miss Marple enters this upon realizing that Gladys Dixon knows crucial information about the murder and is thus in grave danger of being the killer's next victim. She immediately devises a plan to get Gladys out of St. Mary Mead for as long as possible, and remains remarkably placid even when outright saying that she's trying to prevent her murder.
  • Honorary Uncle: Inspector Craddock starts calling Miss Marple "Aunt Jane" — which he doesn't in any of the other books he's in.
  • It's All About Me: Heather Badcock is a non-villainous example of this. She isn't mean, and actually goes out of her way to do nice things for other people, like rescuing Miss Marple after a nasty fall or taking in a homeless family. However, she is incapable of recognizing that her actions affect other people or that what something means to her might not be the same for other people involved. The primary example of this was that when she got sick, she didn't recognize that the doctor's instructions to "Stay in bed and don't go out to meet people" might not have been just for her benefit…
  • It's Probably Nothing: Heather Badcock took her diagnosis of German measles, and subsequent order to stay strictly quarantined, as this trope—after all, she didn't feel sick, so surely it wasn't a problem to sneak out and meet her favorite actress. True to form, that single action leads to tragedy.
  • Let Off by the Detective: It is subtly implied that Marina was finally poisoned by her husband to save her from public disgrace and prevent more murders. Miss Marple suspects this is the case, but keeps quiet.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The title is from the poem The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, quoted within the novel.
  • Little Old Lady Investigates: Miss Marple, as per usual. Her doctor even recommends that she find a murder to solve because she's getting a little blue and depressed — and investigating does indeed perk her right up.
  • Meaningful Name: Cherry Baker is a good cook (in contrast to her so-so housekeeping).
  • Medication Tampering: Ella Zielinsky uses an inhaler. After she makes the mistake of trying to blackmail the murderer, she gets a lungful of Bitter Almonds.
  • Mercy Kill: Implied to have been done to Marina by her devoted husband Jason at the end.
  • Mood-Swinger: Marina Gregg is beautiful, a great actress, and when she turns on the charm she's absolutely captivating, but her husband is almost a full-time manager because her moods dip so completely from euphoria to despair, and as a result she's very bad at planning for the future.
  • Murder by Mistake: Heather's murder appears to be a misdirected attempt on Marina's life. In fact, this trope is inverted here, because Heather was killed on purpose by Marina herself.
  • Never One Murder: After murdering Heather Badcock, the killer also offs Ella and Giuseppe when they try to blackmail them.
  • New House, New Problems: The murder and everything involved in it happens nice and fast after Marina and Jason move in. Downplayed with Cherry and her husband, who recently moved into a development house but have problems with their neighbors and walls that are too thin to keep noise in or out.
  • Not Worth Killing: This is how Miss Marple eliminates a few suspects from the list—namely, Marina's three adopted children, who by now are grown up. While one of her adopted daughters was indeed at the party in disguise as a photographer, a conversation with her reveals that she loathes Marina for the way she treated them and just wanted a glimpse of her. Miss Marple realizes that at this point, the kids aren't even interested in revenge; they'd rather completely forget about Marina and pretend they never had anything to do with her, so vengeance isn't a possibility.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Marina wavers between this and actual insanity. Her sanity appears to slip away after witnessing a murder, but the whole thing is an act to defer suspicion from herself. However, between her true guilt over the murders and the flashback to a nervous breakdown, her sanity really is crumbling.
  • Obliviously Evil: Heather Badcock sees nothing wrong with breaking quarantine on a whim to see her favorite movie star. In fact, she revels in it and brags about the story to everyone she meets, which eventually proves to be her undoing.
  • One Degree of Separation: It turns out that many of the people at the fatal party were more closely related to one another than they realized: Heather Badcock had infected Marina with German measles years ago, Arthur Badcock, Heather's husband, was actually Marina's first spouse, and one of the photographers was one of Marina's adopted children, now grown up and seeking information on her mother.
  • Put on a Bus: An In-Universe example occurs with Gladys Dixon, a maid who saw Marina and Heather's interaction and noticed something fishy about it: namely, that Marina deliberately spilled her cocktail when Heather bumped into her, giving her an excuse to get a new one and poison Heather's. When Miss Marple hears that other people—namely, Ella and Giuseppe—involved in the case are being murdered, she quickly arranges for Gladys to take a long holiday on the condition that she not tell anyone where she's gone—it's the only way to keep her safe until Marina is stopped.
  • Red Herring: But of course!
    • An eyewitness noticed a look of horror or shock on Marina Gregg's face when she glanced at the stairwell, and much time is spent trying to figure out who was coming up the stairs, and why would they have inspired such a look? The source is not what Ms. Gregg saw, but what she heard. And what she was looking at was an Italian portrait depicting happy motherhood...
    • Marina Gregg's past life is explored in some detail, including several marriages and adopted children that she foisted off to others when she was expecting a biological child. One of the full-grown children was at the party, and Marina didn't even recognize her. The woman is understandably bitter, but she's not the killer. She also mentions that one of her former adoptive brothers also held a grudge and she's unaware of his current whereabouts, but the man never appears in the story.
  • Related in the Adaptation: The BBC Miss Marple adaptation of the book seem to mistake Dermot Craddock as Miss Marple's actual nephew (despite the two being depicted as strangers in A Murder is Announced), rather than an honorary one (see Honorary Uncle above). When Slack advises Craddock to speak to Miss Marple, he tells him that she's his aunt. Later on, Raymond West refers to Dermot as cousin. Same about 1980 adaptation.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Marina Gregg's three adopted children came to feel this way. Since she had such a hard time conceiving and desperately wanted to be a mother, she chose to take them in as a kind of consolation prize—she gave them all the trappings and luxuries of a wealthy childhood, but never really loved them. It's telling that as soon as Marina actually became pregnant, she sent the three away to live with other families now that she had a "real" child.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The plot is remarkably similar to the real-life tragedy of Gene Tierney, who contracted rubella while pregnant, resulting in Daria being born premature, deaf, blind, and severely mentally disabled. These problems contributed to (or, perhaps, outright caused) Tierney's own depression and bipolar disorder. About a year later a woman approached Tierney at a party and said that she had sneaked out of her marine base, under a rubella quarantine at the time, to meet her when she appeared at the Hollywood Canteen, a wartime club that catered to service members where Hollywood stars would appear. Tierney simply stared at the woman, then turned and walked away. She later wrote, "After that I didn't care whether I was anyone's favorite actress ever again." It should be noted, however, that Christie was asked about the similarity, and claimed she'd never heard about Tierney's story until after The Mirror Cracked was published.note 
  • Sanity Slippage: After witnessing a death at close quarters, Marina Gregg is understandably shaken, and the in-universe Paranoia Fuel mounts as threatening notes appear on her property and poisons appear in her coffee. The whole thing is an act to defer suspicion from herself, but between her true guilt over the murders and the flashback to a nervous breakdown, her sanity really is crumbling, until she either took an overdose or her husband administered one to simply end it all.
  • Starter Marriage: Marina Gregg's first husband Arthur Badcock. He was a realtor who just wasn't prepared to keep up with the lifestyle of a Hollywood star.
  • Sympathetic Murderer:
    • Heather Badcock was unwittingly responsible for giving Marina German measles and causing her only biological child to be born with birth defects. Marina suffered a breakdown as a result, and when Heather turned up telling with pride how she had sneaked out of quarantine to meet her, Marina flew into a rage and poisoned her in the heat of the moment.
    • Jason Rudd is implied to have killed Marina himself, to stop her committing more murders and to save her from public disgrace while her stability steadily deteriorated.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness:
    • Marina poisoned Heather in a fit of murderous rage. If she had not had the means to do so immediately at hand, she probably would have had time to calm down, and the tragedy would have been averted.
    • The incident at the root of the whole matter also counts. Had Heather listened to her doctor, it's likely Marina would never have contracted German measles and would have delivered a healthy baby. But Heather just had to get that autograph...
  • Typhoid Mary: Heather was perfectly well after being treated for German measles (also known as rubella), but she was still highly infectious to the point that she was under ordered bed rest until she was safe to be around other people. She ignored this advice, misunderstanding the reason behind it, and ended up infecting Marina Gregg when she was pregnant — causing the baby to be born with the severe congenital problems associated with the disease. Despite Marina Gregg being Heather's favorite actress and Heather's own work with the St. John Ambulance Company, she never put two and two together.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Marina, as an actress, is still very attractive despite her age. Her husband, Jason Rudd, is frequently described to be ugly and looks like a clown. Notably averted in the 1980 adaptation, in which he's played by Rock Hudson.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Heather Badcock is one for Marina Gregg, Marina's baby, Ella Zielinsky, Giuseppe, and herself. If she hadn't sneaked out to meet Marina while she was still getting over rubella, she never would have infected Marina, caused her baby to develop birth defects, ruined her life and career, given her a reason to want Heather dead, put Ella and Giuseppe in a position to blackmail Marina and thus set themselves up as targets for murder, and ultimately brought about Marina's death.
  • Wham Line: Late in the novel, Miss Marple reveals that she sent Gladys Dixon, who was at the crime scene, away on a holiday under strict instruction to not tell anyone where she'd gone. When Inspector Craddock asks why, Miss Marple calmly replies: "Because I didn't want her to be killed, of course." That single line reveals that the murderer is still very much at large, and actively working to destroy anyone who might have evidence of their crimes.

The 1980 film adaptation The Mirror Crack'd has examples of:

  • Accidental Truth: The outcome of Ella Zelinsky's method of blackmail, as detailed below.
  • Adaptational Name Change: A slight one; Heather Badcock's surname is spelled "Babcock."
  • Adapted Out: Marina's butler Giuseppe isn't in this version, nor is Arthur Badcock (Heather's husband) or Margot Bence (Marina's former adoptive child), though a nameless female photographer character remains.
  • The Artifact: Despite Arthur Badcock being Adapted Out, Heather is still referred to as Mrs. Babcock, despite no husband being seen or mentioned.
  • Blackmail: Attempted by Ella Zelinsky. She calls up people left right and center to tell them she saw them poison Heather's drink. She eventually reaches the correct person, and gets killed for her pains.
  • Hollywood Old: Having Angela Lansbury, famous for starring in Murder, She Wrote, play Miss Marple in the film might seem like a very logical move. However, back then, the series waa still four years in the future, and Lansbury by her own admission was 20 years too young for the role.
  • Never One Murder: After murdering Heather Babcock, the killer also offs Ella Zelinsky when she tries to blackmail the culprit.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: Played for laughs, as Marina (Elizabeth Taylor) and Lola (Kim Novak) exchange hilarious strings of snide insults.
    Lola: You seem lovely, as always. Of course, there are fewer lights on than usual. In fact, any fewer, and I'd need a seeing-eye dog.
    Marina: Oh, I shouldn't bother to buy one, dear. In that wig, you could play Lassie.
    Lola: Same adorable sense of humor. And I'm so glad to see that you've not only kept your gorgeous figure, but you've added so much to it!
    Marina: What are you doing here so early, dear? I thought the plastic surgery seminar was in Switzerland.
    Lola: Actually, darling, I couldn't wait to begin our little movie. You know the saying: once an actress, always an actress.
    Marina: Oh, I do know the saying. But what does it have to do with you?
    Lola: Cute angel. So do tell. How does it feel to be back, after being away so long?
    Marina: I've always thought of Lola as one of my oldest, oldest friends.
  • Suicide, Not Murder: While Jason is implied to have performed a Mercy Kill on Marina in the original novel, in this adaptation, he outright admits to having done this, only for Miss Marple to reveal that Marina didn't even touch the poisoned drink he gave her, and deliberately poisoned herself instead.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Ella calling various partygoers left and right and outright telling them (instead of merely dropping hints like in the novel) that she saw them poison Marina's drink. Even if Marina wasn't the killer, the others called (like Marty Fenn) would have had as much of an opportunity to kill Ella themselves.