This post has been written as part of the wonderful The Agatha Christie Blogathon hosted by Little Bits of Classic and Christina Wehner The blogathon runs from September 16 – 18 to celebrate all things Agatha Christie marking her 126th birthday. A marvellous event thanks to these two wonderful bloggers.
I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie’s books, particularly those who star my favourite Belgium sleuth, Hercule Poirot, but I never took to Miss Marple when I initially read these books back in my teens, too many moons ago to count. Since then I haven’t been interested in seeing any of the TV adaptions of the books either and I couldn’t honestly tell you which ones I read before making up my mind that Miss Marple was someone to avoid.
It seems I’m not alone, Griselda Clement, wife of the vicar who narrates the story, says about her when she hears their neighbour is coming for tea
‘She is the worst cat in the village,’
Jane Marple is one of three cats in the village, but she is the nosiest by far; nothing happens it would seem without Miss Marple taking note and making judgement.
The village referred to is St. Mary Mead, a quintessential English village where afternoon tea is taken and maids are still de rigour. Of course the Vicar and his wife are right at the heart of things and although there has been some upset over missing donations in church and the like most of the villagers are unanimous in their dislike of Colonel Lucius Protheroe who holds the post of churchwarden and is one of the magistrates. The Colonel lives in Old Hall with his younger wife Anne Protheroe. Even the Vicar can’t disguise his intolerance of the man in front of his wife and nephew Dennis
I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.
But of course duty is duty and afternoon tea is had
“What are you doing this afternoon, Griselda?” “My duty,” said Griselda. “My duty as the Vicaress. Tea and scandal at four thirty.”
The conversation touches on the merest hint of wrongdoing of those in the village, in cryptic and not so cryptic remarks including those of Colonel Portheroe
“I daresay idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it.”
The guests depart, Miss Marple goes back to tending her garden in the house next door to the vicarage. And then… Colonel Protheroe ends up being shot in the back in the Vicar’s own study. Fortunately our narrator is in the clear, having gone on a wild goose chase to see a sick parishioner shortly before the deed was done – even taking into account some mix up over the time of death owing to a note and a clock which was kept 15 minutes fast to aid punctuality. The accuracy of time of death puts our contemporary fictional doctors to shame, where no police doctor worth his salt would allow himself such a narrow time frame, even with much sucking in of breath and humming and harring! Inspector Slack is the local police officer and it seems like an open and shut case when one of the villagers owns up to the murder within a few pages. Of course that wouldn’t be a mystery story, so it is no surprise that he is quickly released. What is more surprising is that the Vicar gets drawn into the investigation, and our Miss Marple who is on the fringes, aids mainly by disproving the latest theory rather than coming up with a credible one of her own, until much later, of course.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot itself, apart from to agree that once again, Agatha Christie was fair, we were all given the clues and so if, your powers of deduction are more like Inspector Slack’s than Miss Marple’s, then the solution will have outwitted you.
What I do want to talk about is the other characters who are all presented as fairly formulaic types: there is the silly young wife, the maid who is kept despite being rubbish so that no-one else will poach her, the serious vicar, the pompous policeman as well as the elderly spinster who has no life of her own so she spies on others. Christie’s critics often hone in on her lack of character progression but in this tale much of what is originally presented is actually subverted through the course of the book. Yes we don’t get a lot of back-story to any of these characters but by the end we have some understanding of who they are, especially Jane Marple. Yes, here is where I concur, she isn’t just some nosy old spinster with no life of her own, but a woman who has studied other people’s behaviour over many years giving her a huge advantage over the other villagers in trying to solve the seemingly impossible whodunit.
But best of all, The Murder in the Vicarage is full of wit, something that both surprised me and delighted me. I’m going to leave this review with some of Miss Marple’s own words, maybe ones that I didn’t agree with when I first met her as a callow teen, but now I applaud!
“She used to say: “The young people think the old people are fools, but the old people KNOW the young people are fools!”
I am converted, Miss Marple in her very first outing has me convinced that a fussy, nosy old spinster is an equal to the finickity Belgium with a fine moustache.