Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Murder at the Vicarage – Agatha Christie

Classic Crime Fiction 5*s
Classic Crime Fiction
5*s

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.

First Published UK: 1930
Publisher: Harper
No of Pages: 224
Genre: Classic Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
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Posted in 20 Books of Summer 2015!, Book Review, Books I have read

Under World – Reginald Hill

20 books of summer logo

Crime Fiction 4*s
Crime Fiction
4*s

This is number ten in the wonderful Dalziel & Pascoe series, written in 1988 with a setting centred on a small mining community in Burrthorpe in Yorkshire. This is in the aftermath of the strikes of the 80’s and the miners now have sponsored day release for educational purposes. Ellie Pascoe is roped in to take some classes which provides her from a break writing her feminist novel which isn’t proceeding as planned. Her class includes an angry young man, Colin Farr whose father was the last person to see young Tracey Pedley alive before she was murdered. A local man who committed suicide was widely believed to be the culprit but that hasn’t completely stemmed the whispers and rumours.

Under World creates the atmosphere of a small closed community perfectly, a place where old secrets are kept and ruminated upon away from outside eyes so when a murder occurs in Burrthorpe mine means that the police are called in to investigate it takes Dalziel and Pascoe a while to get to the truth. It doesn’t help that Colin Farr is one of the chief suspects not least because Ellie obviously is attracted to the dark brooding young man who hates the locality but is unable to leave until he works out the truth of what his father did the day little Tracey went missing. Ellie is drawn to the young man’s mind, as well as his physical attributes, as she struggles to balance her feminist and leftist ideals against her role as wife and mother, most particularly her role as wife to a Police officer in a place where the wounds from the strike have not yet healed.

Most of us won’t have worked under ground yet Hill manages to recreate the atmosphere both from multiple points of view, from the seasoned miner to a sightseeing trip for the educators and an investigative perspective for the police. All add a different facet to build up a picture of what this way of life would have meant for those toiling unseen in the depths of the earth and given the lack of alternative employment in the locality, let alone one that would provide the same sense of mutual dependency on those who worked alongside you, why the downfall of this industry had the power to change these communities for ever.

I love Reginald Hill’s writing, he is one of the few writers whose strong political messages I enjoy rather than dismiss, probably because he weaves this carefully into the story-line without ever invoking a ‘preachy tone’. The black-humour that is present in the rest of the series also threads its way throughout this book, raising a wry smile from time to time, usually provoked by one of Dalziel’s proclamations. None of this gets in the way of a really good story though, the plot is as convoluted as expected, the tension kept taut as the investigation is sent hither and thither and the set of characters entirely believable. Although the absence of modern technology was noticeable, especially the use of phone boxes to summon help, apart from that, despite having been written so long ago this book didn’t feel dated, it easily stands up to the more modern police procedurals from one of the masters of this genre.

I’m delighted to have chosen this as part of my 20 Books of Summer 2015! Challenge, it reminded me quite how good this series is and I can see that I will be revisiting more in the not too distant future.