Author: Agatha Christie
Finished on: 11 March 2017
Where did I get this book: Inherited from my grandparents
Following my enjoyable dalliance with Miss Silver, I felt the need to return to the familiar lavender-scented bosom of Miss Marple.
Although I loved all Christie’s books, I was always primarily a Marple, rather than a Poirot, devotee. And the thing that struck me the most on returning to this hero of my childhood is quite how cynical she is. I remembered the sweet, disarming exterior. I remembered the razor sharp perception, and the tendency to relate everything to the minutiae of personal relationships in an English village.
But I hadn’t remembered the extent to which Miss Marple believes the worst of people. As she says at one point, “One does see so much evil in a village.” Working from the point of view that anyone could commit murder under the right (or wrong) circumstances means she can dispassionately assess the situation, with all her suspects equally in the frame.
The first group of stories sees Miss Marple participating in a club, where each member tells the story of an unsolved mystery for the others to attempt to solve. This is a neat technique for cramming sometimes surprisingly elaborate plots into the short story form. Predictably our hero hits upon the correct answer in each and every case, to the surprise of all present, in particular her spectacularly rude niece-in-law Joyce Lempriere. It is an oft-repeated trope of these stories that Marple is underestimated by the other characters. On occasion, it’s part of what enables her to get right to the heart of the matter more effectively than others around her. In truth she does play up on this, to the extent that her passive aggressive self-deprecation can get annoying.
The lack of ego was part of Agatha Christie’s motivation for writing Marple stories. Apparently she was fed up of Hercule Poirot’s arrogance. This is explored, along with the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins and even Shakespeare on Christie, in this brilliant Electric Literature article.
There is some repetition across the stories, and they naturally lack the intricacies and immersive quality of the novels. But this collection is nevertheless a masterclass in how to pull a reader right inside a story in just a page or two, and deliver a beautifully complete plot in little more than a normal chapter-length piece of writing. One of the highlights of the collection is The Case Of The Caretaker, which is only 15 pages long but contains a better story than most full novels, without ever seeming hurried.
Miss Marple has a special place in my heart. And despite her having a darker side than I had remembered (I am hardly likely to hold that against her given how my literary tastes have developed!) it still holds true that she is one of the most comforting literary presences there is.