When people picture Agatha Christie in their heads, the most probable image is that of Angela Lansbury as she appeared in her role as Jessica Fletcher in the popular TV series Murder She Wrote: someone very much like the popular imagining of elderly village spinster, Miss Marple. Of course, this would be mostly incorrect on all counts. When Christie thought up her detective in 1927, she was a divorcee in her thirties, a single mother supporting herself with her writing, that is to say, nothing much like Miss Marple at all.
According to Christie herself, Miss Marple was inspired by her step-grandmother and her friends (or, as Christie would say: cronies), a group of solidly Victorian, sharp tongued gossipy old ladies. Another inspiration was her own creation Caroline Sheppard, sister of the infamous Dr. Sheppard of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was published the year before Miss Marple’s first appearance. As I mentioned in a previous post, the idea of Miss Marple also may have been “inspired” (to use a very kind word) by her friend Dorothy Sayers’s Miss Kitty Climpson, who was introduced in all her clever, old maidenly glory in the 1926 Wimsey novel, Unnatural Death.
Miss Marple differs from Poirot, Christie’s other, greater creation in several ways. Most strikingly, her character isn’t as sharply delineated. When she was first introduced in a series of short stories, her existence and surprising mystery solving acumen was presented as being something of a punch line. The stories themselves are easily among Christie’s best (more on them later in this post), but Jane Marple’s character is created entirely out of her very Victorian manners and a sharp, untrusting opinion of human nature. In the stories of the ’20s and ’30s she’s an elderly woman interacting with her fellow village residents, Bright Young Things, and various begrudgingly admiring law enforcement officials, showing them all up with her sharp mind that thinks the worst of everyone and is usually right.
This initial inspiration might be what I would call the first iteration of Miss Marple: She was a less comfortable figure than she would become in later years, and Christie’s view of her was one more akin to ours: that of a younger, more modern person encountering someone whose upbringing and references are entirely Victorian. The early-mid period Marple novels are some of Christie’s best.
Which brings us to the second iteration of Miss Marple in the later ’50s and ’60s. This is where the lines between dear old aunt Jane and veteran mystery author Christie begin to get a little muddled. Unlike Poirot or Tommy and Tuppence, Miss Marple remains more or less the same age throughout all of her appearances from the 1920s through the early 1970s. She (unlike Poirot) is mutable. She changes from being an old lady who came of age during the reign of Victoria, to being an old lady who came of age during the Great War, as Christie did. As Christie became a contemporary of her creation, her creation changed. She softened a bit, Christie was kinder to her and more understanding of her nostalgia and loneliness, things that weren’t talked about in the earlier books. Unfortunately, this deeper and potentially interesting perspective was undercut by Christie’s failing power as a novelist.
That said, I feel the Marple novels rarely receive the respect they deserve. A few are among Christie’s very best. There have been two UK produced Marple television series as well as a number of films and TV movies. I remembered liking the Joan Hickson series when it first aired, but upon rewatching I found them to be static and somewhat dull. Some of the stories are also harmed by their fixed setting in the mid 1950s. I won’t be discussing these adaptations much below, as they are all, for lack of a better word, fine.
I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, but it’s impossible to leave them out completely. I’ve included specific spoiler alerts for each entry, but if this is something that matters to you – beware!
The Murder At The Vicarage (1930)
Some of the damnedest people wind up as narrators in Agatha Christie novels and Miss Marple’s first full length outing is no exception. Set in her home of St. Mary Meade, a tiny village south of London, the local vicar, Rev. Leonard Clement both narrates the events in the novel and investigates the crime. Like most of Christie’s narrators, he’s pretty hopeless at solving anything. Miss Marple has a supporting role, appearing now and again with gossip and suggestions, and then mopping up at the end. It’s typical of a lot of Christie’s early novels: there are too many characters, too many subplots, too many ideas. It also seems slightly unbelievable that Miss Marple and her coterie of fellow busy bodies wouldn’t have solved the crime immediately, as they are all literally across the street, peering out of their windows.
Rev. Clement’s much younger, flapper wife Griselda is a highlight. In one little scene, Christie depicts as clearly as I’ve ever seen, the idea of women carrying the bulk of emotional labor. The maid at the vicarage quits because of the stress surrounding the murder, Griselda is in tears, while her husband is pleased though baffled at his wife’s reaction because the maid was objectively terrible at her job. She explains to him that finding someone new will be almost impossible as they can’t pay much, she will be the one who has to deal with the hiring, the training, and picking up the slack in the meantime. It’s not a matter of “just hiring someone else”. The vicar relents and begs the maid to come back, though he never quite understands why his wife is so upset (though we learn later in the story that Griselda is pregnant, which would make this sudden departure additionally awful).
The two BBC television adaptations are fine, though not particularly memorable. Richard E. Grant reads the audio version, which is delightful.
The Thirteen Problems (1932)
Miss Marple’s true debut was in the series of short stories which comprise The Thirteen Problems (in the US published as The Tuesday Club Murders) and they are some of Christie’s best. In general, her collections of narratively or thematically linked short stories are superb, and this one is no exception. The framing device is as old as Chaucer. A group of people sit in a room (in this instance Miss Marple’s sitting room) each of them telling a mystery story from their experience, opening it up to the group to come up with a solution. Here is where we first meet Miss Marple’s nephew, Raymond West, modernist novelist and quintessential Bright Young Thing. It’s clear when he isn’t visiting his Aunt Jane, he’s drinking cocktails with various Mitfords, Evelyn Waugh and slumming it with George Orwell, paying lip service to radical politics.
Among the guests are West’s soon to be wife, a painter (who here is named Joyce, but will subsequently be known mysteriously as Joan) and Sir Henry Clithering, retired Superintendent of Scotland Yard. The second batch of stories feature (in addition to Sir Henry who suggests inviting Miss Marple) the introduction of recurring characters Colonel Arthur Bantry and his delightful wife Dolly, as well as lovely but dim actress Jane Hellier.
The stories are uniformly excellent, so much so, that it’s difficult to highlight any in particular. “The Blood Stained Pavement” is Christie’s first stab at the plot that would be later expanded into the Poirot novel Evil Under The Sun a decade later (and also to an extent, the lesser Marple novel, A Caribbean Mystery). “The Companion” is likely a direct progenitor of A Murder Is Announced (discussed below), one of Christie’s best. Aside from extremely varied plots, I think this collection contains some of Christie’s strongest writing. Each of the characters tell their stories differently, according to their personalities, interests and individual frames of reference, which keep the stories easily bingeable.
It was a more than worthy debut for Miss Marple, and one that I think should be read far more widely.
The Body In The Library (1942)
After a decade long break, Christie, as a part of her almost superhuman writing output during the war, revisited Miss Marple. Set during the ‘30s (as most of her wartime books were), at the time of her writing the idea of the corpse of a hot blonde being found in the library of a country estate was already a cliche, nearly a decade prior to the invention of the board game “Clue” (known as “Cluedo” in the UK). The joke here is that when the dead blonde’s corpse appears in the Bantry’s home, neither of them has any idea who she is. Wisely, Dolly Bantry calls her friend Miss Jane Marple immediately after her call to the (aggressive and dim) police.
The story begins in a fairly lighthearted way, mostly because of the surreality of finding an evening gown clad stranger dead in one’s home, but the crime, as details begin to emerge, is particularly callous and grim. Our contemporaries often lump Miss Marple novels in with the modern designation of “cozy” but this story is anything but. Few classic era mystery writers had the stomach for child murder, but Christie did, the murders here being particularly heart-breaking.
The implied twinning of the two murder victims is very interesting, both highlighting and undermining the way dead young women are reported on and perceived then and now. Who deserves our sympathy? Who invited her own death? Who is perceived as a child rather than a whore? (CHEAT SHEET: all of them, none of them, all are children regardless of outfit).
The Body In The Library was the first entry in the ITV Marple series starring Geraldine McEwan (and later Julia McKenzie). The quality of the series was generally poor, but this adaptation (unlike the others in the series) is a lot of fun, with Joanna Lumley playing Dolly Bantry (with an additional cast of entertaining BBC all-stars) and is a complete delight which remains (more or less) faithful to the book.
The Moving Finger (1943)
As with most of Christie’s wartime output, this book is clearly set in the ‘30s in a small village in the south of England (i.e. Christie country) prior to the start of the war. She has received a lot of criticism throughout the years for the voice of pilot Jerry Burton, her only instance of using a young, traditional macho(ish) male lead as her first person narrator. Male romantic leads weren’t her forte, most being fairly colorless compared to her vivid and differentiated young women, and she strikes a few implausible notes here.
The mystery itself is well thought out, but it’s never been among my favorites. The central, Eliza Doolittle-style romance has never sat particularly well with me (it’s pretty creepy), and the secondary romance seems to come out of nowhere. There is also some unfortunate homophobia in the treatment of antique dealer Mr. Pye. On the plus side, Christie has an unerring instinct for who is at fault for crimes – specifically in this case, the man who committed them, not the young woman he is obsessed with.
As is the case with some of the Poirot novels of the same period, I always forget this is a Miss Marple novel – she has very little to do with the bulk of the story, showing up in the last act to clean up after the police have failed.
The Geraldine McEwan adaptation is surprisingly star filled, with Ken Russell playing the vicar, Rev. Dane Calthrop (we’ll be revisiting him and his witchy wife again in about 25 years, in a later, better mystery).
A Murder Is Announced (1950)
To the people who have avidly read all the Poirot novels but have avoided the Marples, I say, “THIS IS THE ONE”.
As with Christie’s best Poirot novels, she stage manages an enormous cast and multiple subplots and back stories flawlessly. For me, the working out of the central mystery is up there with Death on the Nile in terms of its clockwork perfection and (which is not always the case) emotional acuity. This book is another demonstration of Christie’s unparalleled understanding of the potential dangers of a cornered narcissist who feels the world owes them.
In addition to its satisfyingly twisty mystery, it also serves as a vivid portrait of English country life after the war, with its ration coupons, reduced incomes and social disruption. Also of note is her inclusion of a middle aged lesbian couple. She’s not explicit in her explanations, but the nature of the women’s relationship is very clear, as is the undemonstrative acceptance of their neighbors.
Miss Marple doesn’t have a central role, but she doesn’t seem unnaturally injected into the novel as is the case with some of the post-war Poirots. Her position as amateur crime solver is justified as the detective on the case (Inspector Craddock, Sir Henry Clithering’s nephew in his first of several appearances) is being lied to by everybody as they all attempt to cover up their small time grey market evasions of the rationing system. We need Marple to sort out what is actually going on (weirdly, I thought about this during the first season of Serial as all of Adnan’s friends were clearly lying to the cops because of weed, rather than because of knowledge of the murder). This is also the first appearance of the second iteration of Miss Marple, as Christie’s age catches up with her creation.
One unfortunate element is Christie’s frankly callous depiction of an Eastern European refugee (possible Holocaust survivor?) who is used as comic (!) relief who works as the central family’s cook/housekeeper. I also forget every time I reread it that the denouement features Miss Marple’s previously unmentioned (and never mentioned again) skill as a ventriloquist because it’s so over the top preposterous.
Neither of the two Marple series adaptations are particularly memorable, though I wish I could watch the 1956 Goodyear Playhouse version starring Gracie Fields (as Miss Marple), Jessica Tandy and Roger Moore.
They Do It With Mirrors (1952)
This is the first of Christie’s Marple novels in which one can feel her interest in her task faltering. As with the Poirot novel, Hickory Dickory Dock, she’s set her murder among a group of modern young people (this time at a school for delinquent boys run by an old school friend of Miss Marple’s) and she’s demonstrably uncomfortable in this milieu. The working out of the mechanics of the mystery plot is mostly borrowed from Death on the Nile, but unlike that nearly perfect entertainment, Mirrors feels largely inert. Christie is so often a master of exposition, but here the pages of explanations of who everybody is and how they are related to each other falls largely flat.
It was adapted in 1985 as one of Helen Hayes three Agatha Christie outings (two with her as Miss Marple), and it’s – something. It features Bette Davis in one of her very last roles as Marple’s school friend and she’s worryingly frail, John Mills plays her husband and it features a very young Tim Roth in his first substantial part.
The Joan Hickson version is notable for the inclusion of the extremely well cast Jean Simmons as Marple’s charismatic friend who everyone in the book is obsessed with protecting. The Julia McKenzie adaptation is only worth watching for Joan Collins’s delightful turn as an aging socialite in the first act.
A Pocket Full Of Rye (1953)
Another grim, extremely not cozy Miss Marple story filled with ruthless, unlikable people. It has some similarities to Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (and, honestly, some other of her stories in which one of her rich old patriarchs is murdered). There’s a dutiful son who has stayed home, a prodigal son who lives abroad, a daughter who seems lost, a flashy young wife and all the usual financial and marital skulduggery. It’s a tiny bit like if Miss Marple had a walk on in an episode of Succession.
All the above being true, it still packs a little more emotional heft than some of her other books. What brings Miss Marple into this unfamiliar milieu is the murder of the young maid Gladys. Gladys had worked for Miss Marple when she was a teenager, she was naive and not very attractive and a little slow and the murderer here takes truly vicious advantage of her in order to implement their plan. Miss Marple doesn’t care so much about this dead rich man who was no doubt poisoned by one of his greedy relatives (that’s a police matter), but she shows up to avenge this young girl who has no one else. This contrasts well with the band of greedy sociopaths who otherwise populate this book. Her story “The Tuesday Night Murders” in The 13 Problems might have been an early pass at this story.
4.50 From Paddington (1957)
The American title of this book, What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw! is clearly far superior to the colorless English original. The very Hitchcockian event that sets the plot in motion is justly famous and often stolen, a little old lady drowsily looks out of her train window and sees a women being strangled in an adjacent train. When she alerts the authorities there is no body to be found and everyone assumes the poor dear was dreaming.
It’s a delicious set up, but the book unfortunately doesn’t really fulfill the promise implied in the opening pages. Mrs. McGillicuddy quickly decamps abroad after dropping her problem into Miss Marple’s lap. Further outsourcing occurs as an infirm Miss Marple engages the efficient and mostly delightful Lucy Eyelesbarrow to do all the legwork. Honestly, this book needs either lots more Miss Marple or no Miss Marple whatsoever. It would have made much more sense to make this a Lucy Eyelesbarrow mystery as she’s doing all the detective work anyway. The mystery itself is fairly rote and weak: a family, an inheritance, bad sons, good sons, dutiful daughter, lots of bodies, blah blah blah.
This was adapted as the first of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple movies, with Joan Hickson appearing in a smallish role. There is also a 2008 French adaptation with Tommy & Tuppence appearing as the detectives.
The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side (1962)
This is the last of the great Miss Marple novels. Much like A Murder is Announced, it contains both a complicated, well thought out mystery with a lot of suspects and subplots and additionally serves as a topical snapshot of how rural England was changing in the 1960s. As I’ve said in earlier entries in this series, reading Christie’s novels chronologically serves as a narrow, but accurate look at the changes in ordinary life in England in the mid-20th century. The plot is spurred by Dolly Bantry (now widowed) selling her estate to an American movie star. Among the aging, long time residents of St Mary Meade, there is much talk of the new housing development and supermarket and shopping center. Miss Marple is old and infirm, but traditional servants are a thing of the past. Her in home help is a young housewife, Cherry, who is working part time to help out with expenses.
The much married, fragile, troubled movie star was based (partly) on the life of Gene Tierney. The murder mechanics were borrowed from the Poirot novel Peril At End House, written 30 years earlier. There are a lot of disparate elements, but it all hangs together beautifully.
The 1980 movie adaptation is the only one really worth talking about. Angela Lansbury plays Miss Marple (inspiring American producers to create Murder She Wrote), the troubled, much married movie star is played by Elizabeth Taylor, her husband is Rock Hudson. I’ve written elsewhere that only actual movie stars can effectively play movie stars, and here Taylor’s ultra-dramatic, ultra-public personal and professional life provide all the backstory anyone needs (there’s also the not improbable possibility that Taylor herself partially inspired the character she’s playing). The movie is mostly effective, being a relentlessly entertaining exercise in stunt casting, with Tony Curtis and Kim Novak rounding out the scenery-chewing cast. In addition, a good amount of effort has been spent to depict the day to day nature of village life.
A Caribbean Mystery (1964)
Christie still had a few good books in her at this point, but this unfortunately isn’t one of them. It’s distinguished for being the only one of her novels set entirely in the Americas. The central murder plot feels borrowed and a little tired. It shares some plot points with the earlier, greater Poirot novels Evil Under the Sun and Appointment With Death. The name of the imaginary island of St Honoré was borrowed knowingly by the TV series Death in Paradise. I feel this book reads pretty much exactly like what people who avoid the Marple books fear they are like. Miss Marple has become a little too adorable.
The 1983 modern dress TV movie with Helen Hayes as Miss Marple is pretty mind bogglingly terrible, though it features a screenplay by Sue Grafton prior to the start of her Kinsey Milhouse series.
At Bertram’s Hotel (1965)
No Miss Marple book has been more harmed by its adaptations being set in the early 1950s than this one. It’s not a perfect novel, but it contains two elements which make it worth reading. One is the hotel of the title. It’s described as a glorious, Edwardian-era throwback, Miss Marple reminisces about staying there when she was a very young girl (Miss Marple is staying as a treat, a gift from her nephew Raymond West). Amidst all the nostalgia, she can’t help but think there is something a little Epcot-y about it, a little super-real. Outside of the Bertram Hotel’s doors, 1960s London is in full swing, inside them, it is basically a set piece from Downton Abbey.
The second interesting thing in this middling, thriller-ish book is the character of Bess, Lady Sedgwick. As described, I’ve always thought she owed something to the Nancy Mitford’s The Bolter, herself modeled on Lady Idina Sackville of Happy Valley fame. I would also be surprised if Kerry Greenwood, author of the Phryne Fisher books hadn’t been influenced. It’s fun to see Christie writing one of her Bright Young Things in late middle age. Bess’s estranged daughter is well drawn and modern.
But what’s always intrigued me is the slightly unsettling contrast between the stasis of the hotel, and the teeming modern London outside. It would be so much fun to film, it’s a shame neither of the adaptations were able to take advantage of this.
Christie’s powers are really failing here in Miss Marple’s true last case. The idea of Miss Marple having to earn her inheritance from Jason Rafiel (a millionaire she joins forces with in A Caribbean Mystery) by solving a mystery is fun, but the execution isn’t there.
Both the Marple TV series altered the plot greatly, the ITV one beyond all recognition.
Sleeping Murder (1976)
As with Curtain, Poirot’s last book, it’s impossible to write about Sleeping Murder without spoilers. Take note!
Though marketed as “Miss Marple’s Last Case” upon its posthumous release, it’s really no such thing. It’s her last published case, but it clearly falls in chronology, somewhere between The Moving Finger and A Murder Is Announced. As in the earlier Marple books, Christie writes her character as a younger person observing an older person would. She’s still active and mobile, fending off the murderer at the end by spraying him with soapy water as if he were a large cat jumping on the counter.
Written (as Curtain was) during the Blitz and then put in a bank vault to be published after Christie’s death – something she thought might be imminent as London was being reduced nightly to flame and rubble by the Luftwaffe, it’s a dark, moody mystery. Possibly the closest thing to a true ghost story among her mystery novels, the dead are restless and the early sequences are definitely creepy. It’s fairly clear that the book is set in the ’30s prior to the war, but this is somewhat belied by a scene set in the audience of John Gielgud’s production of The Duchess of Malfi which was famously presented in 1945. The action of the novel is triggered (in every sense of the word) by Gielgud speaking the lines:
“Cover her face;
Mine eyes dazzle;
She died young.”
At the denouement, Miss Marple says the fact that the murderer was heard to utter these words (by Gwenda, the heroine when she was a toddler) should have given his identity away immediately, and that goes for us, Christie’s readers as well, as the plot of Webster’s tragedy and those of Christie’s book are, setting aside, mostly identical. This is a dark, sad story, whose motives of obsession, incest and madness likely wouldn’t have been permitted by Christie’s publishers in the 1930s. And, like so many of Christie’s Marple stories, there is a real feeling of evil afoot. The point of Miss Marple, the joke of her, is that this charming, dithery old lady understands that people are largely both foolish and capable of terrible acts and she looks with pity at the optimism and trusting natures of the young people around her. Her angry, emphatic indictment of the slut shaming used by the murderer to besmirch his victim and help cover up his crime is most welcome. This dichotomy was the point of the early Marple novels, and it made for excellent, not very cozy reading. The later Marple was softened into fluff, her rough edges melted away by Christie’s identification with her creation and it did neither writer or character any favors.
Like so many of Christie’s best, it’s about a murder committed many years prior to the beginning of the present day story and it seems appropriate as her last. It originally had the excellent, evocative title, Cover Her Face, but P.D. James’s debut Dalgliesh novel got the jump on Christie so she had to change it.
The 2006 BBC adaptation with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple is so changed one wonders why they bothered.
STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF CAROLYN RASHIP’S AGATHA CHRISTIE SERIES!