Miss Marple: The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Body in the Library (1942), The Moving Finger (1943), The Thirteen Problems (1928, 1929, 1930, 1933), A Murder Is Announced (1950), Murder with Mirrors (1952), A Pocketful of Rye (1953), 4:50 from Paddington (1957), The Mirror Crack'd (1962), A Caribbean Mystery (1964), At Bertram's Hotel (1965), Nemesis (1971), Sleeping Murder (1976), Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories (2013)
Following Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Agatha Christie was the first "grown-up" mystery I read as a kid.
Although I read most the books I could get my hands on, my favorites were always the Miss Marple mysteries.
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
This is the first Miss Marple mystery, and is told from the point of view of the Vicar.
Colonel Protheroe is rather a horrible man, doing his best to make everyone around him miserable, including his wife and daughter, so when his body is discovered in the study at the Vicarage, suspects abound.
The copyright is 1930, so the setting is between the Great War and the buildup to WWII. But I think what makes her so good is that it really could have been set at any time in the early to mid 20th century.
Of course, there are a few giveaways–the telephone operators and the existence of handguns leftover from the war being something you wouldn’t find in modern England. But to me, those things simply add to the charm of the story.
And it is charming. One of the things I’d forgotten is how subtly humorous these stories can be. Take this description of Miss Marple:
Miss Marple is a white-haird old lady with a gentle, appealing manner–Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.
and the definitive description of Miss Marple:
There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.
But I’m also fond of the Vicar’s frustration with the sheer volume of busy-bodies in Mary Meade:
‘It is a mystery to me,’ I said, ‘how anyone ever gets any nourishment in this place. They must eat their meals standing up by the window so as to be sure of not missing anything.
All of this makes me wonder why it’s been so long since I’ve reread these stories.
Published by William Morrow
The Body in the Library (1942)
Again, like Murder at the Vicarage, I noticed that much of the story seemed timeless.
…(T)he old man found it much pleasanter to have a young, cheerful girl telling him how lever and amusing he was than to have his sister continually pointing out his faults to them.
‘No, I woudln’t. I wouldn’t tell a soul.’
‘People who use that phrase are always the last to live up to it.’
And I’ve always remembered this bit about marriage.
‘…(It) has been said, you know (and, I think, quite truly), that you can only really get under anybody’s skin if you are married to them. When there is no — no legal bond, people are much more careful, they have to keep assuring themselves how happy and halcyon everything is.
I’m not sure if, in this age of divorce, this is quite as true as it used to be, but it’s always stuck with me.
Unlike the first Miss Marple story, this isn’t told in the first person, but we do know that Miss Marple is going to solve the mystery.
Published by William Morrow
The Moving Finger (1943)
Sadly, the quite stay in the country is spoiled by a series of poison pen letters sent to Jerry and everyone in the village.
…(S)omebody wanted to hurt. To take it with a laugh was perhaps the best way–but deep down, it wasn’t funny…
On the other hand, his interest in the letters keeps him from thinking about his injury and slow recovery.
It’s interesting that although the copyright is 1943, there’s no particular mention of WWII. I suppose that people wanted to forget the war while it was going on.
And again, I’ll note that the despite being written 70 years ago, so much of the dialog is timeless.
‘Don’t you think you’re being rather morbid?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ said Megan. ‘That’s what people always say when you’re saying the truth.’
‘God doesn’t really need to punish us, Miss Barton. We’re so very busy punishing ourselves.’
I’m thoroughly enjoying re-reading these books, and may well read them all before this damned cold is through with me.
Published by HarperCollins
The Thirteen Problems (1928, 1929, 1930, 1933)
(Also published as The Tuesday Club Murders)
After dinner seems a good time to sit around and discuss crime, and see how clever everyone is, by seeing who can solve the mysteries presented by the other dinner guests.
The first stories are set (I believe) before the The Murder at the Vicarage. The last stories are set before The Body in the Library. The two characters that appear in all the stories are Miss Jane Marple and Sir Henry Clithering, the retired head of Scotland Yard. The nice thing about these stories is that they explain how Sir Henry came to know Miss Marple, and to trust her judgement.
I originally read the Miss Marple mysteries helter-skelter as I found them at the library, and later, as used books. So it’s nice to see the progression of Miss Marple’s problem solving skills, and how she was introduced to Sir Henry and the Bantrys.
And of course, like the other stories, so many bits are seemingly timeless. I’ve done this many times:
Well, of course, it was not any of my business but you get very queer glimpses of life sometimes, and you can’t help speculating about them.
So, another lovely escape.
Published by Berkley
A Murder Is Announced (1950)
The residents of Chipping Cleghorn are startled when their weekly paper has a strange personal announcement: ‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6:30 p.m.’ And thus, the mystery begins.
This one I vaguely remembered, so it was fun seeing the clues dropped here and there. But of course I also loved the bits and pieces of life in an English village after WWII. I knew there were (in the US as well) all kinds of shortages during the war, but I hadn’t thought about those shortages continuing after the war.
“I suppose there was once heaps of coke and coal for everybody?” said Julia with the interest of one hearing about an unknown country.
“Yes, and cheap, too.”
“And anyone could go and buy as much as they wanted, without filling in anything, and there wasn’t any shortage? There was lots of it there?”
“All kinds and qualities–and not all stones and slates like what we get nowadays.”
“It must have been a wonderful world,” said Julia, with awe in her voice.
I think that passage there makes it quite clear what things were like. Almost as strange to consider from this point in history as the abundance was to those in the 40s and 50s.
Of course, this seems just as alien:
… They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they’d been in the same regiment or served in the same ship as someone there already. If anybody new–really a stranger–came, well, they stuck out–everybody wondered about them and didn’t rest until they found out.
Not the nosiness, but the small, close neighborhoods. How things change.
And I loved this description of Miss Marple’s handwriting:
“Writes just like my old grandmother,” he complained. “Spikey. Like a spider in the ink bottle, and all underlined.
Of course, with my grandmother, it was The Palmer Method, but still, it seems like there’s something about little old lady handwriting.
Published by William Morrow
A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)
Miss Marple doesn’t make her appearance until almost halfway through the story, but Inspector Neele is good enough on his own that waiting for her is a pleasant anticipation.
As always, there are the little bits that amuse me so much about Agatha Christie stories. Bits that sound like real people, and hardly seem dated at all.
“I gather you don’t think it was a natural death,” he said dryly. “Not a dog’s chance of it,” said Dr. Bernsdorff robustly. “I’m speaking unofficially, of course,” he added with belated caution.
Aside from “not a dog’s chance of it” that passage wouldn’t feel out of date in a modern mystery.
And there’s this bit that’s a foretelling of later stories:
Inspector Neele gave a sudden, rather unexpected smile. He was thinking to himself that Miss Marple was very unlike the popular idea of an avenging fury And yet, he thought that was perhaps exactly what she was.
A lovely reread, as always.
Goodreads rating: 3.77 (8987 ratings)
4:50 from Paddington (1957)
Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy is taking the train from London to visit her friend Miss Marple, when she looks into the windows of a passing train and sees a woman being throttled–she alerts the conductor, the station master, and the local police, but–strangely–no body is discovered. Her curiosity piqued, Miss Marple decides to see if she can find the body, but needs someone young and able to do the actual searching. Thus, Lucy Eyelesbarrow ends up at Rutherford Hall, while Miss Marple is ensconced with Faithful Florence.
“…(W)e can go into that after you’ve found the body.”
“You seem to assume quite confidently that I shall find it,” said Lucy. “I don’t feel nearly so optimistic.”
“I’m sure you will succeed, my dear Lucy. You are such an efficient person.”
And efficient she is.
I really enjoy every part of this story, but I think my favorite characters are the two boys, Alexander and James.
The two boys arrived on the following morning. They both had well-brushed hair, suspiciously angelic faces, and perfect manners.
It’s the suspiciously angelic faces bit I adore.
“We’ve been hunting for days. In the bushes–”
“And inside hollow trees–”
“And we went all through the ask bins–”
“There were some jolly interesting things there, as a matter of fact–”
“…I rather wish we weren’t leaving here. Another body might turn up.”
“I sincerely hope not.”
“Well, it often does in books. I mean somebody whose seen something or heard something gets done in, too. It might be you,” he added, unrolling a second chocolate bar.
“I don’t want it to be you,” Alexander assured her. “I like you very much, and so does Stodders. We think you’re out of this world as a cook. Absolutely lovely grub. You’re very sensible too.”
I think that if you keep in mind when this book was written, it sounds very much like two boys who are excited about the discovery of a body, while being completely oblivious to the fact it meant someone had to die.
But of course, there were other bits too.
“He didn’t like those questions — didn’t like them at all. Put out, he was.”
“If you have not committed a murder, it naturally annoys you if it seems someone thinks that you have,” said Inspector Craddock mildly.
One of the things I love about Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories is the reminder that the justice system my say innocent until proven guilty, but in the court of public opinion, the opposite is usually true.
Published by Signet
They Do It With Mirrors (1952)
Miss Marple is asked by her friend Ruth to look into the circumstances of Ruth’s sister, Carrie Louise. Jane Marple and Ruth and Carrie Louise were school mates, and remained in touch through the years. Ruth feels there is something wrong with Carrie Louise’s situation, but can’t say precisely what, and so manages things so that Miss Marple is invited down to Stonygates, which Carrie Louise’s latest husband has turned into a reform home for delinquent boys.
When she arrives, Miss Marple feels something is off, but can’t figure out quite what it is, until a shooting and a murder.
Oddly, this is a Miss Marple story I don’t remember reading, although I had to have, because I know I read all of them as a child, and I knew who the murderer was.
As usual, much of the book felt timeless, and as usual, there are so many sharp comments on society and the world.
…when one lives in the same country there is no need to arrange meetings with old friends. One assumes that, sooner or later, one will see them without contrivance.
Except, of course, you don’t. That’s so very true of living where I do–if it weren’t for Facebook, I’d never know what was going on with my friends who live in the same town as me.
Then there was this:
Everyone’s life has a tempo. Ruth’s was presto wheras Miss Marple’s was content to be adagio.
That’s a lovely and perfect and succinct descriptor.
And then this:
“They all fuss about me so,” she said. “They rub it in that I’m an old woman.”
“And you don’t feel like one.”
“No, I don’t, Jane. In spite of all my aches and pains–and I’ve got plenty. Inside I go on feeling just like a chit like Gina. Perhaps everyone does. The glass shows them how old they are and they just don’t believe it.
Goodreads rating: 3.70 (6947 ratings)
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me!’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Miss Marple is forbidden to garden, and the woman who has come to stay with her, Miss Knight, is very kind, but also overbearing. Dr Haydock prescribes a mystery to make her feel better, and lo and behold, a famous movie star (Marina Gregg) and her husband (Jason Rudd) move to St. Mary Mead in Gossington Hall, once the home of Mrs Bantry (and the location of The Body in the Library)
And of course there is a murder, because this is, after all, a murder mystery.
But of course there are also lots of bits and pieces I love.
“Such a lot of husbands they all have,” said Miss Marple. “It must really be quite tiring.”
“It wouldn’t suit me” said Mrs Bantry. “After you’ve fallen in love with a man and married him and got used to his ways and settled down comfortably–to go and throw it all up and start again! It seems to me madness!”
He gave it his highest praise: “Ah, there’ll be a lot of wickedness here, I don’t doubt. Naked men and women drinking and smoking what they call in the papers them reefers. There’ll br all that I expect. Ah, yes,” said Mr. Sampson with enormous pleasure, “there’ll be a lot of wickedness.”
Tell me you haven’t heard that before.
“…Just a little, you know–” she tapped her forehead–”wanders sometimes. Ad her memory’s bad. Can’t recognixe her relations always and tells them to go away.”
“That might be shrewedness really,” said Miss Marple, “rather than loss of memory.”
Don’t see how that has changed at all…
And one of my favorites:
And that’s where the element of puzzle has come into the matter, owing to the fact that people cannot remember to use their pronouns properly.
Sadly, that hasn’t changed either.
Was this as good as I remember? It’s hard to say, because I was enjoying my memory of it so much.
Goodreads rating: 3.81 (10551 ratings)
A Caribbean Mystery (1964)
This has always been my favorite Miss Marple mystery, probably because I got to watch part of it on TV, with Jameson Parker as Tim Kendal, which is important, because I was a HUGE Simon & Simon fan. (And I just now realized that Brock Peters played Dr. Graham!)
Ah, what fond memories…
OK. I’m back. I almost got sucked into IMDB, but managed my saving roll.
A Caribbean Mystery finds Miss Marple in the Caribbean, where her nephew Raymond has sent her to help her recover from pneumonia. The story opens with her only half listening to Major Palgrave (“An elderly man who needed a listener so that he could, in memory, relive days in which he had been happy”) when he starts to tell her a story of a murderer–a man who most likely go away with murdering at least two wives–and thus the stage is set for the upcoming murders.
Except, of course, that the first death is that of Major Palgrave.
But what I love most about these stories is their sense of timelessness. So much of what she wrote could be set in current time, and one would hardly notice a difference.
I’ve always remembered this bit, and tried to use it as a guide.
“Nothing special you want, is there?” he asked. “Because you’ve only got to tell me–and I could get it specially cooked for you. Hotel food, and semi-tropical at that, isn’t quite what you’re used to at home, I expect?”
Miss Marple smiled and said that that was one of the pleasures of coming abroad…She picked up her spoon and began to eat her passion fruit sundae with cheerful appreciation.
Why go somewhere new, only to eat what you always eat?
And I love this bit as well:
He greeted Miss Marple pleasantly and asked her what the trouble was. Fortunately at Miss Marple’s age, there was always some ailment that could be discussed with slight exaggerations on the patient’s part.
Miss Marple had been brought up to have a proper regard for the truth and was indeed by nature a very truthful person. but on certain occasions, when she considered it her duty to do so, she could tell lives with a really astonishing verisimilitude.
And Miss Marple’s thoughts on murderers:
“As far as I can make out,” said Miss Marple, “and from what I have heard and read, a man who does a wicked thing like this and gets away with it the first time, is, alas, encouraged. He thinks it’s easy, he thinks he’s clever. And so he repeats it.
Alas, I’m slowly reaching the end of the Miss Marple stories, and I’ll be sorry when I’ve finished them all. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the rest of Agatha Christie’s writing, it’s just that I’m so very fond of Miss Marple…
Goodreads rating: 3.72 (7627 ratings)
From The Thirteen Problems (1953)
The Tuesday Night Club
The Idol House of Astarte
Ingots of Gold
The Bloodstained Pavement
Motive v. Opportunity
The Thumbmark of St. Peter
The Blue Geranium
The Four Suspects
A Christmas Tragedy
The Herb of Death
The Affair at the Bungalow
Death by Drowning
From The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories (1939)
Miss Marple Tells a Story
From Three Blind Mice and Other Stories (1950)
The Case of the Perfect Maid
The Case of the Caretaker
From Double Sin and Other Stories (1961)
I love Miss Marple. She’s my absolute favorite Agatha Christie character, and these short stories are one of the reasons I came to love short stories so much. They’re perfect little bites of story you can nibble on when you want something to read, but don’t have the time to delve into a novel.
This was pretty much the perfect collection for me, and I’ll certainly come back to it again and again.
Published by Harper