The first Miss Marple book offers amusement and intrigue in equal measure
Agatha Christie is the undisputed queen of crime writers. Known as much for her meticulous research as for the liveliness of her writing, her characters have become household names, and bywords for detectives. While for some Poirot may be most familiar, for me Miss Marple stands supreme. The contrast of the seemingly naive and sheltered old woman with the reality of a razor sharp mind and a passion for the study of human nature is just perfect. Plus she knits. I rather aspire to be Miss Marple – she is an unlikely but brilliant role model. And yet, until I read this book, my engagement with her had only been through TV adaptations, never directly through Christie’s texts. I have totally been missing out, and it is a lack I am now voraciously trying to make up for, as I work through her publications.
Murder at the Vicarage is the first Miss Marple novel, and as such sets up many of the features we have come to expect. A seemingly gossipy facade obscures the great depth of Miss Marple’s intellect, and though first dismissed by those around her, friends and professional crime stoppers alike, they soon come to appreciate her wisdom and reasoning. Prior to this the only Christie I had read was And Then There Were None earlier this year, and I was pleased to find that Murder at the Vicarage doesn’t have the same darkness of tone as that short story. The characters are amusing and well drawn, all with a touch of the familiar. Miss Marple insists that St Mary Mead, though small and parochial, offers a perfect laboratory in which to study the highs and lows of human nature, and Christie does a sterling effort of convincing us of this. The search for the ‘village parallel’ becomes Miss Marple’s trademark, but is is also a good reminder to the reader – of the banality of evil, and of the scalability of the same. One transgression may seem small in its own right, but it contains the seed of and the family resemblance to far worse acts.
The setting of Murder at the Vicarage was bound to appeal to me: a quaint West Country village reminding me of summer holidays on what is now the other side of the world. Of those days when it feels that summer will go on forever. Though the crime committed is a grim one, Murder at the Vicarage never feels particularly dark, with a generally cheerful tone as we follow Miss Marple and her friends as they work to solve the mystery.
Though the representation of women is as varied and realistic as we would hope, there is one area in which it falls down: the depiction of the servants. Christie (or perhaps if we’re being generous, her characters) fall into that middle and upper class habit of treating servants as if they are an entirely different species. There don’t seem to be any people of colour in the novel, but given its treatment of class, perhaps that’s a good thing – one slightly dreads to think how they would be written. The domestic servants are written about much as you would a good horse or a slightly dim retriever – there is no expectation that they will think or feel in the same way as the main characters. They are expected to be entirely predictable in their responses, and easily manipulated (for better or worse). This doesn’t make up a large part of the novel, so can be brushed aside as merely grating, not entirely damning. But I can’t help but feel that class rhetoric in Britain still owes a lot to this othering of those who have to work for a living. People in domestic service are the parents and grandparents of huge swathes of the population, and those in power are, depressingly, largely the descendants of Christie and her ilk (or those even higher up the class system). Such feelings either express themselves in paternalism or derision, and politics is scarred by these dual evils. It is hardly surprising that the working classes are still so thoroughly looked down on and disregarded by so many people, including those in power, when they were so recently looked on as little better, and often worse, than children. But, as usual, I have taken us off at a political tangent. My general point is that this is an abrasive element of Christie’s writing, and an attitude that is still painfully familiar in modern life.
Overall Christie crafts and intriguing mystery with a thoroughly likable protagonist (for all her faults) and a cast of characters that will keep you entertained. Sadly vague memories of one of the TV adaptations slightly spoiled the big reveal for me, but it was still fun to piece together the clues. That’s what we all want from this type of fiction really – to imagine that we would be Miss Marple, not the hapless policemen (and they are always men) playing catch up with her. And that, to me, sounds like a rather lovely way to pass a few hours of lockdown.
What is your favourite Agatha Christie novel? Since reaching Murder at the Vicarage I’ve jumped about a bit, first to The Thirteen Problems, and now to The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Both very enjoyable, and I would recommend them if you like Murder at the Vicarage. Interestingly The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side deals a little with the changing social landscape of its time, and slightly redeems the classist understanding shown in Murder at the Vicarage. How do you feel about the depiction of class in 20th century novels? I think it’s interesting to look at it in novels where it is not the point, or the main subject matter. I feel this oblique look can be far more revealing of general attitudes. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and recommendations for other books I should read, so please do share them in the comments below!