RANKING MARPLE: A YEAR-LONG PROJECT

You can feel it in the air: 2023 is the Year of Marple. Whether it’s the start of a New Age, or merely continuing the joyous celebration that began when a story called “The Tuesday Night Club” appeared in The Royal Magazine in December 1927, is a matter up for discussion. What’s true is that the name of Jane Marple is on everyone’s tongues. 

Everyone’s!

As we speak, Mark Aldridge is busily at work on the follow-up to his 488 page opus on Hercule Poirot. Even though Agatha Christie wrote nearly three times as many novels and 2½ times as many short stories about the Belgian Bloodhound as those involving the Sleuth of St. Mary Mead, his book about dear Aunt Jane is getting longer and longer and LONGER!

Early last year, actor/director Kenneth Branagh proposed the creation of a Christie-verse to rival the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where Super Spinster could take her place beside Monsieur Moustache fighting crime and saving the world one stitch at a time. (Don’t think I don’t stand in the shower sometimes and imagine I live in this sublime alternate reality, where teen boys sit in consternation behind a row of Marple fans roaring with delight as the “Easter egg” at the end of the credits reveals Miss M. picking up the phone and sending for . . . Lucy Eyelesbarrow!!!)

Most intriguing of all is that when my buddy JJ polled the world as to who the world’s favorite Golden Age sleuth might be, the top 100 names were whittled down to 64 and then voted in half, and then halved again and again and again . . . until now we are in the final stages of a Christie smackdown. Poirot and Marple are the #1 AND #2 MOST FAVORITE SLEUTHS OF ALL!!! She beat all those bewhiskered bros and can stand tall – depending on how her rheumatism is acting up today – on top of the heap! (The final results will be out this weekend, and even if puzzle prejudice and rampant sexism prevails and the Belgian wins, Miss Marple is assured of at least the #2 slot!)

My dear friend Kemper Donovan has been singing Miss Marple’s praises since the podcast All About Agatha began . . . or, at least, since Episode 25, when the first Miss Marple novel was discussed. As most of you well know, All About Agatha’s novel rankings have been completed – doubly so because Kemper recently hosted Dr. John Curran to finalize the placement of every novel on the grid. It was a lively discussion, and it underscored how personal every Christie fan gets about their favorites. One of the things I’ve always loved about the podcast was how expertly Kemper and his partner Catherine Brobeck mixed a scientific-ish method of evaluation with the emotionally satisfying experience of hearing people share what they feel in their heart. 

One of the most intriguing aspects of their discussion had to do with ranking Miss Marple in context with all of the other titles. The main challenge here is that one of Christie’s most admirable traits is her creation of puzzles and how the layering of clues leads inexorably to a logical and often highly surprising solution. This, unfortunately, is not a trait of the Miss Marple novels. It isn’t that good lady’s fault, and it really isn’t Christie’s either – because she has succeeded in doing something which most of the great mystery writers failed to do: she created sleuths of such brilliant contrast that they must operate on totally different plains.

You can interchange Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. Dannay and Lee may have been looking for a contrasting detective to Ellery Queen when they created  Drury Lane; they did a better job by simply reinventing Queen himself! I’m sure my friend, the Puzzle Doctor, can offer up a comparison between Dr. Lancelot Priestley and Desmond Merrion, but how many people will care?

But Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot? No two crime solvers could be more different in appearance or methodology. True, people discount both sleuths as the detritus of society. An elderly single lady? A foreigner? Poirot and Marple share the power of invisibility due to the murderer’s foolish dismissal of these “types.” But perish the thought of them working together, as Kenneth Branagh foolishly suggests, for their worlds, their brains, their cases, work in completely different ways. 

Miss Marple is not an ex-cop or spy or soldier. She does not run a private detective agency. Her “little grey cells” compose the finest of merino wool, used to make a sweater for dear Raymond. No, Miss Marple is an instinctive sleuth, basing her deductions on her finely-tuned, admittedly caustic, knowledge of human behavior. She doesn’t have direct access to the tools of policing, so in most of her books she tends to function as an adjunct to the police. This limits not only her function but her very appearance in her own novels, which almost always contain a sentence to the effect of “Inspector Craddock filled Miss Marple in on all his interviews and the evidence that had been found” so that the old lady can make sense of it all for them.

Many prefer Poirot because, within the fairy-tale universe of classic detective fiction, his cases feel more – dare I say it? – “realistic.” That’s not to say Miss Marple doesn’t identify many grounded clues or that Poirot doesn’t understand human nature. Poirot spots a criminal through a trap laid with silk stockings or the appearance of a girl’s knees; Miss Marple identifies a killer through the state of a victim’s fingernails or the fraying of a lamp cord. And while Poirot is usually given license to get on his hands and knees and probe a room for coffee stains or missing buttons, that’s not to say that dear Aunt Jane hasn’t taken advantage of people’s dismissal of a harmless old lady to snoop and discover evidence. 

Still, if more of the Poirot novels are better and/or more complexly constructed puzzle plots, and if one lists the more shocking solutions and find many Poirots on it and nary a Marple . . . there is still something ineffably special about those twelve Marple novels, some qualities that we do not find in Poirot. The portrayal of village life and, by extension, the real-world ramifications of time and war and social upheaval on English society – we see all this through a better-calibrated lens in the Marple books. We see the world changing far more specifically and sentimentally through Miss Marple’s eyes than through Poirot’s.

We also find more cases in a Marple story that are deeply grounded in emotion. That’s not to say that greed doesn’t rear its ugly head in a Miss Marple case. Doing a quick poll for this post, I broke motive down to three main categories: greed, fear of exposure (which, more often than not, involves a person trying to maintain a lifestyle to which they may be accustomed but to which they are most certainly not entitled), and love/hate (encompassing killing to find love, killing those one used to love, or killing someone due to extreme hatred, perhaps for revenge or justice), seven out of thirty-three Poirot novels have an emotionally charged motive at their core, compared to five out of twelve of the Marples. 

At the same time, though, Christie derives more feeling in the Marple novels through the reactions of the sleuth herself and her friends. Miss Marple rarely employs a Watson, but those who, whether willingly or not, assist her in her inquiries – Dolly Bantry in The Body in the Library and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, Jerry Burton in The Moving Finger, Gwenda Reed in Sleeping Murder, and Lucy Eyelesbarrow in 4:50 from Paddington are more fully fleshed emotional souls than Captain Hastings or even my favorite Ariadne Oliver. 

I love Miss Marple. I know Kemper Donovan does too, which is why he felt conflicted as he and John Curran shaped the final rankings on his list and the Marples fell like so: #6 and #12 . . . and then nothing till #26 . . . then #30, followed by a long middle-of-the-road run: #34, #35, #36, #37, #38. Then comes #40, #44 and #53. This means that there is one Miss Marple in the Top Ten, compared to six Poirots. It also means that the “worst” Miss Marple is followed by fourteen “lesser” Christies that include another six Poirots, with the “worst” Poirot ranking at #63 out of sixty-six. 

I have no argument here. Ranking is, as I said, as much subjective as it is scientific – more so when you listened to Kemper and Catherine argue or when guests provided their own reasons for where they placed a title. (Just listening to the contrast between Sophie Hannah and John Curran talking about Passenger to Frankfurt is utterly fascinating!) If a student of Christie is going to seriously take plot mechanics and credibility into consideration, most of the Poirots must rank higher than most of the Marples. 

What follows, then, is not an attempt to “right a wrong;” it’s merely a chance for this subjective literary scientist to take the Miss Marple novels out of context and rank them using highly tested scientific criteria (of my own making) and finding out where they land. I have purposely not given you the titles of each novel that occupies its space on Kemper’s rankings (although I’m sure many of you can guess the placements of at least the top and bottom few.) I’m not even going to look at this list again until December when I release my final list. 

What I propose is to subject every Marple novel to my own close scrutiny, applying my own categories and scores, and seeing where I land. I figure my results may end up being pretty much the same as Kemper’s, but, hey! – twelve Marples in twelve months! I can think of worse ways to spend my time.

The calendar looks something like this:

                        Introduction and Explanation

January:          The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

February:       The Body in the Library (1942)

March:            The Moving Finger (1943)

April:              Sleeping Murder (mid to late 1940’s?)

May:                A Murder Is Announced (1950)

June:               They Do It with Mirrors (1952)

July:                A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)

August:           4:50 from Paddington (1957)

September:    The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)

October:         A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

November:     At Bertram’s Hotel (1966)

December:      Nemesis (1971)

                        Final Rankings

Before I get to the categories, let’s make short work of the only “controversy” surrounding this list. As you can see, I’m deviating in one case from reading the novels in order of publication. As Dr. Curran, Kemper, and many others have stated, Sleeping Murder may be the last Miss Marple novel to have appeared before the public, but nothing about it feels like a “last” novel. On the other hand, Nemesis, in plot, mood and tone, feels like a finale from start to finish. And so we save Nemesis for last. 

On to the categories. There are five. 

The Hook (10 points)

One of the things Agatha Christie did better and more consistently than most Golden Age writers is to find a creative opening that hooked her readers in. I propose to rank each opening for its creativity and effectiveness.

The Closed Circle: Who, What, When, Where, Why? (10 points)

How do I feel about where the case takes place, who is involved, and the concept that got them all there? 

The Solution and How She Gets There (10 points)

What got Miss Marple from Point A (or, in the case of one novel, around Point T) to Z? What is the relationship between logic and intuition? Were there clues, and did they lead in a satisfying way to a satisfying denouement? 

The Marple Factor (10 points)

This is, after all, a project that revolves around a specific character, to wit, one of the most famous literary sleuths in the world. How does she come off in each book? Given her nature as an amateur, at best an unofficial adjunct to the police, we cannot measure the Marple Factor merely by how many pages in which she appears. Sure, you can knock off points against Poirot for appearing so little in The Hollow, Cat Among the Pigeons and The Clocks. That has nothing to do with the first of these books being great, the second great fun, and the third rather tedious. 

The Wow Factor (10 points)

This is the category that allows me to sum up all that is ineffable and/or uncategorizable about each book. What makes – or doesn’t make – this title special? What sets it apart, and how much do these factors raise a title in my estimation? Factors that might appear here are historical context, tone, or the presence of something that resonates more emotionally than usual. It isn’t just about “special circumstances,” though; it’s how the book as a whole ultimately makes me feel, during the reading, immediately afterward, and for maybe for years to come. 

Twelve months, twelve books. The chance to share with you my feelings about this beloved sleuth makes me very excited for the year to come. 

32 thoughts on “RANKING MARPLE: A YEAR-LONG PROJECT

  1. Dr Priestley and Desmond Merrion are not interchangeable. Priestley is, after the first ten or so books, very much in the Nero Wolfe mold, letting the stupid policemen go and get the facts for him and then either nudging them in the right direction or just telling them what happened. Merrion, an ex-military intelligence officer, is a much more on-the-spot sleuth, although he does on occasion not even bother to show up in his books – his police chum, Inspector Arnold is actually capable of solving crimes on his own…

    Well, you did ask…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant outline Brad for your Marple retrospective. A Murder is Announced is my favorite that I have read (and seen the Hickson and McEwan adaptations) countless times. Nemesis is another favorite. While perhaps it sags in the middle, I think that the culprit’s motive was unique and I like the emotional ending. As you say, a fitting farewell to Miss Marple.

    Presumably that is Major Palgrave, but can I just say that the cover of A Caribbean Mystery in your post above is the stuff of nightmares. What was the illustrator thinking with such disturbing artwork.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Scott, I purposely sought out the Tom Adams covers for this post, as they are easily the most evocative – but not always the most Christie-ish – of the darker aspects of her work. Yes, it is the most nightmarish of them all, and I have to say that (in ROT-13): vs Znwbe Cnytenir unq ybbxrq yvxr GUNG, ubj pbhyq Zvff Znecyr sbetrg gur pyhr nobhg gur tynff rlr sbe zbfg bs gur obbx?????

      Liked by 1 person

    • A Murder is Announced is my favorite too. Definitely prefer the Hickson version. Why is it my favorite? First, it is a little gem of a novel about village life. It could probably stand on its own without the murders at all! Second, if you want a WOW factor, well, the ending to this novel certainly has it. And third, this is one of the only murder mysteries (certainly of Christie’s) where the murderer killed someone they loved and felt very very sad about what they had done (watch Ursula Howells; her tears are real). So often I have wanted to rewrite the plot of the second half of the book saying, “No Charlotte, please!! Make another choice.”

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I am Very Excited to read this (as someone currently on a full Miss Marple retrospective of her own). I’ve already found that the books evolved in many ways I didn’t remember, as has the character!

    One other big difference IMO between Poirot and Marple is the latter’s approach to police – Miss Marple’s gentle, sometimes even deferential approach is to me, the winning strategy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Honestly, I don’t remember Poirot having too much trouble with the police, either. He had Japp and then Spence for most of his cases. He played up his “foreignness” in the same way Miss Marple doubled her “fluffiness,” and this tactic got both of them further with police and suspects alike.

      I’m glad I’m not the only one taking this journey. It sort of make it feel even more like a thing that people should be doing this year!! I look forward to your own insights as we journey from book to book.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hmmmm maybe there is a Poirot reread in the cards for me after this! (My husband is looking over my shoulder and just sighed over the loss of shelf space, ha.)

        It’s totally possible the police loom larger in my head than they did in the books – one of the things I found with the Miss Marples so far is that the BBC adaptations tend to play up the police incompetence angle. Maybe because it’s an easy win? (It’s one of my biggest frustrations with the BBC who seem to consistently externalize what Christie left to implication or suggestion. I recognize this is a Hot Take – I think the Joan Hickson Marple is quite popular…) So I’d believe there was something similar that has made it into my Poirot consciousness.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I really should re-read The Murder on the Links since it’s celebrating its centennial this year. It’s one of my least favorite Christies, but a high point is the rivalry between Poirot and the celebrated French detective assigned to the case.

          Liked by 2 people

        • I haven’t watched the BBC Marples for quite a while, but maybe it’s because Slack appears in it quite frequently. He is highly incompetent in the books as well. One of the very few policemen in Christie’s works I can think of, who is almost ireedemably bad. The only other one, that comes to my mind, is the already mentioned French inspector from Murder on the Links.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Slack is way over-represented in the BBC versions IMO, and it’s a shame because he actively distracts and detracts from the mystery! Not only that – the BBC version is a caricature of himself. I think there’s a line in The Body in the Library where a kid says something like “Making fun of the police is very old-fashioned”. It’s a shame that team seems to have skipped that line right over :p

            Like

            • This is all about series TV pushing series characters. It’s why the early episodes of Poirot are my least favorite, with all those “wacky” subplots involving Hastings and Miss Lemon. But it’s the price we pay to watch favorite characters on a regular basis.

              Like

  4. A standing ovation for this project, Brad! As a life-long member of Team Marple, I appreciate the chance to re-read and examine these books as an oeuvre unto themselves. As you know, in my imagined universe of Torquay in 1902, young Aggie’s grandmother has a lot to answer for, offering inspiration for the bloodthirsty literary tradition that we love so well…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Though I am a Poirot acolyte, I look forward to this project of yours, Brad, and I will try and participate as much as I can too! Something that I have found in my reading of the Marple books (and I will be interested to see if you come away with the same feeling) is that the Marple stories tend to be less about that closed circle setting than the Poirot stories are. I will therefore be interested to see how your score some of them in that category. I have described this before as the Marple stories having a sense of forward momentum: the inciting murder often leads to another location, another group, and a whole other set of circumstances which, at first glance, had nothing at all to do with the original crime. Off the top of my head, five of the novels have this sort of structure which, while still less than half of the oeuvre, is still enough for me to take notice.

    Like

  6. I’m sure that I have read all of the Marples, although some were quite a while ago. I plan to re-read along with you each month. Great project and a fitting companion to “All About Agatha”. I loved your conversation with Kemper a few weeks ago, by the way.

    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Annie. And I love having finally connected with an international community of Christie (and other mystery author) fans. This is the reason I started the blog!

      Like

  7. So very excited for this project and absolutely love the assessment criteria. The Miss Marple novels definitely deserve a closer look and who better to do it than you, Brad!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Miss Marple for me ANY DAY. That’s not to say I dislike Poirot, but I do find him a tad irritating in comparison. And touché to your remark about Marple and Poirot being so COMPLETELY different from each other. I *suppose* Poirot would have solved The Case of the Perfect Maid quite competently, but that one surely is a Marple one all the way and especially how she declares emphatically at the end that she ”doesn’t believe in paragons”. Again, when Jerry says to Joanna (The Moving Finger), ”She probably despises you for not running your fingers across the mantelpiece to ensure no coat of dust….(something like that)…” I can’t see that happening in a Poirot novel!

    So Brad, let me join all the others who eagerly await your retrospective – with bated breath! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think one of the most poignant of the Marples is Pocket Full of Rye. That very touching closing scene where she reads Gladys’ letter, is so heartbreaking. One never has that type of tearful sense in any of the Poirots, as much as I love the old dear. In this regard, Jane Marple humanizes the victims and the stories, which is no surprise as Marple’s stock-in-trade is humanity and her village parallels. I believe you will enjoy your trek through the Marples.

    The only ones ever to do cinematic justice were the Hicksons. Ther simply awful “Marple” series was so nauseatingly bad, I never got through more than two of them. But then you know my extreme dislike for unauthorized (by the author) rewrites.

    I am looking very much forward to reading your discussions of the erstwhile Jane Marple, possibly the most ingenious of all golden age detectives.

    Like

    • @Marblex, that ending to A Pocketful of Rye is most definitely a touching, heartbreaking, that has always stuck out in my mind. A Pocketful of Rye wouldn’t be my top book in the Christie oeuvre, but it’s by no means a bad book. I wouldn’t put it on top of Christie’s shining achievements, but it’s a worthy entry in her writing as a whole and in the Miss Marple series. As much as I love the Joan Hickson Miss Marple films, they dropped the ball when they decided to end A Pocketful of Rye adaptation with something “cinematic”, akin to that silly chase scene in that adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd with David Suchet, rather than the poignant one Christie penned, which is faithfully portrayed in the adaptation with Julia MacKenzie, although I don’t like her depiction of Miss Marple at all (NOT ONE BIT!)

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m with you one rewrites :). My favorite Marple is Sleeping Murder, followed by A Caribbean Mystery. In both stories, Christie signals the answers straightaway almost at the start of the stories. In Sleeping Murder, I love how Gwenda slowly discovers the similarities in the house and her own imagination, only to realize, with Miss Marple’s help, that they are memories,

        In the latter, I love how Christie tells you exactly what to expect (through Major Palgrave) and then you see it happening before your eyes as the story unfolds.

        As for the actresses who murdered Jane Marple in the awful “Marple” series, both McKenzie and McElwin played Jane as a twinkly-eyed bag lady, doing her own physical “legwork.” (again, UGH).

        Like

        • I thought McKenzie was better than Mc Ewan. McEwan will always be “Lucia” to me. Cutesy and flirty, In any event, I don’t like the way the stories were rewritten. Why? Sleeping Murder bears no resemblance to the original nor does Nemesis.

          Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s