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.
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)
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.