“Murder at the Vicarage was published in 1930, but I cannot remember where, when or how I wrote it, why I came to write it, or even what suggested to me that I should select a new character – Miss Marple – to act as the sleuth in the story. Certainly at the time I had no intention of continuing her for the rest of my life. I did not know that she was to become a rival to Hercule Poirot.” Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
I would never accuse Agatha Christie of being disingenuous, but something about her statement above seems – let’s call it “playful.” Even though she developed her spinster sleuth differently from Poirot or even Tommy and Tuppence, one can’t help but think that Miss Marple always mattered to Christie. She stands out as a sleuth by being a complete amateur, sometimes consulted but more often butting in, and not “hired” for money until her last mystery. Why, after publishing one novel and story collection each, would Christie choose to write and hide away a “final novel” for Aunt Jane, especially when she had written much more about the Beresfords? (Why, indeed? John Curran uses this idea to argue, quite convincingly, that Sleeping Murder must have been written much later in the 1940’s than previously surmised.) Did she see greater potential in Miss Marple? Did she understand that, while the Beresfords were a charming variation on the much-employed trope of married detectives, there were next to no amateur spinster sleuths out there?
We will never know for sure because Christie was always reticent about her process. At least we can surmise fairly clearly over how Miss Marple came to be. She came to life in The Royal Magazine in December 1927 when “The Tuesday Night Club” was published. According to the author, the character quite possibly “. . . arose from the pleasure I had taken in portraying Dr. Sheppard’s sister in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She had been my favorite character in the book – an acidulated spinster, full of curiosity, knowing everything, hearing everything: the complete detective service in the home.”
Christie claims her pleasure over Caroline Sheppard was made even clearer when writer Michael Morton adapted the novel into the play Alibi and transformed the character into an ingenue:
“ . . . I resented the removal of Caroline a good deal; I liked the part she played in village life; and I liked the idea of village life – reflected through the life of the doctor and his masterful sister. I think at that moment, in St Mary Mead, though I did not yet know it, Miss Marple was born, and with her Miss Hartnell, Miss Wetherby, and Colonel and Mrs. Bantry – they were all lined up below the borderline of consciousness, ready to come to life and step out on to the stage.”
In The Thirteen Problems, Miss Marple was one of a half dozen village characters whom Christie placed together at a weekly gathering to discuss unsolved crimes. She reminded the author of “some of my grandmother’s Ealing cronies – old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl. The final important point is that, while Christie states that Miss Marple was too “fussy and spinsterish” to invite comparisons with her own grandmother, the two ladies did have one important trait in common:
“. . . though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.”
Miss Marple spends twelve of the Thirteen Problems sitting in a chair, dressed in black and wrapped in lace, calmly knitting and listening (unless she is the narrator herself, as she is twice). Not surprisingly, it is Miss Marple who solves every mystery, often drawing on village parallels to illustrate the Ecclesiastean lesson that people really are alike all over – and nastily so. Such is the origin of the best wholly amateur female sleuth in crime fiction!
We do see glimmers of the way Miss Marple will be portrayed in novels in the stories she narrates (“The Thumbmark of St. Peter” and, most especially, “A Christmas Tragedy”) and in the final story, “Death by Drowning,” which deviates from the “club circle” milieu to present an active tale of village life. In these stories, Miss Marple is more lively, moving around the hydro in search of evidence, worming her way into scenes of the crime, or pressing the police to investigate what seems to be an accidental death. One of her great gifts is her ability to see beyond appearances or village gossip to find the true nature of people and their relationships to others. Her “little grey cells” are based more on intuition than intellect; her sum of knowledge is comprised of domestic details surrounding village life rather than forensic technology. Her intuition is her super-power, the thing that allows her to fold a murderer’s name onto a piece of paper and dare a policeman to prove it, the spice that will earn her the moniker of “the worst cat in the village.” “That terrible Miss Marple,” the most dangerous old woman in St. Mary Mead!
Christie may not have remembered the inspiration for The Murder at the Vicarage, but she designed it at the height of her powers over seventy pages in Notebook 33, according to Curran. Her notes are organized chapter by chapter, and so the plot unfolded clearly in her mind. Her fondness for “the idea of village life” is amply demonstrated – and a second classic sleuth is, if not created here, then assured of a long and productive career.
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As this is the first of my Marple rankings, you might want to know what I think constitutes a good hook. Many define a literary hook as a first sentence that “hooks” you in from the start. Certainly, Agatha Christie was responsible for some of the best of these. Witness the intriguing opening line from Appointment with Death:
“’You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed.’”
What a thing for Hercule Poirot to overhear on vacation through the window of his hotel room in Jerusalem. Who said this? Who was the listener? Who is the “she” to whom the speaker was referring? These are questions we want answered right away, although I might argue that Christie answers them too quickly.
Another example occurs much later, in 1955’s Hickory Dickory Death: “Hercule Poirot frowned. ‘Miss Lemon,’ he said. ‘Yes, M. Poirot?’ ‘There are three mistakes in this letter.’”
True, the mystery here appears trivial: what could lead Poirot’s perfect secretary into making three mistakes??? It turns out she is worried, and that worry leads to her boss’ next case. (If only that case were a little more perfect . . . )
More often than not, the hook in a mystery – and certainly in the best Christie mysteries – takes up a chapter or so. She was a master of the great beginning, and her canon teems with brilliant examples. Some of my favorite (non-Marple) ones are: the snowbound séance that opens The Sittaford Mystery (1931), Luke Fitzwilliam’s train journey to London in Murder Is Easy (1939) and, of course, the disastrous family reunion that opens After the Funeral (1953). One of the hardest ironies about the weaker books at the end of her career is that every one of them begins with a terrific hook. Think of the stenographer coming across a dead body in a blind lady’s parlor in The Clocks, or the frightening words of an elderly woman in By the Pricking of My Thumbs or even Tommy and Tuppence’s purchase of their final home (and discovering a secret message in an old book) in the almost unreadable Postern of Fate.
In 1930, Christie’s approach was smooth and funny:
“I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.”
In the larger picture, the hook for The Murder at the Vicarage is that an unpleasant man in a small village is so disliked that people go around muttering how much better the world would be if he were dead – and then he dies. His murder eventually occurs in Chapter five. What happens beforehand ranks highly as social comedy but, as a means of generating suspense, the results are mixed.
Take the first half dozen pages, which comprise nothing more than lunchtime at the Vicarage in St. Mary Mead. It is a fabulous comic play (one could easily create a sitcom around the Clement family; you could have crossovers with The Vicar of Dibley!) It is also a model of tight exposition, as, with remarkable economy, Christie introduces, by word or deed, sixteen characters and establishes Colonel Protheroe as the most odious among them.
If we do not get right into the action of murder, we plunge headfirst into a charming portrait of village life. St. Mary Mead as a place is far more complete, more vibrant, than Kings Abbot was in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The center of that vibrancy is, as the title suggests, the vicarage, and most of the fun in the opening chapters has as much to do with Vicar and his wife as with the development of the murder mystery. We actually barely meet the Colonel; instead, through a week’s worth of Vicarage lunches and teas and cocktail hours and dinners, and through Leonard Clement’s attendance to his duties (giving sermons and attending to his parishioners), we learn what a troublemaking ass the Colonel is, how Anne Protheroe and Lawrence Redding feel about him (and each other!), how Protheroe has alienated his daughter, the new curate, the mysterious stranger, some poachers, the local Doctor, and the visiting archaeologist, thereby painting a target on his back.
As a mystery, what hooks us in is pretty par for the course. The real surprise would have been if the victim had turned out to be someone other than Protheroe; instead, his murder is inevitable, and the hook lacks that spark which points to a grand puzzle in the making. However, as a novel, I find so much to enjoy about the first section that returning to it gives me the pleasure of revisiting old friends. For the sake of the Vicar, I intend to be kinder in this ranking.
* * * * *
The Closed Circle: Who, What, When, Where, Why?
Classic mystery authors – and Agatha Christie was no exception – favored the “closed circle” of suspects, where the number of possibilities for murderer is limited/specified by location and/or circumstances. Most of the thirty-three Poirot novels conform to this specified list of suspects, with the greatest number (eleven) taking place in a family home, followed by hotels, modes of transportation, and parties. Most of the thrillers and Beresford novels operate differently, with more numerable settings and a more diffuse conglomeration of characters. If Christie sometimes manages to confound and delight us with the identity of “Mr. X” (or N or M), the movement through these novels feels more like an American private eye adventure – linear rather than circular, with the reader having to work harder to determine the placement and value of each character they meet along the line.
Despite an occasional, uncomfortable visit to the country, usually as a guest at an estate, Poirot’s oeuvre was cosmopolitan, whether it involved the city or travel. The country, and more specifically the village, was Miss Marple’s purview. Seven out of the twelve novels are village mysteries (although one book transfers the sleuth from St. Mary Mead to a hotel and another starts at Miss Marple’s home and moves all over the place, in sometimes unfortunate fashion.) Of the rest, three are set in family homes, and the rest in hotels. Villages are, of course, much larger places than homes or hotels, bringing inherent challenges when crafting a mystery. How much of the village do you reveal? (Roger Ackroyd gave us very little.) Who do you bring into the story, whether as suspects or as stock characters? And if you are going to introduce villagers who are adjuncts to the action, must they all be directly connected to the mystery at play? (See how Louise Penny manages this in her Three Pines series.)
St. Mary Mead, like the best villages in literature, comes to life as a distinct place, full of people that you come to like and about whom you want to know more. Miss Marple and her insufferable nephew, Raymond West, have been imported from the short stories, and here we add the capable Colonel Melchett, the handsome Dr. Haydock, and those Doyennes of Dish, Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Hartnell and Miss Wetherby. Adjuncts to the plot though they may be, they serve to make one of Christie’s longest novels a richer experience.
In fact, while some readers have complained that Vicarage is overlong, it is not the village regulars who inspire this criticism but the members of the large suspect list. These comprise the inhabitants of Old Hall, which includes the Protheroe women and Dr. Stone and his assistant (who are staying at the Blue Boar but spend their days digging up the grounds – and pinching the silver); the residents of the Vicarage, including all three Clements and their maid, Mary; and three satellite characters: Mrs. Lestrange and Lawrence Redding, who inhabit cottages and are both newcomers to town, and Archer the poacher (or poached red herring, if you will).
The vicarage is the source of pure character gold. The Vicar is easily my favorite narrator in all of Christie, and I sometimes wish he had returned in that capacity – so much so that when Val McDermid returned to the vicarage in the recent Marple collection, the presence of all these characters made up for the desultory mystery at the story’s core. I can see Leonard, Griselda, Dennis and Mary forming the central cast of a series of mysteries of their own, if only they wouldn’t have gotten into Miss Marple’s way. At the very least, one always hopes to meet them again.
Christie, now 40 and still climbing toward the height of her powers, does a bang-up job portraying the younger set in this multi-generational novel. Dennis is a charming blurter-of-truths, and Lettice is a perfect portrait of lackadaisical late-1920’s girlhood. When she drifts into the vicarage study at the top of Chapter Two, possessing all the warmth and energy of her namesake vegetable, she displays the fretful demeanor of every teenager since time began:
“You haven’t seen my gramophone records, have you? . . . How tiresome. I know I’ve left them somewhere. And I’ve lost the dog. And my wrist watch is somewhere, only it doesn’t much matter because it won’t go. Oh! dear, I am so sleepy. I can’t think why, because I didn’t get up till eleven. But life’s very shattering, don’t you think?”
Lettice possesses the casual amorality and selfishness of children in general (“Well, if he doesn’t want me to want him to die, he shouldn’t be so horrible over money.”) and, of course, she turns out in the end to be much more of a bright star than one might give her credit for. She knows all along that Anne must be guilty, and she handles the truth about her birth mother with practical grace.
Anne Protheroe and Lawrence Redding are necessary to the plot and work fine, but they are cast in a more typical Christie mold. Anne could either be Madame Renauld or Madame Daubreuil from Murder on the Links, brimming with repressed sensuality, while Lawrence may be one of the earliest of the many Lotharios who will populate the author’s work. He is charming enough that we root for him after he confesses, and louche enough that his eventual unmasking is well-earned. They are certainly a more reasonable set of lover/murderers than the ones we meet at Styles Court, and yet after both are cleared, they sort of fade into the background.
Unfortunately, the rest of the suspects are a dusty set of old-fashioned mystery “types”: the mysterious newcomer (Mrs. Lestrange), the con man impersonating a scholar (Dr. Stone), the overly spiritual, highly nervous religious man (Mr. Hawes), and the dishonest village roustabout (Archer). I do like Miss Cram, so quirky and “modern,” but the others are frankly unexciting and, worst of all, none of them would have made an interesting murderer. (One TV adaptation cuts Stone and Cram out entirely, with no ill effect.)
As for the all-important victim, Colonel Protheroe appears in one very brief scene before he is bumped off; other than that, he has a lot of shade thrown on him for being such a petty tyrant. The great monsters, like Lord Edgware, Simeon Lee and Mrs. Boynton are still to come.
The first nine chapters are pretty fabulous. The village and its inhabitants, the hilarious commentary on same by the Vicar, the death of Protheroe, the introduction of the awful Inspector Slack, the early confessions of both Lawrence and Anne, followed by their exoneration. All of this is great.
But then Anne and Lawrence are cleared, and we still have a long, long way to go. Leonard’s slow descent into marital insecurity, his dealings with Miss Marple and her friends, his petulance over the matter of the study clock – all of these moments work. The problem is that if I’m going to fall victim to Christie’s tricks, I need a more enthralling group of potential killers and theories to distract me. Shade may be thrown on Lettice, Mrs. Lestrange, and the archaeologist, but would any of these truly satisfy if they were the one unmasked at the end? And perish the thought that it was Archer! Probably the most satisfying “surprise” ending would be that the killer was Mary, but it would be impossible to believe, particularly as Christie never made a true servant her main killer. (And I need Mary to stick around for my new TV series based around the family.)
It seems to me, then, that the investigation, that push to provide an attractive alternate path to the truth since the juiciest possibilities have been “proven” innocent, is the – if not weakest – then least compelling aspect of the novel.
When and where?
“We are not used to mysteries in St. Mary Mead.”
Please! There are plenty of mysteries to be found in St. Mary Mead and plenty of people looking for them. (Even the unworldly vicar steals his wife’s copy of The Stain on the Stairs.) In the midst of all this, however, we are taken on a tour through a bustling village as Leonard Clement visits his parishioners and seems to find through each door he opens every vicissitude of life, sex, love, and death. We see Christie’s gift for expressing village life on every page, and our love of St. Mary Mead (and, by extension, of Lymstock, Wychwood-Under-Ashe, Little Paddocks, Broadhinny and more) will only grow.
And there are maps! We’ll need them because this is the only Christie village mystery I can think of where the matter of who is coming up this or that path, or where a sound came from, makes much of a difference.
The Solution and How She Gets There
The twist to Murder at the Vicarage is that the two people who had been exonerated early on turn out to be guilty. They had rigged the evidence so that the trail to their confessed “guilt” could be disproven, leaving everyone – including, sadly, Miss Marple – to cross both Anne Protheroe and Lawrence Redding off their list. Instead, Miss Marple creates her list of “seven suspects”, most of whom aren’t particularly satisfactory. I think Christie even knew that because Miss Marple doesn’t even identify them until after she has fingered Lawrence. Three of them – the Vicar, his wife and nephew – only come under suspicion if we can believe they are dishonest or unbalanced, and the reader actually knows them, and their soundness, better throughout than Miss Marple or the police.
While it’s unlikely that Christie would have repeated the narrator-as-murderer surprise so soon after having made a splash with the same device, it’s not like the solution here is original, even for her. The same solution appeared almost intact in the 1926 Harley Quin short story, “The Love Detectives.” And I maintain Miss Marple’s novel debut is perilously similar to the first Poirot, even if we get there by different routes. The love relationship between the two killers in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is revealed, quite clumsily, at the very end, when it arrives, with a hazily clued thud, as a deus ex machina to save John Cavendish’s hide.
In Styles, the conspirators alibi each other, albeit in an equally clumsy fashion, where the woman disguises herself as the man (she is conveniently mannish, and even more conveniently, the murderer’s cousin). Compare this to the sophisticated way in which Anne Protheroe “proves” her innocence, requiring her to read Miss Marple as well as that good lady reads others. All of this is more clever than what we find in Styles, and yet it’s also a very different form of clueing, the type that will dominate all of Miss Marple’s cases to come. Let’s call them clues of human nature, and it’s doubtful they would stand up in court. In fact, Colonel Melchett says as much to Miss Marple and she agrees, thereby paving the way for The Trap. It is an awkward ending where Lawrence, so clever throughout, falls swiftly and fatally for the bait. (Has he intuited that the novel was running long?)
Still, let’s ponder with some pleasure the Clue of Anne’s Appearance. She must make sure that Miss Marple observes that Anne could not have been carrying a gun before the murder. And so she wears a form-fitting dress and carries no handbag. I love how this clue works both for her and against her, since Miss Marple understands women below the surface. Anne’s appearance does what she intended, proving she couldn’t have been carrying a gun. But the dress is inappropriate for the church warden’s wife, and the idea that a woman wouldn’t carry a handbag is too much for Miss Marple.
The “gay and natural” manner with which Anne and Lawrence publicly bid each other goodbye might fool a layman – what murderers could appear so calm? – but Miss Marple asks herself how two lovers who were so desperately in love and supposedly parting forever could not have been upset. This understanding of human nature is the best part of Miss Marple, even if it is also the part that made a few more of JJ’s fans vote for Poirot as the World’s Greatest Detective. It doesn’t help when Christie muddies the old lady’s understanding of forensics, struggling to come up with the word “alibi,” while seeming to have an expert’s knowledge of a Maxim silencer.
Miss Marple doesn’t so much “prove” that Anne and Lawrence killed the Colonel as to pile up a list of insights that make this solution feel accurate. The facts that are given to us about Lawrence, that he knew about the clock in the vicarage study running fast and that he excelled at amateur theatrics, help make Miss Marple’s “case” more compelling – but not in the way that, say, Hercule Poirot laid out his evidence against the killer in Roger Ackroyd.
The vicarage clock is a wonderful set piece, mined both as evidence and for humor; the manufacturing of the fake gunshot using exploding rocks (picric acid) found conveniently in the woods much less so. (I don’t care if it does exist! It feels like knowledge the average reader could not possess.) It also provides a weird clue where Lawrence, caught by the vicar looking for a rock to activate the explosive, says he was bringing it to Miss Marple for her garden – except, as she says, “It was the wrong sort of stone for my rock gardens! And that put me on the right track!” How many young men areaware of the right and wrong stones for an old lady’s rock garden; even an artist like Mr. Redding could have simply made a well-meaning mistake.
In summation, there is little in the way of actual evidence, but at least Christie makes it clear from the start that this is not the way Miss Marple works! She understands human nature, and from that she spots patterns of behavior or inconsistencies and builds a narrative around them. Quite frankly, it’s ridiculous that everyone crosses Redding off their list (including our sleuth, who suspected him at once), and one has to ask why Miss Marple didn’t quietly try and pierce Redding’s mask of innocence instead of suspecting the delightful Clement entourage. The best Marple cases combine the intuitive with the logical clue (physical or verbal), and so I have to strike a few marks from this solution, both for its lack of originality (it’s only 1930 – why repeat?!?) and shaky evidence.
The Marple Factor
The Miss Marple who appears in Murder at the Vicarage is different from the woman we met in those initial stories, although we get hints, as mentioned above, of the more bustling, snoopy woman we find here. And she is unabashedly snoopy – and proudly so. She almost boasts about Lawrence and Anne using her to establish their alibi:
“Mrs. Protheroe is met at the studio by Mr. Redding. They go in together – and, human nature being what it is, I’m afraid they realize that I shan’t leave the garden till they come out again!”
Miss Marple evolves differently from Tommy and Tuppence, but to me she is the most emotionally resonant of Christie’s detectives. Yes, she ages (from about 70 to around 110, I believe!), but it’s her reflections on the changing world around her that are so fascinating and appealing. Another thing I find interesting about her is that, while I do not think Miss Marple is, in essence, a “funny” character, she is often observed through the lens of a wry or funny person. And because the Vicar is such a charming narrator, Christie derives a great deal of humor from Miss Marple’s effect on people. Thus, because Leonard makes so much out of the lady’s reputation for knowing all, we get the most numerous examples of her popping up in surprising places, armed with knowledge and searching for more. We will see a slightly different person through the eyes of Jerry Burton, Lucy Eyelesbarrow and Dermot Craddock – but isn’t that how the sum total of a person is measured anyway, by all the different perspectives on her character? I find her more multi-dimensional than Poirot, even if he attracts more complex, clue-based cases.
There is much here that we will find in Miss Marple throughout her career, including the wonderful similes and parallels she finds in the people around her. One of my favorites involves the police:
“Of course, I wouldn’t dream of saying any of this to Colonel Melchett – such an autocratic man, isn’t he? – and poor inspector slack – well, he’s exactly like the young lady in the boot shop who wants to sell you patent leather because she’s got it in your size, and doesn’t take any notice of the fact that you want brown calf.”
And then there are those wonderful moments when Miss Marple exercises her charm, another super-power that she uses to great purpose. At the end of a particularly satisfying gossip session with the ladies, after the Vicar angrily admonishes her, she turns her big China blues on him and says:
“Dear Vicar, you are so unworldly. I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say idle tittle tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?”
Christie’s grandma, come to life!
The Wow Factor
When all is said and done, there are four terrific things we can take away with us after reading this.
- With Vicarage, Christie has embarked on a career for Miss Marple that will extend till the canon ends. Her novel debut is a solid mystery and a mostly delightful read. True, the author won’t return to a full-length Miss Marple again for a dozen years – but she will consider it (Death on the Nile), and there will be more short stories, will be published together with the earlier ones as The Thirteen Problems in 1932. (It is my favorite of her story collections.)
- This may be the best use of voice in a Miss Marple novel. Leonard Clement is a pure delight, perhaps the best of Christie’s narrators, and while we never get to hang out with him again, he and his family are mentioned several more times, so I am glad he had a rich, full life and career.
- St. Mary Mead is arguably the most fully realized village in Christie’s canon and arguably the most famous in the mystery genre. I can’t say Caroline Graham was inspired by the place when she invented her Midsomer mysteries (she was more of a Christianna Brand fan), but I can’t imagine that long-running series being quite as popular as it is without St. Mary Mead (and Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple series) having paved the way.
- Murder at the Vicarage was Christie’s tenth novel but really only the fourth pure murder mystery, after The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder on the Links, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. (All the others are thrillers or have strong thriller elements.) But here, for the first time, Christie imbues her puzzle with the best element of the thrillers – their sense of humor. It’s something we will find more and more in the 30’s, as the novels become more lively and the puzzles even better.
Unfortunately, we will have to pass them by in order to get to more Marple.
FINAL SCORE FOR MURDER AT THE VICARAGE: 41/50