RANKING MARPLE #1: The Murder at the Vicarage

“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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The Hook

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.

Score: 8/10

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The Closed Circle: Who, What, When, Where, Why?

Who? 

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. 

What? 

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. 

Score: 8/10

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.

Score: 7/10

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!

Score: 10/10

The Wow Factor

When all is said and done, there are four terrific things we can take away with us after reading this.

  1. 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.) 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.

Score: 8/10

FINAL SCORE FOR MURDER AT THE VICARAGE:          41/50

17 thoughts on “RANKING MARPLE #1: The Murder at the Vicarage

  1. I’m not sure if I’m the first person to suggest this (or if there is any counter-evidence), but I can’t help wondering if, when Sleeping Murder was first written, Miss Marple was not in it, and Christie added her to it later? One of the best pieces of detection in the book, about Gwenda’s memories, seems uncharacteristic of Marple to me. Is this feasible, or not?

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    • I would be hard-pressed to argue for that idea as the whole book seems to have been created as a final vehicle for the one and only! When I get there – three books from now – I’ll see what I can discover!

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  2. 41 out of 50 is not a bad starting mark for your ranking, It will be interesting to see if it moves about at all, hopefully not down though as it is one I really enjoyed.
    I don’t know if I would say that there were next to no amateur spinster sleuths out in fiction at that point in the 1940s, but what is interesting is that Christie’s Marple got to the top of the pack (despite there being few novels with her in, in the 30s and 40s) and the others have become lost in time almost.

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  3. Brad, I agree with your assessment entirely, but not personally weighing the different aspects as you do (I perhaps place a disproportionate emphasis on the solution aspect in my judgment) I don’t rate it quite as highly.

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    • Scott, I’m assuming you listened to the last couple of episodes of All About Agatha dealing with the rankings. One of the most salient points made, both by Kemper and in his conversation with John Curran, had to do with how we want to look at Christie. When I considered that point in terms of my own project, I found myself in a quandary. I don’t want to create TWO sets of scores, but my ranking of each Miss Marple would be different, depending on if I went the “strict puzzle” route or went with a more holistic approach. I’ve basically chosen the latter because – and I’m sure you’ll agree with me here – when Christie worked with Miss Marple, she seldom displayed those strengths that most of us love her for, those extremely clever and generally well-clued puzzle mysteries. Miss Marple solves some great cases, but there’s a point to her absence throughout the 30’s when Christie’s clever plotting was operating at full strength! If I score Miss Marple in comparison to all those amazing Poirot puzzles, I do her a disservice. Murder at the Vicarage probably would not score anywhere near 41/50 if I scored it alongside Roger Ackroyd, Death on the Nile, or Five Little Pigs. Still, Vicarage loses its nine points due to aspects of the puzzle; its strengths are more novelistic, which may or may not matter to some fans. I’m trying to strike some sort of balance here between the two. 🙂

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      • SPOILERS:

        I don’t think the puzzle aspect of Vicarage is even all that bad. Focusing just on that aspect, I may rank it second from the Miss Marple novels only after a Murder is Announced (so I haven’t read some of them for quite a while). And of course you rated it pretty well in this category, and deservedly so IMO.

        The biggest strike against it is in my opinion it’s repetition and that it’s solution is so similar to earlier works of her. And I agree with you, that it’s especially annoying, because it’s still so early in her career.

        But I do like the handbag clue quite a bit. I don’t think it’s all that different to the clue of Emily Inglethorp wanting to light a fire in June or to Amyas Crale sending a certain person packing. I just wish Miss Marple made a point of Anne never have been seen without a handbag before and used this for her conclusion. If I remember generally, she generalized about women always going out with a handbag.

        I also agree that the red herrings are not particularly interesting potential murderers (unless Leonard or Griselda had taken the gun), but this IMO a general problem with the novels Christie wrote around this time. I like Sittaford Mystery a lot, but in this book, the interesting characters are snowed in in Sittaford, and the suspects/family members of the victim are so bland, that one can’t take them serious as suspect. (Unless Emily herself had done it. The possibility and her motive were shortly hinted at.) And one reason, aside from the fact, that this trick is well known by now, why the killer in Peril at End House is relatively easy to guess, is because almost everyone else wouldn’t be satisfying enough as the culprit.

        If anything, I would held it against the book, that Lawrence and Anne aren’t all that interesting either. They are satisfying culprit, because their motive made sense and we knew it from the beginning, but they don’t stand out as characters the way the Clements or Lettice do. But I do like how Christie used her famous trick from the at this point at her career best Poirot novel as a red herring, down to Leonard getting a mysterious phone call.

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        • So many interesting points, hg! Taking them in backwards order:

          I didn’t discuss the parallels between Vicarage and that other well-narrated novel because I wouldn’t for one moment believe Leonard capable of guilt. That other narrator, upon closer inspection, reads like a sociopath, but Leonard is a loveable fuddy-duddy. Still, isn’t it interesting to imagine the fun Christie was having with her loyal readers who were starting to pick up on patterns and thought they knew everything!!

          I absolutely agree with you that the servant problem of the 50’s had nothing on Christie’s suspect problem in the 30’s. One of my problems with Peril at End House is that all the people who surround Nick feel like suspects, but none of them has a particularly interesting motive for killing her. I think the thing that makes Murder on the Orient Express tedious for some (not me) is that, Daisy Armstrong aside, there are NO connections between most of these people to allow for any interaction or suspicion to develop. Ostensibly only two people on that train know Mr. Ratchett, which means that the motive must be a hidden one. That’s why the Armstrong case has to be revealed so quickly. It’s an interesting contrast to A Study in Scarlet, which JJ just reviewed: Part I is so interesting because of the introduction of Holmes and Watson and the creepy features surrounding the murder. But all the past secrets are held back till the end, preventing the reader from engaging much in the process and forcing a “Part II” that’s explanatory, but that is missing the best parts of the book. I know Doyle is doing something slightly different from Christie, but hopefully you get my point.

          By the way, I love The Sittaford Mystery. I take your point about the characters, but I love how Christie undercuts the Dickensian horrors of Dartmoor with the most prosaic motive, one that is well-clued but still comes as a shock. (A killer would go to all this trouble for THIS?!?) It all works for me, even though I solved this at a young age by understanding the significance of that thing in the closet! Did you see the egregious episode of Agatha Christie’s Marple, which changed the solution???

          Finally, that was exactly the point I was trying to make about the handbag clue (and so many others in the Marple stories): we are not set up to deduce that not carrying a handbag was an anomaly for Anne; rather, it’s part of Miss Marple’s understanding of human nature (ALL women carry handbags when going out). Does this sort of thing date the Marple novels? I mean, a LOT of women still never leave home without a bag. Still, I like the clue a lot. I like the big clue in the NEXT Marple even more because Christie and her sleuth shove it right under our noses over and over.

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          • Sittaford Mystery, despite of it having too many characters (even worse than in Vicarage), is great for exactly the reason you mentioned. And I guessed the solution early on as well (in this case at the earliest possible moment, because I wondered, why does the character this instead of that, and then it clicked). But I never minded this much unless in some other books. I still like the central trick and deceit a lot, and inspite of me guessing it, I don’t consider it obvious.

            And I do think Sittaford Mystery has some entertaining characters as well aside from Emily and Charles. It’s just that they are all up in Sittaford when the murder happens, and we are meant to suspect some much more uninteresting characters. Though to be fair, in Sad Cypress for example the murderer is arguably more uninteresting than both victims and most red herring characters, and it still works.

            Yeah, the handbag clue could have been brilliant, if it were mentioned in passing earlier in the book, that elegant Anne never leaves without a handbag and then have Miss Marple explain, that it doesn’t make any sense to do it now. But even this way I still think it’s a pretty good one.

            I must admit that in spite of really liking Dolly Bantry, I rate Body in the Library a bit lower than many fans do, but the early clue is a pretty good one.

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            • Agreed re:the handbag clue! There were multiple points in The Murder at the Vicarage where I felt a little bit out of time – like Christie was relying on character tropes that would have been well known to contemporaries but not so much to me, a post-2000s American – and the handbag is definitely one of them.

              Also, I’m interested in your take on The Body in the Library as I feel similarly! Dolly is great, but found the overall story less compelling…

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              • I can’t really put my finger on it. I don’t dislike it in any way, and even think there are several really good things. The Bantrys are great, the opening in general is maybe the best in a Miss Marple novel, the return of some villagers in cameo roles in fine, and I enjoy Basil Blake and Dinah Lee as characters and wish they appeared more. Also there’s some really light and really dark stuff in it, that Christie somehow managed to balance well.

                But for me it all goes a bit downhill once they arrived in the hotel. I never quite enjoyed this part and the Jefferson family or really any of the characters living in the hotel. And one of the murderers is completely interchangeable (which is why they managed to switch this character in one adaptation without really changing anything else).

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                • Ah – I agree with this! I think the hotel is also once we start to see parallel investigations from the police and Miss Marple, which often share redundant information. This is sometimes interesting when it shows something of a suspect’s nature (via differences in testimony) but pretty often just repetitive.

                  Agreed with your take on the Jeffersons – they’re not super well realized tho I will always love the line from the grandkid that says something like “making fun of the police is very old-fashioned”…

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              • hg, Brad: you two have got me thinking about the handbag clue (which until now I thought was a great one); isn’t Anne supposed to be sneaking out to say goodbye to her lover? She’s not exactly going to Much Benham for shopping, is she. Human nature being what it is, wouldn’t it make sense that she isn’t carrying a handbag?

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                • I’m certainly no arbiter of the habit of women’s accessories, in 1930 or any other time. I believe that it was natural for women to go around with a handbag/purse, for either practical and fashion reasons – or both. Anne is the Lady of Old House and is established as something of a fashion plate. She takes great pains to wear a tight, provocative dress and NOT carry a handbag in front of Miss Marple, who would surely notice. And at first it works – the sleuth tells everyone that Anne could NOT have carried a gun. But then she thinks about it and puts together the Clue of the Dry Planter and decides Anne’s fashion choices were for Miss Marple’s benefit.

                  I’m not suggesting it doesn’t gel like aspic, but it is a wobblier chain of clues than we’re used to finding in, say, a Poirot mystery.

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                  • Oh, absolutely. The unusual, apparently trivial clues that only Miss Marple picks up are one of the hallmarks of her detection style. Not comparing that with Poirot’s and really glad you’re ranking the Marple novels separately.

                    Re: the bodyhugging dress that Anne was wearing, the Geraldine McEwan adaptation sorted that out by dressing Anne in such clothes all through the film. In fact, they made Anne and Lawrence very sympathetic characters, which I didn’t quite think from reading the novel alone.

                    Ah well, one of the challenges of analysing the novels 80 years after they were written are clues like this —hats and bags and social mores of the time!

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  4. This is a great take and I love the additional Christie context for it. I found when reading this book that I was quite irritated at the lack of other realistic suspects – or even realistic red herrings to mislead the police. This was magnified in the adaptations which mostly cut out the screen time for any of the other mysteries / suspects at all. BUT I did love the other gossipy ladies (and almost wish we had more of them)!

    Also, don’t get me started on the picric acid – I had to look it up to see whether it was a reasonable plot point and I’m still not convinced contemporary readers would have known about it… it’s so silly that both adaptations tried to swap that part of the solution out, to varying degrees of success.

    Another area I found lacking in this one is the police portrayal. While Slack is pretty funny, I find the “unhelpful police” trope generally pretty irritating and prefer my police either useful or out of the way. This is entirely personal preference – less about whether this structurally makes for a good story – but I find outwitting incompetence rather less impressive…

    I also am not sure about vinegary Miss Marple. She doesn’t really hold up to the version in the short stories, who was often described as “understanding”; and it’s not clear how she gets anyone to take her into confidence on repeated “turns of the game”. Surely at a certain level of unpleasant gossip people would just stop confiding in this person? It’s a fun idea – but I find that later Marples, still wry but more believable as confidant, are more reasonable detectives.

    Finally, I’m not sure I’m as sympathetic to Len Clement and his total insecurity in Griselda – I always felt like this is a trick that Christie played that kind of relies on ignoring the possibility of any reasonable conversations happening around bedtime for instance. I’m not sure that “clear communication” was fully the name of the game re:marriages in the 30s, but as a modern reader I find myself thinking things like, “Just ask her!!! Have you considered talking???”

    BUT I do love the portrayal of village life, particularly the gossip train in St. Mary Mead! And the establishment of Miss Marple’s “people expertise” (in some ways undercut by the physical evidence in this one). There’s an essay where Christie explicated the differences between men and women as sleuths, with women running on instinct, and in my head Miss Marple is the version of Ariadne Oliver that notices the important things.

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