“For several years I treasured up the possibility of a suitable ‘Variation on a well-known Theme’. I laid down for myself certain conditions. The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body, on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body.”
Agatha Christie, in her Foreword to the 1953 Penguin edition of The Body in the Library
Between 1930 and 1941, Agatha Christie wrote fifteen novels and four novellas featuring Hercule Poirot . . . and exactly one short story about Miss Marple, “Death by Drowning,” which appeared in the November 1931 issue of Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine. The following year, this story would be the final one in a published collection of the tales of the Tuesday Night Club called The Thirteen Problems. Then the elderly sleuth disappeared for a decade . . . an event far more intriguing to me than those missing eleven days in 1926! It’s true that The Murder at the Vicarage had received mixed reviews, and it’s possible that Christie simply knew where her bread was buttered – the butter being shaped like a big moustache – and so she gave the public what it wanted.
The 1930’s was Christie’s most prolific period, comprising nineteen novels – including the first two under the name Mary Westmacott – and five collections of stories. True, most of the latter had first appeared in magazines during the 20’s, but Christie still managed to create a wholly new detective, Mr. Parker Pyne, and craft a dozen stories featuring that interesting fellow. The 30’s have also been called the “Golden Age” of Christie’s puzzle-making. She produced only one thriller – Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934) – and instead focused on sending Poirot around the world, via trains, boats and planes, and having him confront fiendishly clever murder plots everywhere he went.
With the publication of And Then There Were None in 1939, Christie, like the best writers in the genre, made a shift out of the puzzle-centered 1930’s into the more psychologically-driven era that began in earnest in the 1940’s. We had seen at least some of her characters begin to take on deeper resonance in her the trio of books that took Poirot to the Middle East: Murder in Mesopotamia (particularly the victim), Death on the Nile, and Appointment with Death. Christie still produced many fine puzzles, but other factors account for the success and popularity of the 40’s titles: deeper themes, richer characters who reflected on the world around them, and – in keeping with And Then There Were None – a sense of experimentation.
During this period, Miss Marple had remained on Christie’s mind. John Curran reveals in The Secret Notebooks that the elderly sleuth had been the early front runner detective in Death on the Nile. Christie also wrote several fine stories that appeared in American magazines in 1941 – 42 and were collected in the States in the 1950 collection, Three Blind Mice and Other Stories. (These tales didn’t appear in the U.K. until 1979 as part of Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories.) When Christie finally decided to give us another Marple novel, what she created was not just another Murder at the Vicarage. That book now felt old-fashioned to her, and she would come to disdain what she saw as an overstuffed plot. “It has, I think, far too many characters, and too many subplots,” she would write in her Autobiography.
The title The Body in the Library had previously appeared in Cards on the Table as one of the many mysteries written by Mrs. Ariadne Oliver. I embrace the idea of Mrs. Oliver being a sort of stand-in for the quirks and beliefs of her creator, but one thing that differentiated them was that the fictional writer was a wholeheartedly traditional one: in 1936, she is famous for such Rhode-ian titles as The Clue of the Candle Wax and The Death in the Drain Pipe, and the last novel we find (in Hallowe’en Party) is The Dying Goldfish. Somehow, I don’t see Mrs. Oliver writing Endless Night.
As we learn from John Curran, Christie’s notes for Vicarage comprised seventy tight pages in one notebook, basically outlining, chapter by chapter, the plot as it would appear exactly in the finished product. The notes for The Body in the Library are more diffuse, spread over six notebooks and brimming with different names and ideas that would be discarded or overhauled. The salient point, as explained in that 1953 Foreword, is that Christie wanted to juxtapose the traditional with the modern. And so she would begin by returning us to St. Mary Mead and then pull Miss Marple out of the comfort of her surroundings and take her – someplace else. As Christie describes, that place became a seaside hotel:
“. . . staying one summer for a few days at a fashionable hotel by the seaside I observed a family at one of the tables in the dining room; an elderly man, a cripple, in a wheeled chair, and with him was a family party of a younger generation . . . It is quite impossible to write about anyone I know . . . but I can take a lay figure and endow it with qualities and imaginings of my own.” (Foreword to Penguin edition)
This shift was, by and large, well-received by critics and the public, as was Miss Marple, who now could be seen, with her “old-maid logic,” as a viable alternative to the more traditional detective figure of Poirot. And maybe it was because Christie was as tired of the Belgian as she liked to have us believe, or maybe she simply liked the old woman . . . Miss Marple was here to stay.
* * * * *
Is there a better hook in all of Christie? Not only does she get right down to business, she is warm and funny about it:
“Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of dreams, this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life . . . “
After several readings through the years, this is the first time I realized that the vicar’s wife must be the beautiful Griselda Clement, and it makes sense for Mrs. Bantry to dream of her in a bathing suit. Christie excels at writing what she knows and, at 52, she understands the process of a middle-aged woman stirring in her morning bed. (She’ll do it again to great effect a few years later in The Hollow.) The half-wakened state, the familiar sounds of the servants preparing the home for the day’s living . . . don’t we all know how great that feels?
And then, of course, disaster! The discovery of a body in the library, and not the comforting sort, like the squire in his dressing gown and Turkish slippers, or the visiting potentate or the sinister cousin from Australia. Maybe a beautiful blonde, but then it must be the squire’s faithless wife. But here, in the noble English confines of Gossington Hall, Christie places the most “wildly improbable and highly sensational body” she can think of:
“The flamboyant figure of a girl. A girl, with unnaturally fair hair, dressed up off her face in elaborate curls and rings. Her thin body was dressed in a backless evening, dress of white spangled satin. The face was heavily made up, the powder standing out grotesquely on its blue swollen surface, the mascara of the lashes lying thickly on the distorted cheeks, the scarlet of the lips looking like a gash. The fingernails were enameled in a deep blood red, and so are the toenails in their cheap silver sandal shoes. It was a cheap tawdry flamboyant figure – most incongruous in the solid, old-fashioned comfort of Colonel Bantry’s library.”
Before Chapter One is over, three old friends from Murder at the Vicarage have been sent for and arrived: the tactless Inspector Slack, Colonel Melchett, whom we learn is part of Bantry’s “good old boys” network – and one other. Mrs. Bantry calls her good friend Jane Marple:
“’You want me to come up?’
“’Yes, I’m sending the car down for you.’
“Miss Marple said doubtfully: ‘Of course, dear, if you think I can be of any comfort to you – ‘
“’Oh, I don’t want comfort. But you’re so good at bodies.’”
After an absence of ten years, Christie eases us back into St. Mary Mead as if no time had passed at all.
The Closed Circle: Who, What, When, Where, Why?
A pervading theme manifests itself throughout this category regarding how successfully Christie achieved the tension she sought by dropping “a wildly improbable and highly sensational body” into a traditional country house library. From 1939 to 1950, we see an author at the height of her success refusing to bask in her laurels. She was always experimenting, always stretching herself as a writer of character and social observation. The brilliant success of And Then There Were None, Evil Under the Sun, Five Little Pigs, Towards Zero, The Hollow and Crooked House set the bar high: each of these was completely different from the others, and they allowed even deeper, albeit shakier, experimentation with titles like Death Comes as the End and Sparkling Cyanide.
Throughout that period, Christie certainly had Miss Marple in mind, penning four titles (one of which wouldn’t be published for decades but which we will consider within this timeframe). Each of them has their own interesting features; Library proposes a good old-fashioned opening that will propel the reader into the modern world. For this reader, that success is mixed.
Let’s start with the positives. The first four chapters amount to a sequel to The Murder in the Vicarage, allowing us to revisit the delightful denizens of St. Mary Mead. We get nice cameos of Dr. Haddock, Reverend Leonard Clement and the Three Fairies of Dirt, Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, and Mrs. Price-Ridley, who appear in a short chapter on the deleterious effects of gossip on village life. Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack return to take charge of the case. The addition of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly is more than the cherry on top: they had improved the Tuesday Night Club circle no end, and I can think of no more delightful couple in all of Christie to occupy a village Great Hall.
Sadly, none of these characters is a suspect, and those who populate the closed circle are a distinctly inferior lot. With few exceptions, they are defined by their ordinariness. Only Basil Blake (the sole village suspect) and Dinah Lee belie this. Their flamboyant natures and anti-village sentiment gives them the energy and wit on the page that makes us crave more of their presence than we get.
Perhaps the most dynamic character in the closed circle is Conway Jefferson. Christie was fond of utilizing the figure in a wheelchair whose disability is belied by their vitality. Most of them tend to be victims: Mrs. Upward in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Philip Durrant in Ordeal by Innocence, even Mr. Venables in The Pale Horse is meant to take the rap for the murder spree. Jefferson is also a victim – conned by Ruby Keene and set up to die by the actual killers. For me, Conway Jefferson is hard to admire because he really is a dupe. Yes, he has suffered a terrible tragedy, but he turns to Ruby because he feels his in-laws moving on with their lives. He’s like Alfred Hitchcock, mad at Grace Kelly for getting married and Vera Miles for having a baby, who, like Dr. Frankenstein, made his own “Hitchcock Blonde” in their image.
The rest of the suspect list is pretty ordinary. The in-laws, Adelaide Jefferson and Mark Gaskell are come off as polar opposites of each other – Addie so good, hiding her late husband’s weakness from his father, pretending to be financially independent – and Mark so bad that every time he appears on the page somebody remarks what a cad he is! And yet these two are pretty much interchangeable as suspects, so much so that Agatha Christie’s Marple actually switched them, to unpleasant effect. Evidently, Christie’s trick of heaping suspicion on the actual murderer was too easy for the screenwriters; it seems that inserting a lesbian killer couple was what they thought would bring the young viewers in droves.
Josephine Turner is an attractive figure at least, but not a particularly fascinating one. And the other men – George Bartlett and Raymond Starr – are underutilized and frankly uninteresting. The only way their culpability would make sense was if they were crazy sex murderers, and Christie doesn’t have the heart to write that kind of story. The best she can do here is hint at the possibility. No, the best male character by far is Peter Carmody, one of Christie’s delightful children, a rabid mystery fan who actually provides an important clue to the solution.
As for the victims, we only meet them through the eyes of others. Ruby Keene doesn’t have much to recommend her as she is described mostly in vapid terms. On the positive side, we are told that she was “nice” and “a good dancer” (but not as good as Josie.) She is also described as brainless, full of chatter, sort of weasel-like but good with make-up. It is her good fortune that she sort of resembles Conway Jefferson’s dead daughter; in another nod to Hitchcock, the invalid wants to go all Vertigo on her, transforming this “Judy” into a “Madeleine.”
And yet Ruby has already transformed herself as much as she possibly can. She has changed her name and donned cheap clothes and make-up to make herself as attractive as possible to vapid boys like George Bartlett. During a search of her room, Melchett and Slack find a letter to Ruby from a friend that suggests she had a pretty wild personal life in her London theatrical company. These never-seen characters might have made a pretty fascinating closed circle of suspects – except one unseen visit from Slack eliminates them all from our consideration. It is likely that Ruby was on the make, taking advantage of Jefferson’s kindness to profit as much as possible. It doesn’t matter: all her dreams went literally up in smoke.
It is the other victim, teenager Pamela Reeves, who is the source of the real pathos here. She is that rare thing in Christie, the totally innocent victim, doer of no evil deed and possessor of no knowledge. Christie paints an affecting portrait of a starstruck teenager who falls prey to some very wicked people. The scene where Sharpe interviews Pamela‘s parents is heartbreaking, while Miss Marple’s conversation with Pamela’s friends in the Girl Guides in one of the novel’s best.
After a wonderful opening in the village, we spend the rest of the novel at the Majestic Hotel in Danemouth where we learn about Ruby Keene’s relationship with the Jefferson family. Her friendship with Conway Jefferson had landed Ruby in the cat seat: with the prospect of adoption and fifty thousand pounds on the table, Ruby posed a threat to Jefferson’s closest relations, Addie and Mark. Yet this pair both have alibis for the time period of Ruby’s death; in fact, everyone involved has an alibi.
This might remind us of Christie’s offering of the previous year, Evil Under the Sun, where all the suspects had alibis for the murder of Arlena Marshall. Fans of the author might then be tuned into the prospect that some sort of tampering has been done with the time frame surrounding the murder. This brings up a shortcoming of the police in Library, who try to connect the two killings, possibly as some sort of sex murder. Why dump one body in a strangers’ library and burn the other to a crisp? Here, fans need look no further than two years previously, to 1940’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, where a body is found with its face smashed in. Why burn up Pamela Reeves’ body? Why do none of the four policemen wonder if it was done to confuse identities?
The problem with this plot is that, ultimately, we only care about Ruby Keene and, by extension, the people at the hotel because her body was found in the Bantry’s library and causes a potentially devastating problem for Arthur Bantry. I know it’s pointless to fret over what might have been or to try and rewrite a finished work. Still, I can’t help wondering what sort of book this might have been if it had never left the village. With Basil Blake a perfectly fine entry point of “depraved” outsiders who could pour into the story via his cottage parties, we could have had a great story of old vs. new, of how suspicion can poison the minds of our beloved villagers, and of how Miss Marple must use her skills not just to solve a murder but to save her friends and all of St. Mary Mead from social ruin.
I think this might have been a better plot . . .
When and where?
The “where” is obvious. The hotel is never brought to life (not like a couple of future hotels will be where Miss Marple vacations); it is just a place where people stay and get interviewed over murder cases. We get a glimpse of Danemouth when we learn about Pamela’s whereabouts before she disappears, but it’s brief.
The “when” is more interesting. This is 1942, ostensibly twelve years after The Murder at the Vicarage took place. However, at the end of that book, Griselda Clement informs Leonard that she is with child, and in Chapter 15 of Library, Miss Marple visits the vicar’s wife, who is watching her baby boy David crawl backwards. Thus, only a year, maybe two could have passed. The question then is, have we leapt magically forward a decade as Christie was wont to do, or are we still in the early 1930’s? If it’s the latter, then the plot becomes even more disappointing, since we associate Christie in the 30’s with more clever puzzles. Seeing how this is 1942, and Christie is about to produce perhaps the greatest combination of puzzle and character work she ever wrote (Five Little Pigs), we’re still in for some disappointment. Leaving St. Mary Mead and its denizens out for a moment, the who and the where here are relatively mediocre.
The Solution and How She Gets There (10 points)
“I particularly like – from the point of view of incredibility – The Body in the Library. Now here we are expected to believe that this blonde dancer who they wanted to get out of the way – (and they could quite easily have murdered the old man, put a pillow over his face) – instead, we have this extraordinary plot in which they kidnap a Girl Guide who doesn’t look anything like her . . . For one thing, the time sequence is impossible. Any woman would know that to dye a brunette blonde you’ve got to bleach the hair first, and it would take hours and be quite a skilled job. The pathologist would know just by looking at the other hair on her body that this is not a natural blonde! But of course, there isn’t a pathologist . . . But that doesn’t matter, because we are in Christie Land. We’re not dealing with reality. We’re dealing with a different form of reality.” P.D. James
Far be it from me to give credence to James and her life-long carping about Christie’s skill and popularity. Yes, the plot is over-complicated; so, one could argue, is the idea of a long-dormant Nazi poisoning a student-nurse through her naso-gastric feeding during class. That’s the nature of the beast, folks! Josie and Mark’s plot is complicated because 1) Ruby is now an heir to Conway Jefferson, and 2) the killers want to provide themselves with alibis. And like so other murder plots in GAD fiction, my favorite part is the part that the killers couldn’t foresee, where Basil and Dinah come upon the body and move it to the Bantrys’ library. That was a lovely plot point!
Still, we have a solution that is partly patched together with ideas from two recent books: One, Two, Buckle My Shoe and Evil Under the Sun both contain tricks of confusing the identity of a body, and in both the blame falls on a murderous pair of lovers. Ultimately, the solution falls into Miss Marple’s lap based on a single clue, that of the fingernails. It is a very good clue that is given to the reader several times. The nail clippings that Peter finds and that are in Ruby’s wastebasket contradict the fact that the body in the library was of a girl who bit her nails. Thus, it can’t be Ruby. Thus, Josie lied, and therefore Josie is the murderer.
It’s a strong trail, that; the path to Mark Gaskell’s guilt, though, is much much weaker, consisting of two clues: first, Dinah Lee is shocked that Miss Marple knew she was married to Basil Blake and asks the old lady if she had discovered their wedding license at Somerset House. From here, Miss Marple leaps to the idea that Josie and Mark were secretly married. Then Mark makes a verbal slip in describing Ruby’s bite, which is different from Pamela Reeves, further proof that the bodies have been switched. But Mark never saw the body in the library. In fact, if Conway Jefferson or Addie or even George Bartlett had also viewed the body – and it would have been so natural for Jefferson at least to want to say goodbye – they would have spotted the switch immediately.
And, of course, none of this clueing is good enough to convict, so once again Miss Marple has to resort to a trap for the killer. This time, she puts Conway Jefferson’s life in danger – but it’s all for a good cause. In the end, I think the fingernail clue is stronger than anything in Vicarage, but it’s a lonely clue, and it’s quite a leap to imagine that from it and a couple of comments Miss Marple could put the whole chain of events together. It feels more natural for this to happen in Vicarage where Miss Marple was on the scene and knew all these people quite well. In Library, she is very much an outsider, and yet it all comes a bit too easy, considering the dearth of evidence.
The Marple Factor
“’Come now, Miss Marple,’ said Colonel Melchett good-humoredly, ‘haven’t you got an explanation?’
“’Oh yes, I’ve got an explanation,’ said Miss Marple. ‘Quite a feasible one. But of course it’s only my own idea. Tommy Bond,’ she continued, ‘and Miss Martin, our new schoolmistress. She went to wind up the clock and the frog jumped out.’
“Josephine Turner looked puzzled. As they all went out of the room she murmured to Mrs. Bantry, ‘Is the old lady a bit funny in the head?’
“’Not at all,’ said Mrs Bantry indignantly.”
In my ranking of this category for Murder at the Vicarage, I gave that one a “10.” In a way, I regret my generosity. Despite that being the first Miss Marple novel, along with the generous serving of her presence that we get, this is a different character from the one we meet in The Thirteen Problems and the one that settles in from The Body in the Library to the end. In A Talent to Deceive, his book about Christie, Robert Barnard writes this about the Miss Marple of Vicarage:
“. . . The strong dose of vinegar in this first sketch of Miss Marple is more to modern taste than the touch of syrup in later presentations.”
In her second outing, the characterization of Miss Marple is perfect, from her reticence and sensitivity with the Bantrys at the start to her combination of fluffiness and steel with suspects and police alike. Christie inserts Sir Henry Clithering of Scotland Yard into the novel to pave the way for Miss Marple’s participation. In his first interview with Conway Jefferson, Clithering offers that, among all the policemen at the hotel, it’s Miss Marple who is ”the goods.” Naturally, Jefferson scoffs:
“’Women’s intuition, I suppose,’ (Jefferson) said sceptically.
“’No, she doesn’t call it that. Specialized knowledge is her claim.’
“’And what does that mean?’
“’Well, you know, Jefferson, we use it in police work. We get a burglary, and we usually know pretty well who did it – of the regular crowd, that is. We know the sort of burglar who acts in a particular sort of way. Miss Marple has an interesting, so occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life.”
Unlike Vicarage, the parallels here are quite juicy and well-rendered. The one about Mr. Harbottle goes farther to convince me of Jefferson’s attitude toward Ruby than anything else in the novel, and the comparison between Mrs. Harbottle and another wronged wife, Mrs. Badger, is both insightful and entertaining.
As has been made repeatedly clear, my enjoyment of Library rests primarily within the boundaries of St. Mary Mead, it’s people and the events that occur there. And primary among all these is Miss Marple herself, who with this second case has arrived in full form.
The Wow Factor
Christie had a premise, the juxtaposition of old and new, that I believe could have been better executed. The invasion of the Bantrys’ library truly wows us; the modern case that evolves from here, a bit sordid, a bit simplistic, is a far cry from the author’s better problems.
What helps give The Body in the Library its charm, aside from that brilliant opening, is Miss Marple herself. Her invasion of the Majestic Hotel is the perfect antidote for what happened at Gossington Hall. She helps right the situation, not just by solving the murders but by inspiring those remaining to sort out their differences and become closer. A chastened Conway Jefferson accepts Addie getting married and moving on, at the same time focusing his affections (and money) on the truly deserving Peter.
Ultimately, however, the brilliant world building of St. Mary Mead has the unfortunate side-effect of making us wish the hotel setting had been richer, the characters there more interesting, and the mystery itself more satisfying. I never feel after reading this that my time has been wasted; rather, I am greedy enough – and sure enough of Christie’s powers – to want more. Instead, the book ends up being much like that body found in the library: it’s not that the emperor has no clothes, it’s that the clothes are cheap and tawdry.
FINAL SCORE FOR THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY: 38/50
30 thoughts on “RANKING MARPLE #2: The Body in the Library”
You summarized TBitL perfectly. It isn’t a favorite of mine and you helped me understand why that is.
Christie has set such a high standard that the good books (and this is a good but not great one) suffer by comparison as we know of what she is capable.
This does set the pattern though for the Marple books where our wonderful spinster with her knowledge of human nature runs circles around the detectives / police. That is always enjoyable for me to read.
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I like the gradual reveal of Basil’s and Dinah’s respectability, and Basil’s heroic actions during WW2, but I find his actions with the body preposterous. It is both unbelievable and unsympathetic.
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It pretty much exemplifies the problem here, the quality gap between village drama and whodunnit. Christie leans too far into old-time hokum where the latter is concerned. The plot to kill Josie is overwrought and ridiculous, and
Basil’s actions are the same. I can’t help wishing she had jettisoned the hotel folk and brought in Basil’s family for some good drama.
I need to revisit this book, but was Basil sort of tipsy when he discovered the body? If so, I find his actions that follow believable, along with his dislike of Colonel Bantry too. He finds a body and doesn’t want his wife Dinah, if she arrived home, to think he killed this woman in his house. So what does he do? How does he get rid of the body off of his premises? Basil being tipsy, along with fear and self-preservation, and a dislike of Colonel Bantry–in light of all that, I find his actions believable. It may be preposterous and it may not make sense with any other character in this book, but it does with Basil. And if it wasn’t for Basil’s preposterous actions, there would be a body in the Bantry’s library, no Miss Marple, no mystery—nothing!
I think Body in the Library may be my favorite Marple novel. I understand your critiques of this one, Brad, and the leaps in logic (pointed out first by P.D. James – and what a nice dig you made at one of my favorite books of hers too), but I find it a tightly-constructed, devious little mystery and I love the way that Christie employs Miss Marple in this book. Some commentators have pointed to there being too many detectives in this book, but it feels authentic and I like that Miss Marple sits to the side of this investigative team quietly putting the pieces altogether. That sense of traditional mysteries butting up against modern ones also is strong for me, and I love the way that this story starts in a place of relative frivolity (there is still a murder, after all), and ends in one of the darkest places that she will go to in her canon. A book like Murder is Announced may still be the platonic ideal of the Miss Marple story with better-rendered characters and better clues, but this one still holds a special place in my heart.
A word or two also about the ITV adaptation: I understand being in the minority, but I really enjoy it. True, I may be distracted by its glitz and glamor (and one of the best ensembles of British TV character actors gathered together to bring Christie to life), but I don’t even hate the changes to the story. It’s bold and audacious for sure – I would have loved to see die-hard fans reactions when this originally aired – but it feels a lot more natural than some of that series’ subsequent drastic changes to the source material.
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It has been a long time since I watched that episode, but as I recall it’s actually pretty faithful to the novel – until that weird switcheroo at the end. I can’t comment more because I honestly don’t remember it. Another time, perhaps.
Honestly, this whole ranking thing is difficult! It’s very subjective, no matter how hard you try to look beyond your feelings and focus on the category. In the end, though, I think I played fair: the opening is top drawer Christie, and so is the depiction of Miss Marple. As I mentioned to Johann, I wish the plot has stayed in St. Mary Mead, but you can’t always get what you want . . .
I’ve finished the next book’s rankings, and I can already tell you that I’m all torn up. I like that book more than this one – and yet it ends up ranking lower because of a couple of big problems. Go figure!
“I’ve finished the next book’s rankings, and I can already tell you that I’m all torn up. I like that book more than this one”
And you are correct in that. In fact, I like it better than Vicarage as well. Screw that objectivity. 😀
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The Hickson version is quite good. The “Marple” version, like much of U.S. and U.K. “entertainment” seems to push the idea that the majority population in both countries is gay and either one non White group or miscagenating. Nary a White heterosexual appears in film or tv today. It is both offensive and unsurprising to see these unnecessary and unrealistic changes to the work of others. In the case of TBITL, this insertion did not make the mystery more interesting, but was awkward and out of place.
BTW have you heard what the publishers have done to the work of Roald Dahl?
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This is a complicated issue for me – for everyone, I think. As a gay Jewish man, I would love to see more delightful gay Jews (just like me) represented on the page, stage and screen. Does that mean I feel that Fagin should be changed to a loving father? Nope. Should Shylock get up in court and descry moneylending as a stereotype profession – and then go run a movie studio? Of course not. The change in TBitL for Marple was insulting. First, it made the killers a gay couple, which does my community no good. And then it took perhaps the only sympathetic figure from the hotel – a doting mother and daughter-in-law who cares enough about Conway that she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings by marrying again – into a monster. What happens to poor Peter?!? This is what comes of writers wanting to make Christie more “modern” and more “hard-hitting” when in reality she’s totally fine on both counts.
In most ways, that is . . . I don’t favor changing major classic works in theory. I wonder, though, how black kids felt when they read Willy Wonka and discovered what Dahl – an avowed racist – had made into Oompa Loompas, I like Christie’s Death in the Clouds very much: would it change things if they cut the line when Jane and Norman go on a date and discover to their delight that “they both love bowling and hate Negroes?” Would it change The Hollow if Midge’s reviled customer was not “a stout Jewess” with a large nose??? I don’t think so.
Putting an advisory in a classic book might do the trick: if you tell people of “stuck in its time” elements, you at least give a fair warning of what readers will find. (I fear there would need to be a LOT of advisory warnings in some classic books!) I know many people disagree with me about even this, and I feel we must all learn to co-exist with the difference. One last thing, though: as a kid, I had a real fondness for Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. It upset me no end when I came to learn what these books represented to people of color. As a teacher, it particularly upset me that for years the issues surrounding books like these weren’t even discussed. It took my talking to black students of mine to really understand how hurtful these works could be. I don’t think I would teach either one again, but if I did, I would be sure and provide other literature to address these issues and provide a more balanced point of view.
Look, either thousands of books and authors will withstand these criticisms yet again, or they will fade into obscurity. Some, like Dahl, may be edited first to see if that addresses the problems. But I know how angry this has made a lot of people who see it as another form of book-banning. I see it differently.
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I think the focus should be on original works and not remakes of old films and shows featuring non-White non-hetero characters in place of the formerly White characters. It’s history denial for one and cultural appropriation for another,
I don’t see why, instead of just race-switching, we don’t see original works that feature the “diversity” we hear so much about? Or is that only skin deep?
You know I hate it when the artistic works of others are rewritten. When they are rewritten to push a political agenda I find it insufferable.
Let’s see great Black, Brown, Red, Green, Yellow works of art, literature and movies. Let’s see the great original works by gay writers. There is a large pool of all of them.
Huck Finn and TKAMB honestly represented their times. Roald Dahl wrote of “big fat” and “ugly” people now purged from his work Shall all of history be erased to spare “feelings?”
I see a dull, grey empty world ahead if this keeps on.
I have to admit that I really like The Body in the Library, irrespective for all the flaws pointed out. Miss Marple is one of my all-time favourites, so there. I especially like how the village folk eventually start avoiding Colonel Bantry, suspecting that he may after all, have had something to do with it. Instances of invitations being withdrawn, known people deliberately crossing streets to avoid saying hello does make one’s eyes narrow somewhat. Christie always maintains – she says that ever so emphatically through Hester Argyle in Ordeal by Innocence, ”It’s not the guilty who matter, it’s the innocent!”
As for TV / film adaptations, I personally stay Very Far Away from them. After watching the soft porn and unintended horror-comedy Ordeal By Innocence turned out be, despite the presence of Christopher Plummer and Faye Dunaway, I decided, nope, no more Christie adaptations for me. This decision only gets intensified when I see the kind of sea changes made to the original plot and characters. One happy exception was the recent adaptation of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
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The dirty business of ratings aside, I also love The Body in the Library. I was actually surprised during this re-read by how little there is of Colonel Bantry suffering, but it is definitely the reason Miss Marple sallies forth to the hotel, and she states clearly that same point about the innocent suffering.
And, as I am one of the first to complain when an adaptation makes wholesale changes to Christie’s plot, it’s quite ironic that I find myself wishing she had completely rewritten this one to focus on St. Mary Mead, on Bantry’s (and Basil’s) sufferings and just given us more of the village stuff that is the very best part of this novel.
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I actually thought the murder in SHROUD FOR A NIGHTINGALE was really well done 😁 but I take your point! Been a while since I read this one but your analysis brought it flooding back and I think you are right about the over elaboration of the plot and how well Marple herself comes across. Bravo sir!
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Before you and Nick get everyone thinking that I’m down on P.D. James, Shroud for a Nightingale is my favorite of hers. I read them all, and I’m very fond of the early ones, especially this one, Death of an Expert Witness, and Devices and Desires.
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Oh, alright then. I would add Taste for Death to that excellent list.
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Is that the law firm one or the
Publishing house one or the five suspects one? They all start to blur!!!
It’s the one with the body in the church 😁 possibly her best.
I like Cover Her Face and all of the above.
Love this, and totally agree with the assessment on all counts. Particularly the elements about the closed circle and how compelling the mystery / solve is.
I’ve seen the quote about acerbic Miss Marple before and it’s an interesting one. On my latest read through I’ve hit A Pocket Full of Rye which is the first time she’s really very sweet. But – it’s also the first time she’s really out of her element and has no reputation to rely on. Not only that – it’s preceded by multiple books that reveal her inner monologue and thought process, all of which are at about the tone in St. Mary Mead (at times more perceptive). I hadn’t realized but that quote doesn’t really incorporate / account for the series subtext!
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I will look for that in July – because I don’t remember her being sweeter in A Pocketful of Rye. That’s the one where it gets really personal for her, and the sense of her as “Nemesis” really comes out, even before she gets christened with that name!! I’m glad you’re along for the ride!
Yeah it’s interesting – I felt like all the vengefulness is there but in subtext rather than the explicit explanations I’d been more used to seeing
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While avoiding spoilers, she’s sweet to the more sympathetic characters, especially the one closest to the actual murderer-but definitely Nemesis towards the killer.
I enjoy the book, especially that great opening scene with the discovery of the body, but I agree the village and the seaside hotel didn’t combine that well. The two settings and sets of characters don’t feel like cohesive parts of the same book.
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Yeah, this is the biggest problem for me, too. I want more Basil, more Bantry, more Bucolic Bastion of village life. (Not necessarily more alliteration, though!)
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I thought Anthony Smee was splendid as Blake in the Hickson version. “I haven’t even mislaid her” has to be one of the raciest likes of dialogue in the series.
Village prejudices and shunning are one of the most colorful features of the story… how quickly they turned on poor Col. Bantry. The bit about him taking his shotgun to Home Farm to cool off, was priceless.
I primarily like TBITL because you really get a sense of the village through they eyes of Dolly and Arthur Bantry. It’s a rather farfetched plot, but a decent mystery. I largely agree with your review, Brad. Jolly good.
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In regard to P.D. James’ criticism, Robert Barnard in his book about Agatha Christie took a swipe back at James, implying that what is done to the body in her book An Unsuitable Job for a Woman isn’t any more realistic than the shenanigans of The Body in the Library.
A GOOD MYSTERY with a GOOD PUZZLE, I believe, must have a lack of credibility to some degree that the reader should permit with some suspension of disbelief. If everything in a mystery was realistic and true to life, the mystery would be dry and boring or it would be over just as fast as it started. I hate these attacks from modern mystery writers, including readers, who complain left and right about credibility, and God-forbid if one element misaligns out of that strait-jacket, then the mystery is heavily criticized. I don’t get it. When I read a mystery I’m not looking for everything in that book to be 100% grounded in reality. I’m looking for a good puzzle and a solution where everything clicks in the world of that story. Concerning that quote from P.D. James with her criticism of The Body In The Library when she said: “. . . but that doesn’t matter, because we are in Christie Land. We’re not dealing with reality. We’re dealing with a different form of reality.” Um . . . it is a different form of reality because the characters and the events within the pages are not happening before my very eyes in the world that I’m living in. When you read a book, any book for that matter, IT IS a different world, even if it has elements of the real world in it.
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I’d also add that in light of some of the far-fetched components present in The Body In The Library, in the end, Christie is able to convey a horrific, yet realistic portrayal of human nature present in reality, one that can be dark and cruel, plumbing the depths of evil that one can’t imagine one human being doing to another. It’s Christie’s understanding of human nature in its many forms that is wonderfully and realistically conveyed, even in the midst of these far-fetched or improbable ways her murderers carry out their schemes. This is no easy feat.
Obviously, I will always stand on the side of Christie and not on the side of the folks like P.D. James who were angry that even though the mystery genre was evolving into a more realistic phase in the latter half of the 20th century, Christie’s more “contrived” works remained hugely popular and crowded these modern writers’ popularity. Tough luck, Ms. James.
Still, I feel I can criticize my favorite author, too – even when it means that I agree with something James said. (HERE BE SPOILERS):
As far as I can tell, the relationship between Josie and Mark was a secret from everyone at the hotel, and so they could have used that fact to create some sort of alibi and a much simpler plan for killing Ruby without killing that other innocent little girl. Their certainty that it would never cross the minds of the police that more than one person was involved and that each one could have handled one murder and alibied the other depends on our accepting the old trope that GAD police are stupid when there is a private sleuth present (and intelligent when the book’s sleuth IS a policeman.) Yes, killing the Girl Scout reveals how mercilessly cruel these killers are. But is this REALLY the best idea they could come up with? As a result of it, they made enough mistakes that gave them away (granted, another requirement of classic mysteries). And James DOES have a point that you can’t REALLY bleach a person’s hair in an afternoon and not have her reeking of chemicals.
None of this makes the book anything less than enjoyable. But if one does a deep read of it, certain things come up that suggest it doesn’t hold up as well as other Marple books. And that’s what I’m doing here all year: comparing the twelve Marple books.