“What are you doing this afternoon, Griselda?” “My duty,” said Griselda. “My duty as the Vicaress. Tea and scandal at four-thirty.” “Who is coming?” Griselda ticked them off on her fingers with a glow of virtue on her face. “Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, and that terrible Miss Marple.” “I rather like Miss Marple,” I said. “She has, at least, a sense of humour.” “She’s the worst cat in the village,” said Griselda. “And she always knows every single thing that happens – and draws the worst inferences from it.”
Of course Griselda Clement would say that: Miss Marple is three times as old as the Vicar’s beautiful wife, plus Griselda has secrets . . . the kind that a cat like Miss Marple is very likely to sniff out!
Miss Jane Marple debuted in a series of short stories written between 1927 and 1931, which were then collected and published together in 1932 as The Thirteen Problems. Agatha Christie must have enjoyed writing about the elderly doyenne of crime from the picturesque village of St. Mary Mead, for she quickly created a full-length adventure for her and published The Murder At the Vicarage in 1930. And since 1930 is the year that Rich has chosen to celebrate during September over at his blog, Past Offenses, it’s the perfect time for me to turn my attentions to this classic Christie novel.
In her Autobiography, Christie states about Miss Marple: “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.” Christie provided herself with the inspiration to create the character. She enjoyed bringing Caroline Sheppard, the inquisitive spinster sister of the narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, (1926) to life so much that she wanted to preserve the same sort of person – “an acidulated spinster, full of curiosity, knowing everything, hearing everything: the complete detective service in the home” – for future use. (It’s worth noting that Caroline Sheppard also deserves credit for inspiring the author to try her hand at adapting her own stories for the theatre after another playwright’s adaptation of Ackroyd awkwardly transformed Caroline into a young romantic figure.) The other person who may have inspired Christie in making up the character of Jane Marple was her own grandmother, but only for the quality the two women shared of universal pessimism about human nature:
“. . . though a cheerful person, (my grandmother) always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.”
As young a writer as she was, Christie displayed remarkable insight creating this elderly character. Having spent much of her childhood playing in solitude or interacting with adults, it is likely that the author always was an “old soul,” and she shows a great affinity for this fluffy, white-haired woman draped in lace fichu. And yet Christie chose to with Poirot for her bread and butter throughout the 1930’s and did not return to Miss Marple for another twenty-one books spanning twelve years. After 1942’s The Body in the Library, the output of Marple novels rose in frequency, and the elderly sleuth seems to have assumed the position of a “star,”as she puts it, in Christie’s mind. Remember that it had to have been around this time – or just after 1944’s The Moving Finger – that the author penned the final Marple adventure Sleeping Murder along with the last Poirot novel Curtain, both meant to be published posthumously. Thinking ahead, Christie was already inclined to increase her focus on Miss Marple, especially as her antipathy toward Poirot grew.
Some Christie fans take sides and prefer one sleuth over the other; other more level-headed people, like me, enjoy both equally. Whatever the case, readers have often noted that the Miss Marple stories are much looser in terms of strict detection as befitting the elderly lady’s intuitive style. Some readers of Golden Age mysteries like the books less because of this. It’s true that strict cluing tends to fly out the window, particularly in the later Miss Marple cases. The killers in 4:50 From Paddington and Nemesis are unmasked through sheer guessing, as far as I can tell, and it’s lucky that they both try to kill Miss Marple in the end or they would have both gotten away scot free! Even an early novel like The Moving Finger couldn’t be accused of being rife with clues. In fact, Miss Marple doesn’t appear till fifty pages before the ending and then sorts things out with nary a pause to sniff out evidence.
Therefore, in addition to being the debut novel, with Vicarage Christie is still trying to match the plotting complexity one finds in a Poirot novel. The book is bursting with suspects, maps of the village and the murder site, physical clues and multiple reversals and false leads until Miss Marple leads the pig-headed Inspector Slack to the truth. The result offers many pleasures to savor, even as it feels a bit overstuffed,.
The mystery revolves around two households: that of the vicar Leonard Clement, who also serves as narrator, and the inhabitants of Old Hall, home to wealthy Colonel Protheroe, his second wife Anne, and his jaded wraith of a daughter, Lettice. The scenes in the Vicarage sparkle with vivid domesticity in contrast to the unhappy life of the Protheroe family but make no mistake: the vicar and his ménage count equally as suspects when the Colonel is found shot to death in Clement’s study. Connections have been made between the two families: Protheroe is the Church warden and therefore keeps a close, critical eye on the finances. He also hates Mr. Dawes, the new rector, who might or might not be stealing from the collection plate. Lettice and Griselda are both posing in the Vicarage garden studio for Lawrence Redding, the dashingly handsome artist and war veteran who is also carrying on a torrid affair with Anne Protheroe. Dennis is glib and detached except when he is around the enticing Lettice.
There are also outside characters whose lives become entwined in the mystery: the village doctor, a handsome fellow named Haydock, who seems to be especially close, so gossip says, to a mysterious new resident of the village, Mrs. Lestrange, who has taken an unusual interest in the goings-on at the Old Hall. And then there’s the archeologist and his assistant who are excavating on Protheroe’s land and just might be shacking up with each other. And then there’s the gaggle (parliament? pride? herd?) of old ladies who do good works, have tea with the vicar’s wife, and make it their business to know and comment on the business of everyone else. In short, there are simply too many characters and too many subplots in this book – an opinion that Christie herself shared by the way!
On the one hand, this has its merits, for where Vicarage really shines is in its portrait of an English village in 1930. Great care is taken to show the gentle bustle of the village, and the comings and goings of all the characters are amusing in and of themselves even as they set up the circumstances of the murder case. Still, the mystery itself seems to drag a bit, perhaps because the solution is not quite the surprise that Christie supposes it to be.
It’s worthy to note that 1930 marked the start of the author’s second decade as a successful and popular author. If you were one of the many readers devoted to her writing you had so far read nine novels and numerous short stories. In the course of this you saw the least likely suspect found guilty, sure, but you also saw the culprit turn out to be the most likely suspect, the handsome romantic rival for the heroine’s hand, the beautiful girl, and twice – twice, mind you – someone who acted as narrator of the story! And this is just Christie warming up!
So the fan approaches this latest novel with a new sense of wariness. Its setting and detective are not what one typically has found in a Christie novel, but she’s still the master of misdirection, and our relationship with her has deepened. For instance, it’s true that narrator is a man of the cloth, the vicar of St. Mary Mead. Surely it’s too soon to try another “narrator as murderer” trick, but if anyone seemed ripe to have the local parson be the killer, it’s Christie. And here she’s very clever, making Len one of the most likeable and innocent-seeming of characters – in short, the perfect red herring to dangle above the reader’s head. And then there’s his wife, who resembles Tuppence Beresford, Lady Bundle Brent, and all the other attractive heroines Christie has created. We haven’t seen her type unmasked yet, have we? Is this the time when that will happen?
SPOILER AHEAD. Instead, Christie employs one of her favorite trademarks, the Deadly Duo( which I discussed at length in my last post.) The variation here is new: Christie pours on the guilt against these people until Miss Marple herself proves that neither of them could have done the crime. And she is convinced of this fact herself till nearly the end, giving such credence to the idea that we should buy it along with her. Maybe they did buy it in 1930! But modern readers who have paid attention to their Christie know that the person to watch is the person with the alibi or the one who has been downgraded from prime suspect to innocent dupe. With that in mind, the true solution to Vicarage virtually screams at us from every page. END SPOILERS.
So if Murder at the Vicarage doesn’t completely satisfy as a mystery, I can still recommend it wholeheartedly as a cheerful chronicle of its time and for the assemblage of wonderful characters who populate the story. Chief among these is Miss Marple herself, who plays a nice, meaty role in this investigation. It is a pleasure to see our heroine through the Vicar’s twinkling eyes. Despite his wife’s disdain for Miss Marple, which Len excuses as a folly of his wife’s youth, he acknowledges the old lady’s dynamic presence, even though it’s cloaked in woolly scarves:
“Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.”
I love Len’s voice throughout this novel. After dealing with the likes of Captain Hastings, it is a pleasure to watch a mystery unfold through intelligent and compassionate eyes, especially during the vicar’s service to Miss Marple as her unofficial Watson:
“I wonder, Miss Marple,” I said suddenly, “if you were to commit a murder whether you would ever be found out.” “What a terrible idea,” said Miss Marple, shocked. “I hope I could never do such a wicked thing.” “But human nature being what it is,” I murmured. Miss Marple acknowledged the hit with a pretty old-ladyish laugh. “How naughty of you, Mr. Clement.”
All in all, this is altogether an auspicious debut of what many folks, including myself, will say is the quintessential spinster sleuth.