I’m not sleeping well. My heart is heavy. I blame the President.
I know, I promised not to get political here. I’ll get to the books shortly. But the past year has been rough. I didn’t sign up to be a citizen under these conditions. If the current administration is making America greater, it’s also raising the anxiety level of its citizenry to unbearable proportions. So thank you for the tax cut, Mr. President: my accountant informs me that next year I will net an additional two hundred dollars in income. Thanks for offering to go to North Korea and fix things, but try not to spend too much time talking to Mr. Kim about how much you both have in common. Oh, and I appreciate the offer, but I do not want to carry a gun to school.
Okay, I feel a little better. And there’s more to celebrate.
It turns out that Hilary Clinton did not have to become President for things to change for women. Maybe Donald Trump is good for something after all. Because after watching the “grab them by the p***y” video a thousand times, the silent wall built around the actions of men like Trump and Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and Roy Moore and Al Franken and . . . well, you get the idea – that wall is toppling. In the sickening aftermath of hundreds of accusations of sexual harassment and worse, something potentially wonderful is gaining a foothold: an examination of the profound contempt some men have held for women is sparking a movement toward equally profound change. Will it work? Will it last? If it was inspired by our President’s behavior, will he take credit for it?
I’m just a humble scribe who likes reading old mysteries. I’m also a man, and I figure the best thing I can do here is stand beside the women I know in full support and let them have their say. We’ve watched a lot of idols toppling over the past six months, and it has been painful (my mom is especially upset about Charlie Rose). But even though (sadly, it’s “though,” not “if”) this list is just the tip of the iceberg, it must be done if we are going to begin washing the muck out of these stables. Keep ‘em toppling.
My main focus on this blog is classic mystery fiction in general, and more often than not, Agatha Christie in particular. There are reasons why Christie and her fellow Crime Queens receive more focus than the men, and I believe one of these is that these were women who created and empowered vibrant, strong female characters. The artistic presentation of women by men has always been problematical, serving more as an artificial construct for men’s feelings about women than as fully realized people. And so you have women as saints, women as objects of desire, women as temptresses. The femme fatales of literary and cinematic noir were a male cultural response to attempts by women to grab a fairer life for themselves, to be partners in men’s lives rather than helpmates.
For the most part, the Crime Queens, knowing the lay of their particular literary land, relied on male heroes, but powerful women did find their way into the pages of Sayers (hello, Miss Vane), Wentworth, Mitchell, and the rest. And nowhere do you find a more effective, if unlikely seeming, manifestation of feminine empowerment than in the twelve novels and twenty short stories that feature Miss Jane Marple. We can always learn from the past and, believe me, in times like these we need Miss Marple.
When we meet her in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage, we are served notice at once of her power, and if the words of introduction seem less than flattering, they are delivered by a man: “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.”
Miss Marple has been a spinster for, by my estimate, one hundred and twenty years, and she gets along just fine on her own. Toward the end of her (and Christie’s) career, she depends a bit more on the hired help for her personal needs, and like most people of advanced years she chafes at her encroaching infirmities, but she continually proves her mettle in surprising ways. While Poirot prefers to gather everyone in the study and bring the case to a close with a nice long talk, Miss Marple takes a physical approach, setting a trap for the killer with herself as bait. She uses any trickery, any gambit – maybe because more often than not she lacks actual evidence – and finds herself face to face with a murderer who splutters, “You damned, interfering old bitch!” before being carted away in shackles.
She can prattle on about being muddled or woolly-headed, but it’s a ruse – nobody is sharper than Miss Marple! She allows her nephew, the novelist Raymond West, to harbor the illusion that she needs him, although his lavishing of money and trips upon her earns him both her gratitude and her mild disapprobation at his know-it-all manner and questionable artistic abilities. She manifests social respect for a series of police detectives, some canny, some cloddish, and all of them dependent upon her to get to the actual truth.
The popularity of the British spinster in classic detective fiction does not presuppose an explanation about why so many women remain unmarried. Certainly, there is humor and convenience to be found making your sleuth a snoopy old lady. Miss Marple is not burdened by children or a doddering husband to care for, so she can focus on the work! She never manifests the need for a man or a sense that she misses having men around her. Not that she doesn’t appreciate a handsome man! In A Murder Is Announced, she suggests that a local waitress might be reticent to give evidence for fear of getting herself into trouble: “’Yes, she’s worried (Miss Marple says). Afraid she might have to give evidence or something like that. But I expect –‘ her candid blue eyes swept over the manly proportions and handsome face of Inspector Dermot Craddock with truly feminine Victorian appreciation – ‘that you will be able to persuade her to tell you all she knows.’”
I find it telling that the most recent television series, which hinted that Miss Marple had one or more lost loves in her past, was written solely by men, as if an explanation were needed for why she, or any woman, would remain single without keenly feel the loss of a special man in her life.
What sets Miss Marple apart in the catalogue of detectives is her intuitive psychological acumen, based on a mental catalogue of “village types,” that she uses to place people she meets in her cases on the criminal spectrum. True, she has an ordered mind that could vie with any male detective’s in determining evidence or grasping the meaning of physical clues. (In “The Tape Measure Murder” she quickly figures out the significance of a pin stuck to a policeman’s trousers and solves a murder.) But the village parallel stories are part of Miss Marple’s charm. They also can reveal some delicious attitudes. In A Murder Is Announced, she is asked to provide a parallel to Miss Blacklock’s late father, a cold, domineering country doctor, and she complies:
“Dr. Blacklock was perhaps, a little like Mr. Curtiss the Wesleyan minister. He wouldn’t let his child wear a plate on her teeth. Said it was the Lord’s will if her teeth stuck out. ‘After all’, I said to him, ‘you do trim your beard and cut your hair. It might be the Lord’s will that your hair should grow out.’ He said that was quite different. So like a man.”
All but two of the Miss Marple novels take place in and around a village. The two exceptions – A Caribbean Mystery and At Bertram’s Hotel – are significant for different reasons. Bertram’s is an exercise in nostalgia or, better yet, a warning against the perils of wallowing in nostalgia. Her visit to the City seems unreal to Miss Marple because it’s is unreal. This is the most interesting aspect of that book; the actual murder plot is sadly lacking in tight construction, although it is brimming with strong female characters.
Caribbean is interesting because it is the only time Miss Marple leaves the U.K., and the exotic flavor of the locale lends itself to a plot revolving around male/female love in all its forms. The women here do not hold sway over their husbands (or vice versa) and what is presented in Chapter One as a menage of happily married couples soon turns out to be the exact opposite. This is also the one case where Miss Marple meets her match – a male! – in the person of Jason Rafiel. Taking down this killer will only come about as a result of their partnership.
It’s in the village, however, where Christie truly illustrates the power exerted by women. The village in a Miss Marple mystery is populated by men who fulfill their duties as doctors, lawyers, vicars, husbands and lovers, fathers and sons. They love and hate and suffer – and some of them kill. But the village is the bastion of women. They move about the streets or sit on benches in their gardens, gathering and dispensing information and holding the true power in the town. The members of the village elite, like Dolly Bantry of the Old Hall, tend to their mansions and are kind enough to allow their husbands the illusion that the man rules the roost. The harridans – the bored housewives or the purveyors of good works, like Mona Symmington and Aimee Griffith, of Lymstock henpeck the men around them into submission. Griselda Clements, Mrs. Dane Calthrop and Bunch Harmon are the life force behind their ecclesiastical husbands. Anne Protheroe, Elsie Holland, and Dinah Lee are seen as the femmes fatales but possess hidden depths.
In Miss Marple’s world, the women – even the victims – hold sway over the men. Colonel Protheroe, the victim in The Murder at the Vicarage, is Trump-like in his petty grievances, accomplishes nothing good in his work life, and mistreats his wives and daughter. The other men are little better: Dr. Haydock is blinded by anger, the vicar is slow to grasp the facts, the rector is a nervous wreck, and the police inspector is ineffectual. The strength of St. Mary Mead resides in the women, particularly the gaggle of spinsters who, mindful of their traditional “place” in St. Mary Mead, use their position to guide and educate, as best they can, their spiritual and judicial “masters” to ruling wisely. As the younger women wrap the men around their little finger, the old ladies observe all the goings-on around them and pick and choose when information is to be disseminated for the common good. They do not stand on social niceties when it matters that the truth will out, and the result is that they are branded by the vicar as “terrible” women. But they don’t care.
Miss Marple novels are populated by quirky, striking women who seek any means to rise above their lot in life. In The Body in the Library (1942), the victim, Ruby Keene, ostensibly an ordinary girl from the lower classes who wants to better herself by dancing for a living, becomes the object of desire for the men she dances with at the Majestic Hotel, as well as the raison d’etre – and upstart heiress – for the powerful, rich Conway Jefferson. In The Moving Finger (1943) Joanna Burton is the vivacious beauty, but the real heroine of the story is Megan Hunter, who refuses to conform to society’s standard of womanhood (until her unfortunate Cinderella-like transformation at the end.) All the women here are particularly well realized and exert power over their men: the wretched Mona Symmington harangues her husband and children, Mrs. Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife is all “militant ferocity” and friendship, the terrifying and ultimately pathetic Aimee Griffith and the beautiful nanny Elsie Holland both have hidden depths, one of them inspiring an act of murder.
Most of the plots revolve around a striking female figure. In A Murder Is Announced (1950) it’s Leticia Blacklock, a self-made financial genius, a “woman behind the great man.” In They Do It With Mirrors (1952) it’s the ethereal Carrie Louise; in Nemesis, the long-dead Verity. We may know from the start that the murderer in 4:50 from Paddington (1957) is a man, but it’s Lucy Eylesbarrow, the Mary Poppins-like housekeeper and assistant to Miss Marple who wows both the reader and every person at Rutherford Hall. And in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1962), Christie creates an actor in the person of Marina Gregg who is unlike any of the theatrical types she introduced in the Poirot novels. Her ego is not overplayed (although it is in Elizabeth Taylor’s cinematic portrayal), and Marina a depth of feeling and a complex and fragile nature that those before her lacked.
Matters differ in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) where arguably the most significant female figure outwardly doesn’t fit on the list above of striking women. Yet, because of Gladys Martin, her former maid, the stakes for Miss Marple have never been higher. She barges into Yew Tree Lodge seeking justice for a member of her own sex who is also a woman of the working class and therefore even less capable of defending herself. Miss Marple is by no means egalitarian in her thinking, but she has compassion for the abandoned orphan girls with big dreams but no education and few options for work besides service. She acknowledges more than once that Gladys was a stupid girl, especially when it came to men. Still, she will not allow a man to take such cruel advantage of a defenseless young woman and get away with it. In the finale, Miss Marple unmasks the killer of Rex and Adele Fortescue, but in an emotionally powerful coda, we see that her first goal was to restore dignity to the poor girl who suffered such a cruelly undignified death.
I’ve been a good boy up till now and avoided all but the mildest of spoilers. However, my final point is about a pair of killers, so you might want to skip past this section.
S P O I L E R S A H E A D
Of the fourteen murderers in the Miss Marple canon, eight are men and six women. Miss Marple reserves her coldest fury for the men who prey on women. Most of these men kill their wives, and most of them have great surface charm that masks a chilling sociopathy. At the end of 4:50 from Paddington, she rails against the abolishment of capital punishment, insisting that this killer deserves nothing less than to be hanged. Her apprehension of the killer in A Caribbean Mystery earns her the sobriquet “Nemesis” – that’s how hard she works to nail a particularly vicious sociopath.
While Miss Marple never allows a killer to get away with their crimes, she often evinces sympathy for those murderesses she encounters who kill out of motives that she, another woman, can particularly understand. In two cases, the killers turn out to be spinsters like Miss Marple. Both these women have dedicated their lives to good works and been impeccable members of their respective communities. Yet both have killed, one of them multiple times for gain, and the other for love. In retrospect, they are both devastated by their actions because murder has deprived them of the one person they needed most in the world.
Miss Marple understands the lot of a spinster. At one point, she commiserates with a grieving woman, who, unbeknownst at the moment to the sleuth, killed the woman for whom she is crying.
“’I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It – it just came over me. What I’ve lost. She – she was the only link with the past, you see. The only one who – who remembered. Now that she’s gone I’m quite alone.’
“’I know what you mean,’ said Miss Marple. ‘One is alone when the last one who remembers is gone. I have nephews and nieces and kind friends – but there’s no one who knew me as a young girl – no one who belongs to the old days. I’ve been alone for quite a long time now.’”
Loneliness is at the heart of Miss Marple’s last recorded mystery Nemesis (1971), Christie’s most haunting disquisition on the destructive power of love – except that it’s wrapped in a long soggy mess of a plot. The beautiful Verity was killed for love, and it is up to Miss Marple to discover the nature of that feeling. As she listens to another spinster describe her feelings for Verity, Miss Marple responds over and over, “I’m sorry for you. I’m very, very sorry.” There is no judgment, only understanding. When a woman loves, she loves deeply and completely. But nothing excuses what follows when Verity turns away from this woman and embraces the young man she adores.
Murder ensues, and justice is inverted. Miss Marple comes upon the scene years later and does again what no policeman in her universe could do – at least without her. She rights all wrongs, and she does it face to face with a killer.
“’Did you imagine the agony, the agony of thinking, of knowing you are going to lose the thing you love best in the world? And I was losing it to a miserable, depraved delinquent – a man unworthy of my beautiful, splendid girl. I had to stop it. I had to – I had to.’
“’Yes,’ said Miss Marple. ‘Sooner than let the girl go, you killed her. Because you loved her, you killed her.’”
Miss Marple is fierce and splendid in her final confrontation with a killer.
“’You fool! You crazy old fool! Do you think you are ever going to get away to tell this story?”
“’I think so,’ said Miss Marple. ‘I’m not quite sure of it. You are a strong woman, a great deal stronger than I am . . . “
“. . . ‘Strong enough to deal with you.’
“’I don’t think,’ said Miss Marple, ‘that you will be allowed to do that.’
“’What do you mean, you miserable, shriveled-up old woman?’
“’Yes,’ said Miss Marple, ‘I’m old and I have very little strength in my arms or my legs. Very little strength anywhere. But I am in my own way an emissary of justice.’”
E N D S P O I L E R S
Her goal of equal justice for all women and men gives this little old lady pushing a hundred the strength of a thousand suns. Her goal, along with the moral strength that accompanies it, make her a fitting icon, a trailblazer for today’s women who seek the exact same thing for themselves. She is an inspiration.