“My dear young man, you underestimate the detective instinct of village life. In St. Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs. There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”
Fairly recently I was reminded that I’d never read a Miss Marple mystery, despite having read and enjoyed many of Christie’s mysteries featuring Hercule Poirot. It’s one of those bookish oversights that I can’t logically explain. My aunt was the first person to introduce me to Agatha Christie, when I was in high school. She gave me a hardcover collection of five famous Poirot cases, and I was hooked. This same aunt, however, prefers Miss Marple as a detective to Poirot, so why didn’t she give me Marple? And why has it taken me 20+ years to get around to reading one with the clever spinster? Perhaps we’ll never know.
In any case, I’m glad I finally tried one. This is the first featuring Marple, set in the fictional British village of St. Mary Mead. I was surprised to find that Marple is almost a side character in the book, albeit a vital one. The story is narrated by the Vicar himself, and the murder is one of those types where many in the village have a motive, and the victim is spectacularly unpopular. Colonel Protheroe is found shot to death sitting at the Vicar’s desk, and within hours we have two separate confessions from two probably suspects.
It felt very classically British and cozy, with all the gossipy spinsters contributing tidbits to the police investigation, as well as the Vicar himself dipping his toe into detective work. I very much enjoyed the tone and humor of the book, finding it recalled my beloved Barbara Pym at times. The Vicar’s wife, the much younger Griselda, is especially funny. He asks her at the beginning of the book what she’s got scheduled that day, and she replies,
“My duty,” said Griselda. “My duty as the Vicaress. Tea and scandal at four-thirty.”
“Who is coming?”
Griselda ticked them off her fingers with a glow of virtue on her face.
“Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Weatherby, Miss Hartnell, and that terrible Miss Marple.”
“I rather like Miss Marple,” I said. “She has, at least, a sense of humor.”
“She’s the worst cat in the village,” said Griselda.
My only complaint is that this was a very slow read for me. It took me a week, and my paperback edition is only 230 pages long! I voiced my issue with a regular library patron who enjoys Christie and she said that the Marple mysteries do unfold at a slower pace than the Poirots. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly possible. Or perhaps it’s just this particular title. Any of you Christie fans care to weigh in on that one?
Despite the glacial pace, I did enjoy it. There’s some clever misdirection by the master mystery writer, and I (once again) did not guess the murderer. The Vicar and Vicaress were charming, and I found that Miss Marple grew on me as the story progressed. She is indeed a “shrewd” character, as the Vicar describes her. As all great amateur detectives are, she’s a keen observer of human nature, yet I found her to be humble as well – something I don’t think I can say of Hercule Poirot. I am most definitely going to try another one in the series and see how I like it. There are still many other Christie mysteries I’ve not yet read. I find myself reaching for these when I’m stressed or in a weird reading mood. They’re dependably entertaining and serve as palate-cleansers. No matter who the detective is, there will always be a place for Agatha Christie in my reading life.