Monday, 24 August 2009

Murder At The Vicarage (1930)

PLOT: When Colonel Protheroe is murdered in his study, the Vicar must solve a crime with the help of his neighbour, Jane Marple.

"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."

James: Miss Marple is born old. She's a character hard to imagine in her youth (although writer Julian Symons has a young her solving crime with Sherlock Holmes), and she steps straight into The Murder At The Vicarage:

"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."

According to the novel's earnest narrating vicar, St Mary Mead is a village that thrives on humdrum scandal, where a change in shaving foam is a considerable sensation - but by the end of the book, you've realised that the novel's vicious crones and gossiping servants have all been looking in the wrong direction - for St Mary Mead is a village that contains thieves, impostors, vigilantes, tragic heroines, sinister archaeologists and, of course, a murderer. In some ways you suspect that Miss Marple turns to solving crime merely to clear all of this drama out of the way so that she can go back to detecting pregnancies and infidelities.

For St Mary Mead is a village that finds itself in a detective story. This is mentioned several times, beginning in the very first scene "Makes one think of detective stories" announces lovely Griselda, the vicar's wife, revealing that she's addicted to them. Later on we discover that Miss Marple has been hurriedly educating herself with a steady stock of them from the village library (a tiny, lovely detail which makes its way gloriously into the Margaret Rutherford films, where Miss Marple storms the local library demanding the latest Agatha Christie).

This air of Cluedo hangs around the victim, the safely unloved Colonel Protheroe, who barely appears even in flashback. Whereas the matriach of A Mysterious Affair At Styles was one of the book's more vivid characters, the dead Colonel is more a grotesque vacuum. This is entirely approrpriate for Miss Marple - wheares Poirot is most interested in the mechanics of a crime, the spinster is much more of a psychologist, and the book turns on Miss Marple's acute perceptions of the lively characters that inhabit it, as opposed to Styles' rather sketchier figures. Which makes it all the more curious when you realise that, in many ways, these are very similar stories with very similar solutions.

But everything in the world of St Mary Mead is wonderfully vivid. Remember the BBC's marvellous Miss Marple title sequence? A rolling series of pencil sketches of village life, each Arcadian idyll gradually revealing skulduggery, evil, and the odd corpse on the cricket lawn? That's St Mary Mead captured perfectly. Christie's characters are all marvellous - even her thumbnail sketches such as "Miss Hartnell, who is weather-beaten and jolly and much dreaded by the poor". We get the suspiciously scattter-brained deb Lettice Protheroe, an enigmatic professor digging up a barrows, a slatternly secretary, a louche artist, a rude policeman - it's all in there. And, of course, the servants.

Servants and gossip go together in Agatha Christie like electricity and wiring. Whispers and "it's not my place to be listening at doors to be sure" have figured prominently in earlier books, but it is in this book that the details of the crime are carefully knitted together by Christie's supreme gossip spider. The vicar wryly observes "In St Mary Mead the best authority is always somebody else's servant". "Ah, that explains something the maid said," is a typical comment of Inspector Slack's about a murderous threat overheard. It's all very delicately done - the observation of chance details, the genteely unstated suggestion that an alibi is unpicked by a maid during her afternoon delight with the fishermonger's boy.

This is an assured comedy, where murder must muddle along as best as it can. The vicar and his marvellous wife are as worried about the crime as they are about their awful maid. Miss Marple must similarly manage her audacious deductions whilst being genuinely flustered by her awful nephew, serious novelist Mr Raymond West - "Murder is so crude," he remarks, "I take no interest in it", to which Miss Marple can't resist commenting "Raymond and I have been discussing nothing else all through dinner."

What is a serious novelist doing in this book? His poems may have no capital letters and Miss Marple, while genuinely concerned about his comfort and his pipe tobacco, finds time to say "He writes very clever books, I believe, though people are not nearly so unpleasant as he makes out. Clever young men know so little of life..." Can it be that Agatha Christie is having a wry pop at serious fiction?

The people of St Mary Mead are all flawed, to various degrees villainous, but all of them deeply, vividly human - as seen in the remarkable scene where the vicar suddenly preaches a sermon of fire and vengeance, stripping the village bare with his words. The book is full of moments like this - for all the tea and scandal there is a maniac who slashes portraits in attics...

Even Miss Marple is not quite the sainted avenger that repute would have us believe. She is referred to as "dangerous" and "unpopular" a surprising number of times. She's nice - genuinely much warmer than the other retired Furies of the village, but her sheer acuity is what makes her feared. Nothing, absolutely nothing escapes her notice, and the book sees her settling scores and playing cards she has held close to her chest for years. But even her omniscience is something of a front. It's easy to assume that if the vicar handed over the narration to Jane Marple, this would be a brief pamphlet - but this is a book where, for most of its duration, Miss Marple is wrong. It's a detail that's easy to miss, but an important one - for it makes this wonderful woman all the more human.

NEXT: Black magic mayhem in Murder is Easy

1 comment:

  1. Published in 1930, this is a significant step forward from ‘Seven Dials Mystery’ and ‘The Big Four’ in terms of writing a novel rather than a penny dreadful. As well as being introduced to Miss Marple in all her glory, at the centre of the village that forms the basis of her deductive career, we also meet Inspector Slack, the perpetually wrong policeman who becomes a running character in Marple stories. His insistence on bustle and cold, hard facts is the perfect foil for her much less direct, more psychological style of detection.

    In Miss Marple, Christie manages to create a character who is both an archetypal nosy, gossipy old lady interested in everyone else’s business, yet who is also frighteningly acute and utterly cynical. The English village that seems like the epitome of genteel rural cliché is revealed to be a nest of seething passions, where the servants know exactly what’s going on in their employers’ homes. We first see our geriatric heroine at a vicarage tea party, laden with what seems like pointless, slightly nasty gossip. Within a dozen pages, we’ve seen that she’s right where everyone else was wrong on what seems trivial but turns out to be central to the murder - “I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?”.

    Christie plays on the conventions of detective fiction, from one character’s remark that “If this were only a book, the old man would die” shortly before the murder of Colonel Protheroe, to the mandatory smashed clock that may or may not set the time of the murder, multiple confessions and the lovers who suspect each other of the crime. Even Miss Marple herself is exploited, as the murderer uses her habit of observing the world from her garden as part of their plan.

    Although she fails to come up with a concrete solution till the very end of the book, the body’s barely cold before Miss Marple appears through the French windows saying she’s convinced she knows who the killer is. The narrating Vicar and his wife Griselda (complete with incompetent maidservant and vicarage cat) are a brilliant touch of light relief and such a central part of life in St Mary Mead that they reappear in ‘A Murder is Announced’.

    In contrast to the classic Poirot drawing room dénouement with all the suspects gathered together, we get a fleecy-shawled Miss Marple who arrives unannounced and bluntly tells the vicar and the police who the murderer is. They don’t believe a word of it and are only convinced by her detailed explanation of the facts. This story starts a common pattern in Marple stories in which she convincingly solves the murder but has absolutely no proof, necessitating a third act trap that will catch the murderer red-handed (see also ‘The Body in the Library’ and ‘The Moving Finger’).

    In this first Marple novel apparently set in the 30s, she’s clearly a very elderly lady, yet manages to detect on into the late 60s and ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ with only eventual ageing. This is the start of a long career based on looking for the most obvious suspect and always believing the worse of people.