Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Body in the Library (1942)

Plot: "Ma'am, there's a body in the library!"

Familiarity can breed contempt. Or a mild boredom. I've put off reading The Body In The Library for just that reason - after all, if you've seen the brilliant BBC version several times, and sat squirming in horrified delight through the ITV travesty... well, why need you bother reading the wretched book? It can't better the opening of the BBC wonder - "There's a body in the library!" can it?

Oh yes it bloody can. The sheer delight of The Body In The Library is that it contains everything that The Murder On The Links was missing. The latter was a beautifully crafted machine of a plot - but The Body In The Library is just as wonderful a bit of engineering, only wrapped in a knitted fluffy pink cover.

The sublime opening line is "Mrs Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show." We are straight back in St Mary Mead with all its domestic horrors and spinsters sniping across the privet. There are glorious cameos from The Murder At The Vicarage. Gossiping Miss Hartnell is back:

"'His poor wife,' Miss Hartnell tried to disguise her deep and ardent pleasure."

Also returning is Griselda the vicar's wife in a charming cameo rolling around on a rug with her toddler.

We also get returns from the cast of The Thirteen Problems - the Bantrys and Sir Henry Clithering.  Dolly Bantry rocks, as ever, summing up her reaction to her husband flirting with "pretty girls who come to tennis":

"There's no harm in it. And why shouldn't he? After all... I've got the garden."

But it is Miss Marple who dominates this book, and does so brilliantly, stealing scenes she's not even in. Every moment is perfectly, wonderfully described, such as when the telephone rings too early in the morning:

"So well ordered was her prim spinster's life that unforseen telephone calls were a source of vivid conjecture."

Which leads us to Dolly's breathlessly immortal:

"We've just found a body in the library."

It's tempting to just type out whole chunks of the book. It's as delightful as a menacing trifle. It'd be nice to say "Only Agatha Christie and Jane Austen really understood the true nature of the English Village" but... oh, sod it, let's.

There are so many glorious, incidental details. For instance Basil Blake's country cottage:

"A hideous shell of sham Tudor, was known to the postal authorities, and to William Booker, builder, as 'Chatsworth'; to Basil and his friends as 'The Period Place', and to the village of St Mary Mead at large as 'Mr Booker's new house'."

What's so lovely about this sentence is how much is tells us about the dry practicality of St Mary Mead, the modern wit of Basil Blake's set, and even the pretensions of poor William Booker, builder - a character who is not even in the book. But this is Christie at her absolute best, both as a plotter and a stylist. The sheer wonder of Miss Hartnell's envious protest at Miss Marple having gone up to view the body before breakfast - "Well, I mean, I think that is carrying things too far."

That's not to say the book is an out-and-out comedy - far from it. The humour is always shrewd and there are moments of genuine awkwardness, such as when the crippled millionaire Jefferson wakes up, both literally and from his infatuation with Ruby Keene - "'Margaret...' It was the name of his dead wife..."

There's a similarly delicate hand at work in the handling of the murder of the girl guide Pamela Reeves. Child murders are quite rare in Christie, and this compares interestingly with the comparatively callous description of the dispatch of the victim in Dead Man's Folly.

The humane shrewdness continues in Sir Henry's perfect introduction of Miss Marple:

"Downstairs in the lounge, by the third pillar from the left, there sits an old lady with a sweet, placid, spinsterish face, and a mind that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it as all in the day's work. Her name's Miss Marple."

Miss Marple is at her shrewdest in this book, dropping apposite stories about boys hiding frogs in clocks, and making wonderful comparisons to various maids, as when she reveals that her "little maid Janet" always relaxed too soon after telling a lie: "She'd explain quite convincingly that the mice had eaten the end of a cake and give herself away by smirking as she left the room."

This comes at the end of the scene where Miss Marple has interviewed girl guides and has decided which one has more to say. Wonderfully:

"Miss Marple spoke crisply.
'I'd like to speak to Florence Small.'"

Oh lawks, I have typed out most of this book, but it is a glorious thing. Miss Marple reduces everyone in the book to the "General Common Denominator", describing Jefferson's infatuation with Ruby Keene through village life, explaining how when Mr Harbottle's sister left him for to nurse a relative, she returned to find him infatuated with the maid and herself banished to "live most uncomfortably in rooms in Eastbourne" because "the old man found it much pleasanter to have a young, cheerful girl telling him how clever and amusing he was than to have his sister continually pointing out his faults to him". Isn't that just brilliant? In about three paragraphs we get a rattling good parable that also tells the whole story of three people utterly incidental to the story.

Miss Marple is at her absolute sharpest. There's the wonderful showdown with Basil Blake and his lover Miss Dinah Hill where they're both absolutely vile to her and she simply sits there and strips away their wicked veneer to reveal how deeply lovingly conventional they are, winning them both over in a couple of lines. It's an amazing scene, and gets followed by Miss Marple's remarkable revelation of the real Basil when she says how he rescued four people and a dog from a burning building in an act of stunning heroism.

A lot of this is sheer, glorious window dressing. A delight in knowing the plot from the television is realising that Miss Marple has solved it very early on. By halfway through she has announced "There was a very careful plan made. What happened was that the plan went wrong". A few pages later she announces of a vital clue "It had been worrying me, you know - how to account for her nails." There's still nearly a hundred pages to go, but this isn't annoying. Miss Marple isn't smug - we're enjoying the journey and we know she'll tell us in her own time. She even later informs Dolly that she knows everything but won't tell Dolly because she knows her too well. "It's no good, dear."

Although Miss Marple dominates the book, other characters sing. Colonel Bantry's social exclusion is marvellously described:

"Did you go to dinner with the Duffs on Thursday?"
"Oh, that! It was put off. Their cook was ill."
"Stupid people," said Mrs Bantry... She sat down by the desk and absent-mindedly picked up a pair of gardening scissors. With them she cut off the fingers, one by one, of her second glove.
"What are you doing, Dolly?"
"Feeling destructive,"

There's also the exceedingly painful description of Jefferson finding a picture of a young man in Ruby Keene's handbag, which is Agatha Christie's equivalent of Desdemona's handkerchief: "Now then Kitten, now then. You know who it is right enough."

Even a cameo such as the dancer Raymond Starr ("one of the Devonshire Starrs" it is claimed) gets the following remarkable speech about why he left work at a hotel in the Riviera, after overhearing an old Colonel saying:

"Where's the gigolo? I want to get hold of the gigolo. My wife and daughter want to dance, yer know. Where is the feller? What does he sting yer for? It's the gigolo I want."

Raymond even gets the last line of the book to himself when, dreams crushed he must carry on:

"Oh well, my luck's out. Dance, dance, little gentleman!"

There's also the peculiarly lovely touch of the nine year-old detective who announces proudly "I've got autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie" - make of that what you will. This is an author who is on top of her game and knows it - but is also accidentally setting up the cute self-awareness of the Margaret Rutherford films. Let's just for a second imagine the glory of Margaret Rutherford and Mr Stringer solving the case of The Body In The Library. Oh go on - ballroom dancing, tennis, girl guides and film stars and even more ballroom dancing. The frocks alone would make you faint.

Seriously, this is utterly, utterly brilliant.