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Murder Most Civilized

When I was at school I tried to start an Agatha Christie Club. Number of members (including the Chairman – myself ): three. Number of meetings: zero.

This somewhat unenthusiastic response has not tempered my love of ‘good old Agatha’, although she was rather – as one of my friends described her – ‘a fascist in tights’. In her huge collection of whodunnits, the dodgy women always live around Bayswater, there is always a ten-to-one chance that the husband did it, and in Poirot, her much-loved Belgian detective, she gives us a wonderfully clichéd portrait of A Foreigner. But perhaps that’s why I enjoy her books. Reading Agatha Christie is a welcome relief from both political correctness and the convolutions of the modern world. She wrote books you can take into hospital with you – indeed, they were what my mother read when she was awaiting the birth of the Agatha Christie Chairman – or curl up with when you feel like being simultaneously scared and sentimental about an age you didn’t even experience.

The Miss Marple books are perfect for this. Their stock characters and rather cringe-inducing prejudices can easily be ignored by losing oneself in their labyrinthine plots. Miss Jane Marple, our sleuth, is a kindly Edwardian 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’. I first came across her on a lazy Sunday afternoon when the BBC was showing a repeat of its excellent 1980s adaptation, starring Joan Hickson as the deceptively dithery old maid. I was immediately transported into a world of box hedges, working vicarages, steam trains and Just William – in the Miss Marple books Agatha Christie sets murder among the tea things, painting a halcyon picture of rural England while demonstrating how claustrophobic a country village can be.

Jane Marple is prone to saying such things as: ‘One does see so much evil in a village’, ‘The wicked should not go unpunished’, and ‘I do not like evil beings who do evil things.’ She is both a shield from and a reminder of human depravity: human nature is constant, but she slyly suggests that its most constant feature is a propensity for wickedness.

Christie herself was the first to admit that her books relied on stereotypes (‘in the manner of a cookery recipe add the following ingredients: a tennis pro, a young dancer, an artist, a girl guide, a dance hostess, etc, and serve up à la Miss Marple’). Yet despite this I still enjoy them. Not literary masterpieces, certainly, but the equivalent of a crossword or game of chess. They test your ingenuity. Their plots are so complicated it is hard to guess who did it, let alone remember when you go back to read them a second, third or fourth time. The banality of their settings even makes the idea of murder more frightening. And the fact that their characters are so recognizable adds to the sense of everyday suspicion, of ‘evil’ lurking beneath the surface.

For me the Miss Marple series belongs in the same tradition as Austen and Eliot, depicting the small world of the rural village, often with a good bit of humour:

St Mary Mead was having the most exciting morning it had known for a long time.
Miss Wetherby, a long-nosed, acidulated spinster, was the first to spread the intoxicating information. She dropped in upon her friend and neighbour Miss Hartnell.
‘Forgive me for coming so early, dear, but I thought, perhaps, you mightn’t have heard the news.’
‘What news?’ demanded Miss Hartnell. She had a deep bass voice and visited the poor indefatigably, however hard they tried to avoid her ministrations.
‘About the body in Colonel Bantry’s library – a woman’s body.’
‘In Colonel Bantry’s library?’
‘Yes. Isn’t it terrible?’
‘His poor wife.’ Miss Hartnell tried to disguise her deep and ardent pleasure.

This humour is particularly strong in the earliest – and best – in the series: The Murder at the Vicarage and The Body in the Library, both set in a comforting version of the countryside filled with idiosyncratic gentry and twitching curtains. They are also the two that most resemble a game of ‘Cluedo’ (I tried always to be Miss Scarlet, in the Library, with a revolver), with Murder at the Vicarage including diagrams of room layouts and village streets. The idea that the positioning of a chair can be important in solving a murder is something I’ve always found rather thrilling, if baffling.

After these two, Christie went on to write another ten Miss Marple books, with plots ranging from a murder based on the lines of a nursery rhyme to a murder in a train carriage (most distressing for commuters) – still with the same cast of English eccentrics, foreign nymphomaniacs and gruff but reliable police inspectors. There is also a brilliant set of Miss Marple short stories, in which a husband kills his wife through her helping of dessert (I doubt Christie intended a pun) and German spies communicate in a botanical secret code.

Fanciful? Of course. It is no coincidence that Miss Marple adapts so well for television – simple dialogue, crude characterization and yet a complicated plot. The spareness of the writing can in fact be rather effective – you often feel after watching or reading an Agatha Christie that a murderer will jump out from behind the bathroom door as you clean your teeth, bent on the inheritance you (sadly) do not have. And as in her hugely successful Poirot series, there is always someone at the end to explain it all – to give ‘a gentle old-maidish dissertation on murder’, as she says in The Moving Finger. Human nature can be made understandable for a moment; and we are assured there is still justice, even in a changing world.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 17 © Emma Hogan 2008

About the contributor

Emma Hogan enjoyed spending some of her gap year working for Slightly Foxed but was rather disappointed not to discover a body behind the filing cabinets.

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