Iain's Leisure Reading


Agatha Christie - The Miss Marple books



I guess Sherlock Holmes might win the vote for the most famous detective in English Crime Fiction, but who would win the vote for the most famous writer ? Might it be Dame Agatha Christie, whose books have sold over 2 billion copies, reportedly only behind those of The Bible and Shakespeare ? In total Agatha Christie wrote over 75 novels, including 66 crime novels, and of these about 26 featured her famous Belgium detective Hercule Poirot, and 12 to 15 featured Miss Marple, an elderly, prim, genteel spinster who lived in the English village of St Mary Mead. Agatha also wrote romantic fiction under the pen name of Mary Westmacott, wrote lots of short stories, wrote poems, and is the author of the most famous of all plays - the extremely long running "The Mousetrap" which opened on the West End in 1952!

Agatha Christie was born in 1890 in a part of the English country that we often visit - Torquay in Devon. She was born into a wealthy middle class family. She met her future husband just before the first world war (Colonel Archibald Christie) and when he was sent to the Western Front, she worked with the Voluntary Aid Department in a dispensing chemists where reportedly she gained her knowledge of medicines and poisons. Her writing career began after the war in response to a challenge from her sister to write a detective story. Her first book "The Mysterious Affair at Styles" featured Hercule Poirot, and was published in 1920. 55 years later, she finished where she began. She published her last book in 1975 - "Curtain" where she killed off Poirot.

1926 was a terrible year for Agatha - her mother died, and her husband asked for a divorce. Agatha disappeared, but was eventually found living in a hotel where she had registered under the name of the woman Archibald Christie now wanted to marry. Agatha travelled extensively , and met and married her second husband, the famous archeologist Sir Max Mallowen. They met in Ur in Mesopotamia, and Agatha helped Max with his excavating. Her travels informed such novels as "Murder on the Orient Express", "Murder in Mesopotamia" amd "Murder on the Nile".

I think I read somewhere that Agatha Christie was not only a good writer but also a very successful and very wealthy business woman who held the rights to all her work in a company where she always maintained a majority and controlling interest, and this she bequeathed to her heirs when she died in January, 1976. We not only know the place where she was born, but we also know well the place where she died - Wallingford, in Oxfordshire.

The character of Miss Marple is based on Agatha's step grandmother / aunt - Margaret Miller - and her cronies. She was like so many old ladies whom she met in so many villages where she went to stay as a girl. The story goes that Christie wrote a Poirot novel "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" (1926) which had an old lady character called Caroline Shepherd. Michael Moreton adapted the novel for the stage, but replaced the character of Caroline with a young girl. This change saddened Christie. She determined to give old maids a voice : hence Miss Jane Marple.

Just as Dexter made a false start to the Inspector Morse books (Lewis was older than Morse in book one, but younger thereafter), so Christie changed the character of Miss Marple from book one in 1930, to book two in 1942 and later books. In book one she was a not very nice, nasty old gossip, always thinking the worst of others, and avoided by her fellow citizens in St Mary Mead. She softened a lot in later books, and was now loved and respected in St Mary Mead. The crimes she solves remind her of parallel incidents that happened in St Mary Mead. She is able to latch on to a seemingly casual comment and connect it to the case at hand. In several books she uses her acquaintance with Sir Henry Clithering, a retired commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to get access to official police information. Miss Marple never married, but had two younger sisters, one the mother of her nephew Raymond who occasionally lends a hand and gives some financial support. Miss Marple also employs a succession of young girls from a nearby orphanage and trains them for later service as general housemaids. Miss Marple is not an aristrocrat, but is at home in their company. She is a female version of that standard of crime fiction - the gentleman detective. Thus think of her contempory writer Dorothy L Sayers and her creation Sir Peter Whimsey. Miss Marple's other sister was the mother of Mabel Denham who was accused of poisoning her husband in "The Thumb Mark of St Peter."





The Body in the Library     (1942)


I read this book in Nov, 2018.

I have put off reading Agatha Christie up to now, because I thought it was all very old fashioned - an almost aristrocratic world of butlers, country houses, servants, and good manners. Miss Marple sits quietly in the background, but solves some baffling cases - there are clues, red herrings, but finally enlightenment when typically all meet in the drawing room to have the mystery explained. This then is my preconception. But I have decided to give the old girl a go - after all she outsold everyone, so she must have been been getting something right. I have started on book two of the 12 book series because Miss Marple's character changed after book one - i.e. I have opted for consistency. One further comment in this introduction. The date of the book is 1942 - you would think there would be some mention of that terrible war raging at the time, but no. Perhaps people wanted to escape in their reading to an idealised English country village - St Mary Mead.

The book I read had a preface by Agatha Christie saying she wanted to write a "body in the library" story, but one with a difference. This story opens with two friends of Miss Marple. Colonel and Mrs Bantry are wakened early in the morning by one of their maids who is somewhat hysterical. She tells them that there is a dead body in their library. They are not sure they have heard the girl correctly, but investigate, and sadly it's true. It's a beautiful young girl, later identified as the dancer / hostess Ruby Keene. The police are called in - Inspector Slack, Colonel Melchett, head of the county's police force, and Superintendent Harper of the neighbouring force. We also meet Sir Henry Clithering, a retired commissioner of the Met, who is well in with the local police, and a friend of Miss Marple. The cast expands. We meet Mr Conway Jefferson, a lonely, wealthy old chap whose wife and two children died in an aeroplane accident some 8 years ago. He now only has has his daughter in law, Adelaide (Addie) and son in law Mark for company, and they are now not unreasonably thinking of moving on, and starting new lives and possibly new loves. So Conway has had his head turned by a young gold digger, the dead Ruby Keene. Ruby had danced at the Majestic ballroom in nearby Danemouth. Also at the Majestic were Josephine, who danced and played bridge with the guests, and Raymond, a dancer and tennis coach. There is also a flash young man (allegedly a film producer) who has recently moved into St Mary Mead - Basil Blake. Finally Hugo is Adelaide Jefferson's friend to whom she turns in times of need. And I almost forgot, a young girl guide has gone missing and a charred female body has been found in the burned out remains of a car found in a quarry.

Mrs Bantry calls in her friend Jane Marple to get an explanation as to why there was a body in their library. St Mary Mead is a small village, and Colonel Bantry is now persona non grata. Rumours say the young girl was his illegitamate daughter, or he was having an affair, or worse. Col Bantry is completely innocent, but is shunned ! Can Miss Marple solve the murder(s) and restore the poor man's reputation ?

There is not much of Miss Marple at the start of the story. We follow the police investigations, and a well told story enfolds. Yes, they all speak a bit funny to modern ears, are all deferential, and yes Col Banbury has a butler called Edwards. But it's a good story that held my interest. As expected there are lots of clues given - some are red herrings, some are not, but which is which ? At the very end of the book Miss Marple has unmasked the murderer. I had no idea who did it - I don't think many would guess at how the murder was done, nor by whom. The murder plan was a bit contrived, and I thought in "true life " a lot could and would have gone wrong. But the plan worked, and they would have got away with it had it not been for Miss Marple's super sleuthing.

All in all, I liked the story, and wasn't bothered at all by it's antiquity. I am quite looking forward to the next story.






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The Moving Finger     (1943)


I read this book in Dec, 2018.

This is book three in Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series, the second that I have read, and it's also the second book of four in my Omnibus. I know that I am in safe hands with Agatha Christie - one of the giants of crime fiction. Yes, it is a bit old fashioned. It is set in a mythical English country village in the 1940's (but untouched by the terrible war raging at the time), where we are dealing with gentile people who have servants, take afternoon tea, enjoy social bridge parties, etc, etc. In short it is an historical setting but Agatha perfectly captures the time and place - a time now long gone.

The story is told by a young man, Jerry Burton, who has been injured in a flying accident, but against all the odds is learning to walk again, and hoping for a full recovery. On doctor's orders he moves to a "quiet country village" - Lymstock - where he has to avoid stress and excitement, and has been advised to immerse himself in the minutia of village life. His glamorous, man eater big city sister Joanna has recently split from another of a long string of unsuitable boyfriends, and she comes to Lymstock too, to look after her brother. The place seems very friendly, and we meet lots of the locals. What a surprise then, when Joanna gets a poison pen letter. Allegedly she is living not with a brother, but with a lover - how dreadful ! Soon Jerry and Joanna discover that lots of people in the village are fellow poison pen victims. It is generally agreed that not everyone will shrug off receipt of such a vile letter. If the accusation by coincidence just happens to be true, or the recipient is depressed, or mentally unstable then tragic things might happen. And so the local lawyer's wife Mrs Symmington is later found dead. Had she committed suicide, shamed on receipt of such a letter? The poison pen crank must be found before further mysery is caused, but sadly not in time to save poor Agnes - murdered and her body hidden in a cupboard under the stairs. The police have been called in - Superintendent Nash of the local police, and an expert from London. They are both very confident of always getting the culprit, but somehow we know that will not happen in this case - cue Miss Marple.

Amongst all the villagers (suspects) we also meet Megan, a strange tomboy / young woman. She behaves as if she were a child, is gauche, has no clothes sense, but she is a grown 20 year old adult. Megan is unloved at home - her mother married again and started a new family with whom Megan lives, but seems to be ignored by everyone - nobody cares/ notices where she goes, nor what she does. Jerry befriends this strange "child". She is seeing him off at the railway station when on impulse he hauls her into his carriage and takes her into the city for new clothes and what we would now call a makeover. The ugly duckling has been transformed, and predictably Jerry falls for Megan.

The search for the poison pen writer is getting nowhere, and we are about two thirds of the way through this tale, and so the vicar's wife calls in an expert of her own - a quiet unassuming old lady rejoicing under the name of Miss Marple.

Of course Miss Marple soon solves the case. Just about everyone in the village had been presented as the likely culprit, and I had my own suspect, but Agatha Christie outfoxed me, and I guess all her readers. The ending really was a surprise, which of course I won't spoil. Order is restored at the end, both Jerry and Joanna are soon to get married, and apparently everyone will live happily ever after.

I liked the story. It's not riveting, page turning, crime fiction, but it's good escapism, and a good read. What's wrong with that ?






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A Murder is Announced     (1950)


I read this book in Dec, 2018.

This is book four in Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series, and it's book three in the omnibus that I am reading and also the third Miss Marple book that I have read. Agatha Christie has a reputation as the queen of crime fiction and now that I am reading these stories I can see why she has earned this title. She wrote a lot more stories about Hercule Poirot, but I have concentrated on and am enjoying reading the Miss Marple ones. Yes the books are somewhat dated, and are about imaginary old ladies in idyllic English villages populated by the middle class. Her characters are retired colonels, vicars and their wives, and they live in big houses and have lots of servants. And yes again, at the end of the story, all gather together to have the plot in full explained to them, and to us. But it works because it's all done so well, and the plots are so fiendishly clever that it's almost addictive.

This story opens in a little village of Chipping Cleghorn, where we meet some of the worthies of the village - i.e. future suspects. Everyone of course knows everyone else. They are all reading the local newspaper, and are astonished to learn in the announcements section that a murder is to take place at one of the village houses (Little Paddocks) at 6:30 pm, and all friends are invited to attend. Is it a hoax, or a game - surely it cannot be a real murder? Anyway the time is noted, and lots of people turn up. Little Paddocks is the home of Miss Leticia Blacklock (Letty) who lives there with Mitzi, her maid, and several guests - Bunny, an old but now impoverished school chum, Patrick and Julia, two young distant cousins staying for a while, and Phillipa, paying for board and who works as gardener in a nearby posh house. Letty knows nothing of any murder (game or otherwise) but has opened a new bottle of sherry should guests turn up - and they do. At exactly 6:30 all the lights go out, the door opens, a man shouts "this is a hold up", flashes a torch in their faces so that they cannot see, there are two real gun shots, and then the man stumbles and there is third shot. When the lights go on there is a dead man in the hall, and Letty has blood pouring from an ear nick, but has otherwise apparently had a lucky escape. The police are called - the local Chief Constable again, the retired Scotland yard chief again, and DI Craddock and Sgnt Fletcher who are to be in charge. The dead man is a Swiss petty crook Rudi Scherz, who was working at the nearby Royal Spa hotel. It's a lot further into the story before Miss Marple turns up - she had been staying at the Royal Spa hotel and had noticed that Scherz had altered one of her cheques, and got in touch with the police when Scherz and details of the murder appeared in the the papers. Later Miss Marple relocates to Chipping Cleghorn - she is friend of the vicar's wife - to help solve the murder.

Of course the alleged hold up is not what it seems, nor are many of the people who they claim to be. Although Letty had no money as motive for theft, she had worked for and helped a very rich but childless financier - he had died and in his will had left his fortune to his wife, and on her death to his former assistant Letty. If Letty died before the wife who was old and in very poor health the money would go to his family relatives - two children of his estranged sister Sonia called Pip and Emma- and if the wife died before Letty, Letty got the money, and on her death, her heirs. So now we do have a possible motive for murder. Letty also had had a sister Charlotte who died a long time ago.

It all gets even more complicated, and there are more deaths. There are lots of red herrings - I fell for one for a while as I was intended to, but there were lots of other clues, and I did correctly identify the murderer at the second attempt - but couldn't see why. Hence of course, the long and necessary explanation at the end of the story.

I thought it was a very clever, ingenious story, and was impressed at Agatha Christie in firstly thinking up such a plot, and then in getting it down on paper in such a readable, tension building (Miss Marple even goes missing, fears for her safety) way. Well done, Miss Christie !






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