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the murder at the vicarage

24 july 2022

Not only hadn't I read Murder on the Orient Express, the most famous of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries, till last week — I hadn't read any of her Miss Marple stories at all.

I remedied that as I crossed Germany by train, reading The Murder at the Vicarage. This 1930 effort is the first Marple novel and the pattern for all English "cosies." It can sometimes seem as if all English murder mysteries are set in vicarages. This can't truly be the case – in fact, I don't think I ever read a murder story set in a vicarage, or even nearby, before. It's like "the butler did it": the butler never does it, but we assume he always did.

The butler doesn't do it in The Murder at the Vicarage either; that is my first spoiler and more will follow. Our narrator is the vicar, Len Clement (he didn't do it either). The vicar presents himself as an elderly man with a young wife (Griselda) – though she really is young (mid-twenties), Clement is only in his mid-40s and seems to have all his moving parts in order. Griselda did not marry him for money (he cannot afford, he says, to send his nephew to university). She accounts for their union as her response to a challenge. The vicar is very strait-laced (though no innocent). Griselda, a free spirit, realized that to win him over would be a greater victory than snaring a more debonair kind of guy.

Miss Marple is the vicar's next-door neighbor, and she is also characterized as old, though for all we know she might only be fiftyish. "There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands," says the vicar (47), and Jane Marple, with her radar-like absorption of intelligence and her flawless logic, frankly terrifies him.

Oh, the murder. The victim is Colonel Protheroe, churchwarden, a man so belligerent and intolerant that most in St Mary Mead, including the vicar, wish that somebody would murder him. Miss Marple identifies seven suspects as soon as the Colonel's body is cool. The authorities are not as quick off the mark. Every private-detective novel needs bumbling policemen; those roles are taken here by Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack. Though Slack is anything but slack. His misplaced energy obscures the facts and leaves him and Melchett in the dark.

Two of the suspects quickly confess: the Colonel's wife and a young artist she's been seeing (to the dismay of the other young women of the village, including Griselda). But it seems both have alibis; they confessed because each thought the other had done the crime and wanted to protect each other. So: is it the Colonel's feckless daughter, or the thief pretending to be an archeologist, or the thief's New Woman assistant, or the poacher, or the vicar's cook, or many others … all of whom had every reason to eliminate Protheroe.

The mystery itself has an arcane explanation – not in the sense of supernatural, but in terms of a twisting of logical possibilities to the limits of tolerance. Miss Marple's advantage over the men on the case is her insistence on logic. Slack, Melchett, the village doctor, the vicar himself have all kinds of prejudices: so-and-so couldn't have done that, it's not like them, etc. Miss Marple confines herself to the facts of who was where when, motive means opportunity; once all the impossibilities are ruled out, the only theory that fits the data must be the correct one. In that she is like all the great rationciative cosy detectives. She is Sherlock Holmes' heir, Poirot's English cousin, and godmother to a tradition that extends down to Columbo, Monk, and Jessica Fletcher.

Christie, Agatha. The Murder at the Vicarage. 1930. London: HarperCollins, 2002.