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miss marple

1 october 2022

Miss Marple's first novel-length case was The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), but she had previously appeared in some short stories. In fact, in her 1953 preface to the collection The Thirteen Problems (originally collected 1932), Agatha Christie says that Miss Marple "is at her best in the solving of short problems" (viii). Though Christie was trying to sell a book of short problems when she wrote that. Her opinion didn't stop her from writing a dozen Miss Marple novels.

Miss Marple's career thus begins with "The Tuesday Night Club," the first of the Thirteen Problems and one that sets up the gimmick for the rest. A group of stock English-fiction characters – clergyman, solicitor, artist, writer, Scotland-Yard man – are gathered at Miss Marple's home. They propose a game of mini-mysteries. Miss Marple wins the first round (a murder case that hinges on a double entendre nobody else can get) and we're off to the races.

Jane Marple then ticks off: "The Idol House of Astarte" (stabbing, costume-party); "Ingots of Gold" (Spanish-Armada shell game); "The Bloodstained Pavement" (serial killer, accomplice, masquerade); "Motive v. Opportunity" (spiritualist, altered will, switched fountain pen); and "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter" (cousin, poison – an older case of Miss Marple's, narrated by herself).

It's a wonder none of the other club members tells Miss Marple to put a sock in it. Instead, they remember the evening with fondness. Back in the area a year later, Sir Henry Clithering (the Scotland-Yarder) informs others of the spinster's sleuthing abilities, and we're off on another round: "The Blue Geranium" (psychics, pink flowers turning blue); "The Companion" (drowning, assumed identity, Australia); "The Four Suspects" (spies, dahlias, coded letters); "A Christmas Tragedy" (stocking full of sand, ill-fitting hat); "The Herb of Death" (foxglove, heiress); and "The Affair at the Bungalow" (jewel theft, scapegoat).

"Death by Drowning" ends Thirteen Problems and has a different setting. Instead of being a parlor game, the detecting here happens in an open case in real time. Sir Henry is back near St. Mary Mead when the drowning of a local girl, at first an apparent suicide, seems to be a murder instead. There's an obvious suspect, and another couple of possibilities. But the real killer is unsuspected: except by Miss Marple, who does not suspect but knows, entirely by deduction. She maneuvers Sir Henry into proving her right.

Many of the Thirteen Problems involve a switch of some sort: somebody pretending to be someone else, exchanging clothes, swapping out one object for another – in one case, one dead body for another. "The Affair at the Bungalow," the best of them, has a solution that involves trading places, but is given the true Christie postmodern twist by being a double-stuffed meta-narrative of sorts, very sharply done.

The rest of the stories are gathered from other volumes. "Miss Marple Tells a Story" of a locked-room murder that is both archetypal and perfunctory. "Strange Jest" is equally pat, though it concerns a hidden inheritance, not a murder. "The Case of the Perfect Maid" is not bad, a tale of thefts and village gossip, with Miss Marple a touch more acerbic than in the other stories collected here. By "Tape-Measure Murder" – rather a spoiler of a title – Jane Marple is positively "vinegar-tongued" (300), and not above rearranging evidence to elicit a confession. "Sanctuary" is a bagatelle of a story about murder and jewel theft; but "Greenshaw's Folly" is an attractive yarn with more locked rooms and more of the trading places that seems a Marplesque obsession.

On the whole, I prefer the Poirot short stories I've read to these Miss Marples. Not just because of the detective: Marple is a strong character, and more plausible than Poirot, as if that matters. But because Christie seemed to put more attention into plotting and drama in the Poirot stories. Miss Marple sees everything instantly, and no sooner do we get the puzzle than she delivers the solution. She's fun, but her typical short story is not.

One story of the twenty, I didn't read: "The Case of the Caretaker." I didn't read it because it's one of these stories-within-a-story, where the story within is printed in italics. I don't mind the occasional italic, but reading line after line of them is a shortest path to a long headache.

Christie, Agatha. Miss Marple: The complete short stories. 1985. New York: Harper, 2011.