MUST-READ AGATHA CHRISTIE BOOKS (III):
Celebrating 100 years of Agatha Christie:
The previous part of “Must-Read Agatha Christie Books” consisted of those novels which do not feature either Hercule Poirot or Miss. Marple. Today it’s time for the third installment, i.e. my choices of the must-read Miss. Marple novels.
Miss. Jane Marple:
One of the most famous and loved characters in detective fiction, Miss. Jane Marple is different from the usual kind. She is neither young nor a professional. She doesn’t engage in an adventure in the physical sense or run to & fro to gather information. In fact, the information comes to her. It’s guaranteed to. When one lives in a small community like her village St Mary Mead, nothing can be kept a secret.
Miss Marple has just a smile for an answer to anyone who says: “So little must happen in her small town”. Only she knows better.
Miss Marple’s first appearance was in a short story in 1927 (The Royal Magazine). Her first novel was “The Murder at the Vicarage”. It is interesting to note the departures in the description of Miss Marple. Her very first short story describes her as gentle. Her first novel describes her as terrible and dangerous-“…….worst cat in the village…..always knowing every single thing that happens….also drawing the worst inferences from it”. The gentle old lady takes over again in later books.
So, coming to the point- my list of the “Must-Read Agatha Christie Books” with Miss Marple:
1. A Murder Is Announced (1950):
It is- literally, in the weekly Gazette of the village of Chipping Cleghorn. The venue announced is a cottage called “Little Paddocks”.
The residents of Chipping Cleghorn wait for their weekly Gazette on Friday mornings. The most interesting part of which, for them, is the personal column. One such Friday, an ad in the personal column raises the curiosity of all inhabitants. This announcement is about a murder that’s going to happen in the cottage of “Little Paddocks”, at 6.30 P.M. that very evening.
All agog with curiosity and thinking that it would be a murder game of some sort, they turn up at the designated place. But in a short while things turn real. At the designated time all lights go out, someone comes telling everyone to stick their hands up and then two shots ring the hall.
A first-rate mystery, with that touch of human psychology, social milieu, and conversational clues which are present in Agatha Christie books.
2. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962):
I saw the movie, starring Elizabeth Taylor, before reading the novel. As far as I remember the movie stays true to the book most times.
Miss Marple, now quite old and unable to move much about, hears that the film star Marina Gregg has bought “Gossington Hall” (“The Body in the Library”), belonging to her friends Colonel & Mrs. Bantry.
One day Miss Marple’s old friend and doctor, Dr. Haydock comes to visit her. His prescription for Miss Marple’s health is “a nice juicy murder”. The man knows his patient well. For a murder does take place and the scene of the crime is Gossigton Hall. Marina Gregg and her husband organise a fete for a charity and the grounds of the house are thrown open to all of St. Mary Mead to participate. Some special guests are invited to the private party inside the house, where one of the invitees dies.
Miss Marple without moving from her house and from the various inputs provided by locals and Detective Inspector Cradock solves the mystery.
This book was adapted for a Bengali film, starring Rakhi in a role akin to Miss Marple and Sharmila Tagore in the role of Marina Gregg, in 1991. But I wonder- hypothetically. Just imagining who could have played Marina Gregg best, had a movie been made back then in India, in the 1960s. My choices are Meena Kumari or Nutan. What are yours?🤔
3. Sleeping Murder (1976):
“Let sleeping murder lie”. That’s what Dr. Haydock advises Miss Marple. But can Miss Marple and murders be kept apart?
Gwenda & Giles Reed are a young couple, married for nearly 3 months, both orphans, and living in New Zealand. They have decided to settle in England. Gwenda, coming ahead of her husband buys a house in Dillmouth. Gwenda is sure it is just her idea of a house. This fond connection, however, turns scary. During renovations, Gwenda finds that some old things in the house turn eerily exact as she had envisaged changing. Wondering whether she might be a psychic, Gwenda takes a break and goes to visit some relatives of her husband in London.
This is fortunate, as she gets to meet Miss Marple there. Giles’s relatives turn out to be Raymond & Joan West, you see (for those who don’t know Raymond West is Miss Marple’s nephew). Miss Marple advises her to look for a simpler solution, instead of seeing a doctor. The upshot is that Gwenda & Giles Reed possibly have a murder committed years ago in the house they bought. While Giles is all charged up to ferret out the truth, Miss Marple is not so sure.
Sleeping Murder is Miss Marple’s last case- written way back during the Second World War, published posthumously. I like it whenever Miss Marple is involved right up from the start, instead of making guest appearances here and there.
4. A Caribbean Mystery (1964):
A small town of England or the Caribbean, human nature is the same. Miss Marple manages to find the similarities between people everywhere.
Miss Marple, after a bout of pneumonia, is suggested going someplace sunny, away from the winters of England. Her nephew Raymond West arranges everything. Just when she thinks that many more things happen in St. Mary Mead than this Caribbean Island, things begin to happen. First, there is a story of a murderer narrated by a retired Major. Then the array of guests gathered together gives Miss Marple an opportunity to draw resemblances to people she knows/ knew. And then a death.
This one lives up to its name. It is a mystery through and through. Incidences happening one after another, inquiry, pure murder mystery. A bit different for a Miss Marple novel where a considerable portion is reserved for the place and life of the characters in a book.
5. The Body in the Library (1942):
Miss Marple’s friend Mrs. Bantry certainly has a lot of faith in her. That’s why she approaches, rather drags Miss Marple to solve the mystery of a girl’s body found in their library.
Mrs. Dolly Bantry is woken up from her deep slumber by her housemaid, telling her that there is a body in the house. She wakes and sends her husband. Colonel Bantry is distraught at the circumstances and the inconvenience they will cause. But he has to attend to formalities anyhow. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bantry sends for her friend Miss Marple. It is not for comfort though, as she tells Miss Marple: – “…….But you are so good at bodies”.
The local Inspector is not very much pleased, but Colonel Melchett, since he is aware of Miss Marple’s faculties, is not averse to some amateur detective work.
Mrs. Bantry joins in. Outwardly for the kicks. But both she and Miss Marple know the rumours that would circulate if the thing goes unsolved. Sir Henry Clithering decides to help too for the sake of his friends.
6. Murder at the Vicarage (1930):
This is the first novel featuring Miss Marple. Before this she appeared in a short story- “Tuesday Night Club”.
No one in the small village of St Mary Mead likes Colonel Protheroe. Not his wife, not his daughter. Nor anyone else. An obstinate and self-important person. His first wife is supposed to have left him. His second wife and daughter are unhappy with him. It is often felt that it would be better if he just died. In fact, the parson of the village, who is also the narrator, says in the beginning that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world a service.
The Colonel, on a minor incident, has taken upon himself to have the Church accounts thoroughly checked. He is due for an appointment at the vicarage in the evening. The parson, Mr. Clement is called out on urgent business and when he returns, he finds that someone has indeed fulfilled the secret wish of many people. He finds Colonel Protheroe murdered in the study of the vicarage.
An intriguing book and one feels with a very uncharacteristic Miss Marple. Uncharacteristic, i.e., from the other books that establish her character and manners of a gentle, fluffy, dear old lady.
7. 4.50 from Paddington (1957):
In some on-screen adaptations of the book it is Miss Marple or Tommy & Tuppence who see what Mrs. McGillicuddy does in the novel originally.
Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy (a hard name to remember and perhaps a reason for change in the adaptations), after buying her Christmas presents in London is going to visit her friend Miss Marple. She takes the train starting at 4.50 P.M. from Paddington Station. On the way, her train runs parallel to another on the adjoining track. A blind of one of the first-class carriages opens up and she witnesses a man strangling a woman.
She informs the Ticket Collector, who is doubtful. She writes a note and hands over to the porter at the next stoppage to be given to the Stationmaster. Finally, she reaches her friend’s home and tells her what she saw. When nothing appears over the discovery of a body in the newspaper the next day, they go to the local police station. When all kind, of official inquiries turn up negative, Miss Marple herself decides to investigate. After ascertaining certain facts, it’s time for action. For this, she decides to take help from a Lucy Eyelesbarrow (another difficult name).
The book has a most unusual beginning and the progression is equally thrilling. It again set me thinking how many of the ploys used in Agatha Christie’s books have inspired people, even if it’s for some minor part in a larger script (I am thinking of a small scene in “Mere Humdum Mere Dost” in this case).
8. The Thirteen Problems (1932):
A collection of short stories, beginning with “The Tuesday Night Club” (1927), which was the first-ever story debuting Miss. Marple’s character.
“The Tuesday Night Club” begins at Miss. Marple’s home where some people are gathered. Among them is her nephew Raymond West, his friend Joyce, Dr. Pender (the parish clergyman), Mr. Petherick (a solicitor) and Sir Henry Clithering (ex-Commissioner of Scotland Yard). A discussion begins when Raymond drops the question of “unsolved mysteries”, meaning some incidents which were never explained. He actually means unsolved crimes of course, since he directly asks Sir Henry Clithering to share some. Upon which Joyce proposes forming a sort of club. Since it is Tuesday, she calls it Tuesday Night Club.
Thus, formed each one of the members is asked to propound a problem only they know an answer to. And see which one of them arrives at the correct conclusion after hearing the whole story. It’s anybody’s guess who arrives at the right answer every time.
Six such mysteries are thus discussed at Miss Marple’s house. The other six are mooted at the Bantry’s house, with whom Sir Henry Clithering is also staying for the while. In the last one, Miss Marple asks for Sir Henry’s help so that an innocent person does not get arrested.
“The Tuesday Night Club” is a unique collection of short stories displaying the talents of Miss Marple and her insights into human nature.
9. A Pocket Full of Rye (1953):
Nursery rhymes or their symbolism is an often-used trope in Agatha Christie’s stories. She tends to connect the rhymes or their words with a murder, somehow enlightening our sleuths in question. Here Miss Marple.
Rex Fortescue is a rich man with three children, 2 sons, and a daughter. Plus, a considerably young wife. Being rich he obviously has a Will. And where there’s Will, there’s a …..🤨
So, one day Rex Forescue is murdered. With poison. The poison is taxine- an alkaloid extracted from the yew tree. The name of his house is ‘Yew Tree Lodge’. Now the question here is- WHO? One of his children or his wife or an enemy from the past, filled with revenge.
While the book is quite engrossing, Miss Marple herself arrives quite late on the scene. I would have liked a lengthier role, but it’s still a good mystery.
Apart from the above, there is another short story collection, “Miss Marple’s Final Cases” you can also read. I have not included the same here as the stories do not run in an interconnected episodic pattern like “The Thirteen Problems”.
In all of the novels featuring Miss Marple, I have excluded only four here. But those 4 might be on your list, so please do provide your choices in the comments.
In the remaining two parts of this series on the “Must-Read Agatha Christie Books”, we will take a journey through the famous little Belgian’s career. Oops! Sorry “Illustrious Career”.