If I had not included Miss Marple in my Sleuth Thursday posts, I would currently be homeless.
In fact, I might be dead, murdered by my housemate the Durham Lass, who would be found sewing innocently and looking like Snow White and with a large ceremonial knife cleaned and back in its place in the museum where she works. She’d definitely get away with it, too.
My housemate is a big Miss Marple fan. We have watched the Miss Marple box set (the series starring Joan Hickson, and no other Miss Marple is spoken of within our walls). She plans, when old, to have a rose garden and solve crimes. In preparation for that day, we both drink a lot of tea and discuss lady sleuths. Miss Marple is her hero.
Of course, I was keen to write about Miss Marple anyway. Agatha Christie had a legion of imaginary friends as a child, which fits in well with UNSPOKEN, and is so very best-selling that Miss Marple may be the most famous lady sleuth we have.
Which is OK, as Miss Marple might be the greatest lady sleuth of all time.
One piece of writing advice I think is excellent is to read bad books. The things that are very annoying are often very inspiring. ‘I will do better than that,’ you think. ‘I will fix that.’
The thing that annoyed Agatha Christie when she created Miss Marple was a play of her own book, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD. In it, the narrator has a spinster sister called Caroline. ‘Caroline can do any amount of finding out by sitting placidly at home.’
In the play they made Caroline a foxy young lady. Well, come on, we see it all the time… what good is a girl who isn’t there to be foxy? Agatha Christie was like ‘OK. OK. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED! The elderly gossipy spinster lady who is always a side character is going to be the detective. You try to write her out then. You try. Come at me, bro!–Agatha Christie.’
Miss Marple was also partly based on Agatha Christie’s grandmother and her grandmother’s friends. This is what Christie said of her grandmother: ‘Though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.”
Which is Miss Marple to a T. She’s an old lady knitting away and saying brightly: ‘The world is a terrible place and everyone you know is probably a murderer. These biscuits are delicious!’
The first appearance of Miss Marple was in short stories, in one of which a lady describes her as ‘the typical old maid of fiction.’ It was Agatha Christie’s declaration of war: the deconstruction and thoughtful analysis of a stock type, making a persona into a person.
That’s the crux of what Agatha Christie did with Miss Marple—what Miss Marple does with everyone, and what every writer has to do with a protagonist—look at the surface of a person and think deeply about them. That’s how you make them the main character.
So the archetype of an old lady who loves gossip… what do you have when you really think about that person? Someone who’s lived a long time—who has a lot of experience. And someone who’s obviously really interested in people, and how they work and think. Suddenly, someone who seems obviously qualified to be a sleuth!
That was the beginning for Miss Marple. There was a good deal more.
What is there to say about Miss Jane Marple?
Queen Elizabeth II is a fan. She gave the actress who most famously played Miss Marple, Joan Hickson, an OBE and Joan Hickson was like ‘Thanks, Your Maj’ and Queen Elizabeth was like ‘Basically, I can’t give an OBE to fictional characters, so you will have to do.’
Unlike the Queen, in the books people generally dismiss Miss Marple. And she’s like ‘Oh sorry dear, don’t mind me, just solving a murder and saving your ass so you can continue to talk out of it.’
In the first story where Miss Marple is introduced, there’s a Tuesday night club where friends and relatives of Miss Marple (her writer nephew Raymond, his artist girlfriend, a lawyer, a clergyman and the just-retired former Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Sir Henry) all tell each other real-life mysteries to see who would be best at solving them.
Raymond’s girlfriend Joyce assumes Miss Marple won’t play, excluding her when counting people, and is surprised she’d want to. She adds that ‘I know life as darling Miss Marple here cannot possibly know it.’ ‘I don’t know about that, dear’ says Miss Marple, who proceeds to guess every mystery correctly and shatter everyone in the room’s preconceptions a hundred times over.
Joyce’s name changes to Joan in the books. Possibly Miss Marple steered Raymond towards a nicer artist lady. Possibly Raymond murdered Joyce and Miss Marple turned a blind eye.
Sir Henry Clithering, former Commissioner, becomes a giant Miss Marple fanboy, and wanders the country making people invite her to dinner, insisting she help the police out with all sorts of things, and seeing to it that his godson refers to her as ‘Aunt Jane.’ Sir Henry literally does not listen to any other detectives at any time: he just runs around the place going ‘Ask Jane Marple! Why will you not consult Miss Marple? MARPLE IT! Like google but with knitting! I’m really happy for you, Sherlock Holmes, and Imma let you finish, but Jane Marple is the greatest detective of all time. OF ALL TIME.’
Sir Henry is retired, and Miss Marple in the early books cannot be much older than sixty or sixty-five: they are not that far apart in age. I always secretly believed that Sir Henry had a crush and Miss Marple wasn’t feelin’ it. Too bad for you, Sir Henry buddy, friend-zoned by the greatest detective of all time!
(Which brings us to another point: the old maid seen as ‘unwanted.’ Miss Marple isn’t married, but she references two dudes in her youth—one who she fancied and her parents hated, and later she was like ‘Yeah, Mom, you were right, total stinker, whoops’ and one who her parents liked and she fancied but on getting to know him she was like ‘Sorry, dude, turns out you’re boring, who knew, whoops again!’ Jane Marple had options. And she chose the option of not being with anyone who’d bore her or cramp her style. Miss Marple needs a man like a brilliant crime-solving fish needs a bicycle!)
At one point a character laughs at her because she’s all ‘I am Nemesis’ and she’s knitting something and has a pink scarf on her head. That character is later like ‘Dear Nemesis, plz solve this murder for me, I shower you in gold, I bet the thing you knitted was awesome, I bet your scarf could solve crimes on its own!’
The woman who described her as a ‘typical old maid’ was Mrs Bantry, who became one of Miss Marple’s closest friends. Miss Marple also saved Mrs Bantry’s husband’s reputation when a foxy young blonde’s corpse was discovered in his library. Mrs Bantry, you got TOLD.
The Home Secretary of England hears Miss Marple explaining how she discovered a murderer and foiled a murder plot against herself in the last chronological novel, NEMESIS. He describes her as ‘the most frightening woman I ever met.’ Yes, by the end the Home Secretary and the current Commissioner of Scotland Yard are holding each other and weeping gently before Miss Marple’s awesome power. She may be a hundred and five at the time.
Because Miss Marple sleuths for forty years. Either the sheer force of her awesomeness causes time to pass half as fast for her, so she only ages twenty years. Or she starts the books age sixty-five, and is still facing down murderers at age a hundred and five. Or… Miss Marple was about fifty when the books start, and mocking other people’s expectations and dismissal of a woman gone in years by wearing a Victorian lace cap and pretending to be older than she was so she could enjoy the full tea and spying on the neighbours shizz for as long as possible.
It’s kind of plausible, in that Miss Marple stops dressing as if she’s dressing up in later books, and starts going around wearing tweed. She is, after all, a Master of Disguise. She will chatter at you to get you to let something slip. She will also be quietly comforting. She will pretend to be an idiot or to have gone slightly insane in the membrane. She will steal stuff, pretend to be an elderly relative, or pretend to be a voice from beyond the grave.
Underestimate her at your peril if you are in fact a criminal. She will come for you like a train. Nobody ever says ‘And I would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for that meddling old lady’… but they should. Miss Marple’s author agreed. “If I were at any time to set out on a career of deceit, it would be of Miss Marple that I should be afraid,” she had the vicar say of Miss Marple.
Miss Marple can handle anything. The Miss Marple books are actually way hardcore. Incest. Quasi-lesbian quasi-faux-mother-daughter quasi-necrophilia goings-on. Some weird kinky stuff goes down in Miss Marple’s books. Poirot was not ready for that jelly. Miss Marple’s like ‘Oh, I remember having that jelly at the village fair. Twenty years ago.’
Miss Marple is in fact capable of anything when in pursuit of a criminal. She really does hide into a cupboard and imitate the voice of a dead woman. ‘Woo, woo, I speak to you from beyond the grave, tell them all you dunnit exactly like that attractive and well-preserved Miss Marple said you dunnit!’
She’s brave. ‘We are not put into this world to avoid danger.’ – she said in THE MOVING FINGER. Just because she likes to knit, don’t you think she’s not intrepid! She even saves damsels—Gwenda of SLEEPING MURDER is about to be murdered when Miss Marple blinds her attacker with a spray for the rosebushes. ‘Squirt, squirt, let me explain how this dude killed his victim. Take him away, boys!’
She knows everything. Where secret drawers are hidden in desks she’s never seen before? Check. How much fancy stamps are worth? Check. How to send someone a sexy message with FLOWERS ALONE? Check. Miss Marple went to finishing school in Italy. You know how it is.
The master of disguise strikes again! “So charming, so innocent, such a fluffy and pink and white old lady … she gained admittance to what was now practically a fortress … far more easily than could have been believed possible. Though an army of reporters and photographers were being kept at bay by the police, Miss Marple was allowed to drive in without question, so impossible would it have been to believe that she was anyone but an elderly relative of the family.” – This happens in A POCKET FULL OF RYE. ‘Murder investigation, coming through!’ Not only does she wander around everywhere waving her knitting like a passport, the fact she is conscious of how deceiving appearances and how false assumptions can be means she can see through other people. She knows people don’t really look at maids, so wearing a uniform makes you invisible… and able to commit murder safely. She knows how to look past dyed blond hair and a skimpy dress to see that an innocent schoolgirl has been murdered in THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY. You cannot get stuff past her.
Because Miss Marple knows people. She spies on her neighbours all the time… she studies them, and being interested in other people is shown by the books as not a bad or silly thing but as incredibly useful and worthwhile. She’s become, as she says herself, an expert in people. “You believed what he said. It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years.” – SLEEPING MURDER. As you can see, this has made her something of a pessimist. Or a realist. ‘Sorry to inform you, but people are basically terrible. More tea?’ “There was no unkindness in Miss Marple, she just did not trust people,” said Agatha Christie in her autobiography. Miss Marple IS very kind… but she’s ruthless, too. “If you expect me to feel sympathy, regret, urge an unhappy childhood, blame bad environment… I do not feel inclined to do so” Miss Marple says of a murderer. ‘Don’t murder people!’ is Miss Marple’s basic feeling. ‘I cannot believe y’all keep murdering people! This is so uncouth! Well, the rhythm’s gonna get ya.’
Where’s the end with Miss Marple? Hard to say. SLEEPING MURDER was the last Miss Marple book to be published: but it was written during World War II and Miss Marple is obviously younger in it, and some characters who died later still alive. Miss Marple is the oldest we ever see her (you know… maybe a hundred and five!), very frail but still sharp as ever in NEMESIS, which Agatha Christie wrote when she herself was eighty. Agatha Christie may have felt a lot more in common with Miss Marple than when she started. Miss Marple, unlike Christie’s other detective Poirot, doesn’t end her life with her books. She gets a lot of money and goes off to enjoy it. “She’s had a long life of experience in noticing evil, fancying evil, suspecting evil and going forth to do battle with evil.” – is the verdict on Miss Marple in AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL. She’s a knight errant, always off to another adventure in our minds. Miss Marple never dies.
And as to why I found her particularly inspiring for a Gothic novel…
Author William L. de Andrea remarked that ‘Miss Marple is able to solve difficult crimes not only because of her shrewd intelligence, but because St. Mary Mead, over her lifetime, has put on a pageant of human depravity rivaled only by that of Sodom and Gomorrah.’ This ain’t a joke. The man was not kidding. Miss Marple was not just examining small human evils and able to work up to murder cases. ‘Over a period of some 40 years, there occurred in St Mary Mead a total of 16 murders—5 by poisoning, 2 by shooting, 2 by drowning, 2 by strangling and 5 by unidentifiable means—plus 4 attempts at murder by poisoning, smothering and bashing on the head. In the same period there occurred 5 robberies, 8 embezzlements, 2 series of blackmailing, several illegal impersonations, a case or 2 of poaching, and a number of crank phone calls, poison pen letters and criminal libels.’ (I didn’t do these maths: quote from Anne Hart’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MISS JANE MARPLE.) In St Mary Mead, they have a different word for ‘crime wave.’ They call them ‘Tuesdays.’ This is a wicked little English town! What the hell is going on at St Mary Mead? And I love the sleepy, old-fashioned English town with the dark undercurrent.
The most chilling thing for me in all the Miss Marple stories is one small casual mention Miss Marple makes. She often tells stories about lost shrimp, stolen lace and so forth in St Mary Mead, and in much the same way she says ‘There was Mrs Green, you know, she buried five children—and every one of them insured. Well, naturally one began to get suspicious.’ The vicar is distraught by the murder of just one dude, and declares nothing like this has ever happened before. Presumably he’d recall a lady murdering her five kids! Did Miss Marple know she didn’t have the goods on Mrs Green, and just hint Kid No. 6 should live or else? Did Mrs Green get disposed of secretly? Did Mrs Green just totally get away with it, and everyone at St Mary Mead is either like ‘No, don’t invite Mrs Green over, she is just too too much!’ or ‘Well, yes, darling I know she murdered her five children but she is a divine bridge partner.’ St Mary Mead, POPULATION MURDERERS.
What’s more, Miss Marple is definitely capable of solving a Gothic mystery. In the short story The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife, a madwoman muttering curses is the suspect in the murder of a beautiful young wife who has just come home to a rambling, ruinous manor with her new husband. Miss Marple, however, is obviously acquainted with the Gothic conventions. Someone’s succeeded in killing this lady, and Miss Marple knows it was her husband. So—evil village, check, Gothic mystery, check!
But more about the sleuth herself. There are quite a few kid sleuths (Nancy Drew, the Famous Five and Secret Seven) and elderly sleuths besides Miss Marple (Amelia Butterworth in the books by Anna Katharine Green, Miss Climpson as a sidekick in the books by Dorothy L Sayers) because both kids and the elderly have unique under-the-radar opportunities. Miss Marple is underestimated because she’s an old lady, and my heroine, like many underage sleuths, is underestimated because she’s a child, as if mental faculties are only awarded at age eighteen and taken away again at age sixty. But the ‘meddlesome Marple’ and the meddling kids use how they are underestimated to triumph.
There’s another thing, and it is this: Miss Marple talks a lot. So does Kami of UNSPOKEN. So do I. Ladies are often seen as chattering away about inconsequential things. Chatty Cathys: not too bright, and in some cases actually crazy. ‘Mad, quite mad’ murmurs the colonel to the vicar in THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE, as Miss Marple begins to explain who the murderer is.
He has to shut up his face because Miss Marple is, of course, absolutely right. You can be very old, very young, very feminine, very chatty… and be the smartest person in the room.
And that’s why I love Miss Marple.
In non-Marply news, am having a fabulous time in Chicago at the Romantic Times convention and hoping to see any of you around: Teen Day is open to the public!