Its prose is spare, its settings are basic and its characters are mostly one-dimensional. It can be summed up briefly: the unhealthy son, the inquisitive spinster, the bitterly ignorant daughter, and the bullying father. Hercules Poirot, her most famous creation, is actually a cartoon. We know he’s Belgian (although he behaves like a Frenchman), with a domed head, luxuriant mustaches, and small edging gray cells. It is false and ostentatious.
Other than that, we know nothing – about his background, his love, his losses, what makes him cry. He treats Hastings obnoxiously, and is happy to consistently score points against a mortal. Not the most beloved season.
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But then we come to Miss Marple, Christie’s other enduring character. This lady has inspired many theatrical incarnations, from the heartfelt Margaret Rutherford to Joan Hickson. And now it has caught the attention of a group of bestselling authors, each of whom has tried their hand at Miss Marple’s story in an anthology called simply “Marple” (William Morrow, Sept. 13) The illustrious group includes Kate Moss, Val McDermid, Ellie Griffith, Lucy Foley and Ruth Weir. Each author captures Christie’s image – and Marple – perfectly, while also showing off a little of her unique touch. Feminist writer Naomi Alderman, for example, describes an overwhelmingly masculine character as having a voice that “trembles from under his beard.” He later finds face down in a roasting venison dish, dead from an overdose.
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So, what does Marple have that Poirot doesn’t have? First, it is readable. One would like to entertain Miss Marple for tea. She is perhaps one of Christie’s few real and embodied characters: a skilled English spinster, who lives in a typical English village, with her gossip and intrigue. Marple actually represents an entire generation of women whose hopes of marriage were shattered by the loss of over a million young men on the battlefields of World War I. , and is not equipped for anything else. She clearly has an excellent mind. Other times, she may have gone to university and had a lucrative career. Instead, she has to be content with her garden and good business around the parish. No wonder she transforms this excellent brain and sharp observational powers to solve crimes.
The great advantage of an elderly spinster is that it is invisible. Nobody thinks it’s a result when you’re sitting in the lobby of a big hotel with your knitting on. And so I heard, noticed and noticed the little details the police ignore: nail biting at the wrong girl, behavior that seems out of character. She compares the characters of her village: the glint of victory in the eye of a crook reminds her of the choir boy’s face when he took over the group. That smirk that no one noticed. But of course she did.
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Miss Marple may seem weak and insignificant, but she is not weak. In fact, she shows a quiet toughness when she confronts a millionaire and declares, “I am an enemy.” And perseverance with the police that in the end exhausts even the most resistant of them. She also embodies what Hercules Poirot seems to lack: empathy and an understanding of human weakness, along with a strong sense of justice. Agatha Christie understood it clearly. While Poirot was just her version of Holmes and Watson, a way to solve the mystery, Miss Marple had a goal: to be someone whose job it was to right the wrong in her world.
It is interesting that Miss Marple appears in “The Tuesday Night Club” (later published in “The Thirteen Problems”) at the same time that Agatha Christie was going through a crisis in her own life. Her beloved husband wanted a divorce. Christie had dramatically disappeared a year before this book was published in Royal Magazine, likely while it was being written. So perhaps Miss Marple was expressing Christie’s feeling at the time: a helpless, neglected, invisible woman, yearning for justice. Christie herself was clearly of a good mind and was allowed to work in a pharmacy during the war. But then, she’s also confined to the housewife role, stuck at home while Archie Christie flirts with the golf course. No wonder she wanted a character who corrected everything with the world.
In the new book “Marple,” no one tries to show the detective as a brilliant young woman, perhaps doing something daring in World War I. In each tale, she is as we know her – graceful, vulnerable, old and wise. Do her knitting. It sparkles a lot, which I don’t remember the real Miss Marple doing much. Some tales take place in the village of St Mary’s Mead inhabited by Miss Marple or in similar English village settings, while some are more exotic. Alyssa Cole takes her to New York, Jan Kwok takes her to Hong Kong, and Ellie Griffiths puts her amazing work in southern Italy. All the stories are amusing and intriguing, but I have to say I guessed from most of them, which I certainly couldn’t do in the real Christie’s novel.
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That’s part of the appeal, of course – finding the killer before the end of the book. Another reason Kristi remains so popular is that her stories have been safely removed in time and space from our reality. Her village is our dream, where everyone knows everyone, and they meet for tea at the rectory or in the tavern: a place where one belongs. Her crimes are never brutal. They are smart, any violence is off the page, and Miss Marple very much sympathizes with the perpetrator. In the end, everything is fine. The crime was solved, the killer was brought to justice, and calm was restored to that universe. Isn’t that what we all long for now? A place where we feel at home, safe and at ease?
I have to admit that when I’m nervous, the first thing I reach for is Agatha Christie’s novel (I own everything I’ve written) and I pray I don’t quickly remember what happened. Let’s hope this new and fun collection by some of our favorite writers will draw a new group of readers to the formidable Miss Marple.
Rhys Bowen is the author of two historical series of puzzles as well as several historical novels, the latest being “The Venice Sketchbook”. British farmer, splitting her time between California and Arizona.
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