‘The Murder at the Vicarage’, ‘Thirteen Problems’, and ‘The Body in the Library’ {introducing Miss Marple}

by Agatha Christie

published 1930, 1932, 1941

Sometimes I just need to read some good mysteries, ones where the bad guys are always appropriately punished, and the hero is unlikely but brilliant.  And so I turn to Agatha Christie yet again.  :-D

All the way back in early 2012 (before I was even on WordPress!  Back when my main book blog was on tumblr!  Ah, those were the days!  Not really; WordPress is a much better format for this blog.  Anyway) I started reading the Hercule Poirot books in their published order.  It took me a while to work through them, but it was well-worth the effort to see his character (and those of various secondary characters) unfold and build.  While Miss Marple does not star in nearly as many works, I’m still intrigued about following another character through her progression.

I’ve never liked Miss Marple as well as Poirot, but she is still a fun character in her own right.  She is much smarter than I am, as I never see what she’s driving at with her village connections, but I do love to see how she explains how, exactly, a body in the library ends up being like the little boy who put the frog in the clock.

The Murder at the Vicarage is narrated by the vicar himself.  While Miss Marple had appeared in a short story previous to this (“The Tuesday Night Club”), this was her first full-length novel.  I actually really liked the vicar and his wife, and their relationship made a nice second level.  As always, Christie’s strong morals and droll sense of humor lend a flavor to her books that I greatly enjoy.

“Will you tell me exactly what it is that has upset you?”

“Tell you that in two words, I can.”  Here, I may say she vastly underestimated.

Her humor is so dry, and she frequently makes me giggle.

On the other hand, she can also give me pause –

“If you catch him on the wrong side of the law, let the law punish him.  You agree with me, I’m sure.”

“You forget,” I said.  “My calling obliges me to respect one quality above all others – the quality of mercy.”

“Well, I’m a just man.  No one can deny that.”  I did not speak and he said  sharply, “Why don’t you answer?  A penny for your thoughts, man.”

I hesitated, then I decided to speak.

“I was thinking,” I said, “that, when my time comes, I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice.  Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.”

Thirteen Problems is a collection of short stories that were published at various times throughout the late 1920’s and compiled into one book in 1932.  The first chapter is “The Tuesday Night Club,” Miss Marple’s original appearance.  Several friends are gathered together for dinner, and decide that every week a different one will tell a story and see if the others can solve the mystery.  Miss Marple, of course, never ceases to astound those around her with her intuition and common sense.  Although even Miss Marple can be distressed at times –

I was more disturbed than I can tell you.  I was knitting a comforter for old Miss May at the time, and in my perturbation I dropped two stitches and never discovered it until long after.

As I discovered when reading through the Poirot books in order (and actually the same thing happened when I read the Bertie & Jeeves books in published order as well), many of the secondary characters reappear, and getting to know them through multiple stories really increases the depth and interest for each subsequent tale.  The Body in the Library was a much stronger read this time around because I already knew the Bantrys and Sir Henry and Inspector Slack – even the vicar’s wife pops back in – the names of various gossip-mongerers match up with personalities from Murder at the Vicarage, and everything just ties together so much more completely.

Miss Marple is a fun character, and her little insights do actually give the reader a better chance of solving the mystery herself, so that’s an added bit of fun as well (although I’m notoriously bad at mystery solving).  I can’t help but admire her strong sense of practicality that enables her to strip human drama down to its basic form –

Everybody is very much alike, really.  But fortunately, perhaps, they don’t realize it.