That is, until I borrowed a set of Miss Marple books from a friend, a Christiephile, and read them all slowly, and then faster, and then, putting down the book, wondered why this woman character hadn’t grabbed me before.
Obviously, Miss Marple doesn’t offer much for the reader looking forward to a good potboiler. There usually isn’t a murder until forty or fifty pages, the first half of a typical Miss Marple book is about a small town or village, where the characters just happen to be pottering about their lives. Sometimes, the story opens on Miss Marple herself, increasingly, as the books go on, complaining about her old age. No, not “complaining,” that’s not the right word for her—more like ruminating about age. You realize with a shock by the time you read book six, that the Vicar’s unborn child is now old enough to go into service himself, and you wonder how many more years Miss Marple has to go on.
In a moment of self-awareness in the book Nemesis, Miss Marple considers herself by the very words people often use about her: “an old pussy.” Sometimes, this word is used with admiration, such as by a retired detective Sir Henry Clithering, when he calls her my old lady, and often, the first glimpse the reader has of Miss Marple is from the point of view of the person watching her: canny blue eyes, a fluff of white hair, a withered pink and white face. “Everyone’s great aunt,” someone calls her in a later book, and indeed, unlike Poirot, who twirls and poses and pontificates, Miss Marple twitters and is scatty, and knits, and gossips.
But perhaps reading her all at one go has helped me realize exactly what a tremendous piece of fiction the Miss Marple character actually was. If you consider it, no one was more disenfranchised after World War II (where many of Christie’s later books are set) than the old and aged, who remembered a world gone by. By twist of fate (it’s never explained), Miss Marple is unmarried, and has no relatives except a rather condescending, but quite devoted nephew. She lives on a small income, subsidized by him, and the books often mention that she’s not very rich, and shall have to take a hand out. (There is one book, the one I mentioned before, where she inherits a small legacy, but it’s not spoken of after). Her small village is being plowed over and redeveloped, and she’s unable to go for walks by herself without falling down or having someone worry that she’s fallen down. It’s a reminder that the aged are essentially powerless, and in that sense, it’s incredible to see how much power Miss Marple manages to give herself, all in the apologetic subservient manner of women of her generation.
Miss Marple is the detective novel on its head—cases are only offered to her later, and still, only in as much as she can manage—people often underestimate her for her gender and her age, and unlike most heroes, she does not stand on centre stage, rather off to the side, like a singular Greek chorus, pointing out bits you may have missed. In fact, her novels are perhaps most engaging for that sense, it’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where you’re only given the most tantalizing clues, but nothing more, until the very end, when you “ah” and “oh” like everyone else. There is no gathering of people in one room like Poirot does, Miss Marple just pops her bonneted head up before the villain can commit another villainy. She makes no compunctions about overhearing conversations or believing the worst about human nature—that is just what old ladies do. She wins because she plays her greatest asset and her biggest disadvantage—her age—to the hilt, and like the people no one notices: the maid, the child in the garden, the old lady on the bus; but who notice everyone, gets the bad guy in the end.
It’s hard to love a little old lady as much as you’d love a dashing man or a beautiful woman or just your regular troubled anti-hero with a past and a trenchcoat, but I urge you to do a re-read of the books, even if you ignored them before. Christie’s descriptions of gentrified life, the dialogue that shines through, the slow build ups to exciting plot: it’s a look at the crime writer you may have overlooked earlier, but won’t again.