I recently took a course on Agatha Christie. At the first class the teacher asked—what makes Agatha Christie’s mysteries as popular today as when they were first published? I found this question of interest, because I have some personal experience with the popularity of one of her characters — Miss Marple.
Back in October of 2012, I wrote a blog entitled the Quotable Miss Marple. To this day, this blog remains one of my most popular. Christie wrote less Marple mysteries than those about her other famous detective— Hercule Poirot. However, the Miss Marple stories were just as popular. So like my teacher I will ask a similar question. What is it about this detective that continues to attract readers, fans and admirers?
Miss Marple is not your typical detective. She is elderly, she knits and she’s nosy. She lives in the tiny village of St. Mary Mead where her knowledge of village life and human behavior allows her to make comparisons with the current crime. No crime occurs without reminding her of an event or a person from St. Mary Mead.
However, don’t be fooled by her age, her knitting or her apparently muddled thoughts and questions. Miss Marple fully understands the evil that men—and women do and the behavior that exposes their criminality. Miss Marple is like a laser that zeros in on the motive and the person with the motive.
Miss Marple has a razor sharp mind. Like the best detectives she has an understanding of the depravity of the criminal mind along with knowing why people act and react the way they do. To quote Miss Marple, “it is almost always the obvious person.”
The police of course are skeptical of the advice from Miss. Marple. They, along with the reader can’t imagine how this elderly spinster can possibly help with the solution of the case. Yet, if we pay close attention, Miss Marple always points us in the right direction to uncover the villain. If we don’t follow her process, we can easily be misdirected by the red herrings and the dark horses that Christie so cleverly places in her stories.
While the police may discount Miss Marple’s ability, she relies on them for information and clues. She always requests that the police share their findings with her and often asks for help from her friend, retired Scotland Yard Chief Sir Henry Clithering. He is also a participant in the Tuesday Night Club where members share a story and asks the other members to solve the puzzle. Need I mention that Miss Marple holds the record for correctly solving the cases.
She’s not afraid to view and examine a dead body as we discover in The Body in the Library. Nor is she afraid to face the villain in a final confrontation as seen in A Caribbean Mystery. She is most capable of organizing the forces that will protect her from harm when this confrontation occurs.
I’ve described Miss Marple’s detecting skills, but why do readers continue to enjoy her mystery stories? Here are some possible answers. Her books are easy to read. We are comfortable with Miss Marple because she is not threatening, demanding or egotistical. Her stories are full of good humor with interesting characters. And the mysteries are fair—the reader has the same opportunity as Miss Marple to solve the case based on the clues.
We also enjoy the sojourn into Miss Marple’s world of English gardens, and the civility of life in an English village as revealed in The Murder at the Vicarage. There’s always a murder, but the blood and gore found in so many modern novels are missing from a Miss Marple story.
I also think one of the most powerful reasons readers enjoy Miss Marple is there’s always a resolution of the crime. This resolution does not come with a judgment from her. Instead she discovers the facts and presents them to the reader so we can understand her solution and the reason for the murder.
We also feel that when Miss Marple is on the case justice will be served. This justice may not always be through the court system, but we know the villain will receive punishment. We see examples of this alternative punishment in the household of actress Marina Gregg, in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side or with Carrie Louise and her husband Lewis Serrocold in They Do It with Mirrors. This sense of finality, justice and closure provides comfort for the reader.
And finally, I’m sure Miss Marple reminds us of an elderly person we know? And perhaps we discount them because of the assumption they have lost a few gray cells and aren’t fully engaged with modern times. Miss Marple continues to demonstrate as she sits and quietly knits that her little gray cells are still working quite well. She is just as capable as the very best detective to solve a complicated mystery. So don’t overlook reading a Miss Marple mystery novel or short story. You see, she’s still going strong!