Today is Agatha Christie day on Patti Abbott’s blog for Friday’s Forgotten Books. It also marks the first guest review by Patrick Ohl who comes to us by way of Barry Ergang. If you have not seen Patrick’s blog, At The Scene Of The Crime, you are missing a lot of good stuff. Very much worth your time. Please join me in welcoming Patrick to the blog for the first of hopefully many more appearances…..
Colonel Protheroe was not a nice man. In fact, he was universally despised. His daughter hated him, his first wife left him, his second wife seems liable to do the same any day now. He’s built up a reputation as the village boor, and seems to quarrel with everyone a few times a day. Nobody is safe from his wrath: the artist Lawrence Redding; the archaeologist Dr. Stone; even our narrator, Reverend Leonard Clement, proclaims that anybody who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world a favour.
Unfortunately, Fate has a funny way of working in an Agatha Christie novel, and before Len Clement knows it, he’s a suspect in The Murder at the Vicarage. But by no means the only one: it seems that everybody in the quiet village of St. Mary Mead had a motive for doing the old man in. Luckily for everyone, Miss Marple is the next-door neighbour, and had an opportunity of observing the comings and goings on the afternoon of the murder. And so this seemingly-harmless lady goes a-sleuthing to bring the killer of the Colonel to justice…
Readers of my blog will know that I am a big admirer of Agatha Christie. Mention her name once and I’m likely to start babbling about how wonderful she was for hours. The Murder at the Vicarage introduces Miss Marple for the first time in novel form, and for that alone it’s worth a read. It’s particularly interesting to note how different Miss Marple is in this novel, compared to her other outings. She is described as “that awful Miss Marple”, and is disliked intensely by the narrator’s wife, Griselda, who at one point calls her a “nasty old cat”. Whereas in other books, Miss Marple is a seemingly-senile, perfectly harmless old lady, she is described in far more vicious terms here, and at times she does seem rather frightening, like a tame version of Mrs. Bradley.
I have always enjoyed The Murder at the Vicarage, and was pleased to see myself enjoying it once more upon this re-read. But my enjoyment is not really plot-related: I think this was one of Christie’s weaker plotting efforts. Indeed, Christie would revisit and refine the central twist in this novel; in my opinion, the best of these occurs in one of her 1930s novels, where she really perfected the twist. But here, Miss Marple conveniently jumps to the right conclusion because, well, she’s Miss Marple. It’s really a bit of a leap of faith in logic, where you’re given a detail and must infer that the detail was necessary to the crime because it’s the only way X can be responsible. It’s fair play, strictly speaking, but it does feel a bit too neat a conclusion. Even Miss Marple admits that the only way to convict the killer is to entrap him.
I suspect that what keeps bringing me back to this story is the sense of humour throughout the proceedings. Griselda desperately clings onto their servant Mary, despite her being a terrible cook, because as long as she’s a bad cook nobody else will want to hire her! The village is filled with gossipy old women who know everything that happens in the village the instant it happens; not even the Internet could spread information this quickly! And we have a classic array of suspects, including A Mysterious Lady named (of all things) Mrs. Lestrange!
The Murder at the Vicarage is a historically important novel, because it introduced Miss Marple. But it’s not her finest outing, plot-wise. For that, I’d point readers to either A Murder in Announced or A Pocket Full of Rye. Still, there is much of interest in this novel, much of which is written in a humorous vein. It’s a complex little mystery which is brought to a decent enough resolution; it’s also set in a small village, the kind of setting that people are forever associating with Agatha Christie. But as I’ve mentioned many times on my blog, that’s just a stereotype: at this point in her career, this was just her second village mystery; the first was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Patrick Ohl ©2012