Monday, August 4, 2014

First Tastes: Margot Kinberg looks at Miss Marple


Crime Watch is currently undergoing a renovation and upgrade, and as part of that ongoing process, a fortnight ago I debuted "First Tastes", a new series for the revamped Crime Watch which will regularly take a look at novels where some terrific authors first introduced their series protagonist (often the author's debut novel). One of the many things that makes crime fiction great is the myriad of fascinating characters in the genre, and the way in which we, as readers, can follow characters we love and loathe over a series of tales, rather than just one-off stories.

I'm intending for this series to include many guest bloggers, and today I have the pleasure and privilege of sharing with you a "First Tastes" piece written by one of the very best crime fiction bloggers out there, California-based mystery writer Margot Kinberg. Margot is taking a look at the first appearance of one of the most iconic characters in crime fiction: Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Enjoy!

MISS MARPLE IN MURDER AT THE VICARAGE
by Margot Kinberg

Thank you, Craig, for inviting me to be a part of your First Tastes feature. One of the most enduring and popular of fictional sleuths is Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple. As her fans know, she’s lived in the village of St. Mary Mead her whole life, and has learned a great deal about human nature just from the interactions she’s had with others who live there, and observations she’s made.


Most people have an image of Miss Marple as a pleasant, kindly elderly lady who solves crimes because people come to her with problems. But that’s not what she’s like in our first taste. In fact, we don’t see the friendlier, more caring side of her nature until a bit later.

Miss Marple makes her debut in The Murder at the Vicarage. Village magistrate Colonel Lucius Protheroe is heartily disliked by just about everyone. Even the patient vicar Leonard Clement says that,

‘…anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.’

One day, that’s exactly what happens. Colonel Protheroe has paid a visit to the vicarage and is shot while he’s waiting for Clement in his study.

Inspector Slack and Colonel Melchett investigate and as they soon learn, there’s no lack of suspects. Protheroe was unpopular even with his own family members and several people had the opportunity to commit the murder.  When one of the suspects confesses, Slack believes the case is solved. But as he and Melchett quickly discover, it’s not that simple.

Miss Marple lives near the vicarage and happened to be working in her garden around the time of the murder, so her statement is of interest. And her knowledge of the people in the village, as well as of human nature, turns out to be crucial to solving this case.

In this first outing, Miss Marple, quite frankly, doesn’t come across with the warmth and compassion we see later in the series. For example, Clement’s wife Griselda holds a tea for the village ladies on the afternoon of the murder. When her husband asks who’s invited, she says,

'Mrs. Price Ridley, Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, and that terrible Miss Marple.'

When the vicar protests, Griselda goes on,

‘She's the worst cat in the village,’ said Griselda. ‘And she always knows every single thing that happens — and draws the worst inferences from it.’

Here we Griselda’s impression of Miss Marple as an unpleasant rumour-monger, although the vicar himself doesn't see her that way. In fact, he rather likes her. Still, even Miss Marple admits to gossiping:

‘I'm afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn't it?’

Miss Marple’s – erm – interest in others is also clear in this novel. Here’s what Clement thinks about her fondness for gardening:

‘Miss Marple always sees everything. Gardening is as good as a smoke screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses can always be turned to account.’

Certainly she seems to know just about everything that’s going on in the village.

And yet, although she’s not portrayed in as positive a way as she is in later novels, we do see that Miss Marple isn’t entirely unpleasant. She has a gentle sense of humour, and as Clement puts it, she’s ‘rather a dear.’ She brings one of the villagers up short for spreading a piece of gossip that’s patently not true. And she doesn't lie about anything she’s done or seen. What’s more, she doesn’t take malicious pleasure in Prothero’s death or in the salacious gossip about it and his family. She admits he wasn’t a nice person at all, but still thinks it’s terrible that he was murdered.

This first taste of Miss Marple also gives readers a good look at the sort of detective she is:  observant, gently witty, truthful and deceptively vague. Add to that the more human, warmer side of her that we see later, and it’s easy to understand why Miss Marple has remained so popular, nearly ninety years after she made her debut.

Miss Marple is a ‘regular’ person, neither a police detective nor a private investigator. She has no superpowers, and that too arguably adds to her appeal for many readers. She’s more credible as a ‘regular’ person – someone to whom readers can relate. It’s also refreshing for her fans that she’s no longer young. It’s a reminder to them that cleverness, skill and success have nothing to do with one’s age. But make no mistake about it; Miss Marple is no mere ‘twittery old lady.’ As Clement puts it:

‘Miss Marple is a white haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner — Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.’ 

She is clever and resourceful. She uses those skills, plus her deep knowledge of human nature and her intelligence to solve cases and outwit criminals. So it’s not hard at all for readers to cheer for her.   Finally, Miss Marple represents, to many readers, the England of small, peaceful villages. Whether those villages actually existed or still do notwithstanding, it’s a very appealing image.  And we see this, even at first taste.

Thanks, Craig, for hosting me!

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Margot Kinberg is a mystery novelist and an Associate Professor at the Carlsbad campus of National University in Southern California.

She is the author of PUBLISH OR PERISH and B-VERY FLAT, two mystery tales set in a university environment, starring police detective turned professor Joel Williams, and was a driving force behind the charity short story anthology, IN A WORD, MURDER. Margot blogs about crime fiction at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

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18 comments:

  1. Great review. Miss Marple is one of my favorites--in my top five favorite detectives. Another side of her comes out in a later novel _Nemesis_--the Greek goddess of retribution, a terrible vengeful goddess in Greek mythology. She is relentless.

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    1. Fred - It's true isn't it; Miss Marple is relentless. You don't see that as much in this first novel but even here, she has a sort of gentle persistence, doesn't she?

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  2. Interesting feature, and an interesting post from Margot!

    I hadn't realised 'Murder at the Vicarage' was Miss Marple's first appearance - she already seems such a rich and established character in it somehow. In fact, it's probably my favourite of all the Marples bar The Moving Finger - and she doesn't really appear very much in that one.

    Yet again, I've learned something new from you, Margot. :)

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    1. FictionFan - Thank you. And, I like The Moving Finger, too! It is interesting isn't it that even in this first outing, Miss Marple does seem like a full fleshed-out character.She does evolve in the course of the novels but she certainly isn't 'flat' here.

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  3. What a lovely piece Margot: a great introduction to Miss Marple, and a reminder of what a good book this is. It may be time for a re-read. I love that cover too - it's a great picture, but how very male it is, considering this is a book with many very important women characters, quite apart from the obvious Miss Marple.

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    1. Moira - Isn't that cover something? You're right though; the book has some really important female characters, and yet you'd not know it from the cover. Thanks, too, for the kind words. Personally, I always think Miss Marple is worth a re-read. :-)

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  4. An interesting and instructive post, as always, Margot.
    Nice idea Craig, all the best.

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  5. I remember that Miss Marple changed a bit in later books, becoming a little softer and more accessible...thanks for reminding me to revisit Murder at the Vicarage to see some of the before and after!

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    1. Elizabeth - She does indeed change over time to be a little more accessible (I like the way you put that!). I think that's what I like about this first outing; it shows us how she grows over time, if that makes sense.

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  6. Great stuff Margot - I haven't read this one in ages but really must now - cheers :) Great idea to focus on debuts - she didn't change all that much but so many others had to backpedal furiously to make a series viable, so am very interested to see what characters turn up here next.

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    1. Sergio - Thank you - so glad you enjoyed the post. It is interesting that Miss Marple didn't make the major personality changes over the course of the novels that some characters did. Still, I think she does soften a bit around the edges as the novels go on. And I'll be interested too in what other participants suggest for First Tastes.

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  7. I truly remember reading this--one of the first mysteries I ever read. And I knew Margot would have lots of great things to bring to the table--as always.

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    1. Patti - *blush* Thank you. And it is one of those mysteries that stays in the mind, especially if it was one of your first.

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  8. A really interesting look at Miss Marple's first outing. I wonder if Agatha Christie softened her to make her easier to like as the series continued or whether that was always the plan? I'm not sure that I ever read this one. Fantastic feature and an excellent post Margot.

    http://cleopatralovesbooks.wordpress.com

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    1. Cleo - Thanks for the kind words. It is interesting to speculate on why Miss Marple changed as she did over time. It could have just been a simple case of, 'Well, people do grow over time.' Or as you say, it might have been Christie's plan all along. And Christie was very much aware of her readers. Possibly she did see that making Miss Marple 'softer' would be more appealing. Thanks for the 'food for thought.'

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  9. Great concept, Craig. And excellent choice of guest blogger ;-)

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  10. Angela - I thought Craig had a great idea, too, and was honoured to be a part of this. Thanks for the kind words.

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