The mystery equivalent of the question, “Are you a dog person or a cat person?” is “Do you fancy Poirot or Miss Marple?” (Well, actually, it’s “Classic detection or hardboiled?” but that’s not where we’re going today.) I’m a cat person because I live with cats and love the ones I live with, but I’d hook up with a dog in a second if circumstances allowed! (That’s right: I am a pet slut. Live with it!) Similarly, in the raging competition between Poirot and Marple, I exercise my right not to choose. The experience of reading a Poirot vs. a Miss Marple story is appealing in different ways. I love and admire both.
The thirty-three books and fifty short stories featuring Hercule Poirot are more tightly plotted and conform to the established patterns of “fair play” detective fiction: present your case, strew it with clues, misdirect to your heart’s content, and unveil your solution. As a character, Poirot is the more clear cut of the two: a consulting detective through and through, the skills of his trades shaded with specific quirks and foibles – his vanity, his OCD, his love of food – that never change. (They never change.) Poirot is a professional, so it makes sense for him to be on the scene. Once a policeman himself, his relationship with the local gendarmes is usually an affable one. Sometimes a murder occurs while he is on vacation or (briefly) retired, and then he is consulted – again, a turn of events that makes some sense, even if the concept of a character attracting murder wherever he goes is purely fictional. (NB: If I wanted to commit a murder and discovered that Poirot was in the house, I would burn the blowgun in the fireplace and head to the movies. Thankfully, fictional murderers never think like that!)
Jane Marple is not a private detective. Put purely and simply, she is a buttinsky. If all her cases took place in her home village of St. Mary Mead, it might make sense for the police, long familiar with the efficacy of her homespun sleuthing methods, to accept her benevolent assistance in the cause of justice. Yet only two of the dozen Miss Marple novels take place fully in St. Mary Mead. (A few others start there and quickly move away.) Miss Marple is lucky to have anyone pay attention to her, even if she does have a letter from Sir Henry Clithering stuffed in her reticule. (NB: If I was a village police inspector, and this nosy parker thrust her umbrella in my face and demanded I listen while she explained the curious behavior of her fishmonger’s niece, I would have her escorted out of town and head to the movies.)
If Poirot arrives at the scene armed with his “little grey cells” and the dual weapons of order and method, Miss Marple’s “super power, ” as it were, is her intuitive understanding of human nature, gleaned from a lifetime spent observing the activities of the townsfolk around her, much like a biologist watches scum on a pond (that’s Miss Marple’s analogy, not mine). Anecdotes burst out of the pages about “Fred Tyler, at the fish shop” who pinched a penny here and there, or “Nurse Ellerton – really an excellent, kindly woman” – who was also an angel of death. These village parallels are part of Miss Marple’s charm, but they are maddening as well. Having never heard of these people, we cannot match wits with Miss Marple the way we can when Poirot brandishes a coffee stain on the china carpet and dares us to suss out its significance.
Miss Marple’s intuitive methods, although they may reveal the solution, rarely provide anything so trivial as state’s evidence. Scotland Yard is surprisingly unruffled by this complication, placing great stock in her seemingly literal ability to sniff out evil:
“It’s rather, you know, like being born with a very keen sense of smell. You can smell a leak of gas when other people can’t do so. You can distinguish one perfume from another very easily. I had an aunt once who said she could smell when people told a lie. She said there was quite a distinctive odor came to her. Their noses twitched, she said, and then the smell came.”
Can you imagine Miss Marple giving evidence in court? And yet it works, at least for me. I love the homespun feeling of her novels, the depiction of how village life changed between and after the wars and yet the ways of human nature remained essentially the same. And I love the surprise of Miss Marple: draped in lace fichu with a knitting basket in her lap, or puttering fondly amongst the sulfur-colored antirrhinums in her garden, she is one of the most ruthless characters in detective fiction. As a result, she always gets her man, even if we’re not always quite sure how she does it.
That relentlessness is what earns the elderly spinster the sobriquet “Nemesis” in her ninth adventure, A Caribbean Mystery (1964), but Miss Marple displays this burning quality throughout her career, most especially in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), where the fate of the wealthy Fortescue family pales next to her determination to avenge an insignificant’s maid’s cruelly demeaning murder. She puts her passion for justice into words at the end of 1957’s 4:50 from Paddington (1957):
“’Everything he did was bold and audacious and cruel and greedy, and I am really very, very glad,’ finished Miss Marple, looking as fierce as a fluffy old lady can look, ‘that they haven’t abolished capital punishment yet because I do feel that if there is anyone who ought to hang, it’s . . . ‘”
Another important distinction: aside from a few spoilers that Christie slips in about previous cases, one could read the Poirot novels in any order. The Miss Marple adventures beg one to read from first to last. Her novels have a deeper sense of historical context. The village of St. Mary Mead – and the other villages that stand in for it – undergoes massive physical and sociological change during the forty plus-year span of the novels. The effects of war and politics are discussed on the most basic domestic level, and things like the shortage of servants, a community dealing with rationing, or the encroachment of strangers in the new housing development become significant issues in her mysteries. Series characters undergo changes in circumstance; some of them die. The theme of aging, death, decay and rebirth is central to Miss Marple, who would herself be one hundred and twenty years old if we did not take into account the vagaries of a fictional timeline.
I’ve nattered on about the character here in preface to a discussion about Nemesis. Brian, a fellow Christie fan, recently asked me what I thought of the book. Look what you’ve wrought, Brian! I’ve approached the novel in a roundabout fashion because I have many problems with it. But I love Miss Marple, and I can’t simply dismiss the book as a failure, given its singular prominence in the canon.
Around 1940, Christie decided to write two “final adventures,” one for Poirot and the other for Miss Marple. She did this partly because of fears engendered by the war raging around her (she thought a bomb would drop on her!) and partly to provide future financial security for her family. Curtain, Poirot’s swan song, makes total sense. By 1940, she had written nearly a score of Poirot novels; he was her bread and butter. And Curtain most definitely reads as a final adventure. But what to make of Sleeping Murder? At the time, the Miss Marple novels numbered exactly . . . one! Christie claimed in her Autobiography that she had never thought of continuing Miss Marple’s career. Sleeping Murder suggests she had changed her mind, yet there is no sense of a finale here. In fact, it almost defies placement in the chronology of Miss Marple’s life or of world events. If anything, I would put Sleeping Murder early in a timeline of the sleuth’s career, for it delves less into the themes I mentioned above, and it includes a freshly married Raymond West and his wife, two characters who, by the later novels, had dwindled in significance.
Nemesis (1971), the last written Miss Marple novel, feels much more like a curtain call, a special event. First of all, it’s the only time in the entire canon that Christie created a definite sequel. Nemesis picks up one year after A Caribbean Mystery leaves off. (This is a bit problematical, not just because seven years have actually passed between the publication of the two novels but because Miss Marple seems to have jammed her ill-fated holiday to Bertram’s Hotel in between. And granted that Miss Marple is an old lady, but her imperfect memory over those striking events of just a year ago strike one as an implausible literary convenience.) In the tropics, our heroine met Jason Rafiel, a cantankerous millionaire invalid, who became her unlikely partner in solving a brutal string of murders. In Nemesis, Mr. Rafiel asks for Miss Marple’s assistance in another matter, this time from the grave.
In shape and form, Nemesis is unlike any earlier case Miss Marple has tackled. Up till now, we have been given the trappings of a traditional mystery – the closed circle of either a family or a village community, the intriguing set-up, the murder – and then we introduce Miss Marple to the proceedings, sometimes very late in the affair. Here, the focus is, from beginning to end, on the old lady herself. We never leave Miss Marple’s side or her point of view. And there’s no Dermot Craddock or Sir Henry Clithering to consult with, no vicar’s wife to visit. We are visitors into Miss Marple’s state of mind, witnesses to her methods as she embarks on her most unusual mystery case. In fact, one could hardly call it a mystery in the traditional sense: it is more what another character in the novel describes as a “pilgrimage” – a quest to uncover evil.
I think these aberrations from the “same old same old” are the reasons many people not only like Nemesis but mark it as one of their favorites. The other reason, I would venture to say, is that when one has finished the book, the whole thing leaves one with an ineffable sadness, both because the solution reveals a situation and motive not found elsewhere in Christie . . . and because it feels like a farewell to arguably the greatest spinster detective ever. There’s another reason to feel sad, though: Nemesis is the second of that final, fateful quartet of Christie novels that lay bare the truth about her fading talents. It’s definitely the best of the four – Passenger to Frankfurt may be the most outdated and embarrassing thriller any author has ever written, Elephants Can Remember is a short story stretched to novel length that caves in on its own faulty timeline, and Postern of Fate is simply . . . incomprehensible. I ask myself, “What would you have, Bradley?” Would it have been better if these novels hadn’t been published and we fans had been deprived of four more titles? The answer is complicated, and it has to do with asking why the editors couldn’t have stepped in and helped.
But back to Nemesis. The request Mr. Rafiel delivers to Miss Marple is simply stated:
“You, my dear, if I may call you that, have a natural flair for justice, and that has led to your having a natural flair for crime. I want you to investigate a certain crime.”
The crime in question is of mammoth importance to Mr. Rafiel, and so the fact that he gives no details about it to Miss Marple makes no sense whatsoever. Neither does the time limit he sets:
“You are not young, but you are, if I may say so, tough. I think I can trust a reasonable fate to keep you alive for a year at least.”
Why a year? Why not supply her with the basic knowledge she needs to begin? The “answer” we are given to that question is that Mr. Rafiel wants to entice Miss Marple with a chance to “play” detective. He seems to hope that she will find pleasure in this quest, despite the fact that any delay in uncovering the truth prolongs the suffering of somebody who was denied the justice Mr. Rafiel seeks.
Even Sam Spade was given something to go on, no matter that Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s initial request was as bogus as the name she gave. Miss Marple receives Mr. Rafiel’s request twice, first through his lawyers and then in a direct appeal, with no information forthcoming. She makes a visit to an old familiar character and learns nothing. On faith, she embarks on a coach tour of Famous Houses and Gardens, hoping that her nose for evil will sniff out whatever it is Mr. Rafiel wants her to uncover. And from the start, none of this pilgrimage makes much sense, starting from the dead man’s arrangements. Based on the people he places in Miss Marple’s way, one has to wonder what it is that Mr. Rafiel knew about the events of the past. Based on Miss Marple’s initial frustration, one has to ask why Rafiel didn’t simply put her in touch with the person with whom Miss Marple has her first specific, fact-based consultation. This doesn’t occur until Chapter Twelve (“A Consultation”). Until then, we are left in as woolly a muddle as Miss Marple and have nothing to do but follow her thoughts. Some of these are interesting as they reveal her process as a detective:
“She was one of those chatty, fluffy old ladies whom other people expect to talk, to ask questions that were, on the face of it, merely gossipy questions. She would talk about her childhood and that would lead to one of the sisters talking about theirs. She’d talk about food she had eaten, servants she had had, daughters and cousins and relations, travel, marriages, births and – yes – deaths.”
Unfortunately, her methods are put to use in fruitless ways. On the coach, she surveys her fellow passengers and creates portraits of the kind of people they are based on their looks. This is bad detecting, and it doesn’t do much for Christie’s reputation with characterization that all the people on the coach can be so easily identified. It becomes even more frustrating when we learn that most of this group of fifteen have little or nothing to do with the matter at hand. Christie tries to plant a sense of unease and suspicion, but most of these moments come to naught, and one tease, which stretches through the entire novel, culminates in one of the most insufferable deus ex machina moments ever witnessed.
Eventually, Miss Marple begins to gather bits and pieces of something that may or may not lead to something else. This miniscule bit of information is gone over again and again in conversation after conversation. Christie never provides us with summative statements here – you know, the ones that keep things moving along, like, “She then related all that she had learned from her visit to Mrs. Glynne.” Instead, Miss Marple goes over all the details yet again, as if this will clear matters up once and for all. Rereading the novel this time, I found myself growing more and more angry at Mr. Rafiel’s selfish manipulation of the situation. Perhaps this is a clever bit of characterization on Christie’s part – he was a selfish jerk through most of A Caribbean Mystery – but I don’t think so. I think the author had a clever idea for a set-up, one that would bring in her longtime fans. I think she had an idea for a murder that seemed thought-provoking and modern for the times. But I fear that she did not know how to lead us from Point A to Point Z in her usual misdirecting manner. Her well of ideas appears to have run dry. In fact, the crime turns out to be a pale copy of one of Miss Marple’s earlier successes, and it baffles me that she doesn’t simply say, “Oh, this is the old Boogah Woogah Plan from You Know When!” Her faulty memory must be to blame.
Is the novel a total loss? Well, no. Miss Marple’s final confrontation with the killer is a chilling scene, maybe not as shocking to readers as she intended it to be but effective – at least until that deus ex machina moment I mentioned. And if Christie’s mighty talents have faded due to her own age and infirmity, here it serves as a parallel to the situation Miss Marple finds herself in her last case. At least we can cherish the time spent so intimately with a character we have loved since she first sat by the fire in 1927, listening to her friends recount odd stories of open cases, every one of which she solved without dropping a stitch. And we can hold to our hearts the legacy of an author who, for the better part of fifty years, baffled and delighted us.
I miss her every day.