With much fanfare and no little trepidation on the part of Agatha Christie purists, a collection of brand-new stories featuring Miss Jane Marple, the world-famous octogenarian sleuth, has arrived at many doorsteps this week. The book is called Marple. That’s it – Marple. Not Miss Marple or The New Adventures of Miss Marple . . . just Marple. Seems a bit cheeky to me. It cries out for at least an exclamation point at the end . . . Marple! Well . . . maybe that makes it look a bit like a musical.
Anyway, I am sure there are a great many Christie purists who want nothing to do with these stories. Who are these twelve upstart writers, these Val McDermids and Lucy Foleys and Ruth Wares, to think they can put on the airs of the Queen of Crime, co-opt one of her most beloved detectives and send her off to Hong Kong, to Italy . . . to Broadway, for God’s sake?!?
As for me, a man who has been known to complain about the Poirot continuation novels a touch too often, well – I ordered my copy of Marple! (I’m just going to keep the exclamation point there, okay?) six months ago, and I must admit I was a little impatient for it to arrive and – dare I say it – excited when I removed the book from its wrappings. I first met Miss Marple in the short form, and while I went on to read and love the twelve novels featuring her, I think she excels in the short form much more than Poirot! The Thirteen Problems is my favorite collection by Christie, and “Tape Measure Murder,” from the American collection Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, introduced me to Aunt Jane and is a truly fine tale.
And now here I am beginning this new collection – on Agatha Christie’s birthday no less! – and eager to share with you how these twelve illustrious modern women fared taking on our beloved Miss Marple.
The collection begins wisely with a very traditional story by Lucy Foley. “Evil in Small Places” puts Miss Marple in a small village much like St. Mary Mead, where she has gone to visit an old school friend who tells her about the gossip swirling around the town’s newest inhabitant, a mysterious Frenchwoman who serves as the church’s new choir master. When the woman is killed on the night of a pagan festival, Miss Marple takes it upon herself to figure out which member of the choir performed a fatal “Frere Jacques” on the Mademoiselle.
I suspected the killer from the start, but that doesn’t mean that Foley hasn’t done a bang-up job seeding her tale with clues that Miss Marple expertly puts together in order to arrive at a solution the likes of which we have certainly found in Christie’s work. Foley adds to the fun by giving us a story chockful of Easter eggs in the form of frequent mentions of past cases and beloved characters from the canon, as well as favorite tropes, like Miss Marple leading an inferior police inspector by the nose.
(A question for true fans: one of the cases mentioned corresponds to The Body in the Library. The novel came out in 1942 but has always felt – as this story does – to have taken place much closer in time to 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage. Any thoughts on this?)
Val McDermid picks up the slack – as in Inspector Slack – in the next tale, “The Second Murder at the Vicarage.” Once again, we are in the delightful presence of the Vicar Leonard Clement, his vivacious wife Griselda, and his wisecracking nephew Dennis (who is now a cop working under no less than Slack himself!) McDermid does a great job nailing Clement’s narrative voice and Miss Marple’s slyly innocuous manner of snooping. Two characters from the firstVicarage murder are murdered, one of them in the Clements’ own kitchen, and Miss Marple manages to put the truth forward in record time. That this truth is only mildly interesting and hardly complex is a small matter; just being in the presence of so many old friends is, for once, pleasure enough.
After two palpable hits, can the third story continue the streak? Here “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan,” just as the Muppets and Jason Voorhees did before her. This is our heroine in the mid 60’s to early 70’s, as mention is made of Bertram’s Hotel and “the Marina Gregg situation.” The story features Aunt Jane’s nephew Raymond West and his wife Joan. Raymond’s most successful novel has been adapted into a play by a New York company, and the Wests have invited Miss Marple to travel to America for the premiere. What she wants to do most of all is shop in the department stores, which allows for an early scene of Miss Marple struggling over a tablecloth in the bargain basement at Gimbel’s. In an amazing coincidence, she meets an actress who will naturally turn out to be the leading lady in Raymond’s play. (I don’t fault the story for this turn of events: more than once, I have walked down the streets of New York City and bumped into an old friend!)
New York at this time was gritty and dangerous, and we see some of this as our visitors roam the streets. Given the time and place, I appreciate the story’s attempt to address issues of racism, sexism, ageism, and anti-Communist sentiment. True, one of the characters, a black woman who had been grilled by the House Un-American Affairs Committee, has to bear with most of these issues, while Miss Marple herself is bombarded with ageist sentiments throughout. But all of this worthy stuff is next to meaningless if we don’t have a good Miss Marple mystery surrounding it. And we don’t.
I think there was a missed opportunity here for a grand “fish out of water” tale, with Miss Marple proving to the naysayers that her small town tactics could work in the big bad city. I won’t go into spoilers as to why the mystery itself isvb a cheat. The real crime here is that it is much less fun a read than it could have been. Ms. Cole is primarily a writer of romance novels and modern thrillers, and her writing style is positively verbose compared to Christie’s lean prose. Everything is off here: the attempt to look into Miss Marple’s mind and beliefs, Raymond and Joan’s patronizing attitude toward her, a bizarre village parallel that “helps” Miss Marple solve the case – and the humor. Oh, the humor! It lands nowhere and sometimes even damages the homage. One example: Raymond’s novel that has been adapted for the stage is called Sordid and Unpleasant. Sorry, but this is how Miss Marple describes her nephew’s work, not how he sees it.
According to the end notes in the collection, the next author, Natalie Haynes, “tours the world speaking on the modern relevance of the classical world.” This makes the multiple meanings of her story’s title, “The Unravelling,” especially delicious. Not that there seems to be anything classical about the inciting incident: the village is agog as a result of a public brawl on the high street between Mr. Weaver, the respectable haberdasher, and Martin, a stranger in town who works for farmer Syme as a pig hand. When Martin is found murdered, Weaver is quickly arrested. And guess which sharp elderly spinster believes he is not guilty?
Haynes gets many things right in terms of the story hearkening back to Christie. Chief among them is Miss Marple herself, who seems much more the Marple we know than the one we met in Manhattan. This Miss Marple knows how to keep her own counsel. She is the personification of equanimity except when she drops a stitch, as she does more than once here while knitting a baby blanket. And she solves the case by using a clue that has irritated me to no end whenever it pops up – as it frequently has done in Christie’s work! (Nobody’s perfect.) The puzzle aspects of this case are mushy, and the emphasis is laid on the emotional impact of characters’ actions – all things you would expect to find in a middling Marple tale.
The one thing that Haynes gets wrong is the village itself. Where the heck are we?!? The time is post-war – late 40’s to early 50’s? – and we know from the canon that Miss Marple lived all her life in a charming cottage next door to the vicarage in St. Mary Mead. That beloved place name is never mentioned once, and this Miss Marple lives “at the top of the hill” and seems to have moved there not too long ago, for the local policeman remembers a time when she wasn’tthere. Plus, Sergeant Dover is out of his element because he is surprised to be dealing with murder, and every fan knows that the per capita death-by-misadventure rate in St. Mary Mead is high.
Admittedly, I have raised a stink more than once at the way author Ruth Ware is constantly referred to as “the modern Agatha Christie.” I actually think this does Ware a disservice in terms of what she is actually trying to accomplish in her writing, but it probably ramps up the sales a bit. Anyway, it made me approach her entry in this book a bit, er, Ware-ily (see what I did??) I have to admit the title disarmed me: if Hercule Poirot can have his own yuletide mystery (twice, in fact), then why shouldn’t we celebrate “Miss Marple’s Christmas”?
Ware gets the trappings right: Miss Marple feels like Miss Marple, and the village parallels in this story are better. Plus, we get the Bantrys, two of my favorite characters in the canon, and they feel right, too. Both households find unwelcome guests barging in on them for the holidays – for Miss Marple, it’s nephew Raymond and his wife, and for the Bantrys it’s the Dashwood family, none of whom possess either sense or sensibility. The mistletoe is hung, and the sirloin, the turkey, and the pudding are all being prepared. It’s the perfect setting for a fiendish crime.
And that’s all that’s missing –Ware delivers, not a crime but a con job, and an obvious one at that. It makes Miss Marple’s over-lengthy explanation at the end nearly extraneous. Plus, there’s a coda where, with a twinkling eye, Aunt Jane unmasks Joan West’s bizarre behavior, going on and on about something that was obvious from the first clue! I enjoyed spending time in the company of these people, but Ware’s inability – or unwillingness – to match Christie’s conciseness should put the comparison between the two authors to bed once and for all.
The next author, Naomi Alderman, wrote Disobedience, which was made into a wonderful movie, and The Power, a piece of speculative fiction that some compare to the work of her mentor, Margaret Atwood. Her story, “The Open Mind,” takes place among the esteemed faculty of a college in Oxford University. It is 1970, and there is a bit of a Third Girl vibe here as Miss Marple deals with more blatant sexual activity and an overdose of quaaludes.
“Good grief, how did you know all that?” Miss Marple’s companion on this case asks at the end. And this is what Alderman gets most right, for don’t most of us get the occasional feeling when reading a Miss Marple story that her insights are almost supernatural, that the clueing is just a little sparse? The solution has a nice sense of Christie, with layers of truth being unfolded. But how the old lady could have figured all this out from one casual remark thrown out at an academic luncheon is anybody’s guess. I have a big quibble with one element on the final page, but that’s a spoilerish bit meant for a conversation with others who have read the story.
“Miss Marple was mildly surprised to find herself waltzing.” And so, for that matter, was I. Even more surprising is the setting: the cruise ship Jade Empress bound for Hong Kong. “The Jade Empress,” by Jean Kwok posits yet another long vacation provided by generous but insufferable nephew Raymond West. This is the second time in the collection that Raymond has whisked Aunt Jane out of the country “for her health,” and I can’t help but appreciate how sparingly Christie herself used this trope.
As in her Caribbean adventure, Miss Marple has found a kindly but verbose companion, the elderly Mr. Pang, who doesn’t have a glass eye – although his caregiver does! It would be natural for our heroine to feel a sense of déjà vu when, during their shipboard dance lesson, Mr. Pang “froze. He stared fixedly over her shoulder. He seemed to have difficulty breathing for a moment, as his face turned a deep purple.“ The next morning, Mr. Pang is dead, and Miss Marple must figure out, among many other things, what he saw and its significance to his death.
Clearly, this is a full-on homage to A Caribbean Mystery (the first Miss Marple I ever read), but in Kwok’s hands we are treated to a more graceful, knowledgeable and respectful handling of another culture than Christie supplied in her own novel. These touches enrich the story, while the mystery itself is clever – and the vision of Miss Marple performing tai chi in a Hong Kong park may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The next tale, “A Deadly Wedding Day” by Dreda Say Mitchell, shares a couple of things with Kwok’s tale. Both of them find inspiration from A Caribbean Mystery. In this case, it seems many things happened to Miss Marple during her island vacation in St. Honore that Mrs. Christie forgot to mention! Chief among them is her reunion with an old friend, Miss Bella Baptiste, a retired nurse and fellow amateur detective, whom Miss Marple had met years earlier during the Blitz.
The two ladies reunite again on English soil at the wedding of Miss Bella’s niece Marie to the noble Peter Apfel-Strand. Of course, a murder occurs at the wedding reception, and it’s up to Miss Marple – now teamed up with Miss Bella – to solve the case. The idea of Miss Marple teaming up with anyone is problematic and requires a whole bunch of new history to make any sense. The other aspect that the two stories share is an examination of how primarily white cultures devalue people of color and old people. Miss Bella, being black, is relegated to snooping around the servants’ hall, but even Miss Marple is rebuffed by the gentry, who dismiss her as “an interfering crackpot.” As the elderly sleuth sadly reflects,
“I wasn’t the first hand it wouldn’t be the last time she was dismissed as a silly old woman with one foot in the grave, and, she reflected, it was in such strong contrast to the way Miss Bella was treated by her Caribbean community. Her friend was highly esteemed, and no one would ever dream of calling Bella Baptiste by her first name only. The honorific “Miss” was considered a mark of respect for her age and life experience.”
Christie herself spoke of this with feeling in A Murder Is Announced, and we know that part of the reason for her creating Miss Marple was to honor the old women in her life (like her grandmother) for their wisdom and strength. I like the sentiment and the solution to this mystery; I just wish the story itself had been stronger.
In Elly Griffiths’ “Murder at the Villa Rose,” Miss Marple finds herself staying at a gorgeous hotel on the Mediterranean coast, courtesy of . . . well, you can guess who paid for it. Her companions are a small group of prestigious fellow guests, including a crime writer who narrates the story and has come to the hotel to commit – a murder.
And that’s all I’m going to tell you about this story, except to say that it’s beautifully written, both in its evocation of the Italian scenery and in the way Griffiths interweaves stories within stories. Personally, I loved it – I’ve often mentioned how much I like a little meta with my fiction – but I imagine it will polarize readers who wonder what this sort of thing is even doing in this collection. It is admittedly whimsical, but then i think that is perfectly fitting for a Miss Marple story. And is it my imagination, or does the writer’s intended victim bear a very strong resemblance to someone we all know and love?
Next comes “The Murdering Sort” by Karen M. McManus, and if you’re growing tired of Raymond West whisking his Aunt Jane off to different climes for her health – here it’s Cape Cod – that’s not the worst of it. This time Miss Marple has been transported into a young adult novel!
McManus has devoted her career to YA mysteries, which tend toward overblown teen drama and middling mysteries (her One of Us Is Lying books have already been turned into a TV series). Here she crams it all into twenty-five pages: the first-person narrator (Nicola West, Miss Marple’s great-great niece), the tale told in the present tense, the mix of modern romance with tired, repurposed GAD tropes, and, finally, the underlying feeling throughout that none of it makes much sense.
English Nic is spending the summer in Cape Cod with her wealthy school friend Diana at the estate of Diana’s grandfather Josiah. After a couple of weird accidents very much resembling those in Peril at End House, the old man is convinced that a member of his family is trying to kill him. At the birthday party of his sister Edith (who very much resembles Edith de Havilland of Crooked House), he devises a frankly stupid scheme to test each of his relations. Of course, it doesn’t go well.
If you’ve read any YA, the killer is obvious. What’s more bothersome is that their plan, as related at the end, is all over the place. This being teen-centered, it’s actually Nic who solves the crime – or, rather, stumbles into the solution thanks to a lucky circumstance involving a bottle of aspirin. Miss Marple never investigates or even shows up at the scene, possibly because could be anywhere from 85 to 130 at this point. It’s never quite clear when this story takes place: it feels like today, what with all the talk about the environment, except that Nic doesn’t possess a cell phone. Your guess is as good as mind.
Worst of all, the Miss Marple we meet here sure doesn’t act like the Miss Marple we know. She drops her knitting in shock – shock! – when the word “murder” is mentioned. She calls her great-great niece “love” rather than Nicola and discourages her from snooping around because it might not be safe! (Now she sounds like Aunt Gertrude in The Hardy Boys.) And I know this will turn out to be the most unfortunate of typos, but she calls her home village St. Mary’s Mead. It could turn any decent Christie fan into . . . the murdering sort!
The penultimate tale, “The Mystery of the Acid Soil” by Kate Mosse, embodies all the best that this multi-tale homage to the greatest female detective has to offer. Another extremely well-written story, it brings Miss Marple to the village of Fishbourne, beyond Chichester, to attend to her old schoolfriend Emmaline after a bit of surgery. We are firmly in post-war England, and Mosse lovingly recreates the setting with a patina of warm nostalgia. She also peppers her story with Easter eggs for fans that got this reader’s fond memories of other Marple tales flowing.
On the train to her destination, Miss Marple meets a young curate who is worried about the disappearance of a young singer in his choir of whom he has grown especially fond. Upon her arrival, Miss Marple embroils herself in the case of the missing girl, as well as two possible murders. The culprit would fit beautifully in a Sherlock Holmes story, and indeed this case does merge in many qualities of Doyle into one of the best stories in this collection.
The final tale comes from Leigh Bardugo, another YA storyteller who specializes in science fiction and fantasy. “The Disappearance” begins with Miss Marple staying in her nephew’s London flat, a home that perfectly embodies Raymond West:
“. . . Raymond’s fashionable flat was forever drafty, owing to the large windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. They offered little in the way of privacy, but Miss Marple had been told they were essential and very much sought after.”
As always, Miss Marple feels grateful for her nephew’s generosity and wishful that she was back in her cozy cottage at home with the devoted Cherry at her side. Her wish is about to come true when Dolly Bantry rings up and begs Miss Marple to return home and solve a mystery!
It is the mid to late 60’s: Mrs. Bantry is now a widow living in the East Lodge, and a family called the Barnsley-Davises have bought Gossington Hall after an earlier “scandal” left it vacant. (See The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side?) Son Michael has gone missing on the eve of his wedding, and a great deal of the wedding guests’ jewelry has disappeared with him.
Bardugo is clearly having a ball writing this story. The humor sparkles like the twinkle in Aunt Jane’s eye. (Both Raymond West and Mrs. Bantry are hilarious here.) And the set-up for the mystery is intriguing. Is Michael’s disappearance related to the missing gems? And what, if anything, does it have to do with the drowning death of an agriculture student working on the grounds at Gossington Hall?
The author and the characters do everything to comply with our desire for a traditional mystery. The Barnsley-Davises have reversed Marina Gregg’s modernization of the Hall and restored it to its former glory. (If only the same could be said for their afternoon teas.) The circle of suspects are a well-rendered set of recognizable types from Christie’s canon. It’s a pretty little problem with a surprise ending, and I imagine that Miss Marple’s final actions will upset those who are far too outraged by this collection to read it.
The Facebook Christie fans have been twittering that this collection is “unnecessary.” Well, of course, no homage is necessary. But an homage this is, and while a fan of Leigh Bardugo or Ruth Ware, et al, might open these pages and discover a classic author through their stories, the ironic fact is that this book is meant for The Fans. Each story is a reminder of how clever a plotter Christie herself was and of how much she inspired new generations of writers to write. If the overly aggressive marketing of Christie’s name and reputation often rankles those who love her the most, it shouldn’t take away from the effect of these stories on a Christie fan with an open mind and a willing heart. Are they a mixed bag? Sure – all story collections are. Are they as good as the Queen’s? Never. But you know what? I had a bloody good time.
Oh, look, now I’ve made Miss Marple drop a stitch . . .