Perspective | Miss Marple is Agatha Christie’s best character. A new book reminds us why.


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I’ve often wondered what it is about Agatha Christie that has made her books so popular. She has sold more books than any other author, ever. And yet nobody could say she is a great writer if you compare her to, say, Hemingway, Shakespeare or Dickens. She tells a good tale, but she doesn’t touch our emotions or our souls. One doesn’t weep for the body in the library.

Her prose is spare, her settings basic and her characters are mostly one-dimensional. They can be summed up briefly: the ne’er-do-well son, the nosy spinster, the bitter ignored daughter, the bullying father. Hercule Poirot, her most famous creation, is really a caricature. We know he is Belgian (although behaves like a Frenchman), has a domed head, luxuriant mustaches and superior little gray cells. He is vain and boastful.

Other than that, we know nothing — of his background, his loves, his losses, what makes him weep. He treats Hastings abominably, taking delight in constantly scoring points against mere mortals. Not the most likable of chaps.

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But then we come to Miss Marple, Christie’s other enduring character. This lady has inspired several theatrical incarnations, from the hearty Margaret Rutherford to the perfectly understated Joan Hickson. And now she has claimed the attention of a group of best-selling authors, each trying her hand at a Miss Marple story in an anthology simply called “Marple” (William Morrow, Sept. 13) The illustrious group includes Kate Mosse, Val McDermid, Elly Griffith, Lucy Foley and Ruth Ware. Each author captures Christie — and Marple — perfectly, while also displaying just a bit of her own unique touch. Feminist author Naomi Alderman, for instance, describes one pompous male character as having a voice that “boomed from the bottom of his beard.” Later he’s found face down in his plate of roast venison, dead of an overdose.

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So, what does Marple have that Poirot hasn’t? First, she is relatable. One would like to entertain Miss Marple to tea. She is maybe one of Christie’s few real and fleshed-out characters: the consummate English spinster, living in the typical English village, with its gossip and intrigues. Marple actually represents a whole generation of women whose hopes of marriage were dashed by the loss of over a million young men on the battlefields of World War I. As a young woman of good family at that time, she was raised to make a good match, and not equipped for much else. She clearly has an excellent brain. In other times she might have gone on to university and had a lucrative profession. Instead, she has to content herself with her garden and good works around the parish. It’s no wonder that she turns that excellent brain and sharp powers of observation to solving crimes.

The big advantage of an elderly spinster is that she is invisible. Nobody thinks she is of consequence when she sits in the foyer of a grand hotel with her knitting. And so she overhears, she observes and notices small details that the police overlook: the bitten fingernails on the wrong girl, the behavior that seems out of character. And she draws comparisons to characters in her own village: the glint of triumph in the eye of a swindler reminds her of the face of the choirboy when he pocketed the collection. That smirk that nobody has noticed. But of course, she had.

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Miss Marple might seem frail and inconsequential, but she is no wimp. In fact, she demonstrates a quiet steel as when she faces a millionaire and declares, “I am Nemesis.” And a persistence with the police that eventually wears down even the most resistant of them. She also embodies what Hercule Poirot seems to lack: compassion and understanding of human weakness, coupled with a strong sense of justice. Agatha Christie clearly understood her. Whereas Poirot was simply her version of a Holmes and Watson, a vehicle for solving a puzzle, Miss Marple had a purpose: to be a person whose task was to right a wrong in her universe.

It is interesting that Miss Marple makes her appearance in the story “The Tuesday Night Club” (later published in “The Thirteen Problems”) at exactly the time Agatha Christie was going through a crisis in her own life. Her adored husband wanted a divorce. Christie staged her dramatic disappearance the year before this book came out in Royal Magazine, presumably when it was being written. So maybe Miss Marple was expressing how Christie felt at the time: a woman powerless, overlooked, invisible, longing for justice. Christie herself clearly had a good brain and had been allowed to work in a pharmacy during the war. But then, she, too, was confined to the role of housewife, stuck at home while Archie Christie flirted on the golf course. No wonder she wanted a character who would make everything right with the world.

In the new book “Marple,” nobody has tried to show the sleuth as a bright young woman, maybe doing something daring in WWI. In each tale, she is as we know her — genteel, frail, elderly and wise. She does her knitting. She twinkles a lot, which I don’t remember the real Miss Marple doing much. Some of the tales take place in Miss Marple’s home village of St. Mary Mead or in similar English village settings, while some locations are more exotic. Alyssa Cole takes her to New York, Jean Kwok to Hong Kong and Elly Griffiths sets her delightful piece in the south of Italy. All the stories are amusing, intriguing, but I have to say that I guessed whodunit in most of them, which I certainly could not do in a real Christie novel.

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That is part of the appeal, of course — figuring out the murderer before the end of the book. Another reason Christie remains so popular is that her stories are safely removed in time and place from our reality. Her village is the one we dream of, where everyone knows everyone else, meets for tea at the vicarage or down at the pub: a place where one belongs. Her crimes are never brutal; they are clever, any violence performed off the page, and Miss Marple sometimes has great sympathy for the perpetrator. And at the end, everything is put right. The crime solved, the murderer brought to justice, tranquility returns to that universe. Isn’t that what we all long for right now? A place where we feel at home, and safe and tranquil?

I have to confess that when I am stressed, the first thing I reach for is an Agatha Christie novel (I own everything she has written) and pray I can’t remember too quickly whodunit. Let us hope that this new and entertaining collection by some of our favorite writers will hook a new group of readers to the formidable Miss Marple.

Rhys Bowen is the author of two historical mystery series as well as several historical novels, the latest of which is “The Venice Sketchbook.” A transplanted Briton, she divides her time between California and Arizona.

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