June 21, 2010

Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage


Agatha Christie is the bestselling author of all time, an incredible achievement by any measure (see my earlier post on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). This prolific author wrote 76 novels, 158 short stories, and 15 plays. Although Hercules Poirot is her most famous detective, Miss Marple is also highly popular with mystery fans, appearing in 12 novels and 20 short stories (see the complete list of Miss Marple fiction). Christie’s introduction of a female detective in 1926 was well-timed. Many men were killed in the First World War, giving rise to a disproportionate female population. Miss Marple appealed to this larger female audience (Rzepka 2005, 157-58).

The Murder at the Vicarage is set in the charming English village of St. Mary Mead. An ordinary domestic scene is suddenly interrupted when a body is discovered in the vicarage. The villagers are shocked by the turn of events. As the vicar admits, “We are not used to mysteries in St. Mary Mead” (28). It is the unexpected juxtaposition of murder and vicarage – violent crime and pastoral setting – that creates immediate interest in the novel.

Stephen Knight calls novels from this Golden Age of detective fiction “clue-puzzles” (2004, 86). Certainly the intricate plotting of The Murder of the Vicarage makes the novel one of the cleverest clue-puzzle mysteries of the time. There are seven possible suspects, all with motive, opportunity, and secrets of their own. It is difficult to put this novel down and almost impossible to guess the murderer.

Knight claims that Christie’s “long-lasting and genre-shaping power” is due to her “capacity to realise in formulaic, repeatable mode a sense of personal unease and possible danger that emerges even in – especially in – a world secluded from social and international disorder” (2004, 92). The depiction of menace lurking in the everyday world is Christie’s speciality.

Miss Marple is an unusual choice for detective, even in the crowded field of amateurs. As an elderly spinster living in a secluded village, she is easily dismissed by others. Colonel Melchett, the investigator of the case, says, “I really believe that wizened-up old maid thinks she knows everything there is to know. And hardly been out of this village all her life. Preposterous. What can she know of life?” (85). Yet, as Hawkes reminds us, “maiden ladies, with their leisure to observe and their aptitude for gossip, share much in common with the information-gathering sleuth” (1998, 207).

Wagoner identifies Miss Marple’s accumulated experience in life as her greatest asset in solving cases:
Unlike Poirot, who solves a mystery by realizing how pieces will fit into a pattern, Miss Marple relies on her observation of human nature from a lifetime spent in the village of St. Mary Mead, on analogies between persons involved in the murder and those she has known in the past, on her ability to see through disguise and surfaces, and on her conviction that the worst about people may well be true. In other words, she sees pieces as parts of an already familiar pattern. (1986, 48)
Miss Marple’s insight into human nature is based upon intuition and a lifetime of experience. She tells the vicar, “Intuition is like reading a word without having it spelled out. A child can’t do that because it has had so little experience. But a grown-up person knows the word because he’s seen it often before” (98).

The old-fashioned village has its own a nostalgic appeal. It is not quite timeless, but change is perceived as a negative development (Hawkes 1998, 208). The novel establishes the rural English village as an expanded country-house setting (Rowland 2001, 49). The milieu is quintessentially cozy, a small, self-contained place whose customary order is temporarily disrupted and subsequently restored.

Anyone looking for a cozy mystery, an engaging cast of characters, an old-world village setting, and an ingenious ‘clue-puzzle” plot will thoroughly enjoy The Murder at the Vicarage.

Christie, Agatha. Murder at the Vicarage. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1930.

Hawkes, David. “Agatha Christie (1890-1976).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 1: 195-216. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rowland, Susan. From Agatha Christie to Ruth Rendell: British Women Writers in Detective and Crime Fiction. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

Rzepka, Charles J. Detective Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.

Wagoner, Mary S. Agatha Christie. Boston: Twayne, 1986.