Women are supposed to age as crones, faded stars, or good witches—but I would far rather be Miss Marple. What fun she must have been for Agatha Christie to invent, back in that first short story in 1927. By 1930, Jane Marple has a book all her own, The Murder at the Vicarage, and she continues solving crimes for the next forty-six years, her last adventure released posthumously.
Invisibility is the common complaint of old women, but what is so bad about that? People long for a cloak of invisibility, the freedom of traveling without notice, the ability to spy and eavesdrop undetected. Marple uses that freedom to advantage. Christie has flipped the world’s assumptions and made an old woman formidable.
She was not always so bold. Most of the time, Christie traded in stereotypes—not out of bigotry, but because her plots were tiny dramas of manners, caste, and type. It is easy to second-guess the conventional ones in our more enlightened time, but more often, she was subtler than we might realize, free of bigotry’s superficial laziness. She made stereotypes an art form, a puzzle key, a stylistic vocabulary. And in the character of Jane Marple, they become especially interesting.
Marple uses her experiences in the world’s microcosm, the peaceful little village of St. Mary Mead, to recognize unruly appetites and patterns of behavior, not race, gender, creed, or the other categories we have learned to protect. She can smell a wild hare, a sexual hunger, the guilt of an illicit enterprise or liaison, because she has encountered them in the past. Experience brings associations far more refined than what we think of as stereotypes. Hers are intuitive observations that she cannot quite articulate, yet knows she can trust.
Miss Marple is as fond of her opinions as she is of her comfort. What saves her from being a cranky, rigid old woman (I take careful note) is her curiosity. While others of her generation are blinded by niceness, stuffy propriety, inhibition, or naivete, she is paying attention to human nature. Study people just a little, and you will make sharp judgments. Study them deeply, and you cannot judge at all. Except, of course, to point out the damage and call the inspector. The morality in Christie’s books plays no tricks on us. Law and order will prevail. Cozy comfort is impossible without that backdrop.
And so, we have Jane Marple: clear-eyed, ruthless in the honesty of her appraisals, with a tart tongue but a warm heart. Her traits are reliable, but she is far more complex than what we now know as the archetypal old-lady-detective, because so many have followed her lead.
I wondered, when I picked up Marple: Twelve New Stories, how smoothly twelve different authors would step into Christie’s shoes—or at least wear them to traipse in a new direction. Happily, the collection holds together beautifully, the prose only slightly uneven. Half the reason is each contributor’s talent—the authors include Val McDermid, Lucy Foley, Alyssa Cole, and Ruth Ware—and fresh, affectionate take. But the other half is Jane Marple herself. She holds together. Why fuss about being underestimated when you know you will prevail. And she will do so without pretending to be younger than her years. Matter-of-fact about her arthritis and occasional fatigue, she remains spirited because she is interested in the world.
This is my goal.
All the cosmetic surgery, noninvasive plumpers and fillers and neurotoxins, liquid facelifts, compression garments, hair dyes, bleaching of liver spots, bleaching of teeth, bee spit and kale, collagen, beta-hydroxy acid, Spandexed spinning sessions, silk scarves and chunky jewelry in the world are at best only expensive, tiresome delaying tactics. Rather than fake youth, Miss Marple owns her age cheerfully. Rather than pretend to be current, she wrangles with her disapproval of modern young people’s mores. Yet within her own tight moral universe, she is remarkably free, breezily independent, as brave as a soldier—yet as fond of homey comforts as a hobbit.
She is, in other words, a great deal like her author. A nostalgic homebody by nature, Agatha Christie endured the rupture of her own domestic life in 1926—a year before her first Marple story—when her husband left her for a younger woman. She “disappeared,” hoping to be invisible, but all of England set out to find her. Even fellow mystery writer Dorothy Sayers joined the hunt, and Arthur Conan Doyle commissioned his favorite spiritualist, who reported that Christie was still alive. (She was indeed; she had gone to a spa.)
Christie benefited from that spurt of publicity, overcame the shame, regained her equilibrium, and gave us Jane Marple. Unmarried and glad of it. Steadily more successful, she wrote cozy, orderly mysteries that tamed the worst the world can do. Unlike today’s entertainment, they do not rely on gore. W.H. Auden, a devout mystery lover, points out that the most awful thing about the corpse in a Christie novel is that it seems “shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on the living room carpet.”
Marple’s elderly male counterpart, Hercule Poirot, had appeared seven years earlier, and their differences are societal clues. More is made of his brilliance, no doubt because he, referring to himself in the third person, reveals his deductions with such a flourish. Marple is eminently sane, but actor David Suchet, who best inhabited the role of Poirot, pointed out that the Belgian detective was clearly obsessive-compulsive. Poirot even wore on his creator: in later life, she pronounced her best-loved hero a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep.”
Poirot is fussy about his tisanes; Marple simply likes a good cup of tea. She is frumpy, old-fashioned and prim in her dress; he is a bit of a fop, wincing at his pointed patent leather shoes but unwilling to relinquish them. She is invisible; he is comical. Her tools, we are told, are gossip and experience, while he drones on about his “little gray cells.” She is a sturdy Brit; he makes much of his foreignness and has a sensitive stomach. She snoops for the joy of it; he usually gets paid. Her insight was that anyone is capable of anything; his was that the guilty will eventually say something to reveal themselves.
Marple (I love that the book has dropped that spinsterish “Miss”) is eminently more likable, considered by many to be Christie’s best-drawn character. Yet compared to her male counterpart, the general public seems to have found her a wee bit boring. Hercule Poirot got more glamorous movies, and he was the only fictional character to have an obituary appear on the front page of The New York Times.
He does not, however, have a new book with twelve acclaimed male authors happily continuing his work. Jane Marple’s time has come.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.