The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story starring a vicar’ and the chosen title is an obvious one – The Murder at the Vicarage, which was first published in 1930 and is the first book in the Miss Marple series. I have read most of the later Marple novels, but never this one and I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning and read the book that introduced Miss Marple to the world of crime fiction.

The novel is set, like many of the other Marple novels, in the village of St Mary Mead, a place where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s behaviour goes unnoticed! When Colonel Protheroe is found dead in the study at the vicarage, shot while waiting for the vicar to return home, Miss Marple and the other villagers immediately begin to gossip and to speculate on who the murderer could be. At first suspicion falls upon Anne Protheroe, the Colonel’s unhappy wife, and Lawrence Redding, the man with whom she has been having an affair. However, Colonel Protheroe was not a popular man and there is no shortage of other suspects – Miss Marple herself insists that she can think of at least seven.

The story is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, who is drawn into the mystery not only due to the murder victim being found in his study, but also because the people of St Mary Mead see him as a trusted friend in whom they can confide and share pieces of information they prefer not to give to the police. The vicar’s narrative is both intelligent and amusing, as he reflects on his household, his domestic arrangements and his relationship with his younger wife, Griselda, as well as carrying out his own investigations into the murder case.

Someone else who is investigating the murder for herself is Miss Marple – and of course she finds her way to the solution before the police do, using her knowledge of human nature and her powers of observation. Miss Marple as she appears in this first novel is slightly different from the woman we meet in the later books in the series and is not particularly well liked by her neighbours, who see her as someone who goes around poking her nose into everyone else’s business. Unlike in some of the other books, where she seems to have been added to the story almost as an afterthought and the plot would have worked just as well without her, in this one she is there from beginning to end – often just in the background, but everything she says and does and every suggestion she makes turns out to be vital to the solving of the mystery!

Although I did enjoy this book, particularly as I found it such a difficult one to solve – I think I suspected almost everyone and allowed myself to get distracted by all the red herrings Christie throws into the plot – it took me a while to get into it. There were so many characters to keep track of and apart from the vicar and his wife and Miss Marple I didn’t really engage with any of them. I found the second half of the book much more compelling, though, as the plot became more and more complex and clever. I have read three Miss Marple mysteries in a row now for the Read Christie challenge, so I’m in the mood for something different next month. The August theme is ‘a story set by the seaside’ and I’m thinking about the Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

This month, for Read Christie 2021, the theme is ‘a story featuring a garden’ and the suggested title is Nemesis, a late Miss Marple mystery published in 1971.

Nemesis is an unusual Marple novel because for the first half of the book it’s not really clear what the mystery is that she’s trying to solve. All we do know is that Mr Rafiel, a rich man whom Miss Marple met previously in A Caribbean Mystery (which I haven’t read), has died, leaving her a large sum of money in his will on the condition that she must agree to investigate a crime for him. The only problem is, he doesn’t tell her what sort of crime it is or what she will need to do – only that he remembers her flair for justice and her nickname ‘Nemesis’.

Intrigued by Mr Rafiel’s request and tempted by the money, Miss Marple decides to accept the mission – and promptly receives an invitation to join a tour of Britain’s historic houses and gardens. During the tour she gradually uncovers the details of a crime committed several years earlier and discovers at last what Mr Rafiel wants her to do.

I don’t really want to say much more about the plot of this particular Christie novel because I think part of the fun is in wondering what the mystery is going to be and which of the people Miss Marple meets on the tour are going to be involved in it. Once the crime is revealed and she is able to start her investigations, it becomes more of a conventional mystery novel and I don’t think it’s as strong as some of the other Marples. Several of the clues seemed very obvious and I was able to solve some of it (although not all of it).

I was pleased to find that Miss Marple is present in the story from the beginning all the way through to the end; I’ve often complained that she appears too briefly, so it was nice to spend an entire novel with her this time. I loved the way she uses her apparent absent-mindedness, frailty and ‘twittering’ to fool the people around her into thinking she is a harmless, silly old woman, while all the time her brain is working away, storing information, making observations and staying one step ahead of everyone else. I should warn you, though, that she does express some disturbing views on the subject of rape – views that, unfortunately, a lot of people still hold today. Apart from that, this is an entertaining, if not particularly outstanding, Marple novel and it looks as though I’ll be reading another one soon as July’s selection is Murder at the Vicarage.

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie

The May prompt for the Read Christie 2021 Challenge is ‘a story featuring tea’.  I would have had no idea which Christie novels fit that theme, but as ever the challenge hosts provided a list of suggestions and this one, A Pocket Full of Rye, turned out to be perfect.   

First published in 1953, the novel opens with London businessman Rex Fortescue being served his morning tea in his office by his secretary.  When Fortescue dies in hospital shortly afterwards and the cause of death is said to be taxine, a poison found in yew trees, the tea is naturally blamed.  However, the autopsy suggests that the poisoning must have actually taken place earlier that morning, while Fortescue was eating breakfast at his home, Yew Tree Lodge.  This widens the circle of potential suspects to include his wife, his three children and their spouses, and an assortment of servants.  Inspector Neele is brought in to lead the investigation, but his only real clue is a handful of rye found in Fortescue’s pocket.

Neele believes he is close to identifying the culprit, but a second murder forces him to think again.  It is only when Miss Marple arrives at Yew Tree Lodge, having read about the murders in the newspaper, that a connection is spotted with the popular children’s rhyme, “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye”.  Inspector Neele may be a clever man with a sharp mind, but it will take Miss Marple’s knowledge of Mother Goose, blackbirds and human nature to solve this particular mystery.

I usually seem to prefer Christie’s Poirot novels to her Miss Marple ones, but I really enjoyed this book; it’s one of my favourite Marples so far, along with A Murder is Announced. I loved the nursery rhyme element – although it’s maybe not all that relevant to the overall solving of the mystery, it does add some fun to the plot. I can’t say that I loved the characters, but as Neele himself describes them as “all very unpleasant people”, we’re obviously not supposed to – and the fact that they are so unpleasant means that there are plenty of suspects. For once, I did correctly identify who was behind the murders, but I think it was really just a lucky guess; I certainly didn’t work everything out and I needed Miss Marple to explain all the details for me. Sadly, though, we don’t spend a lot of time with her in this book. She doesn’t appear until almost halfway through and then we don’t see very much of her actually investigating the mystery…which makes it all the more impressive that she manages to solve it ahead of Inspector Neele!

I’m enjoying taking part in Read Christie this year. I’ve read five great books in the first five months and am looking forward to another one in June!

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

I’m taking part in Read Christie 2021 this year and the prompt for January is ‘a story set in a grand house’. Christie wrote lots of those and I’ve already read some of them, including The Hollow, which is the one the challenge hosts have chosen as the book of the month. Fortunately, they provided a list of alternative suggestions and I decided on the 1942 Miss Marple mystery, The Body in the Library, as my January book for the challenge.

The ‘grand house’ in this novel is Gossington Hall in St Mary Mead, home to Dolly Bantry and her husband, Colonel Arthur Bantry. When the Bantrys are woken by the maid early one morning to be told that a dead body has been found on their library floor – the body of a blonde young woman in a white satin evening dress and silver shoes – suspicion immediately falls on the Colonel. But the Colonel insists that he has never seen the woman before and there is no evidence to connect him with the murder, so attention then turns to other suspects.

Could the culprit be Basil Blake, a newcomer to the village who is involved in the film industry and whose lifestyle has made him the centre of village gossip? What about George Bartlett, a guest at the nearby Majestic Hotel where the murdered woman, Ruby Keene, had worked as a dancer? Or maybe it’s Conway Jefferson, who had been planning to adopt Ruby as his daughter after losing his wife and children in a plane crash several years earlier. As the police begin to investigate, Dolly Bantry enlists the help of her friend Miss Marple because she’s ‘very good at murders’. And Miss Marple once again proves just how good she is at murders by using her usual blend of observation and knowledge of human nature to piece together the clues and solve the crime.

The Body in the Library is a short, quick read and like most of Christie’s novels it is cleverly constructed so that most of the information you need to be able to solve the mystery is there from the beginning, but very easy to overlook. As Miss Marple says once or twice, most people are too trusting and too ready to believe everything they are told; even bearing that in mind, I still didn’t suspect the right person and the murderer had me completely fooled! The murderer also had the police fooled – although we don’t actually see very much of Miss Marple in this novel and the focus is more on the police investigation, she is the one who provides the necessary insights that lead to the identification of the killer.

In the foreword to the novel, Christie states that the ‘body in the library’ story is a cliché of detective fiction and that she wrote this book as a variation on that cliché: ‘The library in question must be a highly orthodox and conventional library. The body, on the other hand, must be a wildly improbable and highly sensational body.’ Well, the library at Gossington Hall certainly sounds conventional and the body caused plenty of sensation in St Mary Mead, so I think Christie achieved what she set out to do! This has not become a favourite Marple novel but I did enjoy it and am looking forward to reading February’s book for the challenge.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

I was doing so well with the Read Christie 2020 challenge earlier in the year. I read the suggested novels for January, February and March (Murder on the Orient Express, A Murder is Announced and The Hollow) but then, distracted by Covid-19 and lockdown, I never picked up April’s book – or May’s or June’s or July’s. I think I’ve officially failed this year’s challenge now, don’t you? Anyway, Sleeping Murder is the book I was supposed to have read in April. Published in 1976, it’s a Miss Marple mystery and was the final book in the Marple series.

The novel opens with a young woman, Gwenda Reed, arriving in England from New Zealand. Her husband, Giles, is due to come and join her soon, and Gwenda hopes to have found somewhere to live in time for his arrival. As soon as she sees Hillside, a house in the seaside town of Dillmouth, she decides she wants to buy it. There’s something about the house that feels strangely familiar and in fact, she seems to know things about it that she really shouldn’t know at all. When she suddenly has a vivid memory of seeing a dead body at the bottom of the staircase, Gwenda panics, believing that she is losing her mind.

After confiding in Miss Marple, who is related to Giles’ cousin, Gwenda discovers that there is a logical explanation for her recent experiences: Hillside had actually been her home as a very small child, before she left England for New Zealand. Convinced that a murder must have taken place in the house – and that she herself had witnessed the aftermath – Gwenda and Giles begin to investigate. However, Miss Marple has serious forebodings; she likes the young couple and is worried that they could put themselves in danger by trying to uncover secrets that have remained buried for almost twenty years. The only way to protect her new friends is to solve the mystery herself and catch the murderer before he or she has the chance to strike again!

I haven’t read all of Christie’s Marple novels yet, but this is one of my favourites so far. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery – I thought I had, but I was wrong – and I was surprised to find out who the murderer really was. The clues were all there, but I didn’t pick up on them; in fact, the biggest clue went over my head because I didn’t have the general knowledge to be able to interpret it. I can’t explain what I mean without spoiling the story, but if you’ve read the book you’ll know which clue I’m talking about.

I love the atmosphere Christie creates in this novel, with a sense of lingering evil from the moment Gwenda walks through the doors of Hillside. With the crime being one that took place in the past and which needs to be solved in retrospect, I was reminded of the Poirot mystery Five Little Pigs, although I enjoyed reading this one more, maybe because the present day characters are more actively involved in the story. We see most of the investigation unfold from Gwenda’s perspective, but Miss Marple herself has a large role to play in the novel. Although the book wasn’t published until the 1970s, it was actually written much earlier in Christie’s career (possibly in 1940) so Marple is actually younger and livelier than she is in some of the other books in the series which were published before this one!

Have you read Sleeping Murder? Which is your favourite Marple novel?

This is book 9/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

February’s book of the month for the Read Christie 2020 Challenge is A Murder is Announced, a Miss Marple novel from 1950. This month’s theme for the challenge is ‘a story Christie loved’ and apparently this is one that she mentioned in a 1972 letter to a fan as being a current favourite. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why she liked it so much.

A Murder is Announced is set in the quiet little village of Chipping Cleghorn where, as the novel opens, the residents are waking up to an unusual notice in their local newspaper:

A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.

The villagers are intrigued and, believing it must be an invitation to a party game of some sort, they all make their way to Little Paddocks, the home of Miss Letitia Blacklock, at the stated time. Miss Blacklock herself denies having anything to do with the announcement – as do the other members of her household – but she makes her neighbours welcome anyway. They are all gathered together inside when the clock strikes 6.30, the lights go out and shots are fired. When the lights are turned back on, a man is found dead on the floor. It seems it wasn’t a game after all…

Of all the Christie novels I’ve read, this has one of the best openings: first an introduction to each character in turn as we jump from house to house as newspapers are opened and the announcement is read; then the murder scene itself – a wonderful set piece with all of the suspects together in one place. We are given many of the clues we need in that scene and the rest in the chapters that follow, so that the reader has at least a chance of solving the mystery before the truth is revealed. I managed to work out parts of it, but not the whole thing and the eventual solution came as a surprise to me.

What really makes this book stand out, though, is the excellent characterisation, with characters drawn from a range of different social backgrounds. There’s Bunny – Miss Bunner – an old school friend of Miss Blacklock’s who has fallen on hard times and has been invited to stay at Little Paddocks; there are Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd, two unmarried women who live together and whose relationship is portrayed with warmth and affection; Phillipa Haymes, a young mother left to raise her son alone in the aftermath of the Second World War; Colonel Easterbrook, who thinks he knows all there is to know about India; and the Reverend Julian Harmon and his cheerful, tactless wife ‘Bunch’, who happens to be the goddaughter of Jane Marple.

It is through her connection with Bunch that Miss Marple comes into the story (surprisingly late – the murder has been committed and an investigation by the police is well under way before she makes her first appearance). Miss Marple solves the mystery both through the usual methods of observing, deducting and asking questions, and through her knowledge of small villages like Chipping Cleghorn and how they have changed since the war. ‘Fifteen years ago, one knew who everybody was,’ she says, ‘but now the big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.’

The one aspect of this book that I didn’t like was the portrayal of Mitzi, the cook at Little Paddocks who is a refugee from an unspecified Central European country. We are told that Mitzi has had some traumatic experiences during the war, yet the other characters seem to treat her with an unusual level of unkindness and insensitivity, ridiculing her for her screaming and crying and fear of the police. That was the only thing that slightly spoiled my enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfect murder mystery.

This year’s Read Christie challenge is only two months old and already I’ve read two great books that I’ve loved – this one and Murder on the Orient Express. I’m looking forward to next month’s selection!

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie

This month’s book for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge is one of her later Miss Marple mysteries, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, published in 1962. I tend to prefer the Poirots to the Marples, so I was curious to see what I would think of this one.

The novel opens with the elderly Jane Marple recovering from a recent illness and deciding to take a walk around ‘the Development’, a new housing estate near her home in St Mary Mead. She falls and is helped to her feet by Heather Badcock, one of the new residents, who rushes out of her house to assist. Later, Mrs Badcock is poisoned during a party at nearby Gossington Hall hosted by its new owner, the famous American actress Marina Gregg. It seems unlikely, however, that Mrs Badcock had been the intended victim…it was only through an unfortunate set of circumstances that she came to drink the poison instead of Marina.

Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock begins to investigate, interviewing all those who were present at Gossington Hall at the time of Heather Badcock’s death and delving into Marina Gregg’s past, uncovering stories of adopted children, jealous rivals and a series of failed marriages. Miss Marple, however, is conducting some very different investigations of her own, based around what she knows of human nature. She is sure that the key to the mystery lies in discovering what caused the strange expression on Marina Gregg’s face just before Mrs Badcock dropped dead – an expression which other guests at the party described as reminding them of Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott (“Out flew the web and floated wide – The mirror crack’d from side to side; ‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried The Lady of Shalott).

This hasn’t become a favourite Christie novel and I didn’t find it quite as clever as some of her others, but I did still enjoy reading it. It seems that she got the idea for the plot from the tragic true story of a real American actress, although I won’t tell you her name because if you look it up it will completely spoil the surprises contained in the solution to the mystery. I correctly guessed who the murderer was very early in the story, but I had no idea what the motive could have been and had to wait for Miss Marple to explain it all for me at the end of the book!

As well as being a murder mystery, this book is also an interesting study of some of the social changes taking place in 1960s Britain with a lot of time devoted to describing the houses on the ‘Development’ and the type of people who live there – with Miss Marple coming to the conclusion that, whatever the time and place, people are still people with the same hopes and ambitions, fears and uncertainties. It is through observations like this that she is able to move towards solving the mystery, drawing parallels between the suspects and other people she has known in the past. Miss Marple is also having personal problems of her own in this book, with her companion/housekeeper Mrs Knight, who treats her like a child and is generally overbearing and domineering. It’s clear that, however much Miss Marple’s age might be catching up with her physically, there is nothing wrong with her mind and she resents Mrs Knight’s condescending attitude. Again, I don’t want to spoil things, but there is a happy ending to this part of the story too!

I can’t say that I loved this one, but I am looking forward to working through the rest of the Marple novels that I haven’t read yet.