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Friday 6 October 2023

Creating Miss Marple: Agatha Christie and the Advent of an Icon by Carol Westron


Agatha Christie is regarded with such awe that sometimes we overlook the fact that she was a working author whose purpose was to make money by selling books and short stories and that there was a time when her place in the ranks of outstanding detective fiction authors still needed to be secured. This article will concentrate on the years following the publication of the first three Poirot novels, which led up to the creation of Miss Marple and the first short stories featuring her.

By 1926 Christie had published three Poirot novels (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1921; The Murder on the Links, 1923; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926).

 And three romantic crime fiction adventure stories (The Secret Adversary, 1922; The Man in the Brown Suit, 1924; The Secret of Chimneys, 1925),

plus a large number of short stories, which she published in various magazines. The over-all impression of this early work is of a writer so prolific and full of creative energy that she found it hard to settle to one group of characters or a single situation. Other Queens of Golden Age Crime created their detective heroes and built on them, book after book, but not Christie. It seems probable that this exuberant inventiveness was due to her home-education, as Christie herself commented in her autobiography: “I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays and have things arranged for them that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.”

In 1926-27 Christie’s happiness and self-esteem took a severe battering when the death of her much-loved mother was swiftly followed by the desertion of her husband. Added to this was the invasion of her privacy and public speculation following her disappearance and reappearance at a hotel in Harrogate, which was great publicity but must have been a nightmare for an intensely private person.

In June 1926 she published her third Poirot novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which remains one of her most cleverly constructed and innovative novels in a career noted for pushing the boundaries. All of the early novels were well received but The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was outstanding. She had followed Conan Doyle’s lead  of a First Person narrator who was not the main detective and had played with the idea of the reliability of this narrator, but Hastings was a basically honest narrator, who might misinterpret but did not deliberately lie. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd relied on an unreliable and dishonest narrator and critics and readers either loved it or loathed it but they could not ignore it. A review in The Observer stated that: ‘No one is more adroit than Miss Christie in the manipulation of false clues and irrelevances and red herrings and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd makes breathless reading from first to the unexpected last’. However, in Willard Huntingdon Wright’s The Great Detective Stories (1927) he claims that 'Poirot is more fantastic and far less credible than his brother criminologists ... and the stories in which he figures are often so artificial, and their problems so far fetched, that all sense of reality is lost, and consequently the interest in the solution is vitiated'. He also stated that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is not a 'legitimate device of the detective-story writer.' Wright, who later used the pseudonym S.S. Van Dine for his own detective novels, was a man who could not accept being outwitted. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd sold extremely well.

It is a remarkable book, but it must be admitted that the large amount of publicity caused by Christie’s disappearance added to its popularity.

The pressure of her publisher’s and the public’s expectations, combined with her deep grief, meant that Christie’s creativity and concentration failed her and, at a point she needed it most, she struggled to write.
Because of this, she adopted the suggestion and help of her brother-in-law to turn a number of her short stories, previously published in
The Sketch, into a Poirot novel, The Big Four (January 1927) and, after that, she continued with the novel The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), the plot of which was based on her 1923 short story The Plymouth Express. On the whole, contemporary critics were kinder in their reviews of these two novels than perhaps the books merited, but neither of these novels pleased the author and are now considered to rank amongst the weakest of her Poirot novels.

In 1928 in The Seven Dials Mystery, Christie again zig-zagged back to use some of the supporting characters from The Secret of Chimneys but again this novel was not a success, in fact it was panned even by critics who had remained faithful when reviewing her last two Poirot novels.

After this experience, it is not surprising that in the Second World War she decided to place two novels in reserve: Sleeping Murder and Curtain. As she did not again ‘dry up’ these novels were not published until the end of her long and prolific writing life.

While writing full-length novels, Christie was also tapping into a market that has more or less vanished nowadays: short stories and serials for newspapers and magazines. It is strange to think that the beautifully constructed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was first serialised in The London Evening News.

Although the anthology of Miss Marple stories, The Thirteen Problems was published in 1932, two years after The Murder at the Vicarage, the first six Miss Marple short stories were published in 1928 in The Royal Magazine and the next six were published in 1929 and early 1930.

Unfortunately, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) was not the silver bullet that immediately revitalised Christie’s career. The critics were polite but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic and, when Christie reconsidered the novel years later she wrote: "Reading Murder at the Vicarage now, I am not so pleased with it as I was at the time. It has, I think, far too many characters, and too many sub-plots. But at any rate the main plot is sound."

Christie’s emotional balance was restored with her marriage to Max Mallowan in 1930. After the stand-alone The Sittaford Mystery (1931), which was well received, she returned to Hercule Poirot and to successful novels, but in the long-term she didn’t abandon Miss Marple.

Regarding the advent of Miss Marple, there are questions that have been debated for years. One is where did the inspiration for Miss Marple come from? And the other is who was invented first - Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, who appeared in a short story in December 1927 or Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Maud Silver who appeared in book form in 1928?

Regarding the inspiration for Miss Marple, Christie always said that the character was based on her grandmother and her grandmother’s friends although she insisted that Miss Marple was "far more fussy and spinsterish than my grandmother ever was.” However, she also acknowledged that Miss Marple was derived from Caroline Sheppard, the unmarried sister of Dr James Sheppard, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Caroline makes it her mission to be extremely well-informed about local events, using her ‘secret service’ of delivery men but it can be argued that she lacks the insight into character that makes Miss Marple such a formidable investigator. Of course, it is probable that Christie combined both influences and added her own magic, developing the character with each story and novel she wrote. But there was another probable influence, not on the character of Miss Marple but regarding her very existence.

Earlier in 1927 Dorothy L. Sayers published her third Peter Wimsey novel, Unnatural Death, which introduces the magnificent Miss Katherine Alexandra Climpson, whom Wimsey employs as a private inquiry agent: Wimsey explains that when he wants answers he doesn't send a flat-footed, inarticulate policeman but ‘a lady with a long, woolly jumper on knitting-needles and jingly things round her neck. Of course she asks questions—everyone expects it. Nobody is surprised. Nobody is alarmed.’ Christie acknowledges the excellence of this disguise not merely with Miss Marple but also in N or M? (1941) when a middle-aged Tuppence goes to stay at a seaside guest house in the Second World War in order to unmask an enemy agent.

Authors often share ideas for characters and over-all plots and the end result will always be unique. Nobody who has read Chesterton’s short story The Sign of the Broken Sword (first published in 1911 in the Saturday Evening Post) can doubt that it was the inspiration for The ABC Murders. (1936)

In The Sign of the Broken Sword Father Brown explained:
‘Where does a wise man hide a leaf?’
‘In the forest.’

‘But what does he do if there is no forest? … He grows a forest to hide it in … And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. … And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it in.’

In The ABC Murders Poirot used a more homely analogy:
What would be the object of writing such letters? To focus attention on the writer, to call attention to the murders! En vérité, it did not seem to make sense at first sight. And then I saw light. It was to focus attention on several murders – on a group of murders… When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pincushion! When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of related murders.’

Between Sayers and Christie the inspiration clearly went both ways: the method of murder and attempts to escape detection that Christie used in the Tommy and Tuppence short story The House of Lurking Death (1924) was utilised by Sayers in her novel Strong Poison(1927). Investigations armed with knitting needles and an ear for gossip, but in character and life experiences they start from different places and the distance between them develops further as their adventures continue.

The first six stories featuring Miss Marple were published in The Royal Magazine between December 1927 and May 1928. They are set in Miss Marple’s cottage in the village of St Mary Mead, which is mentioned in the first story, four months before it was mentioned as the residence of Katherine Grey, a central character in The Mystery of the Blue Train (March 1928). However, a book may take a lot longer to reach publication than a short story, especially those scheduled to be published at monthly intervals. There is probably no significance in the double use of the name, it was merely a good name for the sort of village that Christie wished to depict and she was producing these short stories at high speed with little concern for continuity.

The premise behind the joined short stories is that each of the people present describes a mystery to which only they know the answer and everybody else will attempt to deduce the solution. As Sir Henry Clithering later explains to Mrs Bantry: “we hardly realised Miss Marple was playing; but we were very polite about it - didn’t want to hurt the old dear’s feelings. And now comes the cream of the jest. The old lady outdid us every time! … straight to the truth like a homing pigeon.”

When Christie wrote the first Poirot and Tommy and Tuppence short stories she had the advantage of having a novel featuring each of these protagonists under her belt, which meant that she already had the central characters’ voices well-established in her mind. (The short stories that made up Partners in Crime (1929) were first published in 1924, only two years after Tommy and Tuppence appeared in The Secret Adversary.) With Miss Marple she was on virgin ground and the first six stories are especially good at illustrating her skill as a writer, as she used subtle devices that the reader would be unaware of, but which work on the subconscious to set the scene and suspend the reader’s disbelief.

The first story, recounted by Sir Henry Clithering, is the death by poisoning of a very ordinary woman who had reportedly eaten exactly the same meal as her husband and her companion, neither of whom had suffered
ill-effects. Miss Marple reaches the solution because of a village parallel, but in truth she solves it because of womanly knowledge of the things eaten when a person is ‘banting’ (losing weight by dieting). Sir Henry’s exposition is crisp and clear, that of a professional detective, and an amusing contrast to Miss Marple’s fluffy, dithering style, even though she solves the puzzle.

The second story, The Idol House of Astarte is narrated by Dr Pender, the elderly clergyman, and harks back to when he was a young man. He was visiting a friend who had just bought a property on the edge of Dartmoor and his description does full justice to the sinister beauty of that mysterious place. The story involves the death of his host, apparently stabbed by a supernatural agency in front of several witnesses after which the weapon was nowhere to be found. Christie makes full play of the mystical atmosphere but also relies on the credulity of the narrator. As a Church of England vicar Dr Pender would deny belief in the supernatural power of a heathen goddess to strike a man dead but his mindset is that of a man who believes in spiritual powers, and he carries the reader along with him to accept the supernatural influence. Even when the perfectly mundane explanation is revealed, Dr Pender maintains that there was an evil influence in that grove.

Raymond West’s story is called Ingots of Gold and could come straight out of a boy’s adventure book. Set in a Cornish village, it is a swashbuckling story of Spanish treasure and Raymond is misled as much by his
storyteller’s imagination as by the deception practiced. This is one of the stories in which Sir Henry counts himself out of the game because he knows the answer through his professional capacity, a clever device on Christie’s part to prevent her Scotland Yard expert from looking foolish but allowing Miss Marple to keep the limelight.

Joyce Lemprièr is an artist and her story, also set in a Cornish village, is full of visual descriptions, including her explanation of how she had painted what her eyes saw without her mind registering it, which in this case was the bloodstain on the pavement from which the story takes its title. It is a story that relies heavily on the striking dress and concealing hats worn by certain key players and is the story of a ruthless husband and wife team of killers: themes Christie exploited fully in the Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun (1941) thirteen years later.

Both Joyce and Raymond’s stories are reliant on the atmosphere in quaint Cornish villages and the effect it has on their imaginative, creative minds. In contrast, Mr Petherick’s story, Motive v. Opportunity, is told in a dry,
pedantic manner. It is the tale of a rich man who had been influenced by a medium to leave his fortune away from his nieces and nephew but, after his death, when the envelope containing the will was opened it held a blank piece of paper. The mystery revolves around the fact that those who were cut-ut of the will had no opportunity to replace it with a blank sheet, while those who benefited in the will had opportunity but no motive. A neat little problem, which Miss Marple solves but categorises as a
‘catch’ which is ‘just like a lawyer.’

In The Thumb Mark of St. Peter Miss Marple describes the first time she became involved in a murder investigation when her niece Mabel’s husband dies under suspicious circumstances and gossip about the cause of death threatens to drive her from her home. Miss Marple goes to stay with Mabel and is determined to discover the truth. While walking along the High Street she prays for guidance and receives it when looking in a fishmonger’s window. One can hardly blame Raymond for his exclamation: “Oh my God! … an answer to prayer - a fresh haddock!” This story has two devices that Christie returned to frequently: how words can be misinterpreted if taken out of context and the force that gossip may have to pervert the course of justice. It is interesting that when Miss Marple recounts her story, none of her guests even attempt to deduce the solution, so that her narrative flows on uninterrupted. In this first investigation, Miss Marple fully merits Christie’s description of her as ‘fussy and spinsterish’.

The next six stories were published between December 1929 and May 1930 in The Story-Teller. They are written to the same format but these are set at a dinner party held by Arthur and Dolly Bantry and the only two over-lapping characters are Miss Marple and Sir Henry Clithering. It seems possible that Christie struggled with some of these stories, not because of the plots but because neither Colonel nor Mrs Bantry are natural raconteurs and to make the narrative flow Christie had to take them out of character. The story told by actress Jane Helier may stay in character but is not exactly dynamic. However, the story told by Miss Marple, A Christmas Tragedy, which was originally titled The Hat and the Alibi, shows Miss Marple moving into full detective mode and having failed to avert a murder, she is determined to bring the killer to justice. Stylistically, it is interesting to note that there are four pages of conversation before the actual story begins. I have been unable to locate copies of the original magazine publications but it seems probable that most 21st century editors would tell the author to cut to the chase and begin with the magnificent line: ”I felt no doubt in my mind the first time I saw the Sanders together that he meant to do away with her.”

The twelfth of these Miss Marple short stories was published five months before The Murder at the Vicarage, and the final short story included in The Thirteen Problems was published in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine in November 1931. This story involves a current investigation when Miss Marple implores Sir Henry to intervene to prevent a serious miscarriage of justice when a village girl is drowned. Miss Marple knows who the killer is but does not think she would be believed. This marks the start of a pattern in which she often uses people with authority or influence to bring the guilty to justice, such as Sir Henry Clithering or Jason Rafiel in A Caribbean Mystery (1964).

In the first full length Miss Marple novel Christie uses the local vicar, Leonard Clement, as a first-person narrator, very much in the style of Arthur Hastings. She abandons without explanation two St. Mary Mead characters who featured in the early stories. The original vicar, Dr Pender, and doctor, Dr Lloyd, were now surplus to her requirements. In a similar manner, Colonel and Mrs Bantry do not appear in The Murder at the Vicarage, the role of village squire being taken by Colonel Protheroe, who was created to be murdered.

In the interval between the first and second Miss Marple novels, Christie wrote only one short story featuring her. Behind Closed Doors was initially commissioned for radio but after this it was published in Home Journal in 1935. In this story Miss Marple again solves a murder while seated in her own dining room. It draws its inspiration from Chesterton’s The Invisible Man (1911), playing on the notion of the sort of people that everybody takes for granted and does not notice. After its original publication, this story was later published as Miss Marple Tells a Story in the collections The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories (US, 1939) and Miss Marple's Final Cases (UK, 1979).

It was not until 1943 that Christie published her second Miss Marple novel, The Body in the Library. This was more enthusiastically received than its predecessor and other Miss Marple novels followed at irregular intervals, with Miss Marple growing more entrenched in her role as a dispenser of justice.

Miss Marple’s adventures started at the Tuesday Night Club with her knitting something white and fluffy. Although Sleeping Murder was the last Miss Marple novel to be published posthumously in 1976, the last novel featuring her that Christie wrote was in 1971, in which Mr Rafiel’s describes her in this way: ‘Thousands of years ago she had a measuring rod, a sword, and ... a scourge. She rode about in a chariot drawn by griffins. Nemesis. Last time I saw her, she was wearing a pink, woolly shawl.’ (Nemesis 1971)

Carol Westron
is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has written seven further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People.
To read the interview click on the link below.

To read a review of Carol latest book click on the title
The Curse of the Concrete Griffin 

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