“The Thirteen Problems” by Agatha Christie (1932)

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“Unsolved mysteries.”

I keep thinking I’ve reviewed every Agatha Christie on here by this point, but given I started reading her four years before I started the blog, some have definitely slipped through the net. The second Miss Marple, The Thirteen Problems, is one of them. Time to rectify that.

On Tuesday evening, a group of acquaintances have come together and before long the conversation, as it so often seems to, turns to unsolved crimes. The group is diverse – a lawyer, a retired police officer, an artist, a writer, a priest, and a village gossip – and they ponder which of them has the better background for solving crime. Thus forms the Tuesday Night Club, where each member must share a mystery that they know of and the rest must try and solve it.

The thirteen riddles are certainly challenging. There’s the story of the woman who was told that a blue geranium would mean death, the girl poisoned by foxglove leaves accidentally mixed in with the sage stuffing, a case of disappearing bloodstains, and the case of the missing bullion from a shipwreck. With every puzzle, the armchair detectives are stumped. There is however one exception. Miss Marple, dismissed by the others at first for being a slow old woman who has rarely left her village, is the only person to correctly solve every single crime, always able to relate each case back to an incident of village life. Thus her capability is proven time and time again, in a couple of places even bringing justice herself.

Although the second Marple book, this is the one where we see what she is really capable of. She is a little cattier in the first, and readers could have been led to assume that her solving of the case was just a fluke. As with Poirot’s Early Cases, this establishes our hero as being a rank above everyone else when it comes to detection. Whereas Poirot is more interested in psychology, with Marple we see that she just has a good memory and that humans are, broadly speaking, more alike than they care to acknowledge. As she herself says, perhaps it’s better that people don’t realise this. While there is an underlying arc of the characters telling one another stories, they can each be read individually and don’t necessarily follow on.

Christie’s real skill here is in having the narrators all have their own way of telling the tale. One is very conscious to go into detail on the atmosphere of the crime’s location. Another is not a natural storyteller at all and, after giving the basics, answers questions from her companions instead. One tries to tell a tale about a friend that is actually about herself, and Marple herself is prone to going off on tangents that seem to serve no purpose at all.

Most of the stories would have worked as an extended novel, if you threw in more detail, but by condensing them, Christie once again shows that length isn’t everything, and you can have a perfectly serviceable mystery set up, deconstructed, twisted and solved within twenty pages. Few are capable of doing this well, and none better than she. A genius collection.

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“The Murder At The Vicarage” by Agatha Christie (1930)

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“It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage.”

With absolutely no surprise, here comes the twelfth Agatha Christie of the year to round off the twelfth month. That’s made a dent, but it’ll still be 2025 before I’ve finished the whole re-read at this rate. Plenty of time to savour them. Anyway, we end the year with the introduction of one of her most famous characters – please take to the stage, Miss Marple.

In the quiet village of St Mary Mead, the vicar, Leonard Clement, has made an offhand and very uncharitable comment regarding local magistrate Colonel Protheroe. He says that anyone who killed the man would be doing a great service to the whole village, but his wife and nephew sweep the comment aside. It comes back to bite him, however, when just a few days later, Protheroe is dead. And not only that, he has a bullet wound in his head and his body is sprawled out in the study of the vicarage!

Before long, Lawrence Redding, a local artist who, prior to an argument, had been painting Protheroe’s daughter Lettice, admits to the murder, walking into the police station with the gun. The village is shocked, but things are complicated further when Protheroe’s own wife also admits to the murder. However, according to local gossip, neither of them could possibly have done it, so what are they playing at? Who are they protecting? The village spinsters set to work rumour-mongering, and at the top of the tree sits Miss Marple, the shrewdest old woman you’ll ever meet, who can see that everything is not as it seems. But will the police listen to a nosy old woman?

So, first up – Miss Marple. She’s not fully-formed yet, and slightly less saccharine than she becomes later. In many ways, I prefer that. She’s prudish, but aware of her failings and nosiness, and villagers are torn over whether or not they like her. All the spinster women of the village are gossiping busybodies, but Marple seems to mean to harm in hers, she is just interested in people and not necessarily going to spread any news that might be incriminating or personally damaging, unless there is a higher necessity. She isn’t really even the focus of the novel, and while she provides the solution, most of the detective work is done on-page by the vicar himself, joined by Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack from the local police.

There’s a wide cast of characters here, and they’re all quite fun, from Len’s young, beautiful wife Griselda who is everything a vicar’s wife shouldn’t be, to the flighty and purposely-vague Lettice Protheroe and even modern Dr Haydock, the local physician. It seems that everyone in the village had a decent motive to kill Protheroe, but there is a distinct lack of broken alibis. My only quarrel with it is that a gunshot would certainly be heard at such close quarters, and this is explained rather weakly towards the end. It works, but not enough attention is paid to it.

Christie herself became dissatisfied with the novel, feeling it had too many characters and sub-plots, but I’m inclined to disagree with her on this occasion. Yes, the cast is fairly substantial and they all have secrets, but this merely serves to provide us with a stack of red herrings that threw even me. Remember, I’ve read all these before, and I’m still getting them wrong. It’s been a very long time since I read this one, however, but I thought I could see what she was doing. In a couple of places I could – always take note of conversations that have no bearing on the current point in the plot – but the rug was still pulled from under me as she plays with tropes, cliches and notions of justice.

While not regarded warmly at the time, I think it’s a fine introduction to one of literature’s greatest amateur detectives.

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“Miss Marple’s Final Cases” by Agatha Christie (1979)

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marple-final“The vicar’s wife came round the corner of the vicarage with her arms full of chrysanthemums.”

I checked back, and all the books I’ve read recently seem to have been published in the last few years. In fact, this year the blog has been very heavy with contemporary releases. I decided it was time to slip back a bit, but I only made it as far as the seventies. Thus, I bring you Miss Marple’s Final Cases, a collection of short stories about everyone’s favourite old lady.

The collection is of nine stories, seven of which contain Miss Marple and two are more supernatural in their nature and feature none of the usual characters. The final story, “Greenshaw’s Folly”, I read feeling like I’d definitely read it before, then realised I had, as it’s also in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. I covered that one there, so here’s a brief rundown on the other eight.

First up is “Sanctuary”, in which a down-and-out man is found dying in a church after weakly asking for sanctuary. When it is discovered that he had recently escaped from jail and he’s left a suitcase at Paddington station, Miss Marple and vicar’s wife Bunch set about trying to find out why he came to be at that church in particular. In the second story, “Strange Jest”, a young couple are foxed when their wealthy uncle dies having left them far less money than they thought he would. However, it seems the old man was fond of jokes, and it takes Miss Marple’s memories of an old uncle to work out where the rest of the money is hidden.

In “Tape-Measure Murder”, a dress fitter attends a client only to find that she’s dead. The local police are stumped but Miss Marple’s sharp eyes find a clue that everyone else deems unimportant that allows her to pin down the murderer. Fourth in line is “The Case of the Caretaker”, in which a young couple move to the village of St Mary Mead much to the apparent anger of the former caretaker of the house they knocked down to build their own. The new wife is convinced that a curse has been laid upon her, and it isn’t long before tragedy strikes. The fifth story is “The Case of the Perfect Maid”, which is a tale of servants, domesticity and theft as Miss Marple attempts to clear the name of a poor maid and uses her own methods to achieve things that the police, in all their wisdom, are unable to do. The sixth tale, “Miss Marple Tells a Story” is, I believe, unique among the canon as it is to my knowledge the only story told from Miss Marple’s point of view. She is regaling her nephew Raymond and his wife Joan about the time she solved a murder for her former solicitor, when a friend of his is accused of murdering his own wife.

The seventh story, “The Dressmaker’s Doll” is enough to put the creeps up anyone, telling the tale of a doll that seems to have appeared very suddenly in a dressmaker’s studio. It seems to be moving of its own accord and the women in the office cannot remember how the doll arrived, nor understand what it wants. I hate all stories of creepy dolls (it’s something that really bloody weirds me out), and this is right up there with the best/worst of them. The final new story is “In A Glass Darkly”. The narrator goes throughout being nameless, but is staying with friends when, in a mirror, he sees another guest being strangled by her lover, although when he turns around in fright, there’s nothing but a wardrobe there. Did he really see her being killed, or has he had a premonition?

Often with collections of short stories, the quality is highly variable, but here I found all the stories to be relatively strong. My favourite was probably “Strange Jest”, which had a satisfactory ending regarding the many different forms that money can take, and how some people just can’t resist a practical joke. I was least impressed with “In A Glass Darkly”, which I happen to have seen adapted for television, and don’t remember being too keen on then either. It just doesn’t feel very Christie, especially in a book surrounded by Marple stories.

Although not collected and published together until 1979, these stories were written between 1934 and 1958, and they’re a great testament to the skill Christie had, as all her work is. Despite most of the stories being less than fifty pages long, she manages to fill them with so much in the way of plot and character that even minor figures jump out of the page, and there isn’t a word wasted. As usual, all the clues are there if you’re smart enough to piece them together before Miss Marple does, and as usual, I proved that I’m not.

And so, with this final collection, I bid a fond farewell to Miss Marple  – I’ve read them all. No doubt I’ll return to them eventually, but this feels like something of a momentous occasion. Goodnight to you, Jane Marple, you will remain one of the finest detectives ever committed to paper.

“Nemesis” by Agatha Christie (1971)

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nemesis“In the afternoon it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.”

Because of the fact that Christie wrote for over fifty years, and her main characters tended not to age that much, there can be some confusion due to the timelines of her stories and disagreement about what year they’re supposed to be yet. Despite the fact that Miss Marple was already an old lady in her 1930 debut, this book is clearly set nearer the time it was written, and yet Marple is still only in her seventies. These facts aside, what we do know about Nemesis is that it is sort of a sequel to one of her earlier books, A Caribbean Mystery, sadly not featured on this blog as I read it before I started writing here, and had forgotten various names within. Much of that is explained again here. So let’s crack on.

Miss Marple is reading the births, deaths and marriages in her newspaper when she stumbles across the name Rafiel. Certain she has heard it before, she ponders and then recalls that they met when they were both travelling in the West Indies and helped solve a crime and prevent a second murder. A few days later, completely unexpectedly, she receives a letter from none other than Mr Rafiel himself, explaining that he needs her help and her “flair for crime”.

The letter was written before his death, and is very vague. He clearly wants her to investigate a crime of some sort, but gives no details. If Miss Marple is successful in solving this undisclosed crime, she will be rewarded with £20,000. Deciding to take on the challenge, she receives further strange instructions and soon she finds herself on a coach travelling the country, wondering if any of the people she’s sharing the journey with are important.

Stopping at one village, she is taken to the house of three sisters, whom put her up in their spare room at the request of Mr Rafiel, who asked them to do so before he died. She also meets Professor Wanstead, another man who has had contact with the deceased millionaire. Miss Marple soon uncovers the tale of tragic Verity Hunt, killed by her boyfriend, who turns out to have been Mr Rafiel’s son, Michael. Miss Marple sees what she has to do, and in her own inimitable way, sets about to correct the errors of justice.

Like many of Christie’s later works, this one lacks a certain something that her earlier ones possess. Oh, fine, it’s still better than Postern of Fate, probably my least favourite of her novels, and it’s still an intelligently weaved mystery that shows Miss Marple as one of the finest fictional characters of all time – she is not a woman to be taken at face value – but there’s a certain sparkle lacking. Nonetheless, it’s a satisfying conclusion that you’ll all see coming a few pages before the reveal, if not before, even if some of the details are only obvious after the fact. It also features a wonderful scene where Miss Marple confronts the killer wrapped in a pink woollen shawl, without even a knitting needle to defend herself. The woman is brilliant and fearless.

Sadly, I have realised that with this one finished, I have just one Miss Marple book to go; the short story collection detailing her final cases. I daresay that this parting won’t be forever – indeed, it’s not yet even over – but it is a reminder that Christie’s works are finite. I’m down to the last few, and continue to be enjoying them immensely. But let’s not dwell on that. On we press.

“The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side” by Agatha Christie (1962)

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"The curse has come upon me," cried the Lady of Shallot...

“The curse has come upon me,” cried the Lady of Shallot…

“Miss Jane Marple was sitting by her window.”

Privately, I think I’ve always preferred Miss Marple to Poirot, although this does change book to book, of course. While they both have similar methods, they’re different enough to make for very different reads. I realised though that I’ve not actually read any Marple since September 2013, which is partly due to the fact there are far fewer Marple books than there are Poirot, and partly sheer uselessness.

Unlike Tommy and Tuppence, who age in real time with their stories, Marple and Poirot both age only a decade or two over the sixty year span of their books being published, despite the fact that often society moves on around them. This book deals with some of those issues, and shows Marple starting to struggle with her age. By the time of the next (chronological) book, A Caribbean Mystery, she will be being sent away on holiday for her health. Despite her failing body however, her mind is still as sharp as ever.

In this book, sometimes printed as just The Mirror Crack’d, we return to Marple’s village of St Mary Mead. Things have changed quite a lot here, and the village is fuller than ever with the building of what the old guard call the Development nearby, full of modern men and women and values that are far from the Victorian idyll held up by some of the original residents. It is, of course, the sixties. At one end of the village sits the large mansion Gossington Hall, which featured prominently in an earlier Christie novel, The Body in the Library. The original owner, Mrs Bantry, has since moved out and now it’s come under the ownership of well-known actress Marina Gregg and her director husband Jason Rudd. The villagers, both old and new, are excited by this prospect and one summer’s day, the gates are flung open for a party, so everyone goes to catch a peek of Marina, and see what changes have been made to the house.

Few could be more excited about this than Heather Badcock, a kind but interfering woman from the Development who once met Marina many years ago and sought her out for an autograph. But not long after they meet, Heather is dead, poisoned by a daiquiri spiked with an overdose of prescription drugs. The police, including Dermot Craddock (an old friend of Marple who has appeared in two other novels), are stumbling over themselves to work out how this happened. Everyone has a theory, but it seems the only thing they can all agree on is that the poison was meant for Marina Gregg, as she gave Heather hers after Heather spilt the one she was meant to have.

As the police struggle to work out who would want Marina dead, Miss Marple begins to explore her own avenues of investigation, stifled all the while by live-in carer Miss Knight. Everyone wants it solved before the killer makes a second attempt, but there are too many unanswered questions. What happened to Marina’s children? What was Ardwyck Fenn doing back in Britain? And what is it that Marina saw when she was talking to Heather that made her look so terrified?

Considered by some to be a sequel to Library, the story is populated by a number of characters who we’ve seen before. Change has come to St Mary Mead, but many people remain the same and Marple is still as shrewd as ever, known by the locals to always be tangling herself up in murder, although not necessarily on purpose. Gone are her faithful parlourmaids and now she finds herself being bullied to health by Miss Knight, a domineering woman who always thinks she knows what’s best for Marple without ever questioning her. Marple finds her tiresome and will do anything to avoid her, and I completely understand why, but she’s rather a grotesque creation and a good addition.

The book deals with many themes that are far more modern than the average St Mary Mead resident or Christie reader would expect, dealing as it does with the notion of celebrity, the “moving picture” industry, the changes in class structure and how villages were redeveloped after the war for new residents. It took a while to get into the book, but the payoff was absolutely splendid and the twist one of the finest in the canon. Like everything, it’s obvious once you know, but Christie continues to work her magic and make sure that we’re always one step behind the detectives.

And if only everyone would remember to use their pronouns correctly, there wouldn’t be such confusion.

If you want to read my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus (which is nothing at all like a Christie mystery), head to Amazon, iTunes or SmashWords to download it for any e-reader device.