When I was a kid I always longed to be a “girl detective,” like Nancy Drew. I’ve always been nosy, and I imagined myself as someone who whipped around the countryside in a roadster, with her girl pals, solving mysteries. I wrote about that childhood ambition, and about my favourite novels featuring not-quite-girl detectives here, if you’re interested. Lately, though, especially since I have been listening to Marple: Twelve New Mysteries, I think my detective abilities might be better employed in a more sedentary way. Sitting in a chair, perhaps, in front of the fire, with a half-finished knitting project in my lap, a cardigan for one of my nephews maybe, gently nodding, listening carefully, and eventually solving the mystery without having to resort to frenzied rushing about in a roadster. Perhaps with the advent of white hair, and a winter cold that has hung on and on, I’ve discovered my inner Miss Marple.
I have absolutely adored the newest addition to the Agatha Christie canon, even if it wasn’t written by Christie herself. Marple: Twelve New Mysteries is certainly an homage to Christie. And an homage to her characters, and even her style, which is why it appealed to me so much. The mysteries are written by twelve talented and successful mystery writers, including Val McDermid and Elly Griffiths, two mystery writers whose work I like very much. With new plots and some new settings, it is still faithful to Christie’s love of order and justice. In fact one of the stories takes a lovely, and much welcomed, by me anyway, twist at the end to achieve justice. And it’s not, thank goodness, one of those rewrites which seeks to “update” classic works by combining beloved characters with, say, zombies, or space travel.
I think my overall favourite story is the one written by Val McDermid. “The Second Murder at the Vicarage” brings back the characters from the original The Murder at the Vicarage. Like the original it’s narrated by Leonard Clement, the vicar, and McDermid gets the characters, the style, and the deceptively gentle tone just right, in my opinion.
I love the way McDermid mimics Christie’s subtle, and often sly humour. Leonard’s character saying that he “often underestimates the steel under the tweed when it comes to [his] older parishioners,” made me smile. McDermid’s opening line, “To have one murder in one’s vicarage is unfortunate, to have a second looks remarkably like carelessness, or worse,” made me laugh out loud. And then Griselda, much younger and much too irreverent for a vicar’s wife, calls the spinsters of St. Mary Mead a “clowder of old cats” whose gossip hotline is “swifter than the BBC.” I chortled and thought that Ms. Christie would definitely be smiling if she could read this.
It always surprises me that Agatha Christie gets such short shrift from the literary community. Or from those who call themselves lovers of literary fiction. Seriously, Christie’s books are very well written. Okay, maybe they are somewhat formulaic in plot. But they are genre fiction after all, so there are conventions to which she must adhere. The characters can be somewhat stereotypical, I agree. But, in a way, that’s what makes them so appealing. We recognize them. We know them. And I don’t think the diffident vicars in Agatha Christie’s books are any more stereotypical then the vicars in Barbara Pym novels, or even in Jane Austen.
But if Christie’s books are considered unworthy of notice by readers who prefer more literary fare, they are still much loved by many of us. Even now, so many years after Christie’s death. I read an article by Jamie Fisher in the New York Times this morning about our enduring love for Christie’s work, and about Fisher’s obsession with murder mysteries during the early months of the pandemic. Fisher says she felt drawn to the certainty of Christie’s fictional world when our world, in early 2020, was so very uncertain. Reading Christie’s novels was, for her, like taking a vacation from uncertainty.
The indulgence of Christie is the dream of vacationing, for a little while, in a static world where people never stopped leaving their doors unlocked or gossiping viciously at the local fishmonger’s. But it’s also a dream of something remarkable interrupting the stasis: a mysterious clutch of pearls, a set of men committing crimes in costume beards, a body in the library, a terrible virus. It comes into your life with the force of revelation, maybe changes you forever. And then you go quietly back to the vicarage.Jamie Fisher in The New York Times
The year I spent back with my parents in the early eighties I devoured all kinds of non-literary novels. Comfort reads when I needed to be comforted. Novels that promised me a world of certainty when I needed to stop thinking about my own uncertain future. I found solace in reading my grandmother’s huge collection of mystery novels. Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, G.K. Chesterton, Raymond Wallace, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, all the golden oldies, from the golden age of detective fiction. I dug them out of Grammy’s dusty hall closet and carted them back to Mum and Lloyd’s.
That winter when I wasn’t reading, or learning to knit, I even played around with writing my own detective story. Starring my own Miss Marple, my grandmother. Whom I cleverly renamed Almeida O’Sullivan. Almeida was my grandmother’s middle name. Almeida’s side-kick, whose job it was to drive her around the countryside while she stuck her nose in other people’s business and solved mysteries, was my mum, Dorena. Whom I renamed Doris McNaughton. Doris, a farmer’s wife, was married to Lorne. Get it… Doris and Lorne? Oh, that does make me laugh.
The rest of the cast of characters was a thinly veiled reworking of my parents’ rural neighbours whom I endowed with nefarious motives and unflattering attributes. Even down to the middle-aged female character with the long, greasy hair, wisps of which were always sticking to her face. You know, it was a good thing I never actually finished the darned thing. Aside from being derivative and cliché, it was downright libellous.
Except for Almeida. Almeida O’Sullivan was the real deal. The literary embodiment of my grandmother. Sharp witted and sharp tongued, curious, some might even say nosy, with an amazing aptitude for remembering everything but everything about other people, their families and their history. My grandmother could sit in her rocking chair, crocheting, and tell you anything you wanted to know about most of the people who lived in Devon (the part of Fredericton on the north side of the St. John River) where she lived, almost everyone who lived “up country” where she grew up, and many people who lived in Fredericton proper. I think that Gwyneth Almeida Sullivan would have been tickled pink to read about the fictional exploits of not-quite-fictional Almeida O’Sullivan.
You know, I think if I were to write the story now, I’d have Almeida’s sidekick be her nosy, unemployed granddaughter, Sharon, home from the big city and at loose ends. So she gets inveigled into driving her grandmother around the countryside so they can both stick their equally nosy noses into other people’s business and solve mysteries. Then after a day on the road asking people uncomfortable questions and chasing up leads, they go back to the farm for supper so Sharon’s mother, Doris, can rail at them both for getting involved in mysteries that are none of their business. Ooh. I’m liking this version much better.
What fun it was to dig out those old jottings from the eighties and read through them today.
I also found a bunch of notes on a story about the man who used to keep his horse in my step-father’s barn when I was a kid. I always had a soft spot for him. And he for me. He was killed a long time ago when he and his horse were working in the woods. I remember the day my Mum called and told me, I was so upset. But that’s a story for another post, I think.
Anyway, if you get a chance to read or listen to Marple: Twelve New Mysteries, I highly recommend them. Along with the antibiotic for my sinus infection, they were just what the doctor ordered for me. Gentle, witty, well written and satisfying. Great medicine for when one is chaffing at the bit to be out and about, but is not feeling up to leaving the house except for the occasional slow, kind of ambling walk when the sun comes out and the wind is not too biting.
Sigh. I am very aware that I sound whiny, my friends. That’s because whiny is what I am these days. I need to muster the steel beneath my tweeds. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.
For now though, I think I’ll sit in front of the fire, channelling my inner Miss Marple. Now where did I put my knitting?
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