Finding My Inner Miss Marple

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.

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple source

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.

Some of my jottings from the eighties.

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?

P.S. I’ve written about favourite mystery novels countless times on the blog. You can read a couple of those posts here and here if you like.

P.P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.

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45 thoughts on “Finding My Inner Miss Marple”

  1. Great post! I haven’t read the Miss Marple collection yet, and it’s been decades since I read most, if not all, of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, but you’ve whetted my appetite!
    And I really think you should give Almeida a chance to crochet and investigate her way through a few more pages. . . c’mon, you know you want to! (you know we want you to!)

  2. Yes , I enjoyed the Marple short stories . Putting her in different settings gave a new perspective . I read the Christie books years ago & they are great puzzles . I’m not keen on that genre now , i.e. the well bred upper classes showing up the local plodding copper who has been doing his job for years . A lot of the old respected writers re-enforced this stereotype & it jars on me these days .
    It must be wonderful to write a book that people want to read , not so much if they don’t 😁 I’d definitely read yours . I’ve never come across the exotic sounding names of Almeida & Dorena . They are perfect for your book . I’m currently reading The Close , the new Jane Casey , & loving it . Maeve & Josh are on special surveillance which entails living as a ‘ loving couple ‘ in suburbia – you can imagine the problems !
    I hope you bounce back from the bugs soon . Travelling when you felt rough wouldn’t have helped .

    1. I’m so glad you recommended that book, Wendy. Not sure I could use Dorena. It’s Mum’s real name. I did laugh when I read that I’d named “Doris’s” farmer husband Lorne. Ha. I haven’t read a Jane Casey in a while. Not sure why. I like that pair of characters… Maeve and Josh.

  3. I second this,too! You would be a great mystery writer!
    The new Croatian mystery writer Andelka Kliment was an english teacher (see!) and has written her debut novel at the age of 74
    I love A. Christie and her mysteries very much,so I was afraid that I wouldn’t like these new Marple stories,but I utterly did (thank you Wendy!)
    Dottoressa

  4. I really enjoyed the marple short stories and I love val mcdermid. If you havent already found him I would also suggest stuart macbride. his scottish humour makes me smile every time. if you need a giggle complete with snort read the shovel list on his website.

    1. I read Stuart McBride for a few years. I love his style and his wit. But I grew tired of the excessive gore in his books. I wish he’d dial it back a bit.

  5. Yes, please do write the version featuring “Sharon” as the driver! And now I’m wondering if you also like the Miss Silver mysteries by Patricia Wentworth. I got hooked and read them all, and now I want to BE Miss Silver. I definitely envy her knitting prowess!

  6. The best thing about this long, drawn out, grey, mucky winter is that there has been ample opportunity to read. I loved Marple: Twelve New Mysteries. I so enjoyed the new perspectives, written by many of my favourite contemporary mystery writers, that paid such homage to the original author.
    Currently, I am reading Remarkably Bright Ctreatures, a charming debut novel by Shelby Van Pelt. How can you not love a novel that features an elderly protagonist and an escape artist octopus named Marcellus? A hopeful and appealing new read.

  7. I so enjoy your posts on books, especially mysteries. I grew up reading Agatha Christie at the cottage every summer. I remember hoping for rainy days, so that I would not feel guilty being indoors reading. One summer we had a particularly rainy July and had to drive to the village to buy more books at the used book store. Browsing the shelves was like a treasure hunt, and we left well stocked for the remainder of the summer. To this day, reading on a rainy day when you can hear the rain on the roof is a favourite pastime.
    I just used your Amazon link to order the new Marple book. Looking forward to reading it.

  8. Sue, I am in total agreement with everyone. You would be fantastic and I would love to read your amazing musings. This is why I am always smiling when I see your new post.

  9. I haven’t yet read much in the mystery genre. I don’t know why that is. One of those peculiarities.

    I enjoyed this post and think your updated duo would make for great stories. Go for it!

    It’s funny, I’m the exact opposite. Not nosy at all. I think it’s because when I was growing up I was very internal/private, and my mother is very nosy (not in a malicious way!). I never liked it. She always knows everyone else’s business and if you tell her a secret it won’t be one for long, which drove me crazy! The odd thing about this not-being-nosy thing is that because I am very discreet and quiet about things, people always confide in me and offer up deep dark secrets. I suppose they know intuitively that I won’t tell anyone, and that I won’t judge. So in the end I know a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have chosen to know and that. I’ll never share. I could get into a lot of trouble if I ever chose to write things down. I remember reading that Karl Ove Knuasgaard said he gave away his soul with his My Struggle series for that reason. Oh well!

    1. I have a friend like you, Stephanie. So great to talk to, and so discreet. I’m nosy, I admit. But I don’t blab what friends tell me. Mostly I want to know people’s stories.

      1. Ooh I didn’t mean you’d be a blabber. My mom isn’t a blabber either, at least with respect to very sensitive information. But you know when you are a kid you’re sensitive. I also love hearing people’s stories…

  10. Oh Sue, your blogs are always so timely and on point for my life. My oldest daughter gave me the new Miss Marple for Christmas. Because I am so behind on my reading because of babysitting my three granddaughters I lent it to my youngest daughter to read first. She has just now started it, I know that because when I am at her house two or three times a week watching her daughter the book is on the side table. These days I am trying to whittle down my tbr pile, slow going, as grandbabies come first…as they should. Hope you are feeling better.

  11. Have you ever read any of Agatha Christie’s novels written under the name Mary Westmacott? I found them to be wonderful books but hard to find years ago. Probably available on kindle etc nowadays. I believe she wrote six books under this pen name.

    Kindest regards from Tasmania. Anne.

    1. I read several of those years ago. Found them in my grandmother’s book closet. I haven’t seen them in ages. I wonder if they were reissued under Christie’s real name. P.S. We loved Tasmania when we visited. 😊

  12. I have put the Miss Marple stories on hold at the library. Thanks for the recommendation! You are also making me think I should give Agatha Christie herself a second chance. I devoured her books when I was younger but felt as if I outgrew her as I got into meatier mysteries. It may be time to revisit her. I certainly enjoy “gentle” reading in other genres.

    1. I felt the same. Until I discovered audio books. For some reason her style and humour are better displayed when a really good reader narrates the book. I’ve listened to pretty much all of her books since.

  13. After reading your blog this morning I sat down to read the morning paper. About two pages in there was an article informing us that Miss Marple has been ” sanitised” in the interests of political correctness. Non-PC words have been axed from the text. Whatever next?
    If you do write your book you might have to use an underground publisher!

    1. Yes Kenzie I saw that . Not the first time this has been done , Ten Little Indians comes to mind 😁
      By the way , we were staying in Dunkeld last week ( as lovely as ever ) & the locals were pleased to learn that their little town had been voted the best place to live in Scotland & third in the UK . Thought you’d be pleased too .

      1. Glad you enjoyed your visit to Dunkeld Wendy. I always thought it was a beautiful wee village – or more correctly a cathedral city. Hopefully I might get to visit it again.

  14. I look forward to your book Sue. I’ve no doubt that it will be enjoyable and I’m wondering what the mystery will be.
    I’ve added the Marple book to my list. It makes me want to go back to read a few Christie novels first. It has been a long time since I read one and I never read all of them.
    I hope that you are feeling better. I think that when you recover and the sun comes out, you’ll feel more like hoping in a roadster. May that time come quickly.

  15. Love love Miss Marple. I do better with the audio books and enjoy the detail in her stories. I couldn’t sleep last night and watched The Murder at the Vicarage then into Murder to be Announced. It was a long night!

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