Twelve New Mysteries
william morrow, 384 pages, $28.99
Admirers of Agatha Christie have much to be thankful for this month. On September 6, we got a new biography to dig into—Lucy Worsley’s Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman—and now, on top of that, we have a tribute to the incomparable Miss Marple.
Simply titled (rather cheekily) Marple, on the front cover it’s subtitled Twelve New Mysteries; on the title page, inside the book, it’s Twelve New Stories. The dozen authors represented are all women, most of them best-selling writers; irritatingly, no editor is identified. The book begins with a generic uncredited introduction, which doesn’t inspire confidence, but the stories themselves are generally good. I suspect that the vast majority of fans will enjoy this high-spirited volume, loaded as it is with allusions to the canonical novels and stories.
Like many readers of our generation, Wendy and I see the actress Joan Hickson in our mind’s eye whenever we are reading about Miss Marple. Indeed, Hickson channeled Christie’s creation to an uncanny degree: the spinster Jane Marple living in the village of St Mary Mead, gardening, knitting, faithfully going to church, observing all that goes on with her compassionate but steely intelligence. I have good friends who share my taste for mysteries and crime fiction more generally but who simply can’t stand Miss Marple. I’ve never been able to understand the intensity of their aversion, but such is life. (I have my own strong dislikes, after all.)
One of my favorite stories in the book is “The Second Murder at the Vicarage,” by Val McDermid (who happens to be the only one of the twelve authors I’d read before picking up this book). Here McDermid gives us a delightful mini sequel to Christie’s first Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). There’s a fine line to walk with such homages, avoiding self-indulgent cutesiness, but McDermid brings it off without a false step. And a crucial clue comes when Miss Marple glimpses the title of a book on a shelf where its presence is incongruous: Native Fungi of the Home Counties. Delicious.
Another story I particularly enjoyed was “Miss Marple’s Christmas,” by Ruth Ware. In this tale, a book that a sullen young man at the Christmas gathering is reading, Dorothy Sayers’s Hangman’s Holiday, gives Miss Marple a vital clue. Of course that is precisely the sort of thing the great Raymond Chandler fumed about and excoriated in his famous essay “The Simple Art of Murder.” To each his own. Speaking for myself, I treasure Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.
I have complained now and then that Christie’s convictions as an unambiguously Christian writer have often been given short shrift or overlooked entirely. (A sterling exception is Jeremy Black’s recent book The Importance of Being Poirot, which emphasizes Christie’s identity as a “practicing Anglican” with a “strong religious sensibility.”) Alas, that is true of the stories commissioned for this volume. I very much wish that at least a writer or two with a strong sense of Christie’s faith and the way it informed her work had been enlisted for this project. That is not to say, of course, that vicars, curates, rectors, and such are missing entirely; not at all! But there’s very little evidence of the “strong religious sensibility” that sustained her.
Part of what made Joan Hickson’s portrayal of Miss Marple for British TV so memorably compelling was her voice. It will probably sound very silly or odd to you, but now and then, out of the blue, I hear in my head Miss Marple’s voice as rendered by Hickson. Don’t worry, I’m not saying that I am hearing her voice as if addressed to me. But there is something about her voice (embodying a cluster of winsome qualities) that I find immensely cheering and grounded in the real. Strange but delightful.
September is not too soon to start thinking about books to give at Christmas. This particular book is not best suited to readers unfamiliar with the canonical character. But for those on your gift list who are already admirers of Miss Marple, it would make a splendid present. And by the way: If you know any voracious young readers of the sort who wouldn’t be vexed by a book published long (very long) before 2022, a small stack of Christie novels featuring Miss Marple and Poirot might well be a great success.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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