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Christie’s Sleuths: Miss Marple

Miss Marple is one of Agatha Christie’s famous creations. In today’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss the books and short stories that feature this fascinating detective and are surprised to learn how many of Christie’s works Miss Marple appeared in.


“Tuesday Night Club” (1927) Agatha Christie

The Thirteen Problems (1932) Agatha Christie

Murder at the Vicarage (1930) Agatha Christie

Sleeping Murder (1976) Agatha Christie

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) Agatha Christie

At Bertram’s Hotel (1965) Agatha Christie

4:50 From Paddington (1957) Agatha Christie

A Murder is Announced (1950) Agatha Christie

The Secret Adversary (1983) London Weekend Television

Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime (1983) London Weekend Television

Murder She Said (1961 film) MGM

The Mirror Crack’d (1980 film)

Murder She Wrote (1984-1996) CBS

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004-2013) BBC

Marple: Twelve New Mysteries (2022)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1921) Agatha Christie

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi, Brook.
BrookHi, Sarah. Today we’re going to get back into talking about Agatha Christie’s sleuths.
SarahBefore we do that, should we mention our write-along that is coming up?
SarahSo members of the Clued In Cartel, which is our paid membership and to join the Cartel it’s, very accessible. It ranges from $12 US a year to $120 and you pay you decide what your discount is ah members of the cartel will be able to see the product of what you and I write over the next little bit and provide some input in terms of what we should be writing as we try something completely new and a little bit scary.
BrookIt is a little scary but it’s really exciting. So yeah, so bit by bit as we write the story, Cartel members will get to see it as we go along, and like you said give some input when we want certain details or maybe when we get stuck and we need an idea.
SarahSo we hope to see people there. We want to have a lot of fun.
BrookSo in past episodes about Agatha Christie’s sleuths, we’ve talked about some of the lesser-known sleuths that maybe only appeared in a few books or short stories. But today, we’re turning our attention to one of the most popular: Miss Marple. Agatha Christie’s sleuth incomparable Miss Jane Marple first appeared in a short story published in 1927 called the “Tuesday Night Club,” which later became the first chapter of The Thirteen Problems (1932). Marple’s first appearance in a full-length novel was in 1930 with the Murder at the Vicarage. Her last appearance was in Sleeping Murder, published in 1976, after Christie’s death. Altogether this octogenarian sleuth was in 12 novels and 20 short stories. Best known as simply Miss Marple she’s the quintessential elderly busybody. Listening and picking up on details that others miss in order to cunningly solve mysteries. She likely acquired her surname from the name of a railway station in Marple on the Manchester -to-Sheffield Hope Valley line.
BrookThe story goes that Agatha Christie spent a long delay there and made note of the sign. Miss Marple resides in the fictional English village of St. Mary Mead, where there’s a pub a few shops the vicarage and Gossington Hall Estate. According to the Agatha Christie website, the character of Miss Marple was heavily influenced by Christie’s own grandmother and her grandmother’s friends. Like many older women of that time, Marple’s hobbies include knitting, gardening, and gossiping of course. She’s described as an attractive tall and thin old woman with a twinkle in her blue eyes. It’s interesting to note that Miss Marple’s personality changed some over the years. In The Murder at the Vicarage, she’s only barely tolerated by some of the townspeople she’s considered a snoop and sort of a bother who always expects the worst in other people. In later stories, this isn’t the case. Miss Marple seems kinder and less negative in her views. Something that remains constant in her character, however, is her willingness to remain somewhat overlooked and disregarded. The quiet old woman in the corner who’s secretly figuring everyone out.
BrookMiss Marple had a succession of housemaids in the stories after her favorite long time maid Florence retires, she employs several young women from a local orphanage whom she trains for service and then in her later years. She employs a companion named Sherry Baker and she’s first introduced in The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side. Most of the Marple stories are set in St. Mary Mead, but not all of them. We find the sleuth to be very independent and a good traveler who enjoys visiting friends in various UK locations, as well as farther afield. Wherever she goes, a mysterious death is sure to take place.
BrookMiss Marple is described as a spinster, but it’s mentioned that she did have a special beau in her youth. But without children or immediate family of her own, her closest known relative is her nephew Raymond West. He’s an author and very fond of his aunt, but he tends to overestimate his own capabilities and underestimate his aunt’s capacity to read human nature, and therefore solve mysteries.
BrookAlthough Miss Marple is always portrayed as an elderly woman her exact age is a bit of a puzzle itself. In At Bertram’s Hotel published in 1965, it said she first visited this hotel when she was 14 and about 60 years have passed since then so implying that she’s around 75. But in 4:50 from Paddington, published almost ten years before, Miss Marple reports to other characters that she will be turning 90 the following year. I doubt that the Queen of Crime made a mistake here. You know, maybe in her mind these stories were written out of order. Or, was Miss Marple poking fun at her feebleness on purpose when she said she was about to be 90? It seems like something the character might do to downplay her abilities and keep her crime solving on the down low.
BrookThe Murder at the Vicarage and A Murder is Announced were both adapted for the stage and played for many years, last touring in the late 1970s. The BBC’s beloved TV series entitled Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, starring Joan Hickson, aired from 1984 to 1992 and all 12 Marple novels were dramatized in this production. As we’ve learned in previous Clued In episodes, Agatha Christie was never very happy with film productions of her work. But it seems that after the BBC success in producing The Secret Adversary and subsequently Partners in Crime, they were granted the rights to produce the Miss Marple stories, other TV adaptations followed. But ardent fans seem to prefer the Joan Hickson Miss Marple similarly to the preference for David Suchet as Poirot. Fans also enjoyed this particular series because it sticks so closely to the original plotlines of the Marple books. Murder She Said was a 1961 full-length mystery film based on 4:50 from Paddington and it starred Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. MGM also made three sequels including Rutherford as Marple. It does not stick closely to the plot and Rutherford plays a comedic and rather silly Miss Marple who often breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience.
BrookIn 1980, Angela Lansbury played Miss Marple in The Mirror Cracked and the film featured an all-star cast including Edward Fox as Inspector Cratic and he does most of the legwork for Miss Marple in in this film. Lansbury then of course later played a similar role as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. It seems to me that the multiple TV series, and especially the long running BBC series, has sort of tricked us a little bit in thinking that Agatha Christie wrote more Miss Marple than she did. But even though Miss Marple starred in less than 25 percent of Agatha Christie’s novels, she definitely accounts for much more than that in the heart of mystery readers.
SarahWell thank you, Brook and I have to agree. I’m surprised at your number there that she was in less than 25 percent of what Agatha Christie wrote, because I would have thought it was more. But I guess a lot of short stories, you can expand those into screen adaptations.
BrookAnd I definitely think that’s what happened. And we’ve talked ah before too, Sarah that sometimes the other sleuths the lesser-known slews that we discussed Sergeant Battle, even Tommy and Tuppence, some of their stories when they appeared on TV, the sleuth in them then became Miss Marple so she got some other storylines from some of the other sleuths as well. But yeah I mean of the 66 novels that Agatha Christie wrote to think that only 12 of them were Marple novels, like that kind of blew my mind because she is such a big part of the canon.
SarahI don’t think you mentioned it but the kind of more recent BBC series Agatha Christie’s Marple, with and I think there were two women who played Miss Marple: Geraldine McEwen for the first set of the stories and then Julia Mackenzie in kind of the last half of the episodes for that. I like those. I think they stray a little from the stories. But what I like about those is in this setup in the opening scenes, she’s always reading something and if you are quick enough to like make a note of whatever it is she’s reading, it’s often another Golden Age author or it’s ah you know some call back to mysteries in a historical sense.
BrookOh that’s very clever I like that I think that the TV adaptations also skewed my understanding of the character a little bit, because especially the actresses that you just named. They’re not disliked in the community. They’re kind of the sweet elderly lady. They’re usually, ah you know, quite attractive and a really liked part of the community I think versus who we see in when I first read The Murder at the Vicarage. I was like oh my goodness these characters really don’t like her and they don’t want her around. Um but you know as I explained that did change over the series and I was wondering about that and um, I’m wondering if part of that changed as Agatha Christie aged herself because you know in 1927 she was a very young woman and you know elderly women. You know we think of them differently when we’re in our you know 20s and 30s when boy 70 doesn’t seem very old at all right now as I’m entering middle age and. You know you don’t want to portray those older people as like stodgy or you know, ah an annoying busybody I’m wondering if that changed in the way she saw herself as she became an older woman.
SarahYeah I I think you’re probably right, Brook I think that’s a great observation. And I I get this sense that Agatha Christie really enjoyed writing Miss Marple. Although I agree with you when I first read Murder at the Vicarage I thought she was not very kind to Miss Marple at all. And you know I haven’t read all of the Marple stories or or novels. So I can’t um you know really talk to how that change evolves. But I’m glad to hear that it does.
BrookYes, yes I am too.
SarahI have for today’s conversation I started reading The Thirteen Problems and so that’s the short stories that she first appeared in and I really like them. They’re short, snappy. And um, you know in each of them it’s a different character is kind of sharing a mysterious story that that they’re familiar with um and they there’s six of them I think who’ve gathered and they each kind of pose a solution and then it’s Miss Marple who at the end has some observation of some seemingly pointless piece of information that actually you know reveals the truth of the of the matter. But yeah I I’ve really been enjoying those.
BrookOh those so sound fantastic I’ll I’ll definitely pick that up too and I think that’s so because we’re talking about how she changed over the length of the stories. But here she is the very first time that Christie presents her and she already has that characterization where because that stays true doesn’t it where at the end of the story. Miss Marple is able to be the one to identify that one piece of information that unlocks. Or maybe not just one but key pieces of information that unlock the whole mystery and that obviously was established right at the beginning and one thing that I learned and and thought that was really interesting in my research was that um to think about the fact that these days, it’s very common to have a sleuth put the mystery together by listening and talking um or simply observing different ah people and how they interact with one another but that was very new for Marple because. Prior to that, sleuths either had a police background or an espionage. You know they were into espionage or military or something and they were looking at physical evidence fingerprints. Um, you know a dropped letter or a you know a note left behind these very physical things that would tie ah the case together and she was kind of the first one to just observe you know, maybe secret alliances or human nature. So that was a very new thing that Agatha Christie was introducing.
SarahI think it’s interesting and you kind of commented on this the way that she doesn’t she doesn’t really age or we don’t really know how old she is. You said there’s a couple of hints and yeah, maybe um, the stories were written out of chronological order. Or as you say maybe maybe Agatha Christie was um, just kind of messing with ah messing with the audience. But, and I guess she’s like Poirot in that sense in that she doesn’t really she doesn’t really age even though the world around her is presumably is changing.
BrookYeah, isn’t it interesting that Christie did that with both of her primary sleuths. Se doesn’t do that with everyone you know, Tommy and Tuppence age and they sort of ah mirror her life cycle. But um, yeah I think that it’s interesting that she kept these kind of um, solid or stable characters there. And I think that sometimes she gets criticized for that because they you know there’s no character arc or whatever. But I think it was very intentional and it really creates a strong story and an ability to create a series around that character.
SarahWell and it also makes the character really timeless, right? Because they’re not so ground in um, whatever is going on in the outside world. You know you can pick up the Tuesday Night Club and it’s it could be anytime right? It’s six people who’ve gathered to have this conversation. It’s not grounded in a particular um event or you know, there’s no reference to covid or cell phones or you know I mean obviously those aren’t going to appear in in Agatha Christie stories but it’s really timeless.
BrookYeah, and a good lesson right for because as you say if you were writing something now and you put all these details in that are about you know the twenty twenty s then it’s going to freeze it in that. Time period where we can still enjoy these miss Marple stories that are um, you know 100 years old now that feel like they’re just not locked into an era. Yeah great point.
SarahSo I know um it was a couple of years ago now that and the Christie estate commissioned I think it was 12 authors to write 12 new Miss Marple stories. I would love for them to do that again like I would love to read more Miss Marple stories.
BrookI would too.
SarahWell hopefully someone from the Christie Estate is listening.
BrookWe can only hope.
BrookThere have been some discussions about feminism and Miss Marple. And interestingly which I guess this is like anything these days kind of both sides of this and say that she’s very you know, very good representation of feminism and then the opposite. And I’m kind of on the end that feel like and I think I’m on the end where I feel like she is a great representation of like feminism and and being a strong woman. She’s independently wealthy. We don’t really know she’s never works. She just has the means to exist, right? She’s very independent in that way. She’s unmarried. She’s always been unmarried. She’s taken care of herself. She travels alone. She does have companions of course but you know as far as like. Getting around the world. Um, she she does what she likes she solves crimes and I think she is a very great. Ah and I think she’s a wonderful ah role model for women.
SarahI agree and older women as well. Right? Um, you know she really plays up that well I’m just this helpless old woman that you know nobody nobody sees right? And that’s part of ah the Tuesday Night Club is you know she says “and nobody sees me sitting in the corner right”? Um, and but I agree I I think she’s ah she’s a really good example of how a woman can be independent even into her old age. And I think she sets the stage for some of what we’re seeing now where there’s um, you know multiple series with older sleuths. Um, and you know I there’s. Ah, definitely a line I think you can draw from Miss Marple through to those series that we’re seeing today.
BrookExactly and in this ah contemporary time we are still drawn to that. Ah to that idea of the person who you least expect can be, you know the hero.
SarahYeah, exactly. Although, Miss Marple the name is a bit of a shorthand for kind of a busybody um know it all. You’ll you’ll hear reference to in a say a detective show if there is an old lady character. They’re often referred to as ah as a Miss Marple and not in a particularly positive way.
BrookThis is true.
SarahSo, Brook, was the character of Miss Marple inspired by anyone?
BrookOh, yes. Actually, Sarah we see her predecessor in some books by Anna Katharine Green and the character is Amelia Butterworth. And Amelia is a helper to Anna Katharine Green’s primary s primary sleuth detective Ebenezer Gryce. And this enables him to um, kind of utilize her to get into the you know drawing rooms of some of the ah more posh society. Where they wouldn’t necessarily let a police detective who was kind of considered a lower you know blue collar worker into that world and Amelia was able to infiltrate it much like we see. Ah Miss Marple doing the same thing.
SarahOh that’s a fantastic connection and um I think and Agatha Christie ah in her biography identified Anna Katharine Green as one of her inspirations in writing The Mysterious Affair at Styles.
BrookOh, that’s true. And you know, not to get off on an Anna Katharine Green tangent but she was just so ahead of her time in so many ways and so it’s interesting that we see her bringing in this elderly female sleuth much earlier than even Miss Marple.
SarahWell, Brook this has been so much fun speaking about Miss Marple and I actually hope this isn’t the last time that we talk about her because she is such a great character.
BrookI think I would love to revisit Miss Marple. And you know, we might want to do a viewing of those silly movies starring Margaret Rutherford and discuss how ah they differ from the actual Christie canon. It could be a fun conversation.
BrookWell, thank you, Sarah and thank you, listeners for joining us today on Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.