Later this month JJ, Moira and Brad will be discussing this novel at JJ’s blog The Invisible Event, so I thought I best to get it re-read beforehand. I think the plot of this book is quite familiar to readers, with the title summing it up in a matter of words. There is indeed a murder at the vicarage in St Mary Mead of Colonel Protheroe; the unpopular local squire who lives at the Old Hall. Initially two obvious suspects emerge, the Colonel’s wife, Anne, and her lover, local artist Lawrence Redding, and they even go as far as confessing to the crime. But it soon seems like they could not have done it and did in fact confess to protect each other. Other suspects begin to creep out of the woodwork as the police investigation unfolds including a mysterious newcomer to the village who visited Protheroe the night before, as well as am embezzler desperate to keep their crime a secret. Of course Miss Marple, our elderly spinster amateur sleuth is at the centre of it all, in more ways than one.
IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK I ADVISE NOT READING BEYOND THIS POINT, AS I DO GO INTO SPOILER DETAILS.
You may still be puzzling over the title for this post. You may even be wondering what on earth is Kate on about. But hopefully it rang a few bells and sounded vaguely familiar, as in fact my title is alluding to W. H. Auden’s essay, ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ (1948). Auden’s essay is partially concerned with stating the author’s opinions on what constitutes a good detective story, and I decided to pull out these ideas and then see how well Christie’s story measures up to them. I have compiled these points into the table below:
|The novel includes at least one murder.|
|Many people are suspected, but most are eliminated.|
|The murderer(s) either die or are arrested.|
|The novel includes a closed society, where murder is unheard of or at the very least uncommon.|
|Characters are interesting individuals. They either seem good but are ‘later shown to be false’ or initially appear bad before being shown to be good.|
|The corpse shocks due to being in an unexpected place.|
|The choice of victim makes a lot of people look guilty.|
|The victim is unpleasant.|
|The murderer does not look obviously like a murderer, but once is revealed so, everything known about them indicates this role.|
|The detective (amateur or professional) ‘must be the total stranger who cannot possibly be involved in the crime; this excludes the local police and should [according to Auden] exclude the detective who is a friend of one of the suspects.’|
|The arrest of the murderer (s) returns the society to its original state of innocence and tranquillity.|
So how does The Murder at the Vicarage fare?
Well Christie is off to a good start as she does indeed have one murder victim. It is fair to say this is an easy criterion to meet. You could say the same for the second point, of having many suspected, but most eliminated. However, as I will talk about later in this post I think Christie turns this idea on its head, as she deliberately sets out to use the obvious suspects as the genuine ones and even has them seemingly proven innocent. So in this instance getting eliminated from the police’s enquiries is no guarantee you are not guilty. The guilty party are arrested so that takes care of Auden’s third point. The fourth concerning the need for a closed society in which murder is unheard of or uncommon is also met without a sweat in one respect. St Mary Mead is not like Midsomer; its’ murder rate is remarkably low. Although the vicarage crime scene is quite accessible to a wide range of local inhabitants, so I wouldn’t say the set of suspects is closed too rigidly. But perhaps the local knowledge involved in the crime scene does suggest the killer cannot be a complete outsider. Am I quibbling by only giving half a point for this fourth item on the list?
Now we get to the fifth point Auden makes: Characters are interesting individuals. They either seem good but are ‘later shown to be false’ or initially appear bad before being shown to be good. The first statement is a highly subjective one and for my part I do find the characters in Christie’s novel very engaging. But on contemplating the second statement about good characters being shown to be bad and vice versa, I felt I had to pause. It didn’t feel like there was a quick yes or no answer. There are a number of characters upon whom aspersions are made. In fact, some people have more than one made about them. Yet whilst some of these rumours are proven to be unfounded, many actually are shown to be true. Miss Marple herself, in the book, says that:
‘I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?’
And it is hard to say she is too wrong by the time you get to the end of the book. I think Christie’s depiction of her characters is more intricate than the outline Auden dictates, and in my opinion this is no bad thing. So on reflection I think again I will only give half a point to the score.
However, we are onto some easier statements next, as the body being in the vicar’s study is certainly shocking and unexpected for the characters, (the readers have somewhat had a heads up regarding that), the choice of victim incriminates seven people according to Miss Marple and Protheroe is definitely an unpleasant individual. So three easy points there.
The ninth point I gleamed from Auden’s essay is the idea that according to him the murderer should not look obviously like a murderer, but once is revealed so, everything known about them indicates this role. Hmm another tricky one here as Christie really plays around with the concept of how a killer ought to look and act post-murder. She even has the killers themselves considering this point and altering their behaviour accordingly. Yet despite this Miss Marple shows how this extra thought did not ring true. Moreover, the murderous duo are cast as the obvious suspects so it would be hard to say they do not look obviously like guilty people. In fact you could say we are made to notice this so we then assume it is a red herring and then decide they are innocent! So I think I am going to give zero points to the title on this criterion, yet I do not think that makes it a poorer book.
Nearly at the end of the list and the next point is do with the detective in the story. Auden prefers them to be a ‘total stranger who cannot possibly be involved in the crime.’ There are some exceptions such as local police and the friend of a suspect. Miss Marple frustrates this neat definition. She is by no means a stranger, and relationally and geographically she is at the centre of the mystery, and it is because she is that she can then solve the crime. It is not for nothing that the vicar says of Miss Marple that whilst she ‘knew next to nothing of Life with a capital L, she knew practically everything that went on in St Mary Mead.’ Nevertheless, I think it is safe to assume that Miss Marple could not possibly have been involved in the murder – though perhaps there is a possible plot idea for rewriting the story… Anyways another half a point I think.
The final item in my list is that the arrest of the murderer(s) returns the society to its original state of innocence and tranquillity. This is one of those ideas which has had a long shelf life and is frequently trotted out even today. But having re-read the book again I wondered how true it was. Miss Marple amongst other, in their dialogue, reveal how the local area is not quite so innocent as characters like Raymond West think. So did St Mary Mead ever have an original state of innocence to lose? We then have to consider that change has been wrought through the murder of the Colonel. Lettice is left the sole inheritor and is leaving the area to go on a cruise with her newly returned mother, (something she probably couldn’t have managed pre-murder). Yet their reunion is to be short-lived due to the mother’s terminal illness. This is not a very rosy picture and the ending of the book does not gloss over it. However, on a more positive note we also have the vicar’s wife expecting a baby, and other elements of the denouement seem to suggest that for the majority life will return to normal. So on balance I think another half a point is in order. Feel free to disagree!
Totting up all the points, The Murder at the Vicarage scores 8/11. Not a bad score and when it comes to the categories where the book scored less than full marks, I don’t think the narrative’s deviation from Auden’s criteria was a bad thing. As we all know Golden Age detective novelists were nothing if not creative when it came to following, or bending, the rules…
A Few More Thoughts
This story is told solely from the Vicar’s viewpoint, an idea Gladys Mitchell borrowed two years later for her novel, The Saltmarsh Murders (1932). In both cases I felt the choice of narrative was effective, but especially so in Christie’s title. The vicar is a useful choice as they naturally get taken into other people’s confidences and in some ways are the social hub of the community. The vicar is also regarded highly enough that police and the doctor are happy to talk to them about the case. Christie is clever in having the vicar think well of Miss Marple and her mental powers, yet even he finds that she exceeds his expectations of her. The vicar is also an interesting balance of being a competent individual, yet equally still fallible enough to draw incorrect conclusions about others. This is a good combination as I think it helps the reader relate to him more. I did also wonder if by using a narrator with a respectful traditional profession, Christie was possibly trying to make readers think she was pulling another Roger Ackroyd?
Ironic and Unapt Name Choices
My starting point for this train of thought was when I began reflecting on the vicar and his wife, Griselda. It has been commented on by others, such as Merja Makinen, that Christie often puts two people together who possess opposite qualities. To some they may seem mismatched, yet frequently with Christie they work rather well. It was while I was pondering this that I noticed this line in the book, from the vicar:
‘My wife’s name is Griselda – a highly suitable name for a parson’s wife. But there the suitability ends. She is not in the least meek. I have always been of the opinion that a clergyman should be unmarried. Why I should have urged Griselda to marry me at the end of twenty-four hours’ acquaintance is a mystery to me.’
It was from there that I began to wonder why Griselda was such a suitable name. A quick Google search later and I was none the wiser… Griselda comes from the Old English, gris hild, which means dark battle. Though my good friend Wikipedia also pointed out that ‘gris’ has proto-Germanic roots and has additional meanings of grey, fearsome and terrible. Likewise, ‘hild’ also held the meanings of warrior, hero and battle. Whilst Griselda is no push over none of meanings particularly seemed to fit her, nor did they seem especially apt if you were a parson’s wife. However, I may well be missing something, so better brains than me will hopefully put me right. On a side note it is interesting to see that Christie does not condemn or castigate Griselda for not being a paragon of housekeeping, nor for her frivolous attitude towards the subject. In fact, she is a very likeable character, yet even here Christie throws a few seeds of suspicious.
Two other ironic character names also emerged as I read further into the book. For instance, we have the Colonel, whose first name Lucius is also oddly unfitting. Lucius has Latin roots and means light. Alive he did not seem to be a ray of sunshine and in many ways made the lives of others harder. Nevertheless, I suppose you could argue that he was trying to bring to light the culprit who was stealing the church funds and his own death also uncovers a lot of secrets. The other ironic name is a more obvious one, Inspector Slack, as the vicar himself points out how inappropriate it is: ‘never did a man more determinedly strive to contradict his name.’
This is one of Christie’s books in which she creatively uses a number of familiar tropes. Firstly, she takes the body out of the stereotypical country house library, yet almost cheekily places it instead in the vicarage’s study. To me this felt like putting the murder at the heart of the community and unsurprisingly we spend much more time there than we do at the Old Hall. The way the death is depicted is also a little outside of the bloodless stereotype classic crime novels are supposed to be embody, as the vicar describes how ‘there was a pool of some dark liquid fluid on the desk by his head, and it was slowly dripping on to the floor with a horrible drip, drip, drip.’ It is telling that Christie does not need to go into extensive details, nor even use the word blood, for the reader to imagine just that.
However, the biggest trope Christie plays around with is the obvious suspect. It is an unwritten rule that the cloth headed police are supposed to spend all their time pursuing the obvious suspects, whilst the amateur sleuth and the reader, who know better, look elsewhere. Yet here we can see Christie thoroughly smashes this rule, and I would say she does the same again in Death on the Nile. I think it is brilliant how she has Anne and Lawrence confess to the crime, everyone suspects they committed, only to get themselves exonerated. This is such a good plan that for a time it even fools Miss Marple to an extent.
Nevertheless, on this re-read I was more attentive to how Christie lulls our suspicions in these quarters. Starting with Lawrence, Christie deceives us with the physiological signs of emotions, as the vicar sees Lawrence leaving his home suffering from shock and fear. At this point we are meant to think that Lawrence could have nothing to do with the crime because he looks too obviously shifty. This is an important example of how emotions do play a part in pre-WW2 crime fiction. They are not automatically filled with unemotional dry cardboard thin characters. They do have feelings. It is just more the case that the writers suggest we should mistrust them. Christie also makes Lawrence seem less like the guilty party by having him take on the mantle of amateur sleuth for a time. But even at that point he is merely trying to cover his tracks and dismantle a part of the crime.
Then of course there is Anne Protheroe. By the end of chapter three her role as obvious suspect no. 2 has been set up. The vicar says after meeting her that he felt ‘that hitherto I had misjudged Anne Protheroe’s character. She impressed me now as a very desperate woman, the kind of woman who would stick at nothing once her emotions were aroused.’ Yet again we are not convinced by this statement, regardless of how true it is shown to be. Not least because the vicar has been caught out once in a misjudgement, so it is less likely the reader will believe him this time. Anne’s innocence is also seemingly corroborated by Lettice, her lazy stepdaughter who does not like her, who plants evidence at the crime scene to implicate her. Surely the reader at this point is thinking, well Anne can’t be the guilty person, as the writer would not have another character incriminate the real killer. Once more I think we’re thrown off the scent.
Whilst Griselda and the vicar are opposites in many ways, Anne and Lawrence have quite a bit in common. Yet their intense, almost near-consuming, selfish and money affected love, which does not heed social rules, is doomed – and that often seems to be the case in Christie’s world. Again, despite the change in locale, this is another way in which The Murder at the Vicarage is in some ways a predecessor to Death on the Nile.
Although she had appeared in some short stories, The Murder in the Vicarage is the first full length appearance we get. So it is perhaps surprising how she is simultaneously in the middle of and out of things. On the one hand the position of her house puts her in the centre of the action, and she sees the killers at the critical moments. Her central position also gives her omnipotent air some foundation, yet even she has to interpret correctly what she has been made to see. Using an amateur sleuth’s powers of observation against them, is another wonderful example of how good a mystery writer Christie was.
However, on the other hand Miss Marple probably spends more time off the page, (though mentioned by other characters), than on it. Even when she first appears Christie teases the reader by having her frequently cut off mid-sentence by another character. Nevertheless, you can argue that Christie makes the entry point for her amateur sleuth more naturalistic and less arbitrary. After all Auden, in his essay, argues that ‘most amateur detectives […] are failures […] because they […] have no motive for being detectives except caprice’ or for financial reasons. Whilst I am sure readers would prefer Miss Marple to get more page time, I have been thinking that if Miss Marple had gone around her neighbourhood questioning everyone, that would have seemed more implausible and unnatural. It seems far more fitting that the information others have or discover makes it way to her through various human conduits.
It will be some decades before Miss Marple is presented in her full Nemesis-like role, but even in this first novel she is shown as a force to be reckoned with. The comments perhaps start a bit sharp with Griselda calling her the ‘worst cat in the village,’ but the idea that Miss Marple is ‘dangerous’ soon gains a foothold. Her all-knowingness is reinforced through the solid imagery of her binoculars:
‘Miss Marple always sees everything. Gardening is as good as a smoke screen, and the habit of observing birds through powerful glasses can always be turned to account.’
Though strangely we are never made to think of Miss Marple as an unpleasant snoop. In addition, she is said to have ‘a powerful imagination and systematically thinks the worst of everyone.’ The book also states that: ‘There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.’ However, it is interesting to consider that there is more than one elderly female spinster in St Mary Mead, yet it is only Miss Marple who turns out to be an effective sleuth. Noticing things is one thing, but attaching the right label to them, is quite another. It perhaps Miss Marple’s ‘systematic’ and ‘powerful imagination,’ which enables her to do this so well and she does briefly talk to the vicar about how long she has spent honing her skills in understanding human nature. I think it is sweet that she has been hoping some day she will get her chance to solve a big mystery, having up to that point only solved more minor ones.
If I had to come up with a motto for this book I would say “Trust Nothing”. This is one of Christie’s greatest books for using physical and verbal evidence in a highly manipulative and deceptive manner. Even Miss Marple’s witness testimony becomes a form of red herring, as it seemingly rules out Anne. I loved this book as much as I did on first reading it and the only real weakness of the book is the ending. In a rushed few pages, Christie has to get the criminals to incriminate themselves, as Miss Marple’s theory alone is insufficient for a conviction, and it is not surprising that the Joan Hickson adaptation had to flesh this part of the book out. In an ideal world I think Miss Marple’s theory would have been provable in a more concrete fashion. That said it is still an impressive solution, which by itself I think the reader will find satisfying.
All in all, this was a great read and I am glad I re-read it, as lately I have not had a lot of luck with my book choices. A definite winner was certainly in order!