Sleuthing Miss Marple: Gender, Genre, and Agency in Agatha Christie’s Crime Fiction (2022) by Desirée Prideaux

With new editions of the Miss Marple novels having been reprinted this year, as well as a new calendar for 2023 and of course the newly released continuation short story anthology, Marple, Miss Marple fans have been well-catered for. However, one item which might not be on your radar, is today’s title under review.

The cover of Sleuthing Miss Marple: Gender, Genre, and Agency in Agatha Christie’s Crime Fiction (2022) by Desirée Prideaux

Blurb

‘Sleuthing Miss Marple mirrors the structure and playful analytic style of a detective novel. Beginning at the ‘scene of the crime’, this investigation places Agatha Christie and the clue-puzzle in historical context, casting light on the methods, the motives, and, in a sense, the alibis that underpin Christie’s crime fiction. In keeping with the clue-puzzle analytical motif, each chapter builds towards a conclusion that delivers a surprising intellectual payoff. This book is unapologetically textual in approach. It constructs a rigorous evidence base drawn from the Marple short stories and novels, and presents a thorough summary of extant crime fiction scholarship. This provides a foundation for original literary analyses that reveal Christie’s engagements with gender roles and genre rules, and the sleights of hand that they conceal. Christie’s modus operandi is uncovered, as are the narrative strategies and literary devices that she deployed to ambush unwary readers. Crucially, this investigation shows how Christie’s ingenious methods made it possible for an elderly spinster to get away with solving murder. Sleuthing Miss Marple will be valuable to both students and researchers in crime fiction, twentieth-century literature, and creative writing.’

Overall Thoughts

As a scholarly work, it begins with the author outlining why she chose to focus on Miss Marple, with the primary reason being that ‘the original wellspring of Miss Marple stories continues to be an overlooked area of critical analysis that compels examination.’ This sentiment is echoed later in the introduction when Prideaux writes: ‘the Marple character has not received a great deal of attention in scholarly considerations of crime fiction.’ I think this statement is a bit vague as I think it would be more accurate to say that there is a lack of academic books, published by university presses, which solely focus on Miss Marple. Miss Marple has been discussed in articles and book chapters which more widely analyse Agatha Christie’s works or explore the theme of gender in crime fiction. Prideaux, in fact, cites many of these studies. It should also be mentioned that outside of academic circles there is John Goddard’s book: Agatha Christie’s Golden Age Volume II: Miss Marple and the Other Golden Age Puzzles (2021), as well as Brad Friedman’s blog, Ah Sweet Mystery. Given that a large chunk of my degree dissertation was focused upon Miss Marple, I too have written several posts on this blog about her, as well as an article in Crime and Detective Stories magazine. I have covered topics such as:

I am sure the online blogging community can offer much more material than this too, so I don’t think Miss Marple is entirely overlooked.

However, I think there are more questionable generalisations made in the introduction. Working chronologically, we begin with this one:

‘In contrast to much other crime fiction, women are highly visible and relevant to the story in ways beyond that of the usual romantic interest or murder victim. Indeed, Christie’s women characters often occupy pivotal roles, such as sleuths, assistants, suspects, and even murderers.’

The first question this raised for me was how common were female victims in the Marple stories? Looking just at the 12 novels, I counted 16, so this suggests that the role of victim was still a prevalent one for women in Christie’s Miss Marple stories. Furthermore, I don’t think Christie’s use of female characters is all that ground-breaking, in comparison to other crime fiction writers. Having female characters as suspects is not that unusual as majority of books will do this unless it is set in a location such an army camp or a monastery! Many other crime fiction novels of the era also show women characters in different roles, which I will return to in a moment.

Desirée Prideaux tries to bolster her statement with the following evidence:

‘For example, Nemesis (1971) is a novel of twenty-five characters, of which fourteen are women, and eleven are men. It is unusual in fiction to have such a preponderance of female characters, and Nemesis is particularly unusual in that the sleuth, main suspects, murderer, and murder victim are all women. Furthermore, only the victim is young and beautiful. The murderer, primary suspects, and the detective are all mature women.’

This does show a big cast of characters, which I think will have to have included some subsidiary characters, but I thought this evidence would have been more compelling if the writer had had some statistics on all the novels, as Nemesis could be the exception rather than the norm for the series.

Cover for Agatha Christie's Nemesis.

Prideaux then moves on to a series of questions which arise from ‘moments in which the Marple character evades close critical analysis’:

‘…why did the character of the fully developed woman sleuth ‘elude’ the many women writers of the interwar years? Why does Marple, the one repeatedly noted exception to the general rule, seem to offer such a mild challenge to the cool logic of the male detective or his male narrator? Given the constraints upon women as agents in the genre, what methods does Christie use to grant agency to the spinster-sleuth?’

These questions are said to ‘underpin the research and evidence base presented throughout this book.’ Regarding the first question listed, the author does mention Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, as a further example of the female sleuth, but I was surprised to see that Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley was not. She is not a spinster sleuth but was still a well-known female sleuth of interwar years. Furthermore, her challenge to patriarchy is far from ‘mild’. Fans of mid-20th century crime fiction reading this review may also be raising their hands to eagerly add some more female fictional sleuths from this time period. I was one such reader as keeping Miss Marple company, (if we stretch the dates into the 1950s) were: Nurse Sarah Keates, Nurse Hilda Adams, Maggie Brynes, Mother Paul, Lady Lupin, Lily Wu, Jane Brown, Tuppence Beresford, Amelia Butterworth, Sally Heldar, the many female protagonists of the Conyth Little books, Jeanie Halliday, Margot Blair, Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty, Pam North, Hildegarde Withers, Harriet Vane and Noel Bruce, to name but a few. Many of these may be obscure now, they may not have had the biggest series and may have only appeared once, but these and many others did exist, and by not mentioning these characters, it perpetuates the myth that Miss Marple and Miss Silver were the only two female sleuths. The focus of the introduction seems to be more on creating a timeline of the literary criticism surrounding Miss Marple rather than presenting the bigger picture of female sleuths in mystery fiction at the time.

Turning to the questions which touch upon the difficulties of creating a female sleuth and what seemed to hinder more female writers using them, I think this is a question which has already been explored well by Dorothy L. Sayers during the interwar years and then by Birgitta Berglund in ‘Desires and Devices: On Women Detectives in Fiction’ which is included in The Art of Detective Fiction (2000). Her chapter covers the ways female writers have created female sleuths, looking at the perceived difficulties as well and covers Miss Marple by Agatha Christie. Berglund is not listed in the bibliography of Prideaux’s study, so I am unsure if she has read this text or not.

However, I think the introduction includes my favourite new-to-me fact:

‘One remarkable incident that underscores the broad appeal of the Marple mysteries occurred in 1971. The British Ambassador in Uruguay, Sir Geoffrey Jackson, was kidnapped and held hostage by a guerrilla group known as the Tupamaros:

Not only did Sir Geoffrey find consolation in Agatha Christie’s works during his long imprisonment, fastening on Miss Marple – and indeed, Hercule Poirot – as fixed points in an uneasy firmament, but his captors were interested in discussing Miss Marple with him, venerating her as they did their own revolutionary leader. (Morgan, 1985: 367).’

Chapter 1: The Scene of the Crime – Social and Cultural Background, Gender Politics, and Christie in Context

Chapter Aims: ‘It situates Christie in historical context, and considers the narratives of acceptable femininity that were in widespread circulation when she began her writing career. This opens a window onto the ideologies and social influences that shaped women as readers, writers, and even as characters in golden age crime fiction. Particularly relevant to later chapters are discussions about marriage, changing representations of working women, and the construction of the “surplus woman” stereotype.’

If you have read a few academic works on female interwar crime writers, then the trajectory of this chapter will be quite familiar. However, I feel Prideaux provides a concise version of this, which because I have read numerous studies on the topic did not bother me, and I liked the more selective information she brings up. For example, the section on women and WW1 focused on munition work and the changing nature of newspaper headlines, as women went from being praised for helping in the country’s hour of need to being castigated for wanting to hold on to their jobs after the war had ended. I also enjoyed learning about the war work undertaken by the Duchess of Sutherland, Mabel St Clair Robert and Dr Elsie Inglis.

The chapter then moves on to Christie’s life, and how she engaged with ‘social conventions,’ concluding that: ‘Christie understood the rules and bounds of patriarchy, and for the most part, she appears to have abided by them. However, it is also evident that she did not always obey them.’ In looking at her life, Prideaux uses snippets from Christie’s own autobiography, as well as from the biography written by Laura Thompson. Whilst the key events of her life will be familiar fodder for many readers, I liked how the writer hinges the short sections on specific memories of the event in question. It was also interesting to learn that the Red Cross Records for 1914-1916 reveal that Christie ‘worked 3400 hours’ volunteering as a nurse.

Chapter 2: Establishing Means – The Clue-puzzle, Genre ‘Rules’, and Christie’s Modus Operandi

Chapter Aims: It ‘explores genre’ and the author ‘review[s] the development of the clue-puzzle and the playful “rules” of the crime fiction game.’ The writer also ‘discuss[es] the feminisation of the genre, which occurred under the influence of the crime-writing women of the interwar years.’ ‘This chapter considers the literary and the social influences that gave rise to the new form of detective story, the architects of the clue-puzzle, and Christie’s earliest experiments in pressing the bounds of the genre.’

In keeping with other literary criticism, once the historical and social context has been covered in chapter one, then chapter two invariably moves on to the literary context. However, this is usually the chapter I have the most issues with, as the pitfall they can stumble into is the tendency to incur a lot of generalisations which do not stand up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, this is a problem which occurs in this chapter.

The first subsection is entitled: ‘Pre-war Crime Fiction, and Being “In Step” with Sherlock Holmes’ and opens with this statement:

‘Before the First World War, popular fiction revolved around masculine characters who were ‘never silly, never wrong, never depressed’ (Panek, 1979: 8). These heroic types populated thrillers, adventurous stories, detective fiction, and also the English imagination.’

To say that Holmes was never wrong and never depressed is to defy the original stories he featured in. In The Sign of Four (1890) Dr Watson narrates that: ‘He was bright, eager, and in excellent spirits, –a mood which in his case alternated with fits of the blackest depression.’ In ‘The Adventure of the Retired Colourman’ (1926) it is written that: ‘Sherlock Holmes was in a melancholy and philosophic mood that morning.’ Meanwhile in A Study in Scarlet (1887), Holmes tells Dr Watson that ‘I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end.’ His use of cocaine and morphine is also said to be one of his ways of coping with ‘the dull routine of existence.’ As to Holmes never getting anything wrong, this is refuted by ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ (1893). Furthermore, the above statement overlooks the prolific number of Sherlock Holmes parodies which occurred from the 1890s onwards. An example of this is Bret Harte’s ‘The Stolen Cigar-Case’. I appreciate that the idea is cited as coming from Leroy Lad Panek but I think it is a statement which should have been probed before being included.

Cover for Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet.

The section then goes on to suggest that:

‘Overall the Holmes character embodies and signifies qualities such as patriotic heroism, lofty intelligence, social and emotional detachment, and uncompromising Victorian masculinity. Significantly, it is against these qualities that interwar crime fiction writers react.’

I do not disagree with the way they have described Holmes’ character, but the last sentence seemed a risky assertion to make. John Dickson Carr’s detectives, Dr Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, as well as John Rhode’s Dr Priestley’s are rather Holmes like for instance and even Hercule Poirot can be emotionally detached. For example, in Murder Mesopotamia (1936) near the beginning of his summing up he says: ‘I like to think that I should have reached the correct solution anyway by pure reasoning, but it is certain that Miss Johnson’s murder helped me to it much quicker.’ This is a very unfeeling remark to make given the horrifically painful end Miss Johnson had, as well as the fact that her dying message was instrumental in the solving of the case. The 1920s also saw the start of a series of novels starring adventurer Bulldog Drummonds, the Sexton Blake stories continued to be written and in 1930 Gwyn Evans’ published his first Bill Kellaway story. Crime and fighting crime are key elements. These three series chime in with ‘these qualities’ more than they diverge from them.

The suggestion that subversion (reacting against the” Holmes formula”) only occurred post WW1, is also problematic. E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case (1913) was written as a sendup of the genre (despite this intention misfiring), and Susan Glaspell also wrote a play called ‘Trifles’ (1916), which was then made into a short story in 1917 under the title ‘A Jury of Her Peers’. This also subverts gender stereotypes and expectations that the official male authority figures will solve the case, when in fact it is the wives of these officials who piece together what happened. Conversely, there are interwar detective stories which uphold stereotypical masculinity, such as Philip Macdonald’s The Rasp (1924) and The Noose (1930). I am not a fan of blanket statements, as I feel they take a multi-coloured literary scene and make it monochrome. Interwar crime fiction, the more you read it, defies ever more strongly being pigeonholed.

The Detection Club, its rules and the members who wrote on what the genre should be like also make an appearance in this chapter. Discussion of this topic culminates in the idea that:

‘These meditations on the genre worked to the detriment of other forms of crime fiction, such as the “Had I But Known” (HIBK) tradition (Makinen, 2006: 100). HIBK stories typically feature an amateur female enquirer who is thrust into mysterious circumstances by misfortune, and the stories privilege emotion, intuition, and sensitivity to surroundings. The rejection of the feminine HIBK form is evident in the Detection Club Oath in which members swore that their detectives would ‘well and truly detect the crimes presented to them’ without resorting to ‘Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God’ (Shaw and Vanacker, 1991: 14). As with Knox’s rules, the oath was made in jest. Nonetheless, it conveyed the club’s ideological vision for crime fiction as a genre that disavowed feminine forms of crime fiction whilst validating a particularly masculine construction of the genre.’

Prideaux’s gendered distinction is an interesting one, but I am not sure that the reasoning behind the Detection Club and Knox’s rules were necessarily anti-women or feminine forms of crime writing. My understanding was that such rules and writings by authors such as Dorothy L. Sayers aimed to distinguish detective fiction from other subgenres such as thrillers, spy fiction and sensation fiction. It certainly contains the implication that detective fiction is the “better” subgenre, but the subgenres the rules try to diverge from include both stereotypically masculine and feminine styles of writing. I think the defining feature that such rules and writings tried to hold on to was creating mysteries in which tangible clues are identified and interpreted correctly to solve a case. This model rests on the premise that this provides a more satisfying mystery than one in which the solution comes out of nowhere or is blundered in to. This goal can be marred in stereotypical HIBK mystery fiction as the heroines act foolishly and stupidly, invariably needing a hero to help them out of the dangerous situation they find themselves in. Their irresponsibleness can also lead to further unnecessary deaths, (such as in Dorothy Cole Meade’s Death Over Her Shoulder (1939)). There are HIBK exceptions, and mystery novels which play around with the conventions, but this blueprint does not represent women in a positive or strong light. Female sleuths operating in the clue-puzzle mode stand a better chance of being taken seriously and demonstrate that not all women run along the unflattering lines set out in HIBK mysteries. The clue-puzzle form allows writers to show the logical and rational side of women that gender stereotypes do not.

Cover for Dorothy Cole Meade's Murder in Malaya.

The chapter also includes a subsection on the ‘Defining Characteristics of the Clue-Puzzle’ and turns to the work of Alison Light. Prideaux mentions that Light

‘…describes the post-war departure from formerly heroic narratives of national progress as the development of ‘an Englishness at once less imperial and more inward-looking, more domestic and more private – and, in terms of pre-war standards, more “feminine”’ (1991: 8). Qualities such as the disavowal of paternalistic control and an irreverent, questioning approach to problems are made manifest in the new genre […] The most immediate change is in the figure of the detective. Male and female interwar writers ‘found a kind of modernity in making fun of heroes’ (Light, 1991: 70). This, in combination with a push for greater realism in crime fiction, gave rise to detective characters that were more fallible, and thus more believable, than their predecessors. Unlike Holmes, golden age detectives are not heroic, physically impressive men of action, and they do not take the solitary no-nonsense, path of linear ratiocination established by Doyle. Neither are they darkly brooding, yet decisive reasoning machines. Instead, the rejuvenated clue-puzzle detectives are comic in appearance and modes of behaviour. These deliberately ironic characters typically use informal language and a relaxed investigative approach to convey a sense of wry amusement at a world upset by murder.’

While there are elements of this passage that I agree with, I find that they are wrapped up in too broad a generalisation, which weakens the argument the writer is trying to construct. For example, Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French is very methodical and linear in his investigations and whilst Poirot and Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey have comical aspects to their appearance, there are far more interwar fictional detectives who ‘are not comic in appearance and modes of behaviour.’ The comic template is not as universal as this paragraph implies. Country house mysteries, particularly those of the 1920s may have leant more into the comic, but Golden Age Detective fiction was much more than this. Moreover, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion gets into his fair share of fights and must tackle various opponents including an enraged horse. I would also be more cautious than the author in suggesting how light-heartedly murder is treated in interwar mystery fiction. There was that “game” element in many of them, but I think attitudes to murder could be more complicated. PTSD sufferer, Wimsey could have a very painful relationship with his detecting role (see Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)) and even Miss Marple could be said to have a ‘no-nonsense’ attitude as she has no qualms about the death penalty. I was also confused when she Prideaux writes that interwar detectives were not ‘darkly brooding’ as this suggests that pre-interwar fictional sleuths were. But then this contradicts the quote she includes by Panek which states that Victorian/Edwardian fiction sleuths were ‘never depressed.’

Cover for Dorothy L. Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon

One point I would love to hear more about from readers is this statement:

‘It is important to note that death was not a subject that had been treated lightly in any form of pre-war literature – thus, the literary strategies that allow the movement of murder out of the realms of tragedy, horror, or tawdry thrillers, and into the world of a “cosy” game bear scrutiny.’

This seems like a big claim to make, as there was a lot of literature pre-WW1, so I was wondering whether other readers thought it was true or not? Do you know authors or novels which demonstrate the contrary? I must admit I wouldn’t want to take this sentence at face value, without further investigation.

The next aspect of the clue puzzle mystery looked at is the way murders in these stories ‘are characterised by a lack of graphic violence.’ Desirée Prideaux goes on to write that:

‘Although there are poisonings, stabbings, bludgeoning, and shootings in abundance, murders are not described in gruesome detail. In addition, emotional detachment from murder is encouraged by the narrative placement of an unsympathetic victim – usually a character introduced only briefly, and aligned with unappealing traits. Further, the acts occasioning death are dealt with quickly, and that momentum speeds the narrative towards the all-important investigation.’

The author then quotes an example from The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) when Leonard Clement discovers the body of the unpopular Colonel:

‘The movement from the discovery of the body to the investigation is achieved in nine lines, and Clement’s description of the murder scene is a study in controlled nonchalance:

There was a pool of some dark fluid on the desk by his head, and it was slowly dripping on to the floor with a horrible drip, drip, drip. I pulled myself together and went across to him. his skin was cold to the touch. The hand that I raised fell back lifeless. The man was dead – shot through the head. (Christie, [1930] 2005: 59)

The violence of the crime is quickly overtaken and displaced by Christie’s incongruous use of rhyme. This situates the murder as an unsentimental and even comic event.’

I am struggling to see the comedy in this scene, as the rhyming might not even be intentional. Moreover, the ‘drip, drip, drip’ is arguably quite effective in building a grotesque or terror element to the scene, in an Edgar Allan Poe fashion. I am not sure this was the strongest example Prideaux could have used.

There is then a summing up of the role in genre of S. S. Van Dine, Anthony Berkeley Cox, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr, with the author opining that: ‘These male writers were pivotal in affirming the legitimacy, significance, and structure of the clue-puzzle, but it was in the hands of women writers that the new genre reached its full potential.’ This is not a completely inaccurate statement, but I think it skews or overlooks things. Berkeley, for example, is known for experimenting with the genre, pushing it to its boundaries, so I am not sure how much he affirmed the structure of the genre, as he was rather busy taking it apart and re-assembling it. Furthermore, in the preface to The Second Shot (1930), Berkeley writes that:

‘As to technique, it appears that there are two directions in which the intelligent novelist is at present trying to develop…: he may make experiments with the telling of his plot, tell it backwards, or sideways, or in bits; or he may try to develop character and atmosphere […] it is towards the latter that the best of the new detective writing energies are being directed […] I personally am convinced that the days of the old crime puzzle pure and simple, relying entirely upon plot and without any added attractions of character, style, or even humour, are, if not numbered, at any rate in the hands of the auditors…’

This clearly shows that Berkeley was aware of the genre as an evolving writing style rather than as a fixed one. His opinion chimes in with what Sayers and Allingham, amongst others, did in pushing the detective story beyond being a rigid puzzle. Berkeley, under the penname of Francis Iles, then went on to explore character driven mysteries. I think it also fair to point out that Dorothy L. Sayers did a lot for the legitimising of the genre in her essay, article, and introduction writing. I also wonder what other authors, male or female, readers might suggest are missing from this list of interwar detective novelists who ‘affirm[ed] the legitimacy, significance, and structure of the clue-puzzle.’ I think my difficulty with some of Prideaux’s conclusions are that they are too fixed, and do not allow sufficient flexibility for those writers, male and female, which do not adhere to her ideas.

Ideas which I felt had a stronger evidential basis tended to be rooted in pre-existing studies. For example:

‘Christie’s two best-known sleuths, Poirot and Marple, are also physically unassuming and far removed from the dark intensity of a Holmesian investigation. However, Marple and Poirot differ in some very important respects from the detectives of Sayers, Marsh, and Allingham, whose sleuths are portrayed as ‘upper-class establishment figures […] deeply implicated in the social order that they work to protect’ (Scaggs, 2005: 49). Wimsey, Campion, and Alleyn are positioned within a locus of power, status, and social inclusion, and this allows them access to scenes of crime, potential witnesses, and useful information. In contrast, Marple and Poirot occupy the margins of genteel society, and, in differing ways, they are characterised as “other” […] Christie uses Marple’s and Poirot’s marginal social positions as a means of disguise, a method of granting access to crime scenes and people of interest, and as powerful aids in unearthing information and investigating crime.’

The latter idea in particular has been explored previously by Kathy Mezei and Earl Bargainnier, amongst others. In looking at the way Christie interacted with the “rules” of the genre, Prideaux also provides readings of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. However, I felt these readings tread familiar waters.

Chapter 3: Solving The Thirteen Problems – A Fresh Analysis of the Inceptive Marple Mysteries

Chapter Aims: This chapter looks at The Thirteen Problems, which Prideaux argues ‘provide[s] useful examples of Christie’s engagements with the emergent clue-puzzle genre, and her responses to the gender norms of the time. In keeping with genre demands for “realism”, Christie’s cast of characters are modelled on then-familiar social stereotypes, and they inhabit a comically heightened, yet realistic version of the patriarchal society of the day.’ The author ‘consider[s] the main narrating characters as players in Christie’s clue-puzzle game’ and she ‘adapt[s] and expand[s] the work of previous scholars to identify the cultural stereotypes that are “embodied” by the main narrating characters, as well as the discourses that they espouse.’ This leads to Prideaux ‘consider[ing] how these positionings and ideological stances equip them in their attempts to solve the thirteen problems.’

Cover for Agatha Christie's The Thirteen Problems.

Like the chicken and the egg question, some have wondered if Miss Silver or Miss Marple came first and Prideaux is able to give a definitive answer. Miss Marple’s first short story appearance came in 1927 and Miss Silver’s first case was published in 1928. However, I do wonder if the Miss Silver novels may have encouraged Christie to give Miss Marple a novel length case to solve. After all Christie had other short story series: the genre-fusion Harlequin and the unconventional private investigator Parker Pyne never achieved the same feat.

Desirée Prideaux’s approach in this chapter, which she outlines, is to look at the current studies on given stories/themes in the collection and see whether there are gaps which have been overlooked or areas which could be expanded or explored further. She begins with the first of the stories in the collection, providing a rather long synopsis which I did not feel added much. The author then considers Raymond West’s way of opening the first story and how he is a comically myopic lens through which to view Miss Marple. She then moves on to the case he relates, ‘Ingots of Gold.’ Prideaux turns her attention to what Earl Bargainnier, wrote about West:

‘The accepted view in literary criticism is that West’s ‘major function is to be the butt of Miss Marple’s gentle raillery for his ignorance of people’ (Bargainnier, 1980: 69). While this is true, it does not explore how the positioning of West as ‘so easily gulled’ works to inform the story as a whole. It is significant that West has been taken out of contention in the clue-puzzle game, and that this has happened in his own story. Marple not only demonstrates that West has been the dupe of a confidence trickster, but also that his methods of enquiry are flawed. In his assessments of character, means, and motive, West is easily led astray, and throughout the entire cycle of stories, he is misled by his boyish imagination. It comes a comic motif attached to the character that his naïve acceptance of established narrative pathways blinds him to vital clues and, therefore to any real chance of winning the clue-puzzle game.’

The formatting changes are my own addition, as having read the long paragraph multiple times I found it hard not to see Prideaux’s thoughts mirroring Bargainnier’s, despite her suggesting she has further points to add. I felt the remarks Prideaux made, which are underlined and in italics, are more wordier versions of what Bargainnier has written (and since it is a short quote, we don’t know how much more elaboration he might have given.) The only part which I thought was adding to our understanding of West’s role is put in bold.

However, I enjoyed the author’s closeup look at Joyce Lemprière. Prideaux writes of her that ‘Joyce […] gives form to misgivings about women that were a social reality at the time’ and that ‘beyond her disregard of Marple, Joyce’s suspicions about women are apparent in her solutions to the puzzles. It is significant that in every case of ‘The Tuesday Night Club’ series, Joyce accuses a woman character of guilt and that she does so without recourse to factual evidence.’ ‘In addition, Joyce’s hostility is underscored by a subtle piece of characterisation: she does not refer to women by name.’ Good examples are offered, and this is an interesting idea, as I had not noticed that about Joyce’s language use. When it comes to the case that Joyce relates, found in the story ‘The Blood-Stained Pavement’, Prideaux notes that ‘the solution to this puzzle rests on the idea that women share an ability to transform themselves by embodying a “type”, and an awareness that these roles may be used to mislead.’ This is an idea, which is backed up by Gillian Gill’s Agatha Christie: The Woman and Her Mysteries (1990). Desirée Prideaux also tries to suggest that ‘despite her characterisation as a modern young woman, Christie associates Joyce with a gothic narrative.’ However, I don’t think enough page space is given to exploring this idea, so it came across as less convincing.

I don’t think this chapter adds much to existing thought on the character of Sir Henry Clithering and her description of the story, ‘The Blue Geranium’ seemed lacking in analysis. Nevertheless, I felt she made an interesting comment about the ‘The Four Suspects’:

‘In the stories narrated by the other characters, Clithering functions as the representative of masculine law, and the authority on crime. In this instance, he tells Marple what he believes to a love story, and justifies asking for her help because he regards it as a “feminine” problem of romance. However, Marple demonstrates that Clithering has been misled, and her reasoning ironically inverts both gender and narrative expectations. Clithering cannot solve the case because he has “read” it as a romance. Marple’s clear-sighted pragmatism reveals that it is, in fact, a murder mystery; however, it is a puzzle that requires the skills and experience of a woman detective.’

Other stories in the collection are discussed in the chapter but I felt at times not much was really being said and that there was a lack of depth in the discussion.

I think the key nugget from this chapter is the idea that ‘ideological perspectives that marginalise or denigrate women confer a disadvantage in solving the puzzles […] Marple’s solutions guide readers towards the realisation that adventure yarns, ghost stories, and romantic tales are inadequate to the task of solving “modern” puzzles.’

Chapter 4: ‘I’ve no doubt I am quite wrong’ – Spinsterly Camouflage and Deceptive Reassurance in the Marple Novels

Chapter Aims: Desirée Prideaux ‘contemplates Christie’s engagements with the spinster stereotype in the depiction of Marple and secondary characters.’ She ‘begin[s] with a discussion of fictional representations of the spinster in literature and in crime fiction,’ before ‘explor[ing] Christie’s use of the spinster stereotype in secondary characters and the ways in which their representation makes comment on that role.’ The author ‘then discuss[es] the ways that Christie deploys aspects of the spinster persona in her characterisation of Marple’ followed by ‘argu[ing] that Christie harnesses both the mystical and the mundane aspects of the spinster stereotype in creating Marple’s persona.’ She focuses upon the way Miss Marple ‘almost supernatural powers’ appear ‘alongside more reassuring traits such as gossiping, shopping, gardening, and knitting.’ Prideaux analyse[s] the ways in which Christie adapts these seemingly harmless spinsterly traits to manoeuvre the character from the margins of the story into a position of centrality, power, and respect.’

Prideaux begins with the ‘bothersome presence’ of ‘spinster characters’ ‘in English literature’, turning to non-crime fiction examples from 19th and 20th century. She then outlines the viewpoints Marion Shaw and Sabine Vancker have concerning how much Miss Marple’s character challenges the status quo and compares them with those held by Merja Makinen.

Before unpacking her own views on the subject, Prideaux delineates what the chapter aims to do:

‘This chapter considers the ways in which Christie adapts the limiting spinster stereotype in the Marple mysteries. I question whether the depiction of a spinster-sleuth only disturbs the surface of Christie’s detective stories, or if deeper currents of unrest may be discerned. My analysis begins with an overview of the range and variety of Christie’s spinster characters. I then explore Christie’s deployment of both sinister and mundane facets of the spinster stereotype, and examine the ways in which stereotypes and ideologies that usually limit and define spinsters are activated in Christie’s crime fiction plots.’

Given what I have read on the subject already, during my dissertation writing and afterwards, I do not feel these aims expand the knowledge upon the character of Miss Marple. This felt confirmed by the author’s choice of evidence as when writing about the way ‘Christie exploits assiduously […] the spinster-sleuth’s appearance’ she chooses the often-used quote from Nemesis, which begins: ‘She considered herself with proper humility. She was inquisitive, she asked questions, she was the sort of age and type could be expected to ask question…’ I didn’t think the writer added any new way of looking at it.

Furthermore, the inclusion of the idea that ‘Marple uses “lip service” as a kind of vocal camouflage to conceal her superior knowledge or true intentions from male characters’, is not a new one and the discussion of this theory is heavily reliant on the work of Makinen and Kathy Mezei, to the extent of using the same quote that Mezei does in her 2007 article, ‘Spinsters, Surveillance, and Speech: The Case of Miss Marple, Miss Mole, and Miss Jekyll’. Again, this came across as a repetition of an existing idea rather than as something new. This might be less of an issue to those who are relatively newer to the subject.

I think Prideaux finds her feet in this chapter when she moves the discussion firstly on to ‘gardening’ which she opines ‘becomes a trope for Marple’s detection’. I thought the author raised some interesting textual examples and when it came the topic of knitting and way it is associated with ‘deceptive reassurance, and mystical aspects of the spinster stereotype’ I felt it was one of the better sections, in terms of argument construction and that the analysis was more detailed and supported by the textual evidence. The section provides a good reading of Nemesis.

Chapter 5: Marple and Agency – The Female Detective, the ‘Feminine-Heroic’, and Appropriating the Gaze

Chapter Aims: In this chapter Desirée Prideaux ‘analyse[s] the methods used by Christie to mobilise a female detective in a “masculine” genre’ and ‘explore[s] Christie’s parodic engagement with the masculine detective archetype and also with the heroic paradigm to uncover a previously unobserved strategy used by Christie.’ The author then ‘show[s] that Christie alludes to the literary hero in the portrayal of Marple’ and ‘with close reference to the texts’ she ‘establish[es] that Christie frequently aligns Marple with ideals and characteristics that are more typically associated with masculine heroes, and blends these attributes with more “feminine” traits.’ Prideaux ‘contend[s] that these uniquely feminine-heroic characteristics are deployed in a number of ways to grant agency to the spinster sleuth.’

Prideaux commences the chapter by outlining how ‘fictional female detectives have appeared in print since the late 1800s. This long history belies the fact that the position of women in the role of detective has generally been accompanied by uncertainty and circumspection’ She goes on to write that: ‘When a woman character assumes this role, convention is disrupted, and the structures and boundaries of the genre itself are called into question.’ Looking back to chapter two of this study, she notes that ‘the revised clue-puzzle form mockingly rejected heroically masculine characteristics’ but that:

‘…the clue-puzzle sleuths retain the powers of heightened observation and penetrating intellect that accrued to the detective archetype. These qualities are substantiated at the denouement of stories in which the detective’s version of events becomes the definitive narrative (Devas, 2002: 260). Placing a woman character in the usually masculine detective role brings with it a suite of creative difficulties.’

The chapter then moves into ‘examining Christie’s parodic engagements with the heroic paradigm in the portrayal of Marple.’ I thought Prideaux clearly and concisely defines the features of parody (awareness of the original being parodied, the ‘implicit criticism’ the parody gives of the original, and the parody’s ‘self-referential’ nature.) The heroic tradition is something that Christie parodies in her stories and Prideaux argues that:

‘Christie alludes to, and draws upon, the heroic ideal in ways that subtly grant agency to her women detective. One ingenious way that Christie does this is to show the character in a heroic light.’

This argument is then built with readings of two stories from The Thirteen Problems: ‘Death by Drowning’ and ‘A Christmas Tragedy’. Both provided strong analyses, with a good attention to details and inclusion of meaningful quotes. Further readings are then given of A Murder is Announced and Nemesis. These are successful on the whole, although there was some familiar material.

Cover for Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced

Prideaux goes on to make the further statement that:

‘Christie also expands the heroic ideal. The masculine heroic emphasises lone exploits. In contrast, Marple opens the ideal of heroic behaviour to include recognition and encouragement of cleverness in other women.’

This idea is supported by a discussion of the ‘The Four Suspects’ and ‘A Christmas Tragedy’, with these stories showing ‘feminine qualities and social networks [being] given a standing that is as potent and effective as the isolated world of masculine reasoning.’

One key concept looked at is the panopticon, ‘as a symbol of surveillance and power’ which Prideaux argues is ‘a useful means to analyse’ Miss Marple. For those new to the concept, the author introduces the topic well, in language which is accessible. This introduction is anchored around the work of Michel Foucault who ‘discusses forms of discipline and control that were historically imposed by external authorities under a feudal system, and the enforcement of law through public punishments and executions. Foucault explains that this model of power shifts through time towards a structure characterised by the self-discipline of individuals habituated to surveillance and self-regulation…’ This leads on to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison, which you can see below. This system operates on the premise that ‘since those in the cells could never be sure when the gaze of the observer in the tower is upon them, their behaviour is regulated through actual and imagined surveillance.’ Prideaux goes on to note that ‘Zygmunt Bauman describes this as the ‘gaze technique of social control’ (1987: 42). This places the person who commands the gaze in a position of great power.’

Image of a panopticon prison.

From these ideas, ‘gaze’ theory developed and has been used to look at films and books, examining who ‘commands the gaze’ and this has led to studies which look at this from a feminist viewpoint which has concluded at times that films, for example, have set up a dichotomy where the gaze is under male control, and the female is in the position of being objectified. With this theory under our belts, Prideaux offers a close reading of The Murder at the Vicarage, in which she argues that:

‘Christie’s iteration of the clue-puzzle in the Marple mysteries utilises a feminine form of the gaze. This not only confers power on Christie’s spinster-sleuth, but also works to subtly disrupt genre conventions by making a “feminine” perspective central to the solution of the literary puzzle.’

This reading builds on the work of Mezei in this area and looks at the male narrator, the unreliability of his viewpoint, how this is used to misdirect and who ‘controls the gaze’ in the novel. The reading is interesting in the way it gets you to think about what is seen, by whom and how this well this is interpreted and how that affects characters’ abilities to solve the mystery. I also enjoyed the way Prideaux explores the role of Lawrence Redding: ‘It is Redding, however, who is revealed as the main instigator of the murder, and it is he who is most clearly Marple’s nemesis in this case.’ He is ‘Marple’s rival on the field of vision’ and ‘in many respects, Redding functions as Marple’s double. The doubled relationship between the detective and an equally brilliant, yet unscrupulous, arch nemesis is an established trope in crime fiction that reflects its gothic inheritance (Spooner, 2020: 251; Rowland, 2001: 114). In The Murder at the Vicarage, the doubled identity is signalled by Redding’s mirroring of Marple’s ability to see through subterfuge.’ Whilst earlier parts of this extended reading were familiar to me from other sources, I thought it worked well overall and the point about Redding was a particularly engaging part of the argument.

Dell cover for Agatha Christie's The Murder at the Vicarage

Chapter 6: ‘Heroic Women’ – The Ironic Femme Fatale, Comic Vindication of the ‘Dotty’ Old Lady, and Marple’s Female Assistants

Chapter Aims: ‘Chapters Six to Nine pursue the idea that the ideologically conservative aspects of crime fiction are most vulnerable to disruption when they are exposed to the parodic influences of comedy and/or the Gothic. These chapters break new ground in scholarly work on Christie by identifying gothic moments in the Marple mysteries.’ Through examining the characters of Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Megan Hunter, and Dolly Bantry, Prideaux ‘looks at the women characters that are galvanised into investigative action by Marple.’ The author ‘analyse[s] the use of comedy in the portrayal and narrative placement of Marple’s assistants’ and she ‘forward[s] the original hypothesis that these characters may be considered as the ‘Heroic Women’ of the Marple mysteries.’ She goes on to argue ‘that Christie reiterates the tactic of depicting women characters in roles that parody masculine heroes’ and she ‘evaluate[s] the ways in which their portrayals and narrative positionings work to disrupt traditional masculine archetypes.’

Prideaux begins her chapter by considering how the comic and gothic genres are ‘disruptive literary traditions’ and how they ‘are at the deepest foundations of crime fiction, and their influences are unmistakable in the development of crime fiction in both its light-hearted and its hard-edged incarnations. Comedy and Gothic provide a suite of character types, plot devices, and literary strategies that open crime fiction to reinvention.’

The author runs through the key comedic elements she is going to be looking at in the chapter (parody, artifice, comic self-referentiality, irony and dissonance) and provides good examples of ‘humorous self-referentiality’ and ‘comic reversals of gender expectations.’ This latter aspect is explored using the short story of ‘The Companion’ and I liked the focus this chapter places on secondary characters.

Attention then shifts to the idea that:

‘Readers familiar with Christie’s crime fiction become attuned to the idea that female characters that appear to conform to an easily recognised female stereotype such as “the loyal companion”, “the doting mother”, or “the dutiful wife” may potentially conceal an alternate self. In similarity with Marple, these characters use stereotypes to mask their agency. Moreover, in the conservative framework of the stories, characters often use their enactments of gender stereotypes to mislead. This recurrent misappropriation of gender roles calls established cliches, and the environs in which they proliferate, into doubt.’

Prideaux explores this theme, firstly by looking at Mrs Lestrange (Colonel Protheroe’s first wife from The Murder at the Vicarage) and the way she ‘perform[s] the “Dangerous Women” as masquerade’ in order to conceal her real reasons for coming to stay in St Mary Mead. I found this an interesting reading however I did not feel I could concur completely with the following conclusion made:

‘In Christie’s crime fiction, absent mothers, particularly those who are portrayed as worldly, such as Mrs Lestrange, or those depicted as dashingly adventurous, such as Bess Sedgwick in At Betram’s Hotel, are not castigated for a lack of maternal feelings. Rather, these characters are shown to live life on their own terms. Significantly, this positive characterisation extends to the act of leaving their children in the father’s care…’

I don’t think the lack of overt criticism against these two characters and their response to motherhood equals the same as endorsing their alternative pathways. In particular, although I would need to re-read At Bertram’s Hotel (1965), I don’t remember Bess’s irresponsible behaviour being overly approved of. Perhaps some direct quotes would have backed up Prideaux’s idea more effectively. Moreover, with Mrs Lestrange, I agree she is not criticised for leaving her daughter behind, but the reason for this is the monstruous behaviour of Colonel Protheroe. It seems to me that Mrs Lestrange is treated kindlier because of these extenuating circumstances and the fact that she returned to St Mary Mead to see her daughter because she is dying.

Fontana edition of Agatha Christie's At Bertram's Hotel

Following on from this the author offers a reading of Mrs McGillicuddy, as a way of looking at the ‘comic vindication of the “dotty” old lady’. She remarks that ‘in similarity with the femme fatale, the unexceptional elderly woman witness is also rarely depicted positively in fiction. In 4.50 from Paddington (1957), this stock figure finds singular good form.’ The reading arguably had a rocky start, as I found the discussion around one extended quote weak, as the writer’s point was not clearly made or backed up. I think if the quote had been analysed at word level the argument would have been stronger, as this type of analysis is in evidence in the strongest sections of the study.

However, the reading later includes an interesting idea by Chris Ewers, who looked at the ‘ways that Christie uses train tropes to subvert conventional genre expectations.’ Prideaux explains that:

‘Chris Ewers observes that the women travellers of 4.50 from Paddington ‘experience the train as a male space’ (2016: 106). Ewers argues that the railway line functions to divide masculine and feminine spaces, and states: ‘the dichotomy of men travelling to work, and woman staying at home, is critiqued throughout the novel (women are having life strangled out of them not just in the murder scene)’ (20167: 106). This is underscored by the lack of respect accorded to Mrs McGillicuddy and the ’indifferences bordering on contempt’ that she receives from male railway officials (Ewers, 2016: 106). After leaving the “male space” of the train, Mrs McGillicuddy travels to the home and decidedly feminine space of her friend, Jane Marple.’

It was also pleasing to see an idea from Rosalind Coward and Linda Semple included, as it involves a favourite author of mine, Anthony Gilbert. They see storyline similarities between 4.50 from Paddington and Gilbert’s The Spinster’s Secret (1946). Like the plot of Christie’s mystery, Gilbert’s ‘revolves around a lonely impoverished old woman who witnesses a crime but whom no-one believes. Cowards and Semple describe it as: ‘an impressively radical novel where sleuth and victim merge and where the image of the genteel spinster detective (like Miss Marple and [Patricia Wentworth’s] Miss Silver) is given a shocking addition of realism’ (1989: 47).’ From this starting point Prideaux outlines why she thinks 4.50 from Paddington ‘has feminist potential’ too. Keying into the theme of a woman not being believed, Desirée Prideaux asserts that in Christie’s detective novel, ‘proximity with crime brings the sanity of women into question, and the notion of women as ‘cracked’ or crazy runs throughs the story like a refrain.’ This is an idea that she explores really well, and I felt many good textual examples were chosen. The reading then turns its focus to how ‘the narrative drive of the story [ultimately] proves sanity and reliability of women.’ Overall, I think the writer’s reading of this Marple case is interesting and it engages meaningfully with other commentators’ ideas as well.

Cover for Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington

The next Christie character to be analysed is Lucy Eyelesbarrow (from 4.50 to Paddington) and Prideaux’s reading of this character hinges upon the way that Lucy’s journey through the story maps on to the adventure narrative formula. Prideaux makes a compelling case for this idea, and it is a good example of how this author can write in an accessible manner. After Eyelesbarrow, Prideaux moves on to Megan Hunter, who features in The Moving Finger (1942). The writer looks at how Jerry’s viewpoint of Megan, which places her in the romantic role, and him in the dominant one, contrasts with how Miss Marple perceives her. Prideaux opines that ‘Marple, however, sees Megan’s other attributes, and enlists her as a champion of justice.’ She goes on suggest that Miss Marple has a hand in ‘Megan’s transformation’ and also grants her greater agency. I think on balance Prideaux is more optimistic, than I am, about the Megan’s future with Jerry and the amount of agency she will have in the future. The ending of the mystery, to me, is quite open as to what Megan will go on to do.

Concluding the chapter is an examination of ‘Dolly Bantry: The Married Assistant’. Prideaux posits the interesting idea that in The Body in the Library (1942):

‘Dolly enacts a role similar to that of a choral character in a play. Choral characters stand aside from the action to comment on other characters and events, and to provide additional information, and perspectives (Abrams, 1993: 55). Christie signals that this is part of Dolly’s characterisation when Marple reveals that she has deduced the identity of the murderer…’

I think the author brings strong evidence to the party and it is easy to see how Dolly’s verbal enthusiasm ‘applaud[s]’ and ‘invite[s] applause, for Marple’s talents.’ However, when it comes to the discussion concerning Dolly and Arthur’s marriage and their different reactions to finding the body in their home, I felt more could have been said and some aspects did not feel fully explored. It seemed a little like the reader is left to fill in the blanks. But on the plus side the conclusion at the end of the chapter does provide further clarifying remarks about this subject and goes some way to filling in the gaps.

Cover for Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library

Finally, for this chapter one of the footnotes interested me, as in one of them the author speculates over who Lucy Eyelesbarrow will marry. Prideaux chooses Bryan, yet I thought it unusual that she does not mention Christie’s own thoughts on the subjects, as evidence in her notebooks suggests she had decided upon Cedric.

Chapter 7: ‘Breathless Men’ – The Comic Male Characters of the Marple Mysteries

Chapter Aims: Chapter Seven ‘identifies a group of male characters that stand in ironic relation to Christie’s “Heroic Women”. Characters such as Sir Henry Clithering, Inspector Craddock, Raymond West, and the vicar of St Mary Mead, Leonard Clement, are often described as being left ‘breathless’ by Marple’s prowess in detection.’ Prideaux ‘conceptualise[s] this group as the “Breathless Men” of Christie’s crime fiction’ and in this chapter she ‘consider[s] Christie’s use of parody in the characterisation of these male characters, and their placement in what are typically “feminine” roles.’ In doing so she ‘cite[s] textual evidence of the gender inversions and “feminine” narrative positionings that are a feature of their portrayal, and identify the humorous events, gender inversions, and running jokes to which they are subjected. This shows how comedy functions to prevent male “would-be” detectives from intruding upon Marple’s investigation.’

I felt the chapter title was a strong one, as it leans into an interesting linguistic feature of the Miss Marple novels, and it chimes in with Gillian Gill’s thoughts on ‘Christie’s partiality for ‘bright young women’ who run rings around foolish male characters (1990: 60). Gill further remarks, as Prideaux notes, that ‘Christie’s women are ‘dynamically conservative’ while her male characters are usually ‘passively conservative’ (1990:60).’

Cover for Agatha Christie's A Pocket Full of Rye

This chapter begins with several smaller sections, the first of which looks at how ‘Christie also uses comedy to make murder, and male murder victims an acceptable object of play.’ This idea is supported by an examination of the primary death in A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) where there is much attention given to the nuances of the tea making system in Fortescue’s offices and then the errors which are made in calling the right number of ambulances when the body is discovered. Prideaux next considers how the ‘authoritative male characters’ in The Murder at the Vicarage, have their authority undermined by their difficulties with interacting with one another:

‘The use of adjectives such as ‘sulky’ and ‘flushed and annoyed’ describes male characters in what would ordinarily be regarded as “feminine” terms, and it has the same result. It depicts the characters as ruled by emotion to the extent that it impairs their professional abilities.’

This novel also provides examples of the way ‘Christie gifts Marple with the ability to deflect reprimands by triggering a devastating retaliatory stereotype.’

Following on from this, Desirée Prideaux provides a short reading of A Murder is Announced which demonstrates how sometimes ‘Christie’s comic representations of police characters move into the area of broad farce. Christie exploits this facet of humour to undermine conventional authority figures, while simultaneously granting agency to Marple.’ This is a feature fans of the books, and TV adaptations, will have noted with the police figures confidently assuming they are superior at the start of the case, but by the end, having experienced a number of comical moments, realise this is not so and that Miss Marple is in fact the better detective. Prideaux argues that ‘the humour relies upon readers enjoying disruptions to usually unproblematic positions of masculine power, agency and control.’ She continues writing: ‘When male characters encounter humour, it typically diminishes their authority and removes them from contention in the crime fiction game.’ However, she states that Sir Henry Clithering is an exception to this. The above idea concerning humour and reduced male authority is explored more fully though a substantial section on Inspector Craddock which discusses how Christie ‘uses an array of comic devices that restrict masculine authority and agency while giving advantage to Marple.’  Two mysteries looked at in greater detail are A Murder is Announced and 4.50 from Paddington, with Prideaux homing in on the way Miss Marple makes the inspector blush when she suggests that he could use his good looks to retrieve information from female witnesses. Desirée Prideaux claims this type of plot event:

‘serves the purpose of diminishing Craddock’s authority as the senior detective on the case. Marple’s suggestion that her should capitalise on his attractiveness to get information from a female witness, positions him not as a police inspector, but rather as an object of female desire […] When Marple regards Craddock in this superficial manner, she reveals that men are just as vulnerable to reductive stereotypes as are women.’

Inspector Slack receives a similarly sized section to be discussed in. In concluding this chapter Prideaux provides an interesting way in which to view Miss Marple cases:

‘The cumulative effect of comic destabilisations of accepted gender roles in the Marple mysteries is a literary world in which male characters are depicted as emotional, capricious, and sometimes measured merely by their beauty. As demonstrated in the previous chapter, it is a consistent feature of the Marple mysteries that Christie positively correlates ideas about duty, intelligence, and courage with women characters. Paradoxically, male characters are associated with the domestic sphere, and they are limited by excessive emotion. Comic devices are repeatedly used in Christie’s crime fiction in ways that steadily erode the power of male characters to control events. Thus, it becomes a readerly certainty that authoritative male characters will be rendered breathless by Marple, and that these hapless men will play only subsidiary roles in her murder investigations.’

Chapter 8: Christie’s ‘Rational Women’ and Common-Sense Dispersal of the Gothic

Chapter Aims: Desirée Prideaux shifts her attention to the Gothic, running with the premise that ‘Christie makes considerable use of gothic archetypes, storylines, and narrative devices’ particularly in the later Miss Marple stories. Prideaux directs her analysis ‘towards the depiction and narrative placement of secondary women characters’ and she examine[s] the ways in which Christie’s female enquirers meet the demands of a genre that historically confuses and disempowers women.’ The author aims to ‘identify the mechanisms used by Christie to invoke the Gothic, and to assess how her women characters fare when they encounter the usually debilitating forces of the genre.’

Prideaux begins by outlining the nature of the Gothic genre, emphasising how it is ‘a literary form with trickery and instability at its core.’ She further writes that: ‘It is a genre that asks questions, but also one that seeks to mystify. This, and its literary kinship with crime fiction, makes it an ideal instrument for genre disruption.’ Before diving into some readings of Miss Marple stories, she starts with an overview of the Gothic. One of the key texts looked at in this overview is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764).

Cover for Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder

The chapter is structured around three readings: They Do It with Mirrors (1952), Sleeping Murder (1976) and Nemesis (1971). With the first novel listed, Prideaux’s focus is ‘Christie’s Rehabilitation of the Gothic,’ and she makes the bold statement that They Do It with Mirrors is ‘one of Christie’s most conspicuously gothic stories.’ Perhaps it just seemed bold to me, but I think it is an idea that the writer shows as having some mileage with the book’s ‘gothic family structure.’ Desirée Prideaux continues by focusing on Gina and Carrie Louise, commenting that these:

‘…two women at the centre of the mystery occupy positions that would usually precede their downfall in gothic storylines. Gina has entered a passionate, but hasty marriage to a man who has begun to view her with confusion and distrust. Carrie Louise is married to a man who has slipped from brilliance into insanity. Christie invokes the Gothic with these character types, but then recuperates these roles by drawing them firmly into her distinctive form of crime fiction.’

I think the subsequent discussion of Gina in the story could have been more closely anchored to the chapter topic of the Gothic, as the extended section on Shakespearian allusions felt tangential.

However, I enjoyed Prideaux’s comparison of Carrie Louise with Miss Marple:

‘The depiction of Carrie Louise further unsettles the representation of the powerless gothic heroine. Carrie Louise is depicted as an intuitive, emotionally sensitive, and ‘unworldly’ woman (Mirrors, 171). In many respects, Carrie Louise functions as Marple’s gothic counterpart […] Like Marple, Carrie Louise has the ability to know and understand things that are beyond the ken of most people. However, her insights do not arise from logical observation, but from her extraordinary sensitivity towards people and her surroundings.’

This was an interesting idea and I felt one which was supported well by the text, as Carrie Louise, for example, is sure long before Miss Marple is, that no one is really trying to kill her.

With Sleeping Murder, the focus of Prideaux’s reading is ‘escaping the curse of inherited madness.’ She observes that this mystery is ‘another reworking of a gothic storyline’ and one in which ‘Christie turns a tale of inherited madness into a successful exorcism of family crimes.’ Susan Rowland’s previous research into this topic is also woven into the reading, including Rowland’s argument that Sleeping Murder:

‘Continually tries to ascribe madness or deviant sexuality to the feminine. It takes the efforts of the good (non-sexual) crone, Miss Marple, to rightfully assign the pathology to male sexuality within a domesticity in which the feminine is victim, (2001: 170).’

Whilst Prideaux’s reading brings up further Gothic tropes in the text, I found this reading to be quite light weight, in comparison to some of the others in the study.

The final reading is of Nemesis with the Bradbury-Scotts being a particular focus. The reading begins by connecting this mystery to Sleeping Murder and ‘The Herb of Death’ which also share the trope of the ‘overbearing and obsessive guardian’. This reading also includes another tangent involving Shakespearean allusions, as well as Greek Tragedy. There was nothing wrong with this information, but one consequence was that the “Gothic” theme of the chapter was not readily visible.

Chapter 9: ‘Breathless Men’ – Gothic Limitations on Masculine Agency

Chapter 9 Aims: Prideaux ‘revisits the cohort of characters’ she discussed in Chapter 7, concerning the ‘“Breathless Men” of Christie’s crime fiction.’ Using ‘scholarly research on narrative devices and literary strategies used by gothic writers to limit the agent of female characters’ Prideaux applies ‘this research to explore the idea that Christie uses similar restrictive narrative strategies to curtail the activities of male characters.’ The author ‘present[s] evidence that gendered “everyday” assumptions are repeatedly subverted in the Marple mysteries.’

Cover for Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger

The following texts are looked at in this chapter: A Murder is Announced, ‘Ingots of Gold’ The Moving Finger and The Murder at the Vicarage. One of the main sections of this chapter is one which looks at the ‘terrifying dreamscapes’ of these stories. Prideaux writes that:

‘Fear of the unknown and anxieties about the loss of sanity, individual identity, or personal power, lie at the dark heart of the literary gothic. Gothic narratives emphasise ‘the realm of the irrational’ and, by giving primacy to extraordinary occurrences such as dreams, myth, rituals, and symbolic forms of knowledge, they bring to fictional life ‘the perverse impulses and the nightmarish terrors that lie beneath the orderly surface of the civilised mind’ (Abrams, 1993: 78).’

She then looks at the dreams the male characters from Chapter 7, have in the above-mentioned stories. Jerry Burton’s dream is one of the most interestingly discussed, with the way this dream places Jerry in an ‘almost detective’ role, a role many heroines of Gothic literature held. An ‘almost detective’ is a character who has consciously or subconsciously picked up some important pieces of information about the crime, but the conclusion/solution they lead to, is just out of reach for them to grasp. A superior detective, in this case Miss Marple, is needed to fully resolve the mystery. I felt the discussion of Leonard Clement in this section felt less substantial in comparison.

Final Thoughts

Whilst some of the earlier chapters in the book struggle with generalisations and repetition of existing knowledge, I think the later chapters, which look at ways the Comic and the Gothic were utilised by Christie to restrict male agency and promote female agency, showcase some interesting and thought-provoking ideas, which encourage you to return to the original stories for a re-read with a different way of looking at them.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Liverpool University Press (Review Copy)

2 comments

  1. What a comprehensive and thoughtful review of the book! It seems to be aimed at Christie specialists or at least provide some alternative interpretations open for debate with Miss Marple aficionados. Do you think a more casual reader like me would gain something out of it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the only main prerequisite is that you have read the Marple stories beforehand as it does include spoilers. The writing style is very accessible and when it comes to particular theories, there is enough background information given that someone new to them can understand them. Although I read it in large chunks, it’s something you can dip into, and is likely to be of interest if you are interested in gender stereotypes in literature. I would suggest trying to find it via a library though, as it is rather a pricey book to buy!

      Liked by 1 person

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