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After seeing "Murder With Mirrors" on ITV the other weekend I decided to review a Miss Marple book. Wanting to start with the first story I checked the Dooyoo listings and discovered that Murder At The Vicarage wasn't available to review. They were however, very quick in adding it when I submitted it as a suggestion.
Agatha Christie was born in Torquay in 1890. Her first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which introduced the now famous Hercule Poirot was published in 1920. Her other well known creation, Miss Marple, first appeared in a short story in 1927 before appearing in her first full length novel, "The Murder At The Vicarage" in 1930
During her lifetime Christie wrote a number of novels, short stories, poetry & plays. Her play "The Mousetrap" holds the world record for the longest run in history as it has been performed since 1952.
Christie is estimated to have sold around 4 billion copies of her collected works, putting her second only to The Bible. She was married twice and was a Dame of the British Empire. She died on January 12th 1976.
Colonel Protheroe, the churchwarden, is a far from popular man. His first wife left him some years ago. His second wife, Anne, is so unhappy in the marriage that she's started an affair with local artist Lawrence Redding. Anne's stepdaughter, Lettice, isn't very happy with her father either because he's forbidden Lawrence to paint a portrait of her in her bathing suit. She also has a crush on Lawrence Redding.
Protheroe's had a number of disagreements with Dr. Stone, who's excavating a stone barrow and he's not flavour of the month with vicarage servant Mary either as she feels he's been rather harsh on her boyfriend Joe Archer in his capacity as magistrate. In fact, he's managed to upset or annoy quite a lot of the residents of St. Mary Mead in one way or another.
So, when he's found shot in the vicarage there's no shortage of potential suspects who might have murdered him. Even the vicar himself has previous commented that anyone who killed Protheroe would be doing the rest of the villagers a favour.
When two separate people confess to the murder gossip into the village goes into overdrive but then things aren't as clear cut as they may seem......
I can't actually remember when I last read this novel. The impression date given inside it is August 1985 so I suspect that it's probably over 20 years ago when I read it last. The plot, however, is fairly memorable to me mainly due to the fact that I've seen the story as part of the Marple adaptations starring Geraldine McEwan as well as seeing the Joan Hickson version on a number of occasions.
The novel is narrated by the vicar of St. Mary Mead, Leonard Clement, which allows Christie to set the murder in a place that you wouldn't usually expect such an event to occur: a vicarage. It's also possible that, as a reader, you'd expect that the characters in the book would be honest when discussing the murder and the events surrounding it with the vicar. It's therefore tempting for the reader to take everything that the vicar is told at face value and to accept it as the truth. After all, people are a lot more likely to be honest with the vicar than they are with the police, right? Maybe, maybe not!
The vicar, of course, is in an ideal position to provide the reader with details of the daily routine at the vicarage, the layout of the property, the comings and goings of the people that live there and the people who visit and he comes across as someone just as human as the rest of us. He doesn't like Colonel Protheroe (along with the rest of the population of St. Mary Mead), he's sometimes concerned about the 20 year age gap between him and his wife, Griselda and he sometimes gets annoyed by his young nephew Dennis. All in all he comes across as a person no different to the rest of the people who live in the village except, of course, that he's the vicar of the parish and they are his flock.
As always, it's a puzzle element rather than the characters you read an Agatha Christie book for. None of the characters in this book have any degree of depth to them, but then, that's not Christie's prime objective in writing the book. If you're looking for a book where you can get to know the characters well and form opinions about their characters and actions then this isn't the book for you.
The "puzzle element" is, on the whole, very good. Colonel Protheroe has been shot in the vicar's study and the comings and goings of various people, including the vicar, narrow the time of the shooting down to quite a small timeframe. I was particularly amused when the character of Doctor Haydock stated that Protheroe couldn't have been shot after 6:30 when the a character in the previous book I reviewed, When Eight Bells Toll, tells us that you can't narrow down a death timeframe like some detectives in novels do because "the weight, build, ambient temperature and cause of death can all have a bearing on when rigor mortis sets in". Haydock however, manages to narrow things down to a thirty minute window.
The pace of the story is rather pedestrian throughout, with just the one murder taking place. In some ways that robs the book of any sense of urgency because there's no feeling that the murderer has to be found before someone else gets killed.
The novel's greatest strength, having the vicar as narrator so that the reader gets all the inside information about the vicarage, is also one of it's greatest weaknesses as he's often not present when the police are making their enquiries or when Miss Marple is perhaps talking to other characters. In fact in this book we meet Miss Marple only in her cottage and it's garden or at the vicarage. She interacts with the vicar, Griselda, her nephew Raymond and three other ladies that Griselda dubs the "old pussies" but not really with any of the potential murder suspects. This is a bit different to most of the other Marple books that Christie wrote.
The length book was reasonably short with my edition running to just 189 pages. There are 32 chapters, none being more than 10 pages in length but with the new edition taking up 384 pages I suspect that the font size is somewhat larger than it is in my edition and that each new chapter starts on a fresh page rather the immediately after the chapter preceeding it as it does with my version.
Overall, I think that the fact that the Joan Hickson adaptation of the book is one of the better Marple stories made me think that this book would be one of the better Marple stories that Christie wrote. That's not actually the case as the book is, at best, average. It's an interesting read purely for the fact that it's the book which introduced Miss Marple to the public but Marple herself is a slightly pricklier character here than she would be in later stories.
Christie herself later felt that there were too many characters and too many subplots in the book and I'd perhaps agree with her on the subplots point. There's one in particular (which I won't mention as it would rule a suspect out) that could have been dispensed with but I don't think that the book uses any more characters than other Christie novels do.
The novel does date a little. Miss Cram mentions the film that St. Mary Mead is so small that it doesn't even have a "playhouse" that the talkies can come to. Anyone with any knowledge of film history would be able to date that remark to around the era when films started to move from silent to sound (late 1920s - early 1930s).
In conclusion then it's an average Christie novel which is mainly of interest as Miss Marple's debut. There are however, better Marple stories and better Christie books.
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; Television tie-in edition edition (3 Jan 2005)
Official Website: www.agathachristie.com