Agatha Christie and Miss Marple

I’m going out on a limb a little, but, Miss Marple is perhaps as iconic a character as Hercule Poirot is. At least most of everyone who has heard of Poirot will have heard of Miss Marple. And while I think Poirot has been adapted into movies more often, Miss Marple might have been more influential. I can’t think of any other detectives who exist because of Poirot, but Murder, She Wrote would not have happened without Miss Marple.

Having said that, there can be no question of which one Agatha Christie wrote more of. There are something like three times as many Poirot stories as Miss Marple stories. Part of this, of course, is that Poirot had a seven year head-start. Those were seven very productive years for Agatha Christie, too—in addition to several Poirot novels, she wrote a great many short stories.

The subject of short stories is interesting, here, for while Poirot first appeared in a novel, Miss Marple first appeared in a short story. Most of the Miss Marple short stories were gathered together into the book The Thirteen Problems, and in the introduction to it—written years after most of the short stories themselves—Agatha Christie opines that Miss Marple is at her best in short stories, while Poirot demands novels. This is curious because she only wrote a few more Miss Marple short stories, while she had yet to write eleven of the twelve Miss Marple novels that she would ever write. This may, perhaps, be attributed to the changing economics of fiction. In the twenties and thirties the real money was in short stories; this was much less the case in the 1950s and 1960s. (I’m not sure how things were in the 1940s; television had not yet taken over from short stories as popular short entertainment but magazines and newspapers were hit hard by the war, especially since paper was in short supply.)

She also remarked in that introduction that Miss Marple was as popular as Poirot—she got about an equal number of letters requesting that she drop Poirot in favor of Miss Marple as requested that she drop Miss Marple in favor of Poirot. And here we come to one of the things that intrigues me about Miss Marple: it was twelve years between the first Miss Marple novel (The Body in the Vicarage, 1930) and the second (The Body in the Library, 1942). While the stories themselves were written (and published) between 1927 and 1930, the foreward to The Thirteen Problems was written in 1932. After declaring Miss Marple to be as popular as Poirot, it would be ten more years before she published another Miss Marple novel. And so far as I can tell looking at original publication dates, she only wrote three Miss Marple short stories in that time, one in 1939 (commissioned by the BBC as a radio play) and two in 1941. Two more would appear in 1942 after the publication of The Body in the Library, another in 1954, and the final Miss Marple short story in 1956.

I can’t help but wonder why it is that Agatha Christie thought that Miss Marple was better in short stories but after the first collection wrote her mostly in novels, and thought her as popular as Poirot but waited twelve years to write more of her.

That said, the wait did her no great harm. Miss Marple was always a creature from a previous age so she did not suffer greatly from how the world changed during and after the second world war—if anything, she felt less out of place after the war than before it. Young people in the 1920s and 1930s were concerned with being Modern in a way that only the hippies of the 1960s came close to. By the 1950s, people simply didn’t look down on their elders as they once did and Miss Marple’s Victorian girlhood was not the object of (indulgent) ridicule that it once was.

Which reminds me: I wonder if Agatha Christie, in writing Miss Marple, was at all inspired by G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Certainly not entirely; she mentions inspiration from her own grandmother who had a sheltered Victorian upbringing and thought the worst of everyone. That said, the indulgent way that people assumed that Miss Marple knew nothing of the world is very reminiscent of the indulgent way that people assumed that Father Brown knew nothing of the world—and they had been assuming that of Father Brown for seventeen years by the time Miss Marple came on the scene. If so, she was inspired well.

But getting back to my main question, I wonder if it was merely that it was harder to come up with plots for Miss Marple stories than it was for Poirot stories. Miss Marple was a very different kind of sleuth and her stories (almost) always involved a great deal more investigation by people other than Miss Marple herself. It would be an exaggeration, but not too much of an exaggeration, to say that until the last few novels Miss Marple didn’t appear in the novels more than she did in the short stories, there was just a lot more of other people in the novels padding them out to full length. This means that the stories for Miss Marple require a setting in which amateurs (or ordinary policemen) can do the investigating and find the clues, but not understand them. This is not so easy to do. It is much more convenient for the author, especially of a novel, to have a detective who can look for clues that most people would not. Often this is unraveling the mystery of a red herring so that it can be set aside and further clues looked for, but it in any event helps.

This is also, I think, why Agatha Christie said that Miss Marple is at her best in short stories. Short stories allow there to be a summarizing of the evidence without much time to think about it, then Miss Marple can give her brilliant interpretation. If this is to be done in a novel, it’s trickier both to come up with a mystery which will last without anyone figuring it out, and also to come up with red herrings that don’t need to be cleared away for the right evidence to be discovered.

This is only speculation and I have little confidence that this is correct. Unfortunately, Agatha Christie says nothing on the subject in her autobiography, so I doubt that I’ll be able to advance much beyond speculation.

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