The Murder at the Vicarage
Author: Agatha Christie
Blurb: It’s a historic event in detective fiction as the unflappable sleuth’s passion for gossip – and cheerful recognition of the worst side of human nature – leads her to a crime scene at the local vicarage. Colonel Protheroe, St. Mary Mead’s most loathed magistrate, has been found shot through the head. But it isn’t the “pompous old brute’s” murder that raises eyebrows, but rather the scandalous secrets it exposes. Those secrets are about to put St. Mary Mead on the map – and send Miss Marple on the trail of a killer with something to hide.
I have been on something of a mysteries kick recently and so it struck me that this year I wanted to do tackle something on my reading bucket list and make my way through each of the Miss Marple novels in publication order. I am, of course, familiar with most of these from the many radio, television and movie adaptations that have been attempted over the years and I am pretty sure I read several of the novels while I was in Middle School so I am not coming to these cold and often begin reading already knowing the solution.
Why Miss Marple and not Poirot? Well, I am determined to actually finish the challenge I am setting myself. Tackling Miss Marple requires one book a month – something I feel I can achieve, even if it means I have to read a title during a couple of lunch hours. If I find myself getting on well and exceeding my expectations I may roll onto another Christie hero but let’s start with a significant but realistic challenge and work from there…
Notes on The Murder at the Vicarage
This wasn’t actually the first appearance of Miss Marple. In fact she had made her debut several years before in a series of short stories run in a magazine in which she solved crimes that were being described to her. Those stories would be collected in The Thirteen Problems (when I write about it I’ll be using the American title, The Tuesday Club Murders). Why does this book come first then? Well, it features some stories that hadn’t been published when The Murder at the Vicarage was released. Even if that wasn’t the case, this is a better starting point. The Miss Marple of that collection feels more of a prototype than the finished character and usually only steps in at the end of each of those tales. This book gives a truer representation of how the character is in the other novels.
I’m not sure if this is true of all editions (or in all formats), but the copy I read had some rather charming diagrams in them, showing the layout of the area around the vicarage. I ended up studying them for a while in search of clues. In the end I think it’s a testament to how well Christie wrote simple but meaningful descriptions that the maps feel pretty redundant. You can already get a great visual sense of what Miss Marple can see from her garden when the evidence is introduced. Still, it’s a fun thing to include!
It’s pretty apparent that this story is set in the late 1920s as there are a few story points that unfold in ways that wouldn’t have been at all likely in later periods. One of the more noticeable examples of this to me was how several characters have clocks that do not keep good time – the first commercial synchronous electric clock would be released in Britain a year after this book was published. That wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the case of the Vicar’s clock though…
Adaptations in Review
This story has been adapted twice for television, one for radio, as a successful play in the 1940s and once as a French graphic novel (L’Affaire Protheroe). I couldn’t lay my hands on the graphic novel (not that my French would have been good enough to read it even if I had), nor have I seen or read the play but I have experienced all of the others and revisited them for this post.
The 1986 BBC television adaptation stars Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and Paul Eddington plays the Vicar. My memory of the production had been that it was quite entertaining but I didn’t care for it nearly as much on repeated viewing. There are some noticeable adjustments to the story and characterizations – the Vicar’s role is minimized to allow Miss Marple to play a larger role in the story which seems a shame given how well Eddington plays the part. The character of Protheroe is, if anything, even more unpleasant than he is in the book and the adaptation hints more heavily at some of the revelations and in some cases makes them early – reducing the field of suspects earlier. Several supporting characters are completely removed. 3/5.
The 2004 ITV television adaptation starred Geraldine McEwan and featured Derek Jacobi as Colonel Protheroe. This production is more visually appealing with lovely period costumes and cinematography. It does make many changes to the story however, several of which are minor and cosmetic (and, frankly, unnecessary). One change particularly rankles me – the decision to give Protheroe an even more unpleasant past. I think this reflects that, regardless of the opinions we hear people voice about Protheroe in the novel, he is odious rather than villainous. Both television adaptations try to make him a more deserving corpse – this version tries harder – and I do think that the choice is an attempt to try to build sympathy with two of the suspects. The other major change this version makes is to introduce a romantic backstory for Miss Marple that she reflects on during this mystery. While this was a controversial decision at the time, I personally did not mind the decision. It is a way of giving Miss Marple a personal interaction with the case and while I did not find it moving or particularly effective, I can see that it might soften the character for modern audiences. 3/5.
June Whitfield as Miss Marple.
My favorite adaptation is the radio adaptation that stars June Whitfield as Miss Marple. It walks the best line between adhering to the source material and increasing the role of Miss Marple within the story. Unlike the other adaptations, this one does give the Vicar a larger role in the proceedings and it also retains many of the story’s subplots. The performances are generally very good and it flows at a very good pace. Its faults are those of the source material. 4/5.
The first Miss Marple novel was an entertaining read and it was interesting to see how the character was subtly changing already in this early stage to enable her to take part in the events of an investigation. While the short stories that had been published before this each had her playing quite a passive role, sitting and listening to the stories being told at the Tuesday Night Club. This novel forces her into the investigation at an early stage as a witness and we quickly realize that she has an inquisitive personality and eagle eyes, helping her to notice some critical details as the case unfolds.
One of the smartest things about this book is the decision to tell the story from the Vicar’s perspective. This choice made sense on several levels. Firstly, it provides us with a character who has greater access to the criminal investigation and yet is not a part of it, allowing him to work as a bridge with her. Secondly, had we directly shared Miss Marple’s thoughts, the novel would have given up its solution too easily and we would quickly learn what elements of the case she regards as peculiar. Instead the Vicar makes mistakes and that provides ample opportunity for red herrings. Finally, we get to hear the Vicar’s thoughts on Miss Marple and see her through his perspective (and hear others in the village voice their opinions of her too). Those opinions allow us to put confidence in her abilities and insight but also emphasize that those skills are off-putting to many others. Somehow that makes me like her all the more.
The mystery itself is quite well structured although I do think the murder plan relied a little too much on assumptions about other characters’ actions (what if Protheroe hadn’t been sat writing at a desk when the murderer encountered him?) and the clock timing issue does seem to artificially stretch the story out a little too much near the beginning. Once things get going however there are plenty of interesting revelations and Miss Marple does a good job of reasoning what really happened.
There are plenty of red herrings within the story and I was surprised at how well several of these are handled. The truth behind each of these is hinted at early in the novel but it is quite easy to overlook the clues (I had completely forgotten why one character was acting suspiciously until the incident of the slashed portrait in the attic about halfway through the story). My favorite character was Dr. Haydock and I enjoyed how outright hostile he was to the investigation at times and his thoughts on criminal justice.
Overall I found this a very enjoyable read and while I do find some of the red herrings a little unlikely, I was thoroughly entertained. A great start to my Miss Marple marathon and I look forward to seeing what the other books have in store for me!