By Pramod K Nayar
“You…have a natural flair for justice, and that has led to your having a natural flair for crime”.
“It was feeling…It wasn’t really…logical deduction. It was based on a kind of emotional reaction or susceptibility to – well, I can only call it atmosphere”.
These two quotes between them encapsulate the most unlikely detective in the world: frail, white-haired, interested in knitting and gardening, and for all practical purposes a pleasant if scatty grandmother. And yet, this character who says “I think, my dear, we won’t talk any more about murder during tea. Such an unpleasant subject”, would be christened “Nemesis” in a book of the same title, which made its appearance 50 years ago.
Murder…is such an unpleasant subject.
Miss Jane Marple, resident of St Mary Mead, with a “natural flair for crime”, is an unlikely detective from the pen of Agatha Christie (1890-1976). Christie, commonly known as the “Queen of Crime”, created two sharply distinct detectives, Hercule Poirot – who is Belgian and not French, as he emphasises – with his fascination for symmetry and precision, and Jane Marple, the bumbling old lady who, through an interpretation of atmosphere and conversations, unravels the most complicated murders.
50 years of Nemesis (the last Marple mystery Christie wrote, although Sleeping Murder was the last published) does not pale either Marple or Poirot, as Christie continues to be the most successful crime writer of all time, with movies, TV series and multiple adaptations of her work.
The Plot Sickens
While locked room mysteries — explored well in Michael Cook’s Narratives of Enclosure in Detective Fiction — have thrilled readers since Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Christie herself tried the method in A Body in the Library and in a slightly different mode (a railway compartment instead of a room) in 4.50 from Paddington, it is Christie’s exploration of evil within human nature that haunts us.
Christie relies on a common sense understanding of states of mind, the roles humans enact and play out and, above all, the dynamics of desire and fear. For example, there is the “boy-mad”, as she is described, Nora Broad in Nemesis. Elsewhere Poirot ponders in The ABC Murders:
‘If we knew the exact reason — fantastic, perhaps, to us — but logical to him — of why our madman commits these crimes, we should know, perhaps who the next victim is likely to be’.
Samantha Walton in Guilty But Insane: Mind and Law in Golden Age Detective Fiction cites Alison Light’s account of Christie:
“[her] whodunits…compulsively reiterate the same question, one which has the character of both fascination and fear: is this person what they seem? asks character after character of one another. What lies behind the calm façade which is their outward appearance?”
This fact — that people are not what they seem — constitutes Christie’s evil, and generates the plots.
But there is also desperation — from poverty, unfulfilled desires and yearnings, social pressures — that drive characters, and Christie understands this (to swerve into biography: she had known both penury and unstable marriages, the latter resulting in a famous disappearance — when Christie went missing) very well.
Some of these desperate actions also proceed from an interest in and craze for the mystical and the metaphysical. Christie would dabble in the theme in Hallowe’en Party, Peril at End House and The Sittaford Mystery, and create Mr Harley Quin, a sort of supra-human figure questing for justice in The Mysterious Mr Quin (Susan Rowland in her study of women detective writers went so far as to propose that “the presence of Harley Quin defines it explicitly as a sacred drama of divine justice”).
The Unlikely Detective
Marple as the “nemesis” of the criminal does not fit the image of the Holmesian detective, searching for clues, walking the crime scene, interrogating suspects. Instead, with her astonishing ability to catch attitudes, motives and thoughts from everyday conversations she has, or from the reports by others, Marple reconstructs not just characters but entire sequences of events and the intentions, some from several years back in time, right from The Murder at the Vicarage, the first Marple mystery. In this novel, the Reverend Clement would give the descriptor that fixed Marple for all time:
“There is no detective in England equal to the spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”
Christie inverts the traditional machismo-detective/policeman model with Marple. The power of her intellect, her ability to discern undercurrents in relationships, her penchant for decoding atmospheres of evil and, above all, to uncover personalities embody an entirely different approach to crime-solving. It is her attention to the fissures and fractures, the evil beneath the apparent peace of a rural idyll that makes Marple a brilliant detective. (It must be noted that, unlike Marple, Poirot does do crime-scene investigation, and hires people — like Mr Goby — for his detection.)
Take, for instance, the last Marple novel, Sleeping Murder. Gwenda tells Marple that she has heard the lines from The Duchess of Malfi, “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young” before. When she heard them, recited by a faceless man, she was looking through the banisters at a dead body. Marple picks up on one element of Gwenda’s memory: Gwenda says she “looked through” the banisters and not “over” them. For Marple, this is evidence that Gwenda was a child then, too short to peer over the banisters. Gwenda was therefore reporting a crime scene from her childhood. It is this kind of attention to detail in the conversations that Marple specialises in.
In A Murder is Announced, Miss Murgatroyd recalling the faces in a room illuminated by a torch, exclaims — and is murdered for this — “She wasn’t there”. The “she” is not identified in the exclamation, but the inflection provides the clue: the one person who ought to have been there, wasn’t. This report with the gesture at the “missing” person in the room is what enables Marple to discover that the purported target of a murder attempt, Letty Blacklock, was in fact a murderer.
Marple’s powers of observation are undiminished with age. But her observations are tied to her awareness of how people behave, and have always behaved. Thus, she is able to see patterns of behaviour. Look at how she decodes modes of lying in A Body in the Library:
‘You haven’t had as much experience with girls telling lies as I have. Florence looked at you very straight, if you remember, and stood very rigid and just fidgeted with her feet like the others. But you didn’t watch as she went out of the door. I knew at once then that she’d got something to hide. They nearly always relax too soon’.
And concludes with: “In fact, it made the wrong pattern. It wasn’t, you see meant, which confused us a lot”.
Marple’s strength is her knowledge of human behaviour, and to be able to see patterns in it, so that any deviation becomes a cause for suspicion
Or take this astounding insight based on knowledge of both character and social conventions from They Do It With Mirrors:
‘I remember,’ said Miss Marple thoughtfully, ‘sitting behind Grace Lamble and feeling more and more worried about her. Quite sure that something was wrong — badly wrong … I wouldn’t call it a premonition. It was founded on fact — these things usually are, though one doesn’t always recognise it at the time. She was wearing her Sunday hat the wrong way round. Very significant, really, because Grace Lamble was a most precise woman.’
It is this intimate knowledge of all aspects of human behaviour that Marple stores away in her head in order to decipher complex personalities and motives.
Besides these feats of intellect that she assigns Marple, Christie also does something more. Marple is a spinster, and the witch-like, interfering, “failed-to-find-a-husband” stereotype has been rejected outright when Christie makes Marple not just another busy-body but one who embarks on resolving the most complicated causes for murder. In an early study, Earl Bargainnier noted that Marple uses the prejudice against frail old spinsters, and “It is her success in playing the expected spinster role which enables her to gather needed information”, which then enables her to solve the mystery.
The critic Merja Makinen in her Agatha Christie: Investigating Femininity argues: “Where Christie’s assumptions about class remained conservative and often reinforced retrograde, hidebound social divisions, her representation of femininity contested traditional expectations and found much in common with more left-wing writers such as Vera Brittain …”
Marple in many ways is the antithesis of the “old fogey”, and this reversal of the stereotype of the bitter spinster, as early as the 1930s, is a fabulous effort from Christie. As the critic Mary Evans puts it: “The people who challenge what people would like us to think are those, like Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, who resist social constructions of various kinds and who have themselves had to resist definitions of themselves as, respectively, a more than slightly ridiculous foreigner and a silly old woman. The very characters of Poirot and Miss Marple are thus forms of resistance against conventional stereotypes and conventional ‘readings’ of the social world.”
These views of Christie’s radical redefinition of both age and gender have been endorsed by others as well (Sally Munt’s Murder by the Book? Feminism and the Crime Novel and Marion Shaw and Sabine Vanacker’s Reflecting on Miss Marple).
Christie’s Marple, the nemesis of the criminal and the murderer, is an icon of brilliant characterisation and the plotting of detection. The non-professional detective — Marple — and the retired detective — Poirot — are emblematic of an age’s concern with social classes and criminality, with order and chaos and above all, with human personality types and their manifestations. But, order must be restored, the guilty punished – this is Christie’s unshakeable faith.
While Poirot may wish for “A very simple crime. A crime with no complications. A crime of quiet domestic life … very unimpassioned” (The ABC Murders), Christie understands that this is rarely the case, and hence some element of melodrama, of the human emotions, enters the plot, invariably. The demonisingof humans as outside the human pale – notoriously in the case of Murder on the Orient Express where the murdered man is cast as a horrible human — is common too. Christie cannot be accused of aestheticising murder, but when Poirot declares “I do not approve of murder”, she certainly lends a certain moral dimension to the question of life.
The denouement scenes — where Marple or Poirot explain the events leading to the murder and how they solved it — and the numerous Shakespearean quotations (including the famous one “who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him”, from Macbeth, which gave Christie the core of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas), and a superfine unpacking of human drama mark a Christie oeuvre.
As Nemesis enters its 50th year, Christie’s corpus — and corpses — is a monument. The popularity has never waned and the only comment one can make about the Queen of Crime’s amazing ability to dwell on the dark side of human nature, and create texts bristling with dramatic tension, may well be the words of the poet Auden in “In Memory of WB Yeats”: one “pardons” her “for writing well”.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)