THE BOOK Fontana, 1964 pp 191
This is an early Tom Adams cover from the 1960s with a somewhat literal take on elements of the story, but also book-titles that hint at the involvement of a dig, an artist and the Church of England. Hidden away in the bottom left hand corner under Baedeker’s Northern Italy, is a black book that hints at a Crime Club edition of an Agatha Christie story. A typical Adams detail.1
Adams felt he improved on this cover artwork with a later 1970s edition featuring the Matisse-like tennis-racket-headed vicar, but by then Fontana had changed to a more garish logo and font, and a shoddier production line; I prefer my original.
The book was published in 1930 and was the first novel to feature the character of Miss Jane Marple.
Colonel Protheroe, an obnoxious churchwarden of the parish of St Mary Mead, is shot dead in the vicarage study. There are a number of local people with different reasons to wish Protheroe harm, a fact acknowledged by the Rev, Clement himself on page one. Clement is the narrator of the ongoing investigation, during which he comes to appreciate the qualities of his next-door neighbour.
Agatha Christie created a wonderful cast of village characters for this story (many of whom re-appear or are mentioned again in the later Marple books right through to the 1960s).
Principal among these is of course Jane Marple herself, but there are also her fellow gossip-cum-busybodies: Miss Hartnell, Miss Wetherby and Mrs Price Ridley.
Then there is also the vicarage servant Mary, apparently totally incompetent at every task, and Griselda, the vicar’s wife, who dismisses Miss Marple as ‘the worst cat in the village’ and stoutly defends Mary against any attempts by the vicar to sack her. The vicar himself is a wry and amusiing narrator, and Dr Haydock a reassuring presence with surprising opinions for the time.
Also featuring for the first time are Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack, an officer who ‘belies his name’.
The characters of the suspects, on the other hand, are more like cardboard cutouts and it is difficult to care for them.
Here is an example of the vicar’s ability to bring a character to life in less than ten words:
Miss Wetherby, who is weather-beaten and jolly and much dreaded by the poor …
Dr Haydock has some unusual ideas for the time and the place :
We think with horror now of the days when we burnt witches. I believe the day will come when we will shudder to think that we ever hanged criminals.
This comment is at odds with the sentiment expressed in other novels that the real ‘horror’ is the alternative: locking people up for life.2 These are two of the reasons that Hercule Poirot connives in allowing culprits to take an ‘easier way out’.
SWIGATHA RATING 6/10
For the most part this is a very enjoyable read but there are a few too many sub-plots, seemingly intended to pad the book out. I think it would read better as a short story, or novella. Anyone who has read swigathas before would guess whodunit like a shot. It is a rule-of-swig that any character who confesses to a murder early on, likewise any character who has had a narrow escape early on, is very suspicious.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
There were no more Marple novels for the next ten years. In 1932, however, she appeared in The Thirteen Problems, a brilliantly-devised collection of short stories narrated by guests around a fire-side, although these had already been published individually in magazines in the late 1920s.
It is a popular notion that the village-life of St Mary Mead is awash in murder, but in all the novels featuring Miss Marple over the next 40 years only one other featured murder that had actually taken place in the village (The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side). Many others do, however, take place quite close by, allowing Swigatha to re-introduce some of her favourite characters.3
The BBC produced a TV film of the book in 1986, as part of their Miss Marple series with Joan Hickson. It sticks closely to the main threads whilst (understandably) ditching one or two of the sub-plots.
Robert Lang is superb as the loathsome Protheroe, Paul Eddington makes hay as the troubled vicar, and Cheryl Campbell is charming as Griselda.
Another was produced by ITV in 2004, with Geraldine McEwan. Huge liberties are taken with the plot and characters: avoid.
1 Agatha Christie Cover Story by Tom Adams
2 For a good example, read The ABC Murders
3 Many took place relatively close by, allowing the author to re-introduce some of her favourite characters:
- The Body in the Library (Danemouth)
- The Moving Finger (Lymstock)
- A Murder is Announced (Chipping Cleghorn)
- They Do It With Mirrors (in a young offenders’ rehabilitation unit)
- A Pocketful of Rye (Baydon Heath)
- 4:50 from Paddington (on a train)
- A Caribbean Mystery (the island of St Honoré)
- At Bertram’s Hotel (in London)
- Nemesis (on a tour of a country house)
- Sleeping Murder (Dilmouth)
The Thirteen Problems were aired at Miss Marple’s and the Bantrys’ homes in St Mary Mead, but almost all of them took place elsewhere.