The Thirteen Problems

THE BOOK  Fontana, 1965 pp 192

Tom Adams’ cover has images inspired by Ingots of Gold and The Blue Geranium, two of the stories in the collection.  The dedication is to Leonard and Katherine Woolley, whom Agatha Christie had met on her first trip to the Middle East in the 1920s.

These stories are the first to feature Miss Jane Marple. They were originally  published in Royal magazine in 1927, the year after the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The character of Miss Marple was based in part on that of Caroline Sheppard (who had featured in Ackroyd), and in part on Agatha Christie’s Grannie, who ‘always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right’. 1

THE STORIES

Six people are spending a cosy Tuesday evening around the fire at Miss Jane Marple’s home in St Mary Mead. They form The Tuesday Night Club, and agree that, each week, one of them will relate a mystery, unsolved at the time, and the others will suggest solutions to it.

The party contains Sir Henry Clithering, an ex-Commissioner of Scotland Yard, Raymond West, modernist author and Miss Marple’s nephew, his actress girlfriend, a solicitor and a cleric, but it is their seemingly unworldly hostess Miss Marple who homes in on the answer each time. All the characters get so riveted that each of their stories have been told before the first Tuesday night is over. 

The following year, Sir Henry is staying with Colonel and Mrs Bantry and persuades them to host a similar evening, insisting (somewhat to Mrs Bantry’s dismay) on Miss Marple’s attendance. The old lady repeats the trick. Later, again, Sir Heny, who seemingly cannot get enough of St Mary Mead, is staying with the Bantrys when a death occurs in the village….

CHARACTERS  

In a short story format such as this, there is no real opportunity to develop rounded characters, but by the end of these stories Agatha Christie had created in Jane Marple one of the great fictional characters of the 20th century. Apart from her nose for falsehood and her ability to prick the bubble of self-esteem of those who underestimate her, her guiding principle – that human nature is very much the same everywhere – is one of great wisdom. Maybe she has read Alexander Pope:

Search then the ruling passion; there alone,
The wild are constant, and the cunning known;
The fool consistent, and the false sincere;
Priests, princes, women, no dissemblers here.
1

The other characters who arouse a smidgeon of interest, only to promptly disappear off the page, are the ‘village parallels’ that Miss Marple uses to compare the goings-on in these stories. It would have been wonderful to have heard more about them: Mr Badger, the Milkman and Annie, Mr Hargreaves, Tommy Symonds, old Mrs Trout and Mrs Green …

ATTITUDES AND QUOTES   

Although Miss Marple does make reference to ‘our own class of life’, when it comes down to character and morality she considers everyone equal, to the bemusement of her companions. Here she has guessed that her nephew has just proposed to his artist friend Joyce:

“It happened just before dinner, didn’t it? When you took Joyce out to admire the sunset. It is a very favourite place, that. There by the jasmine hedge. That is where the milkman asked Annie if he could put up the banns.”
“Dash it all, Aunt Jane,” said Raymond, “don’t spoil all the romance. Joyce and I aren’t like the milkman and Annie.”
“That is where you make a mistake, my dear,” said Miss Marple. “Everybody is much alike, really. But fortunately, perhaps, they don’t realise it.”

As is the way with unsolved mysteries, many of these stories refer to characters who still linger under suspicion. The plight of the innocent is a theme of many of Agatha Christie’s books, and something she felt strongly about. As Sir Henry says:

“But, you know, it isn’t really guilt that is important – it’s innocence. That’s the thing that nobody will realise.”
“I don’t understand,” said Jane Helier.
“I do,” said Miss Marple. “When Mrs Trent found half a crown missing from her bag, the person it affected most was the daily woman, Mrs Arthur. Of course the Trents thought it was her …”

What started as a parlour-game around a cosy fire becomes something a bit more significant: if the mystery can be solved, then the innocent can be cleared of suspicion.

SWIGATHA RATING  7/10 

Although some of the stories stretch a reader’s credulity (A Christmas Tragedy being a prime example, with dead bodies being swapped around under the disguise of a flimsy hat), this is a significant Christie.

Most of her earlier stories from the 1920s had been set in country houses, London, Deauville, Nice, South Africa and elsewhere; at least two featured plots about world domination. With The Thirteen Problems, she created the village setting of St Mary Mead that allowed her to introduce a totally different atmosphere, and it is the one that she is most remembered for today.

Quite apart from the establishment of Miss Marple, these stories contained the germs of plots used in her later works. Here is one example: in the opening story, The Tuesday Night Club, a gullible maid is encouraged to tamper with a meal and a death results; a quarter of a century later, in A Pocketful of Rye, another gullible maid is encouraged to tamper with a meal, and the same happens. There are more.3

The cosiness of the fireside setting in this book works brilliantly – who wouldn’t themselves want to themselves curl up in front of an open fire with it? What is particularly impressive is that she repeats the same trick twelve times, but her readers, far from tiring of it, cannot wait to experience the next one.  

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT

The next outing for Miss Marple was The Murder at the Vicarage, published in 1930 (two years before these stories were collected and published). That story introduced the character of the village itself and its inhabitants. It was the only full-length ‘Marple’ published during the 1930s, but as the author got older she would appear more frequently.

Raymond West was to feature, often in name only, in many future stories (‘dear Raymond’). The Bantrys are not seen again until The Body in the Library (1942), but they certainly make up for lost time with a spectacular re-entrance. Their friend Sir Henry Clithering also meddles in that case.

The collection was re-issued in 2021 with a change of title – The Tuesday Night Club, after the first story in the collection. The change was no doubt occasioned by the huge popularity of Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, which had been published the year before. Osman’s title is itself a nod to Christie’s original.

ADAPTATIONS 

Unsurprisingly, because they are far better suited to the radio, only one of these stories has so far been adapted for the screen: The Blue Geranium was part of ITV’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series in 2010. Julia McKenzie played Miss Marple as an active participant in the story, rather than an old maid sat by the fire listening to it. The ‘usual strictures’ about this series apply.

There is also an audio book that features Joan Hickson reading these stories. It is so refreshing (and unusual) to come across a representation of an Agatha Christie book that changes not one word of the text; every home should have one.

 NOTES

1 Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
2 The Ruling Passion, from Poems of Sentiment
3 See the analysis in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, by Dr John Curran