The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

Murder at the VicarageIn which we are first introduced to Miss Jane Marple, busybody spinster of St Mary Mead, and close neighbour of the Reverend Leonard Clement, in whose study a murder takes place that brings scandal and unwelcome attention to the sleepy village. As you would expect, Miss Marple keeps her eyes and ears open and finally presents the police and the vicar with the only solution that satisfies every single loose end in the case. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

village-lifeThe book is dedicated “to Rosalind”, her daughter, who would have been eleven years old at the time. Reviews of the book were mixed, with the New York Times Book Review getting rather bored with the network of old ladies in the village: “the local sisterhood of spinsters is introduced with much gossip and click-clack. A bit of this goes a long way and the average reader is apt to grow weary of it all, particularly of the amiable Miss Marple, who is sleuth-in-chief of the affair”. They also described the denouement and solution as “a distinct anti-climax”. Personally, I think that’s a bit harsh. Admittedly, Christie does take plenty of opportunities to get as close to the workings of Miss Marple’s brain as we need to; and the final solution is both a huge surprise and not a huge surprise, depending on your point of view. But the way in which Christie plays with the reader’s expectations is very enjoyable to revisit, and the resolution makes perfect sense in retrospect.

vicar2Jane Marple is not the only person to be introduced in this book, as the Vicar, Leonard Clement, and his wife Griselda, will re-appear in two later Christie books, The Body in the Library and 4:50 from Paddington. The rather wretched Inspector Slack will also reappear in the first of these books. Although this was Miss Marple’s first appearance in book form, Christie had already written some short stories featuring her that had appeared a few years previously in the Royal and Story-Teller Magazines. These would appear in 1932 in the book The Thirteen Problems – which I will be re-reading and writing about in the near future!

gossipSo what are our first impressions of Miss Jane Marple? The first adjective in the book to describe her (by Griselda counting off her tea party guests) is “terrible”. She goes on to say: “she’s the worst cat in the village […] and she always knows every single thing that happens – and draws the worst inferences from it.” Miss Marple herself would largely agree with this; in her first conversation with the vicar she tells him: “you are so unworldly. I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?” She’s also not above gently teasing the Chief Constable: “I’m afraid there’s a lot of wickedness in the world. A nice honourable upright soldier like you doesn’t know about these things, Colonel Melchett.”

torpedoBut it’s later on in the book, when Miss Marple is very close to having solved the crime, that she really identifies her own personality and raison d’être. “Living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby […] my hobby is – and always has been – Human Nature. So varied, and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study. One begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers, group so-and-so, genus this, species that. Sometimes, of course, one makes mistakes, but less and less as time goes on. And then, too, one tests oneself […] It is so fascinating, you know, to apply one’s judgement and find that one is right […] That, I am afraid, is what has made me a little conceited […] but I have always wondered whether, if some day a really big mystery came along, I should be able to do the same thing. I mean – just solve it correctly. Logically, it ought to be exactly the same thing. After all, a tiny working model of a torpedo is just the same as a real torpedo […] the only way is to compare people with other people you have known or come across. You’d be surprised if you knew how very few distinct types there are in all.”

clock-handsBreaking tradition with her two previous novels, The Mystery of the Blue Train and The Seven Dials Mystery, Christie returns to the structure of having a narrator. And personally, I think she really feels at home with this method. Here the narrator is the Reverend Clement, a rather witty and urbane man, with the occasional delectable turn of phrase. Right from the start, his narrative style has an eye for self-deprecation and an ear for the ludicrous. Phrases such as “My wife’s name is Griselda – a highly suitable name for a parson’s wife. But there the suitability ends. She is not in the least meek” instantly give you an insight into how he does not take himself too seriously; he knows what is required from his position and he tries to achieve it, but also knows full well that he frequently fails and will look ridiculous as a result. A fine example of his failing positively is his inability to explain to Inspector Slack about the significance of the clock time. He does his best to get the appalling man’s attention, but when he is constantly thwarted in this attempt, he starts to enjoy withholding information. “Griselda said I ought to make another effort to tell Inspector Slack about it, but on that point I was feeling what I can only describe as “mulish”.”

glass-of-portThere are many great one-liners in this book that I would normally reserve for the “Funny lines out of context” section below, but in this book they serve the double purpose of colouring the personality of the good reverend. Here are some of his highlights:

“Unblushingly, I suggested a glass of old port. I have some very fine old vintage port. Eleven o’clock in the morning is not the usual time for drinking port, but I did not think that mattered with Inspector Slack. It was, of course, cruel abuse of the vintage port, but one must not be squeamish about such things.”

“”It must be a very interesting hobby,” I said. “You know something of it, perhaps?” I was obliged to confess that I knew next to nothing. Dr Stone was not the kind of man whom a confession of ignorance daunts. The result was exactly the same as though I had said that the excavation of barrows was my only relaxation.”

“On the sofa beside Griselda, conversing animatedly, sat Miss Gladys Cram. Her legs, which were encased in particularly shiny pink stockings, were crossed, and I had every opportunity of observing that she wore pink striped silk knickers.”

blancmangeHis wife Griselda is equally liable to be a loose cannon, as she never holds back on her opinions, and consistently proves her husband’s belief that she is most unsuitable for her role in the village. “…It’s Mary’s blancmange that is so frightfully depressing. It’s like something out of a mortuary.” “”What they need,” said Griselda, [of the village’s busybodying spinsters] “is a little immorality in their lives. Then they wouldn’t be so busy looking for it in other people’s.”” Colonel Melchett, too, holds little time for what Christie would describe as these old pussies: “there’s a lot of talk. Too many women in this part of the world.” It’s interesting that many of the ancillary characters in this book are depicted in quite a negative fashion. Inspector Slack, as previously mentioned, is a boor and a bully. The Clements’ cook, Mary, has no style or grace in her food preparation or presentation, and comes across like one of Noel Coward’s doltish and stupid maids. Miss Marple’s talented nephew Raymond West is presented like some bighead with firmly held self-centred views that no one likes. I am sure that characterisation of him changes over the years – I’ll watch out for it.

bibleAs usual, there are a few unusual references and words in a Christie book that made me run for the dictionary and online research tools. Here are a few words and abbreviations that got me foxed. “He wants to go over all the Church accounts – in case of defalcations – that was the word he used. Defalcations! Does he suspect me of embezzling the Church funds?” Well yes it sounds like it. Originally meaning simply to take something away from something, by the mid-19th century it specifically meant misappropriation of money. But this must have been one of its last examples of popular usage. In the same exchange, Griselda retorts: “I wish you’d embezzle the SPG funds. I hate missionaries – I always have.” The SPG (now the USPG) was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, first incorporated under Royal Charter in 1701. As the title suggests, missionary work was/is its key raison d’être. Still in the same conversation, the good reverend announces “I must finish preparing my talk for the C. E. M. S. today.” This was the Church of England’s Men’s Society; founded in 1899, the society closed in 1985.

embezzlementPart of the village gossip involves the mysterious Mrs Lestrange. “I should imagine Mrs Lestrange to be a déclassée” affirms Clement. Late 19th century – someone who is reduced or degraded in social class or status. It means the same in French too. Who knew? In a letter revealed towards the end of the book, the writer wishes to discuss with Mr Clement “the recent peculations”. Peculations? Does he mean speculations and has misspelled it? No. It’s a mid-17th century term for embezzlement of public money.

stain-on-stairsI’m a little confused over the reference early on in the book to Canon Shirley’s Reality. Canon Shirley appears to have been Fred Shirley, Headmaster of Worksop College at the time and then later of King’s School Canterbury from 1935 to 1962. But I’ve no idea what his Reality is… Do you know? Griselda teases her husband about getting inspiration for a sermon from a Detective Novel – The Stain on the Stairs. It didn’t exist – it was an invention of Christie’s; but it is curious to note that it is also one of the books that were written by the fictional novelist and detective Jessica Fletcher in the TV series Murder She Wrote! There’s a reference to someone taking the cheap Thursday train; that had already been mentioned previously in The Mystery of the Blue Train. They did off-peak differently in those days.

goldcrestMiss Marple notices Dr Stone and Miss Cram walking down the lane because at the time she was observing a golden crested wren. If you were wondering what that is, today we call them Goldcrests. Similarly, the Firecrest was also known as the fire crested wren in those days. And I noticed that when Clement was telling Redding that as a local celebrity, everyone would know what kind of tooth powder he used. Wikipedia tells me that toothpaste was commonly available in the UK from 1909 – so maybe Clement is being a bit behind-the-times.

tazzaThere are just a couple of financial references that it might be helpful to look at from today’s viewpoint; the £1 note that Mrs Price Ridley placed in the offertory bag is now worth a good £45, so she was being very generous. And the tazza that Mr Clement said sold for over £1000 – well you can work it out for yourself – today is worth over £45k.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Murder at the Vicarage:

Publication Details: 1930. I used to have a Fontana paperback with a rather elegant old telephone on the cover illustration but it was one of the books stolen from me when I was a teenager. So my current copy is the much less glamorous Harper paperback, 9th printing, published in 2002, priced £6.99. It’s an unimaginative drawing of a graveyard and I also don’t like the paper quality or font size either – I must be getting hard to please in my old age.

How many pages until the first death: 59. But given the large size of the font and the spacing, I expect in other editions it appears to happen earlier than that! For comparison – the final page is Page 380.

Funny lines out of context: I’ve already named a few where I was considering what jovial types the Clements are, but here’s a couple more:

“…we must, of course, have a meat meal tonight. Gentlemen require such a lot of meat, do they not?”

“The – what one used to call the factors at school – are the same. There’s money, and the mutual attraction people of an – er – opposite sex – and there’s queerness of course – so many people are a little queer, aren’t they?”

Memorable characters:
Ignoring Miss Marple – she’s a given – I really like the character of Len Clement; for a vicar he’s totally unstuffy, humorous and very very human. Griselda too, as a loose cannon, is plenty of fun. And I have a rather soft spot for Miss Cram; she’s not as proper as she ought to be, and I rather like that in a girl.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not too much poison in this book. It’s not the method of murder; but there is some side allusion to arsenic – Inspector Slack thinks that would be Mrs Protheroe’s preferred mode de meurtre; and there’s also some picric acid at play – which I’d never heard of, unsurprisingly perhaps, because it’s rather out of fashion.

Class/social issues of the time:
Sexism, xenophobia, class… where should I begin?! Let’s start with sexism.

That first tea party hosted by Griselda, with Misses Marple, Wetherby and the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley present. Goodness me! They’re talking about women being employed (scandalous!) in jobs (mercy!) working with men (pure filth!) “”No nice girl would do it” […] “Do what?” I inquired. “Be a secretary to an unmarried man,” said Miss Wetherby in a horrified tone. “Oh! My dear,” said Miss Marple. “I think married ones are the worst […]” “Married men living apart from their wives are, of course, notorious,” said Miss Wetherby […] “But surely,” I said, “in these days a girl can take a post in just the same way as a man does.” “To come away to the country? And stay at the same hotel?” said Mrs Price Ridley in a severe voice. Miss Wetherby murmured to Miss Marple in a low voice: “And all the bedrooms on the same floor…”” There’s also a shock in the village that Lawrence Redding’s portrait of Anne Protheroe depicts her in her bathing dress – a delightful level of prudery there.

That was an example of women disapproving of women working. Inspector Slack also has his own views on women, and they don’t leave much space for doubt: “She’s a woman, and women act in that silly way. I’m not saying she did it for a moment. She heard he was accused and she trumped up a story. I’m used to that sort of game. You wouldn’t believe the fool things I’ve known women do. But Redding’s different. He’s got his head screwed on all right.”

There are plenty of opportunities for Christie to deal with her favourite class issues too. Griselda (who else?) is happy to talk about Miss Cram behind her back. “Not such a bad sort, really, […] terribly common, of course…” Archer, too, is the recipient of a lot of class-based dismissiveness. This from Inspector Slack: “It appears he was with a couple of pals all the afternoon. Not, as I say, that that counts much. Men like Archer and his pals would swear to anything. There’s no believing a word they say. We know that. But the public doesn’t, and the jury’s taken from the public, more’s the pity.” Not only does that betray the way Slack looks down at Archer, it also shows his similar condescension towards the general public. Miss Hartnell, too, reveals her deep-seated class distrust. “”The lower classes don’t know who are their best friends,” said Miss Hartnell. “I always say a word in season when I’m visiting. Not that I’m ever thanked for it.”” Miss Marple is not above making assumptions about “men like Archer” when she describes him as “primed with drink”.

There’s actually not quite as much xenophobia in this book as in others, but this exchange between Colonel Melchett and Lawrence Redding stood out when I read it: “”We want to ask you a few questions – here, on the spot,” he said. Lawrence sneered slightly. “Isn’t that a French idea? Reconstruction of the crime?” “My dear boy,” said Colonel Melchett, “don’t take that tone with us.”

But there are some other more fascinating insights into English life in 1930. For example, funerals obviously took place much more quickly than they do today. I would guess the average time for a funeral to take place nowadays is about two weeks after the death. I can imagine the 1930s set being aghast at this delay. “I want a short interview with Mrs Protheroe.” “What about?” “The funeral arrangments.” “Oh!” Inspector Slack was slightly taken aback. “The inquest’s tomorrow, Saturday.” “Just so. The funeral will probably be arranged for Tuesday.” And cigarettes were expected to be set out on a table so that guests could help themselves, like they were cheezy wotsits or some other tasty nibbles. Planning for her nephew Raymond’s visit, Miss Marple reflects: “He brings his own pipe and tobacco, I am glad to say. Glad because it saves me from knowing which kind of cigarettes are right to buy.” Today this would seem completely bizarre! It’s also an age of some innocence – no one locks their houses; it just wasn’t deemed necessary. And Dr Haydock is obviously something of a forward-thinker: “We think with horror now of the days when we burned witches. I believe the day will come when we will shudder to think that we ever hanged criminals.”

Classic denouement: Not quite. Miss Marple drops her bombshell as to who the guilty party is and there’s still three more full chapters for everyone to get over the shock and surprise; plus they also lay a trap to catch the blighter. But there’s no grand pointing finger moment where a detective cries out “j’accuse!”

Happy ending? Yes – although this time it’s not Christie’s usual sub-Shakespearean reality of the two young lovers getting married. This time they’re already married but another “happy event” is foreseen.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely. Everything in this story is well within the bounds of one’s own imagination; there are no silly secret organisations, doppelgangers or ridiculous coincidences. Just plain human motivation with a twist of ingenuity.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It’s a very enjoyable read. If I could I’d probably give it a 7.5 because the ending could be just a little more riveting. But I was feeling generous.

Floating AdmiralThanks for reading my blog of The Murder in the Vicarage and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is something very different. Christie’s next book was her first writing as Mary Westmacott – the romance “Giant’s Bread” – but I’m not particularly interested in her romance writings, I’m much more up for the detectives! However, in 1931 she contributed to The Floating Admiral, a book where twelve of the greatest crime novelists of the age each wrote one chapter. This sounds intriguing, so I’m going to give it a try! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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