The Murder At The Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Murder At The VicarageSt Mary Mead, a small village in the South East of England, where Leonard Clement has a comfortable life as the local vicar. With a young wife, Griselda, he is content with his life looking after his parishoners. Until the day when he thoughtlessly makes a comment that “Anyone who murdered Colonel Prothero would be doing the world at large a service”. It’s not a problem because it really isn’t the sort of thing that a vicar should be saying – it’s because that somebody promptly shoots the Colonel inside the vicar’s own study.

Leonard is a little concerned about the abilities of Inspector Slack and Colonel Melchett (not that one) to solve the murder, so starts to vaguely look into matters on his own. But he’s not the only one who’s curiosity is peaked – so is that of his neighbour, a certain Miss Jane Marple…

This is Miss Marple’s first novel length appearance, from 1930, although she had already shown up in some short stories that would be later collected into The Thirteen Problems, in 1932. Certainly here, the police aren’t aware of her crime solving prowess, as Sir Henry Clithering doesn’t show up. It’s implied this is the first murder than Jane Marple has investigated in St Mary Mead, but as we know, it won’t be the last…

I’ve almost ticked off all of the Miss Marple novels on my blog over the last five years, so I thought I’d hit the last two while I run the Best Miss Marple Novel poll – don’t forget to vote! And I thought I’d tackle The Murder At The Vicarage first as the other unread book – At Bertram’s Hotel – is weaker by some distance, and may well go out in the first round, but I might need to express an opinion on Vicarage…

And that opinion is… um, not great, I’m afraid. It’s an oddly disjointed book, and fails to convincingly portray a number of the non-guilty characters as viable suspects. The primary sub-plot feels tacked on and the basic idea of the crime is remarkably similar to another novel by Christie (who hadn’t written that many by this point) which, given the importance of that one, is a remarkable coincidence. I think that’s suitably vague enough not to be a spoiler – if you’ve read both books, you might realise what I’m trying to cryptically hint at.

I suppose the over-riding factor in my so-so opinion on this one is this. I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie books, but by no means all. There are even a couple of the allegedly crappier Poirot novels that I haven’t tried. But I generally know which ones I’ve read and which ones I haven’t. And I have no idea, even after reading it, whether I’ve read this one before. The killer is obvious, but I may have seen the Joan Hickson version.

All in all, Miss Marple comes out of the book well, although she is made out to be a complete Peeping Thomasina early on – seriously, those binoculars are for bird-watching? Yeah, right. And the narration from the vicar is good, making him out to be human rather than a stereotypical vicar. I think I did see the Joan Hickson version, as I kept hearing Paul Eddington’s voice as I read it, and <checks> he played the vicar. Interesting as well, the jarring subplot was apparently excised completely – goodness knows how they hid the killer with even less distraction…

Oh, and what the heck is that cover about? Yes, a tennis racquet is vaguely relevant, but even so…

So, all in all, not the most auspicious debut in my opinion. But what do you think? Either leave a comment below, or, if you’re reading this in early April 2016, do vote for it (or against it) in the Best Miss Marple Novel poll. Round One is nearly over, but this will probably make it through to the knock-out phase…

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12 comments

  1. Poor Miss Marple. She’s easily Christie’s best recurring character, but she’s lumbered with the worst plots. I like this one a lot more than you seemed to, but I agree it’s overstuffed without actually managing to make the problem any harder to solve.

    Still, I think the core here is solid. I seem to be alone in singing the praises the Geraldine McEwan adaptations, but for me that’s easily the best version of this story, and one of the best Marple adaptations ever.

    A lot of the subplots are dropped, and Anne Protheroe and Miss Marple are now extremely close friends, which is a clever and convincing addition. I think purists balked at giving Miss Marple “a past”, but I think that’s another very clever touch – it draws out a lot of themes that Christie only half-heartedly managed to include, and does a brilliant job of showing the core of Miss Marple’s sense of justice, something which Christie tries repeatedly in the books, but in a way I feel modern readers are much less likely to be sympathetic with.

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  2. Yes I think I also liked this book a bit more than you. But I agree that Miss Marple is depicted well in this book, with the comic disparity between her outward appearance and detecting abilities being heightened through the vicar’s narrative voice. Glad this book might get into the next round.

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  3. As long as we’re in the vicarage, this novel does all right, as I am fond of the Clement family, with their awful maid/cook and the neurotic Hawes. I also agree with Kate that Miss Marple shines here, and it’s interesting to see the attention paid on her lady friends who all faded in importance as the series went on. I think this shows that Christie was still feeling her way around who Miss Marple would be. The very next one is infinitely better.

    It is unfortunate that the murder plot itself meanders on for such a long time, with no really viable red herrings to distract us from the obvious truth. Christie actually does this sort of trick a number of times, and the results vary in quality, depending on the details. This, I agree, is one of the worst.

    But if you didn’t like this one, I shudder at what you will make of the whole mess at Bertram’s Hotel!

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    • There’s a reason that I’d left Bertram’s for so long – read it once, an age ago, but can’t remember a thing about it – apart from v little Miss Marple and not liking it one bit…

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  4. I liked this one a lot on rereading it, but it might have been because it was the first time I had read a Miss Marple book in a long time. Also I liked the vicar a lot, and I did not mind the plot meandering. I have been surprised that some of the later Miss Marple books have very little Miss Marple

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  5. I don;t think i’m going to agree with Rich about that particular TV version, though on the other hand I though the MARPLE-isation of BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS worked an absolute treat! Of the early Marples I would probably say I preferred .. but no, not allowed to say which until the polls are in, though i think it’s the next one to be published – but having said that, there are really only about a couple of the MARPLE books that i think are really memorable.

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  6. I’m with the others who seem to have enjoyed this one more than you did, PD, although I think it’s fairly stilted and all too obviously an early work. I reviewed it a few years ago, saying that it feels kind of dated, mainly because so many of the 1930 social attitudes seem so very artificial to us today, as, for example, the fact that one simply could not discuss pregnancy without blushing. But I did find it fun to read, overall, and I did like the vicar!

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  7. I voted in favour of ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ twice during your polls – which may suggest that I’ve not re-read it for some time, and as such have been voting on the basis of vibes. Then again, this may all be relative given that I found ‘Bertram’s Hotel’ somewhat uninspired, apart from the delectable scones and runny yolks.

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