The Murder at the Vicarage Hardcover – 2005
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Opening with the vicar recounting his frustrations at the “pompous old brute” - in the words of his sixteen-year-old nephew Dennis, and Protheroe’s insistence that there be an investigation into a suspected defalcation from church funds he makes a remark most unbecoming for a man of the cloth. The vicar mentions that he is expecting the “trying” Protheroe the very next evening to go through the accounts. An off the cuff riposte about the man's demise sets the tone for the sentiments of many within the village of St Mary Mead. Distractingly pretty, not in the least bit meek and incapable of taking anything seriously, the vicar’s twenty years younger wife, Griselda, then does her duty and hosts afternoon tea for the elderly spinsters of the village. Scurrilous gossip, supposition and a few choice remarks from Miss Jane Marple manages to convey the notable events and arguments that are consuming the villagers occupations. This airing of dirty linen serves as a brief introduction to the local citizens and the multitude of potential motives. And with everyone in St Mary Mead seemingly having their own differences with the Colonel and ulterior motives for implicating another party, the red herrings are plentiful as Christie shines the light of suspicion on each and everyone, making the majority of the villagers ‘fair game’ suspects.
Narrated by the mild-mannered vicar, Len Clement, the amateur investigations which go on amongst the villagers are full of dry wit and loaded with suggestive incidents, and his unassuming manner allows Agatha Christie to make mischief and entertain her readers with some scathing remarks, all made in the disguise of being the very converse. As the village goes into amateur sleuthing mode, with no definitive record of whether shots were heard, a surly housekeeper who is loathe to be drawn into the matter and a deliberately fast clock, confusion reigns supreme. Specifying the exact dynamics of how each individual has come a cropper at the hands of Colonel Protheroe would do a disservice to what is an absolute pleasure to observe first-hand and it is Miss Marple who soon after the discovery says she can think of at least seven potential viable candidates. Unwilling to share her unproven suspicions, the all seeing and unobtrusive Miss Marple’s deductive powers prove a match for anyone, and all under the guise of her many smoke screens as a demure spinster. Early candidates range from the seemingly intentionally dreamy, Lettice Protheroe, daughter of the Colonel, through to second wife Anne and the young portrait artist charming the ladies of the village, Lawrence Redding. With Colonel Protheroe having a reputation for being firm on the bench in his capacity as local magistrate and taking a rather overbearing interest in the work of the archaeologist engaged on his land, it proves extraordinary difficult to discount the many suspects.
A singularly deficient in humour but very zealous Inspector Slack is determined to get to the bottom of things and all under the watchful eye of the Chief Constable of the County, Colonel Melchett. Whether it is gardening, birdwatching or simply passing the time of day, Miss Marple misses nothing and her unflappable manner and habit of letting the conversation unfold naturally frequently proving revealing. As the vicar muses to himself, “for all her fragile appearance, Miss Marple is capable of holding her own with any policeman or Chief Constable in existence”. Indeed, as the vicar informs Inspector Slack:
“My dear young man, you underestimate the detective instinct of village life. In St Mary Mead everyone knows your intimate affairs. There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”
Miss Marple herself has a rather simpler theory on her eagle-eyed skills:
“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?”
As careless comments and deliberate attempts at implicating others unravel, just as I thought I was getting the measure of events and forming my own theories, Agatha Christie blindsided me with some cracking diversional tactics. Even more satisfying was that Christie took the time to address all of the puzzles which made for headaches along the way and hence tied up all loose ends and the solution is undoubtedly highly plausible. Not only does Miss Marple beat the Inspector to the solution, this first mystery sees her devising a little trap to ascertain proof of guilt and force the murderer into the open. Bravo! Outrageously good entertainment and my journey into the work of Christie is only just beginning..
Review written by Rachel Hall (@hallrachel)
It seems I’m not alone, Griselda Clement, wife of the vicar who narrates the story, says about her when she hears their neighbour is coming for tea
‘She is the worst cat in the village,’
Jane Marple is one of three cats in the village, but she is the nosiest by far; nothing happens it would seem without Miss Marple taking note and making judgement.
The village referred to is St. Mary Mead, a quintessential English village where afternoon tea is taken and maids are still de rigour. Of course the Vicar and his wife are right at the heart of things and although there has been some upset over missing donations in church and the like most of the villagers are unanimous in their dislike of Colonel Lucius Protheroe who holds the post of churchwarden and is one of the magistrates. The Colonel lives in Old Hall with his younger wife Anne Protheroe. Even the Vicar can’t disguise his intolerance of the man in front of his wife and nephew Dennis
I had just finished carving some boiled beef (remarkably tough by the way) and on resuming my seat I remarked, in a spirit most unbecoming to my cloth, that anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.
But of course duty is duty and afternoon tea is had
“What are you doing this afternoon, Griselda?” “My duty,” said Griselda. “My duty as the Vicaress. Tea and scandal at four thirty.”
The conversation touches on the merest hint of wrongdoing of those in the village, in cryptic and not so cryptic remarks including those of Colonel Portheroe
“I daresay idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it.”
The guests depart, Miss Marple goes back to tending her garden in the house next door to the vicarage. And then… Colonel Protheroe ends up being shot in the back in the Vicar’s own study. Fortunately our narrator is in the clear, having gone on a wild goose chase to see a sick parishioner shortly before the deed was done – even taking into account some mix up over the time of death owing to a note and a clock which was kept 15 minutes fast to aid punctuality. The accuracy of time of death puts our contemporary fictional doctors to shame, where no police doctor worth his salt would allow himself such a narrow time frame, even with much sucking in of breath and humming and harring! Inspector Slack is the local police officer and it seems like an open and shut case when one of the villagers owns up to the murder within a few pages. Of course that wouldn’t be a mystery story, so it is no surprise that he is quickly released. What is more surprising is that the Vicar gets drawn into the investigation, and our Miss Marple who is on the fringes, aids mainly by disproving the latest theory rather than coming up with a credible one of her own, until much later, of course.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot itself, apart from to agree that once again, Agatha Christie was fair, we were all given the clues and so if, your powers of deduction are more like Inspector Slack’s than Miss Marple’s, then the solution will have outwitted you.
What I do want to talk about is the other characters who are all presented as fairly formulaic types: there is the silly young wife, the maid who is kept despite being rubbish so that no-one else will poach her, the serious vicar, the pompous policeman as well as the elderly spinster who has no life of her own so she spies on others. Christie’s critics often hone in on her lack of character progression but in this tale much of what is originally presented is actually subverted through the course of the book. Yes we don’t get a lot of back-story to any of these characters but by the end we have some understanding of who they are, especially Jane Marple. Yes, here is where I concur, she isn’t just some nosy old spinster with no life of her own, but a woman who has studied other people’s behaviour over many years giving her a huge advantage over the other villagers in trying to solve the seemingly impossible whodunit.
But best of all, The Murder in the Vicarage is full of wit, something that both surprised me and delighted me. I’m going to leave this review with some of Miss Marple’s own words, maybe ones that I didn’t agree with when I first met her as a callow teen, but now I applaud!
“She used to say: “The young people think the old people are fools, but the old people KNOW the young people are fools!”
I am converted, Miss Marple in her very first outing has me convinced that a fussy, nosy old spinster is an equal to the finickity Belgium with a fine moustache.
But this woman has the mind of a bacon slicer as she compares the crimes to others she has seen. There is nothing boring in St Mary's Mead if you know where to look and the Vicar is just beginning to find out. With red herrings galore will you figure out who has shot the Colonel? Agatha has done it again with her brand new detective it's the start of a beautiful new mystery.
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When I read the end and discovered the murderer I was flabbergasted.