Miss Marple is now so familiar a figure in the history of detective fiction, so obviously its most celebrated female sleuth, that it's all too easy to believe she started the whole thing off. In fact, Miss Marple was by no means the first woman detective in fiction. She had a surprising number of predecessors.
In her anthology of early women detectives Crime on her Mind (1976), Michelle B. Slung points out that by the 1940s, when the Miss Marple novels were becoming established as a regular thing, 'the adventures of well over sixty women detectives had been chronicled.' Twenty of these had even appeared by the end of Queen Victoria's reign in 1901, exactly a quarter of a century before Miss Marple's very first appearance in December 1927.
Even so, once it is agreed that there were quite a few women literary detectives in existence before Miss Marple, it remains a mark of Agatha Christie's originality that it would take someone with a truly specialist knowledge of the field to name any of Miss Marple's forerunners or near contemporaries. Patricia Wentworth's Miss Maud Silver, who first appeared in print in 1928 and who carried some similar characteristics to Miss Marple, might come to mind, but who else? Clarence Rook's Miss Van Snoop perhaps, or George R. Sims's Dorcas Dene, or Baroness Orczy's Lady Molly of Scotland Yard? It seems unlikely.
In 1929, at a time when Miss Marple had appeared in only a handful of short stories, and was yet to have a full-length novel devoted to her, Christie published a very different sort of book called Partners in Crime. It was a collection of pastiches of the most famous detective writers of the day, acted out by Christie's own young married detectives Tommy and Tuppence. The stories are witty enough, but workmanlike rather than inspired. They belong properly to Christie's apprenticeship, most of them having first appeared in periodical form some four years earlier. The immediate reason why Christie took them up again in 1929 was that she was frantically preparing for the professional career as a writer that she now accepted as the way forward after her divorce. She obviously felt that a steady flow of publications (whether new or reprinted) would help this process. A related, more personal motive was that the Tommy and Tuppence pastiches, along with the Miss Marple short stories, were connected with Christie's on-going study of detective fiction, a conscious testing of her own abilities against other practitioners of the genre.
Although the question of how to develop Miss Marple as a character must have been strongly in Christie's mind when she was revising the material for Partners in Crime, she included no women detectives among the twelve chosen writers, and only two women writers. One was Isabel Ostrander, a now barely remembered American writer, for her McCarty and Riordan tales. The second was Baroness Orczy, selected not for Lady Molly of Scotland Yard but for her Old Man in the Corner stories which were much discussed in their day and had a wide-spread, generalized influence on a number of writers of detective stories, Christie among them. It is not over fanciful to see Orczy's immobile old man seated at a table in a ABC teashop, constantly unraveling a piece of string while he works out bewildering murder mysteries, as a male equivalent of the endlessly knitting spinster detective.
In one sense, the absence of women detectives from Partners in Crime was perfectly understandable. Christie wasn't compiling an historical anthology. She was concentrating on the best-known detective writers of the day, and as we have seen, most of Miss Marple's predecessors were forgotten by 1929. So who might Christie have included? Ten years on and there would have been far more women writers of detective stories to be taken into account and more fictional women detectives as well, not least because Christie herself had led the way so influentially.
There is, though, one rather surprising omission in Partners in Crime, a pioneering woman writer of detective stories who might well have been thought worthy of a place. This was the American Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935). Her work has not carried well, and although she was still alive when Partners in Crime was published, the days of her popularity were largely over. Christie may have forgotten about her or perhaps was consciously excluding her as someone whose work would no longer be recognized through a pastiche. But Christie did know Green's work, and, in this context, the interest of the older novelist is more than simply historical because if anyone created a prototype for Miss Marple, it is to Green that credit should go.
She had made an early name for herself with The Leavenworth Case, first published in 1878. It was a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic and one of the stories that in An Autobiography Christie remembered having narrated to her by her older sister Madge. She tells how she was so excited by the story that she 'followed hot-foot' to read it for herself. It stayed long in her mind as well. As late as 1963 in The Clocks it is one of the early detective stories picked out for praise by Hercule Poirot. The nature of his praise is significant: 'It is admirable,' he says. 'One savours its period atmosphere, its studied and deliberate melodrama.' Perhaps Poirot's touchy arrogance prevents him from mentioning that The Leavenworth Case made famous among readers of the time a New York police detective called Ebenezer Gryce. Or perhaps he considered that Gryce was not charismatic enough to be remembered, which is certainly so. Nor is Gryce particularly successful. Green herself seems to have thought that he needed some help to deal with difficult cases and in That Affair Next Door ( 1897) she introduced, as an amateur foil to the professional detective, a Miss Amelia Butterworth.
Miss Butterworth lives in a New York apartment, and describes herself as 'of Colonial ancestry and no inconsiderable importance in the social world.' As these words indicate, she is rather pompous, something of a self-deceiver and treated with a certain amount of irony by the author. She is comfortably off, and, owing to her 'lonely and single life' has little to do but interest herself in the activities of her neighbours, usually by spying on them from behind her curtains. The neighbours dislike her, but Ebenezer Gryce quickly comes to value her sharp observation and analytical mind.
We can't be absolutely certain that after having been fascinated by Ebenezer Gryce and The Leavenworth Case Christie went on to read the Miss Butterworth novels, but as she had trawled her way through many far less popular detective stories it would be very strange if she hadn't come across them. And, anyway, that doesn't matter too much. It's the internal evidence that is compelling. Miss Amelia Butterworth isn't in any immediate sense Miss Jane Marple: the two women are very different from each other, especially in terms of nationality and social class. Even so, Amelia Butterworth is shown to possess certain personal qualities that, a quarter of a century on, would become instantly recognizable as Miss Marple trademarks.
Here we have an elderly spinster detective, dismissed by those who don't know her as simply a 'meddlesome old maid.' She is nosy and interfering without feeling that these qualities are in any way unpleasant or undesirable. Rather, they are justified by the startling results they bring. They are also actively employed as a useful cover for gathering information about suspects. Amelia Butterworth's nosiness is allied to a personality that is exceptionally bright and observant, with a logical mind that enables her to jot down notes 'on the back of a disputed grocer's bill,' arrange them systematically, and then muster the evidence and present it convincingly in court. Most notable, is her understanding of the minutiae of women's lives, something that Gryce describes neatly as 'women's eyes for women's matters.' This is seen as giving Miss Butterworth a clear advantage over men, however professional they may be in other respects.
If the modern reader still finds Miss Butterworth rather stiff and formal beside Miss Marple, this is because her brightness and originality are deadened by the literary conventions from which Anna Katharine Green was unable to escape. In a purely narrative sense Miss Butterworth belongs essentially to the older leisurely world of Victorian fiction, and more specifically the 'sensation novel' branch of it. Green's plots may be ingenious but they are held back from gripping the modern reader by the ponderous nature of her writing and the distracting weight of social detail she presents. Amelia Butterworth's multisyllabic name, compared with that of 'plain Jane' Marple, might be considered symptomatic of the linguistic differences between the two authors.
Far from being bound by literary convention, Agatha Christie was largely responsible for creating the crisply focused, domesticated detective novel of the twentieth century, with its recognizably real settings, everyday atmosphere, and fluid dialogue. Her contribution was vital and has not often been sufficiently acknowledged. She was influential in other ways as well. Before her, most of the famous writers of detective stories had focused their attention on the short story. This was their way of avoiding the stifling narrative pressure that trapped Anna Katharine Green. Christie's own short stories were not notably experimental. But her novels were. In them she blended together the social world of Victorian fiction and the fast-moving plot of the short story into a narrative that was short enough to sustain the reader's interest and familiar enough in its domestic setting to be instantly acceptable. Miss Marple is at home in her environment, a crucial part of it, in ways that Miss Butterworth is never allowed to be.
And ironically so, in some respects, for Christie achieved her success with the Miss Marple novels by allowing, in social though not narrative terms, the old to triumph over the new. Miss Marple's St. Mary Mead, in life as well as detective fiction, always carries with it the air of an indeterminate past. If, that is, Christie ever did consider St. Mary Mead as in any sense a realistic portrayal of an English village, an assumption that must be held in some doubt. By contrast, Amelia Butterworth's home environment is made up of the dark apartment blocks and shadowy streets of a great metropolis that were to provide the dominant settings for the most influential detective fiction of the future.
Not that Green ever capitalized on this aspect of her novels. Like so much else she seems to have sensed fictional potentialities without being interested in giving (or perhaps being able to give) lasting form to them. After the success of Amelia Butterworth's debut in That Affair Next Door (1897), Green quickly published a follow up, Lost Man's Lane (1898). Miss Butterworth is now placed centre-stage. Gryce acknowledges that he is puzzled by his new case, calls on Miss Butterworth for help, and in effect hands everything over to her. To stress the newness of this, Amelia Butterworth's 'second episode' in amateur detection, Green decided to shift the setting of the novel away from the big city to a small isolated village in New York State.
It's an intriguing speculation that while not capitalizing on the fictional possibilities offered by the mean streets of the modern metropolis, Green might, even so, have gone on to create an American St. Mary Mead. But this possibility eluded her as well. Instead, in Lost Man's Lane she allowed her spinster sleuth to lose her way in the spooky alien environment of a Gothic horror story. Miss Marple, of course, would stay comfortably ensconced in her anachronistic village environment to become the archetypal twentieth century female sleuth. Agatha Christie was also drawn to the supernatural and the sensational, but she was wise enough to keep them both well away from Miss Marple.