Miss Marple: solitary and single.

Part 1. The detective 

 

From the beginning of the modern detective story it was assumed that a private detective needed a partner, someone with an inferior or more mundane mind, who could act as a friend and sounding board. Very often he or she would also act as the detective's chronicler.  Sometimes these companions become actively engaged in helping to solve the crime, but rarely in anything more than a supporting role, their main task being to help prevent an exciting tale from becoming too much of a one-man show. Literary detectives are notorious egotists and need someone to keep them earth-bound. 

Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin has his unidentified listener/companion/narrator. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes has Dr Watson; Baroness Orczy's Old Man in the Corner confides his views to a journalist, Miss Polly Burton; R. Austin Freeman's Dr John Thorndyke is aided by Christopher Jervis. Anna Katharine Green's Amelia Butterworth observes events independently and tells her own story while still remaining heavily dependent on the policeman Ebeneezer Gryce. These fictional partnerships were all established before Agatha Christie appeared on the scene. Other  examples as well as indications of the way the convention continues down to the present day can be found in the entertaining anthology compiled by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini,  Detective Duos (1997). 

When Agatha Christie began writing detective fiction round about 1916 she was determined to follow her distinguished predecessors and create a detective duo. One of Her principal concerns in the very first of her published novels, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), was to bring together Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings in order to establish exactly that traditional kind of working relationship between them. She presents them as two friends who have lost touch with each other because of the war.  At first Hastings was a classic helper/narrator, or 'stooge' as Christie herself described his role. But after a few cases she decided to pack him off to Argentina. Whether or not she regretted doing so we don't know, but it certainly upset Poirot. He constantly bemoans the loss of his dim but useful friend, and becomes more outrageously conceited than ever, a  characteristic that Christie greatly enjoyed portraying. Even so, she clearly began to feel that Poirot functioned more effectively with support of some kind. Occasionally she found ways of bringing the two old friends back together again.  She also introduced a more adventurous and independent companion for Poirot in the form of Mrs Ariadne Oliver. 

The other fictional detectives Christie experimented with in her formative days were rather different from Poirot in that they operated less as celebrated public figures, but she continued the practice of having them operate in pairs. Tommy and Tuppence are a young married couple; Mr Satterthwaite relies on, is even perhaps controlled by, the supernatural Harley Quin;  Mr Parker Pyne himself says that he shouldn't be described as a detective, and although he does sometimes act like one, he is more like a theatrical director, organizing a miscellaneous group of professional actors and personal assistants to act out roles allotted by him.  Among the assistants helping Pyne to solve problems of the heart are two minor characters who would feature more prominently in future Christie novels: Mrs Ariadne Oliver and Miss Felicity Lemon. 

Miss Marple, though, marked a distinct break with this reliance of Christie's on the detective/narrator partnership.  Her work is carried out alone.  Solitariness is one of her most unusual and original qualities. Not only is it characteristic of her role as a private detective, it affects every aspect of her life, and has continued to affect her literary reputation as well. From whatever angle it is considered Miss Marple's personal situation, the position from which she is made to operate as a private detective, is extreme. 

There is no attendant chronicler of her deeds, no husband or devoted admirer, no helper or assistant, and no relatives, apart from some vague and distant nephews, nieces, and godchildren. There is her nephew Raymond who actually appears in some of the short stories and novels, but he remains characteristically shadowy. Presumably he is the son of Miss Marple's sister who is mentioned in one of the short stories but with no indication whether that sister ever married or had any children let alone a son like Raymond who becomes such a distinguished, successful novelist. And anyway, Raymond's main role in the novels is mechanical. He is there primarily to propel Miss Marple into mysteries by generously providing money for her to recuperate from an illness or to experience a change of scene. He could never function as any kind of reliable sounding board. 

It might be supposed that as Miss Marple is a village detective with none of the metropolitan connections that allow Hercule Poirot to move so easily around the world, she would have gathered about her a close circle of intimate friends and neighbours. But that natural escape from a solitary existence is cut off by Christie. The  people who meet at Miss Marple's cottage to form the Tuesday Night Club are invited by Raymond: none of them could be described as a personal friend of hers. The reason for this soon emerges. We learn from The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) that within the village of St. Mary Mead, Miss Marple is at first regarded as just one of a group of elderly women in the village, all of them malicious gossips. She is even described by the vicar's wife Griselda as the meanest of that group.  Christie quickly realized that this made Miss Marple far too unsympathetic a character and she began to separate her off from her former cronies. They linger on for a while but in the later books disappear entirely. Christie retained Miss Marple's love of gossip, but it is far more benign than it was originally intended to be. It also becomes a valuable ploy in Miss Marple's detective work.

There are a various friendly village acquaintances like Dr Haydock, Mr Petherick, and also Griselda who soon changes her negative view of Miss Marple.  Such people are helpful when specialist advice is needed, but they can't ease the loneliness which Miss Marple often experiences. Because she isn't a car-driver and has no-one to ferry her about, a dominant image of Miss Marple in the novels is of her travelling to different part of the country by train, always by herself, not chatting comfortably with someone (as Sherlock Holmes and Watson do), but alone with her thoughts, focused on the murder-mystery to be solved.  In A Murder is Announced, Dolly Bantry, the woman in the village who could be reasonably described a being closest to Miss Marple, offers to apply for the position of confidante and helper on a case. Miss Marple turns the offer down, explaining frankly that Dolly can't be considered suitable for the role because she's incapable of keeping anything to herself.

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As demonstrated earlier on this website, the image of the aged spinster was a direct product of the break-up of Christie'smarriage and her notorious disappearance in 1926 (See Enter Miss Marple Part 1.The bibliographical evidence  and Enter Miss Marple Part 2. The image).  But although Christie's involvement in those very first Miss Marple stories was in one sense deeply personal, she was not attempting to describe, in a thinly disguised fictional form, what had happened between her and Archie. That manoeuvre she reserved for the novels Giant's Bread (1930) and Unfinished Portrait (1934), published under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

With Miss Marple she was more indirect, far more artistic than in the Westmacott novels, and almost certainly less conscious of what exactly she was doing. Only gradually in the Miss Marple novels - twelve of them published over the next forty odd years - did Christie seem to become aware of just how much Miss Marple meant to her.  At the beginning Christie was intuitively dramatizing her own inner feelings, wiping out all of the qualities and circumstances that had destroyed the ideal marriage she always longed for. That now seemed to be gone for ever. Miss Marple is unmarried, very old, with, apparently no serious romantic entanglement in her past life. In fact, with very little significant past life to speak of, or at least a past life that the reader ever gets to know about. On one point, though, Christie was quite clear.

 No friendly helper or narrator, in the traditional manner of detective stories including Christie's own up to this point, would  be allowed to get anywhere near the spinster sleuth. Christie herself would be not only Miss Marple's narrator but her protector as well.  Miss Marple is hardly even permitted to speak for herself, as, for example, her American counterpart Amelia Butterworth does all the time. The rules under which the Tuesday Night Club operates means that Miss Marple is obliged to tell two of the Tuesday Night Club stories (one in each of the groups), but otherwise she is only ever responsible for the full narration of one of the short stories. This is called, as though to draw attention to its unusualness 'Miss Marple tells a Story.'  All of the novels are written in the third person, and over the years Christie's own voice and her personal association with Miss Marple become more and more involved. 

There is, therefore, a controlling tension in the novels between Miss Marple's extreme independence as a private detective and Christie's third-person narration. Although it can seem as though the Miss Marple novels were published in a random or arbitrary manner, they were in fact very much under the control that, after the initial spontaneous writing of the first of the stories, Christie was always to exercise over the character who carried such personal significance for her.

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Not that Christie's commitment to a solitary Miss Marple was entirely a personal matter.  It was an original concept as well. There were literary precedents in detective fiction for this kind of solitariness, though not many. Orczy's Old Man in the Corner and Green's Amelia Butterworth, may be said to anticipate, or perhaps even influence, Miss Marple in certain very specific ways, but they had little impact on her personality which was always very much her own. 

A far more substantial precedent than the Old Man in the Corner or Amelia Butterworth is G.K.Chesterton's Father Brown. Christie is known to have admired the Father Brown stories. They were around long before Miss Marple appeared on the scene, and there are striking similarities between the two detectives. In many of the stories Chesterton presents Father Brown with a friend and companion, the French master criminal Flambeau. At first a sparring partner for Father Brown, Flambeau not only gives up his evil ways, he changes sides as well and becomes a private detective. Still, even when working together on the same side, the relationship between Father Brown and Flambeau is not at all similar to that of the traditional companion/narrator detective duo. As with Miss Marple, the extreme singularity of Father Brown's personality makes it virtually impossible for anyone to get really close to him.

Both Father Brown and Miss Marple are characterised by a sharply analytical inner being that is hidden by an outward façade of fussy innocence or simplicity. Just as Miss Marple carefully maintains, and hides behind, the image of a fidgety naïve spinster, using it to find her way into areas of life that would otherwise be closed to her, so Father Brown is made  free to observe whatever is going on because nobody thinks it worth taking seriously someone who looks so silly. Nor can they easily believe that a priest - who when he wishes can adopt the pose of what in 'The Blue Cross' Father Brown himself calls 'a celibate simpleton' -  can have such an intimate knowledge of the darker sides of life.  Long hours spent in the confessional is the answer to that. Much the same is true of Miss Marple's illuminating lifetime spent in the confines of St. Mary Mead. This has given her an extraordinary cynicism that matches Father Brown's profound understanding of evil.  

She believes that life is so fundamentally unpleasant that it is best left untouched, unless you are the kind of person who is compelled to face up to it, as are both she and Father Brown.  Furthermore, they share a profound awareness that that their mission ultimately is to confront not merely everyday criminality, but Evil, a concept they both understand in its correct theological sense.  Miss Marple states repeatedly that she trusts no one, refuses to believe what anyone says, never grants someone the benefit of the doubt. Until she has incontrovertible evidence that she has been wrong in doing so, she always thinks the worst of people. 

To outsiders, the working of her imagination is unknowable, and, once again like Father Brown, inconceivably at odds with her simple appearance.  Her 'process of reasoning' used to discover the criminal in 4.50 from Paddington was not, she explains to Inspector Craddock, 'really original.' What she did was follow the example of the boy in Mark Twain who found the horse.  He just imagined where he would go if he were a horse, and then went there. 'You imagined what you'd do if you were a cruel and cold-blooded murderer?' Craddock asks in bewilderment, 'looking thoughtfully at Miss Marple's pink and white elderly fragility.' 

As many of her opponents testify, she is a terrifying woman, ruthlessly unstoppable when needing to protect the innocent or trap the guilty.  Her integrity is ultimately the only safeguard she has. It is deeply ironic, given the way that it is now so common to present classic English and American fictional detectives as totally incompatible, that with a change of gender and the America city transformed into an English village or market town, Raymond Chandler's 'down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid' could be a fitting evocation of Miss Marple. 

Both Father Brown and Miss Marple disappear into the crowd and  emerge, to everyone's surprise, with accusations and solutions. Outwardly they both gain by appearing to be people whose views aren't worth consulting. Of course, Father Brown does in fact have a partner, and one who renders any earthly counterpart unnecessary.  But then so does Miss Marple.  Although she is not as staunchly affiliated to a religious faith as Father Brown, she regards her belief as crucial to her detective work. As early as 'The Thumb Mark of St. Paul', and deliberately challenging the 'modern young people' in her audience to laugh, she admits: 'when I am in really bad trouble I always say a little prayer to myself  … And I always get an answer.' In her later adventurers she becomes as much an agent of God  - an avenging angel -  and just as militant a Christian as Father Brown himself.

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Still,  however lofty a view of their own activities private detectives may have, and  however distrustful they are of the official keepers of law and order, they can never exist as entirely solitary figures. In order to bring to justice the criminals they uncover they need to rely on the existence of a reasonably efficient and smoothly functioning police force.  It is the oddest of the many artificialities of literary detection that private detectives are allowed a degree of power and independence to hunt down the guilty that they would never have in real-life.  

Some limits have to be imposed, even in detective stories. Once a crime is solved, it is the police who are responsible for carrying criminals off, locking them safely up, enforcing the evidence against them, and making sure they are brought to trial.  The police provide these standard services for Miss Marple, as for anyone else, and in addition they are, for her especially, an additional back-up service.  Her solitariness puts her constantly in danger of attack. This she accepts. She is physically as well as morally courageous and in several of the novels willingly puts her own life at risk. In The Moving Finger when Jerry Burton rebukes her for involving Megan in snaring the killer she snaps back at him: 'We are not put into this world, Mr Burton, to avoid danger when an innocent fellow-creature's life is at stake. You understand me?' 

Even so, the direct violence common in many other detective and crime stories is largely avoided. After all, as an elderly woman Miss Marple simply lacks the physical strength and support possessed by her male counterparts or their companions.  So, when necessary, she has to trust the police to provide her with active support, still pursuing her solitary way in most of the investigations but aware that they are ready on hand to help her close off a case. 

It is not surprising that among the great literary detectives she is unusual in her admiration for the police and is never disillusioned by them. With the exception of Inspector Slack, they respond by treating her with respect and admiration. This is ultimately due to the reputation she builds for herself which, in its turn, owes much to the police friends she has in very high places. From the moment when Miss Marple so impresses Sir Henry Clithering at the meetings of the Tuesday Night Club he becomes her admirer and very soon her patron. He has retired from Scotland Yard, but he makes sure that his successors - including his godson Inspector Craddock - know about the remarkable Miss Marple.  In case after case, once she has set everything in motion, she moves into an alliance with the police, overcoming their perfectly understandable doubts that this little old lady can possibly have anything to teach them, waiting for them to remember her earlier triumphs and to take note of the fulsome tributes that Sir Henry has spread through Scotland Yard. 
To be continued

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