Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

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Series: Miss Marple #1

Kindle Edition, 307 pages

Published: March 17, 2009 by William Morrow Paperbacks (1st published January 1, 1930)

Setting: England

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“My dear young man, you underestimate the detective instinct of village life. In St. Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs. There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

Miss Jane Marple is an aging spinster whose hobby is studying human nature. From her vantage point in her comfortable home in the village of St. Mary Mead, she rarely misses anything. She is also an active participant in local gossip:

“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?”

The murder of one of St. Mary Mead’s most prominent citizens, Colonel Prothero, in the vicar’s study causes great excitement. His death may be welcome news to his miserable wife, Anne, his frivolous daughter, Lettice, who seems eager for her inheritance, and just about everyone else in the village. Prothero, a belligerent, domineering man, was wildly unpopular.

This mystery is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, with a blend of stodginess, intelligence, dry humor and compassion. As he and his wife, Griselda, unravel clues alongside the local police, Miss Marple solves the mystery. Her opinions are dismissed by most people, but she misses nothing and has a disconcerting habit of being right. She openly sticks her nose into other people’s business, yet — at the same time — she has a self-effacing way of presenting her observations and conclusions so that others believe they thought of it themselves.

The mystery is skillfully constructed, with just the right balance of clues, dialogue, and red herrings. The dialogue, along with the narrative voice of the vicar, is witty, clever, hilarious, and rich in commentary on human behavior. This is just as much a comedy of manners as a mystery. And Christie’s artful use of words is a delight.

It is interesting to see how perceptions of women are presented in this story of 1920’s English village life. Women are seen as “silly,” and their ideas are disregarded by the men around them. So they fall into the roles and behaviors expected of them, and this sometimes serves them well — it camouflages their true motives and shields them from suspicion. The story also sheds light on attitudes toward the “lower classes,” who are alternately the targets of prejudice and the victims of forcible attempts at “charity” by the good women of the parish.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the Miss Marple series. It is easy to see why, aside from Shakespeare and the bible, Agatha Christie’s novels are the bestselling books of all time.

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