Marple: Twelve New Mysteries – a mixed experiment
The shadow of Agatha Christie and her success still looms large over modern-day mystery writers, and there’s scarcely any crime fiction now that doesn’t owe at least something to her works. Among her two most well-known creations are the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, and the insightful village spinster Miss Marple. Despite the latter’s reputation, there aren’t actually that many Marple stories – Christie wrote 12 novels and a number of short stories – but the character has lingered nonetheless. And now, a number of bestselling female writers have each written a new Marple story, for a collection intended to celebrate the character. Sadly, though, the experiment is a mixed one that leans towards the bad.
The selection of stories is a huge mix in terms of content. Stories by Val McDermid, Ruth Ware and Leigh Bardugo take up the action in St. Mary Mead, and see Miss Marple interacting with a selection of familiar faces (McDermid’s story sees a second murder in the Reverend Clement’s vicarage, while the latter two take place with the Bantrys in Gossington Hall). There’s a variety of similar villages in tales by Lucy Foley and Kate Mosse, among others, while some of the other authors take Miss Marple abroad to places such as New York, Italy and Hong Kong. It’s possible that some of these decisions may be linked to the preferences of the authors and their other work, but I’ll admit to only really being familiar with Foley’s other works.
It’s a shame that many of the stories in Marple fall into the same trap
I’ve always been of the opinion that the Christie style leant itself best to longform stories – there’s more time to develop characters and plots, and to present clever examples of deduction without the whole thing feeling rushed (she’s the opposite of Conan Doyle in this regard). That’s not to say that there weren’t successful short stories featuring her main detectives (‘Wasp’s Nest’ is a particularly strong one), but by and large, the novels are stronger. It’s a shame that many of the stories in Marple fall into the same traps, introducing too many characters with too little space, or trying to do too much and making the denouement feel rushed as a result.
This was a risk, and Christie herself fell foul of it – I can’t penalise the collection for that. Where I do find fault, however, is that the writing of Miss Marple herself feels at many points off. All 12 of the authors do their best to capture Christie’s voice and summon Miss Marple, but they also attempt to update the character for a new generation of readers, giving her beliefs and views that are totally incongruous with Christie’s creation. Miss Marple was a Victorian and definitely held conservative stances – seeing her make excuses for casual drug-taking or extending the offer of sanctuary to an overt communist is unbelievable.
That’s not to say that there weren’t bright spots in the collection.
A few of the stories take Miss Marple abroad. Of course, she did head abroad herself in Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, but she had to imagine the people in terms of those in St. Mary Mead – so seeing her happily holidaying in Manhattan or Italy felt all wrong (this is just one reason that these stories are the least effective, with the poor endings to both the major stumbling block). Readers will also love or hate the final story (by Bardugo) for one of the choices it makes – I found it genuinely surprising, but because it felt so untrue to the character and her world, not down to the punch it was clearly intended to pack.
That’s not to say that there weren’t bright spots in the collection. Foley and McDermid open the book, and their stories set a bar that the book then falls below. Foley’s story was quite clever, and the resolution an effective one – McDermid, on the other hand, most captures the essence of a Christian Marple story with the setting and voice (even though the actual solution is annoyingly throwaway). I also rather liked Karen M. McManus’ entry, which used Marple as a side character but which was no worse for it.
Marple was an attempt to bring the character (and Christie) to a new generation of readers, but I don’t know if that attempt succeeds more than not. Ultimately, the best way to keep the Queen of Crime alive for new readers is the same as always – to introduce them to her works, because they’ve stood the test of time for a reason. This selection of facsimiles and fan fiction struggles to hold a candle to Christie’s writing at best, and seems to actively scorn it at worst.
What did you think of Ruth Ware’s story? especially if youve read ‘the Queen’s Square’ by Dorothy L Sayers!