My mother loved the Queen of Crime Fiction, and for good reason, it turns out
Agatha Christie has been outsold by two people: Shakespeare and God. The only books to outsell hers are Shakespeare’s plays and the Bible. Despite that popularity, I was not impressed by my first foray into her works, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I was even less impressed by The A.B.C. Murders. While the first was enjoyable, and played with the conventions of mystery novels in one very particular and striking way, it didn’t grab me. The second I found gimmicky and empty. I rather agreed with Raymond Chandler, who characterized what happens in English detective stories as “the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.” As happens so often, actual knowledge of something is all that’s necessary to kill disdain for it. I crossed that barrier with The Murder at the Vicarage, the book I buried with my mother.
My mother loved reading. It was her defining hobby, and she loved Agatha Christie especially, having read every book she wrote. So, in the surreal logic of grief, I decided to put one copy of Christie’s work in the ground with her, so she’d have something to do. The copy was The Murder at the Vicarage, for the simple reason that it was one of the first to come to hand when I reached into her massive Agatha Christie cupboard. Once I was home after the back and forth and tumult of the funeral, I turned all my energy to consuming that book as fast as possible. If it was worth burying with my mom, surely it was worth reading, right? I read it on my phone while waiting in line, listened to it in my car while commuting, and spent a lot of time reading it normally at night. It was my last goodbye, and I wanted to give it the attention it deserved. The result was going at breakneck speed through the work of a master craftswoman. She’s pretty amazing, y’all.
So, what is The Murder at the Vicarage actually about?
The Murder at the Vicarage is narrated by a village vicar, Leonard Clement. He’s married to a much younger wife, Griselda Clement. After a few introductory pages, a man that everyone in the village despises to varying levels, Colonel Protheroe, is found shot through the head in the vicar’s study. The book after that point introduces many characters, all who had a reason to dislike the insufferable Colonel, and explores various scenarios under which they could have killed the victim. The only person who can see through all the chaff of misdirection is Miss Marple, in her first outing as one of Christie’s best-loved sleuths. Maybe she’s the reason why this ended up being the book I chose from among the handful I pulled off my mother’s bookshelf — the detective is an old lady of hidden depths and impressive intelligence (hi my mom was like, smart as hell).
Why Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries are so good
Agatha Christie is escapist literature, definitely, so long as the people using that term aren’t dull enough to think it’s shorthand for less-than or non-literary. She’s one of the most impressive craftsmen I’ve ever read. She builds plots like the Swiss build clocks — everything is tiny, seemingly insignificant, but it all fits together in clear and important ways once the work is done. Through and around all the logic puzzles and plot twists, there is strong, clear writing and an impressively deep understanding of human nature.
For people who are addicted to Agatha Christie, a good portion of the fun is figuring out whodunnit. I’m abysmal at this — I had not the least suspicion of the actual evildoers at any point throughout any of the three Christie books I’ve read. Dad tells me that mom got to where she could get it right about half the time. The thing that seems almost unfair, paradoxically, is that Dame Christie gives you everything you need to know exactly who murdered whom. The mystery is built perfectly — the answer is hidden, but each detail on each page of the story fits seamlessly with all others to point to only one conclusion — if you’ve got the skill to slot them together in the right order. I do not. In this particular book, the narrator runs across the killer carrying a rock. This is damning evidence, but neither the narrator nor I has any idea. Generally, you’re not smart enough to figure it out, but there’s a lot of pleasure in the examination of every little occurrence and the formation of your (in my case) inevitably wrong theory. This exercise completely occupies the mind, and pulls your brain more fully into the book than with other escapist literature. It’s half small-town dialogue and half LSAT logic puzzle.
The sheer strength and clarity of writing is a joy to read. It’s the style of writing that many of the best use, where you don’t even realize how powerfully that style is building a world around you, putting you exactly where it wants you. The powerful can make you do or feel what they want, but the truly powerful make you do it without even realizing it. It’s so strong it doesn’t need to be showy. Just an example, without further commentary:
“You see,” she began at last, “living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby. There is, of course, woolwork, and Guides, and Welfare, and sketching, but my hobby is–and always has been–Human Nature. So varied–and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study.”
This is the source of Miss Marple’s power. Sure, her template is just that of the nosy old neighbor, but add to that her keen intelligence and singular understanding of human nature, and she’s a dangerous adversary. There’s something so delicious in an unassuming old lady, ignored by most and feared by none, having the perspicacity to pierce through to the truth and undo all the careful plotting of the murderer.
Another of Miss Marple’s quotes, savage to the extreme, was on the subject of her modern novelist nephew:
“His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the essence of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people leading lives of surpassing dullness.”
Unassuming old lady, able to tear the heart out of anyone who doesn’t impress her. I also particularly love this quote because it’s so true. I love modern fiction on the level of Midnight’s Children or Infinite Jest, but so much gets a pass as serious literature simply because it’s boring and miserable, which must mean it is Important. The 100 pages of Franzen’s The Corrections to which I had the fortitude to subject myself is some of the worst “literature” I’ve ever read. Unpleasant people and lives of surpassing dullness, indeed.
Agatha Christie, my mother, and me
Agatha Christie gives you plenty to chew on in this novel. The frantic fitting together of every little detail as you read, hoping to prove to yourself that you’re smart enough to figure it out before the big reveal. The satisfaction of the big reveal itself, as the intricate structure of everything she’s built up to that point becomes apparent. The deep understanding of people, what they want, and how they act. Christie pulling all this out of a small village in the middle of a quiet old English county is perhaps the most impressive thing she does. It reflects actual life so well — no matter how little is happening, no matter how boring something appears to be, there is always depth to it, like a drop of water under a microscope shows an entire unimagined world, teeming with microbes.
It helped me grieve for my mother because while I was reading it, she was right there with me. I’m so much like her that she won’t be gone until I stop breathing, and it’s comforting to be reminded of that. After I type these last words, I’ll stumble off to the kitchen, make myself salmon with shishito peppers, and watch The Defenders, continuing to lead a motherless life. While I’m writing this, and while reading The Murder at the Vicarage, I’m not motherless. Reading and writing are so much of my inheritance from her that doing those things brings her back. She’s with me, not in a mystical sense, but because she built who I am.
Anyway, The Murder at the Vicarage is a good book, and you should probably read it.