Literature / Miss Marple

Miss Marple is, after Hercule Poirot, the second of Agatha Christie's big two detective characters. She was second to Poirot both chronologically, making her debut seven years after him, and in the affections of the public, but it is reported that of the two of them Christie herself much preferred Miss Marple.

She made her first appearance in the short story "The Tuesday Night Club" in 1927, and first featured in a novel in 1930, with The Murder at the Vicarage. In all, she appeared in 12 novels and 24 short stories.

Miss Jane Marple is a little old spinster lady living in the English village of St Mary Mead, with an occasional tendency to stumble into murder mysteries. Her gently ultra-conventional exterior hides a keen perception and wide-ranging understanding of human nature from which she gains insight that lets her proceed where the official detectives are baffled. The kicker is that this wisdom is derived entirely from her observation of one village's life; confronted with a horrific murder, she invariably can draw the 'village parallel' between the suspects' behaviour and some random schoolboy prank or irregularity with the church funds. ("Human nature is much the same everywhere, I find...") This makes her the Trope Codifier for Little Old Lady Investigates.

Miss Marple's first screen adaptation was in 1961, when she was portrayed by Margaret Rutherford in four films beginning in that year. The films are well regarded as comedies, if not as adaptations. Only the first was even based on one of Christie's Miss Marple novels, and that not very closely. Also, Margaret Rutherford is the polar opposite of the sweet old lady of the novels, playing the character as essentially herself: burly, resolute and outspoken. Miss Marple has also been portrayed on film by Angela Lansbury, who later went on to feature in another Little Old Lady Investigates role in Murder, She Wrote — which itself owes a huge debt to the Marple mythos, in particular the small-town setting.

One of Helen Hayes' last films was a TV adaptation of a Miss Marple novel—one of the few instances in which the actress was the right age, or even a little too old.

Of several television adaptations, the most faithful and best regarded is the BBC's Miss Marple series (1984-1992) of telefilms, starring Joan Hickson. More recently, ITV's Marple starring Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie (2004-2013) is a much looser adaptation, as with the Rutherford series frequently sharing only the titles with the original novels. Following the conclusion of the sixth series, it was announced that the BBC had acquired the rights for the production of Agatha Christie adaptations, suggesting that ITV would be unable to make a seventh series of Marple.
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    Novels in which Miss Marple has appeared 

Examples from:

     Other stories and novels 
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Discussed in A Pocket Full of Rye — one of the reasons Miss Marple comes to suspect Lance Fortescue of being the murderer is because his wife has a tendency to fall for rather messed up and / or ethically challenged men.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Miss Marple has no training or professional experience as a detective.
  • Badass Boast: Miss Marple delivers one in Nemesis that's a Title Drop:
    "One of my names," she said, "is Nemesis."
    "Nemesis? And what does that mean?"
    "I think you know," said Miss Marple. "You are a very well educated woman. Nemesis is long delayed sometimes, but it comes in the end."
  • Black Sheep: Lance Fortescue in A Pocket Full of Rye, who was turned out of the family business and moved to Kenya.
  • Blackmail: A Caribbean Mystery has an unusual variation where a guest caught by a hotel employee doing something he shouldn't simply leaves a bigger tip, and nobody considers it blackmail (well, except the murderer, who isn't from around the place and thus took it for an actual threat), it's simply the way things are done around the hotel.
  • Brother-Sister Incest: The killer in Sleeping Murder turns out to be the victim's brother, whose obsessive overprotectiveness of his sister is strongly implied to contain an element of lust for her.
  • Busman's Holiday: A Caribbean Mystery and At Bertram's Hotel both have Jane being roped into solving a murder while on vacation.
  • Celibate Hero: Miss Marple, who has never been married, and whose love life, past or present, is rarely ever discussed. In A Caribbean Mystery, she mentions a young man she dated in her youth as an illustrative example, so she did have some romantic history, but apparently none of it developed into anything serious. It might be worth mentioning that being addressed as "Mrs Marple" is the nearest thing she has to a Berserk Button (a icy glance and a "tsk").
  • Character Overlap: The Marple stories are connected to the Hercule Poirot stories and the Tommy and Tuppence stories (and, via Poirot, to the Quin and Satterthwaite stories) through shared supporting characters.
  • Close-Knit Community: Saint Mary Mead. Also sometimes the location of the mystery
  • Comic-Book Time: Miss Marple, originally presented as a subversion of the "Victorian Aunt" stereotype in 1920s fiction, lives on into the 1970s and is described as having had a Victorian Aunt of her own in At Bertram's Hotel (published 1965). Like Poirot, she is aged somewhat throughout her series (in both The Mirror Crack'd and Nemesis it becomes a significant issue) but not in anything close to real time.
  • Cool Old Guy: Mr. Rafiel in Caribbean Mystery initially comes across as your standard rich old bastard, but turns out to be a Jerk with a Heart of Gold and assists Miss Marple in the case.
  • The Dutiful Son: In A Pocket Full of Rye, Percival Fortescue makes a dull, respectable showing against his dashing younger brother Lance, the family Black Sheep who was kicked out of the family business years ago.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: In her debut in "The Tuesday Club Murders", Miss Marple is presented as a stately, almost ostentatiously Victorian figure, wearing an elaborate black silk dress "very much nipped in at the waist", black lace gloves and a lace scarf over her piled-up hair. While some of the character's overtly Victorian attitudes would persist into later stories, the period dress is never referred to again.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Canon Prescott from A Caribbean Mystery is referred to by the narratives as simply "the Canon". His actual name is Jeremy.
  • Expy: Miss Marple's initial characterisation owed quite a bit to Caroline Sheppard of the Hercule Poirot novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; Christie enjoyed her so much she revived the type as the star part.
  • Finally Found the Body: The resolution of Nemesis and Sleeping Murder.
  • Flower Motifs: Miss Marple happens to know the Victorian language of flowers thanks to a 'sentimental' governess, which comes in handy in at least one short story.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Miss Marple can't bring herself to say that a killer hid in the restroom, referring to it as a confined space instead.
  • Gossipy Hens: Several appear over the course of the series, including, by her own admission, Miss Marple herself.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Miss Marple getting described as an "old pussy".
  • He Knows Too Much: Why Major Palgrave had to die in A Caribbean Mystery.
  • Incriminating Indifference: Subverted in "Tape-Measure Murder". The victim's husband doesn't grieve publicly because he believes in the virtue of Stoicism, causing everyone in the village to believe him guilty. Miss Marple is the only one who thinks he's innocent, because he reminds her of an uncle who was also a Stoic.
  • Inspector Lestrade: Inspector Slack—competent, but obnoxiously efficient and unimaginative—sometimes serves this role in the Marple books.
  • It Never Gets Any Easier: In all the novels he's featured in, Inspector Craddock gets depressed over the fact that he can't solve the murder cases quickly enough to prevent the body count from increasing, and at one point wonders if he's even worth his rank. In all fairness, his job as an officer probably deals with a lot more things than murder, but none of the other officers that Miss Marple encounters, or any of the ones featured in Christie's detective stories, seem to struggle with this issue, even though Never One Murder is a prevailing trope in Christie's books.
  • Little Old Lady Investigates: An early and influential example of the subgenre, if not the Trope Codifier.
  • Maiden Aunt: Miss Marple is a sweet and kindly elderly spinster of a Victorian upbringing and wholeheartedly conservative morals. She has many young relatives (including a novelist nephew) who are quite fond of her, though they don't always appreciate her old-fashioned views and rather her rambling manner of speech.
  • The Matchmaker: Miss Marple displays a tendency at times to play matchmaker in the lives of two lovers who need to be brought together during her investigations.
  • Mystery Magnet: For a sweet little old lady living in a peaceful small village, Miss Marple stumbles on an awful lot of murders. Lampshaded in one book, with Miss Marple remarking that a lot more goes on in "peaceful" small villages than urban folk tend to assume.
  • Never Found the Body: In the short story "The Companion", a character apparently commits suicide by drowning, but the body is never found. It turns out that the character faked their suicide and ran off to live in Australia.
  • Never One Murder: Characteristic of Christie, who frequently has Miss Marple and other characters comment on how dangerously easy it becomes, once you've killed, to do it again...
  • Night Swim Equals Death: One of the victims in A Caribbean Mystery falls foul of the killer while swimming at night.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Miss Marple's fluffy, doddering exterior conceals a mind like a bacon slicer.
  • Phone-In Detective: Downplayed. While Miss Marple does occasionally visit the site of the murder, she never gets physically involved with the investigations. Usually, she extracts details from the case from other witnesses, suspects and proxies (including the police) and comes up with her deductions based on these reports.
  • Rear Window Witness: The plot of 4.50 From Paddington is kicked off when a character on a train witnesses a murder happening on another train on a parallel track.
  • Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: The trope is discussed in Nemesis, concerning the relationship between two characters:
    "Verity had lost her real guardians, her parents, she had entered on her new life after their death, at an age when a schoolgirl arrives at having a "crush" on someone. An attractive mistress. Anything from the games mistress to the mathematics mistress, or a prefect or an older girl. A state that does not last for very long, is merely a natural part of life. Then from that you go on to the next stage when you realize that what you want in your life is what complements yourself. A relationship between a man and a woman...I think Verity adored Clotilde in an almost romantic way."
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: When Miss Marple witnesses a man and woman arguing and correctly deduces that they are secretly married.
  • Strictly Formula: Every Marple novel has someone say/think 'She's gaga' and is promptly proved wrong.
  • Supporting Leader: Due to her physical limitations, Miss Marple rarely take active part in the investigations. The readers usually learn about the case through various proxies, such as the local police.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Given how many parallels Miss Marple draws between the latest murder case and her experience living in a small village, one has to wonder if St Mary Mead isn't located in Midsomer County.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole?: Subverted in Sleeping Murder: despite what we're led to believe, the victim wasn't a slut or a terrible wife. The only person who has led us to believe this — the only person left who knew her really well — has been misleading us because he killed her (and he's not exactly the picture of sanity himself).

    Margaret Rutherford films 
  • Adaptation Distillation: In Murder, She Said, Marple takes on the roles of both Elspeth McGillicuddy and Lucy Eyelesbarrow as witness and Amateur Sleuth.
  • Bitter Almonds:
    • In Murder Most Foul, Miss Marple detects the presence of cyanide because of the smell.
    • In Murder Ahoy!, she rules out cyanide because the snuff she suspects someone was poisoned with lacks it.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Alexander in Murder She Said is a pretty obnoxious example.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Agatha Christie apparently lives and writes novels in the movieverse, as well.
  • Dolled-Up Installment: Of the four Margaret Rutherford films, the second and third were based on Hercule Poirot novels, and the fourth was a completely new plot.
  • Same Language Dub: In Murder She Said Alexander's lines seem to have been redubbed by an adult actress doing a "child" voice.

    BBC series 
  • The Cat Came Back: Inspector Slack is driven to annoyance, if not actual distraction, by the way Miss Marple keeps showing up whenever he tries to investigate anything in St Mary Mead.
  • Famed In-Story: In "A Caribbean Mystery", the local police inspector knows all about Miss Marple — to Mr Rafiel's astonishment, when he happens to mention the name of the little old lady who's taken an interest in the case.
  • Fingertip Drug Analysis: Jackson is seen performing it on "A Caribbean Mystery".
  • Gilligan Cut: In "The Body in the Library".
    Colonel Bantry: I am not going downstairs to ask if there is a body in my library.

    ITV series 
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: Quite a lot of it. Miss Marple herself is equipped with a romance backstory where she cast away a man she loved because he was married and she urged him to uphold his responsibilities. A lot of angst is also added to particular stories:
    • Body In The Library has a Shell-Shocked Veteran Mark Gaskell agonise about not having the courage to "get a date with a dancer."
    • A Murder is Announced turns the happy relationship of Mrs Swettenham and her son into a creepy possessive one, removes the son's mild love story and adds an angsty one between the mother and an alcoholic colonel.
    • The Moving Finger has an old military man commit suicide because of his taboo sexual orientation (unclear whether gay or bisexual).
    • At Bertram's Hotel turns this Up to Eleven with a band of bored thieves becoming avengers of the Holocaust and a greedy teenager in love with a dashing racing driver becoming a closeted lesbian wrecked with guilt over an accident she caused to her beloved girl.
  • Awkward Kiss: Between Jerry Burton and Elsie Holland in "The Moving Finger".
  • Bad Habits: Canon Pennyfather in "At Bertram's Hotel" turns out to be a Nazi war criminal.
  • Bury Your Gays: Even considering this is a murder mystery, survival rate of characters who get an adaptational sexuality change/confirmation is astonishingly low. Aside from Psycho Lesbian murderers who will presumably be hanged for their crime, there's Colonel Appleton from The Moving Finger (committed suicide over a forbidden relationship), Robbie from Endless Night (dying of an illness), Miss Murgatroyd from A Murder is Announced (killed after realising the murderer's identity)...
  • Conspicuous Gloves: In the 2006 adaptation of Towards Zero, a character named Thomas Royd (played by Julian Sands) wears a glove on his useless right hand. He's asked about it at a dinner, and he explains that he got caught in a doorway during an earthquake when he was a child.
  • Darker and Edgier: In most Miss Marple mysteries, the culprits are last seen being driven away in a police car while the titular character makes a brief remark on morality/crime/psychology. Normally, the criminal's attitude is fairly dignified, either a rueful variant of "well played, ma'am, or "I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for that meddling old woman!" This adaptation draws attention to the fact that the outcome of being found guilty of murder in this time period was execution. We see several criminals panicking or shuddering in their cells, screaming, struggling and crying as they are taken to their execution, and occasionally see the execution itself. In cases where the motive was due to a love affair, we see the condemned screaming or calling out to their lover as they are taken away from the crime scene, or when they are about to be hanged.
  • Dolled-Up Installment: A significant proportion of episodes of ITV's Marple are derived from Agatha Christie novels that originally contained neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: "By the Prickling of My Thumbs" contains a what-if scenario where Tuppence had to turn down recruitment offer from MI6 to look after her and Tommy's children. The bitterness and loss of self-confidence leads her to become a functional alcoholic.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: The series began as simply Marple but is now officially Agatha Christie's Marple.
  • It Is Pronounced Tro PAY: Lettice in the ITV version of "Murder at the Vicarage" would like to make it clear that her name is not pronounced the same way as the vegetable.
  • Large Ham: Just about every suspect in The Pale Horse except the one who actually did it.
  • Monochrome Apparition: In the 2006 Marple adaptation of "The Sittaford Mystery", the ghost of murder victim Clive Trevelyan (played by Timothy Dalton) appears in shades of bluish grey at the end of the episode.
  • Nobody Over 50 Is Gay: Subverted with the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd in "A Murder is Announced", although the adaptations tend to make their pairing much more explicit than the novel did.
  • Not Blood Siblings: Tina and Micky Argyle in "Ordeal by Innocence".
  • Psycho Lesbian: Just about every lesbian couple in the adaptations, with a few exceptions, turned out to be this, especially if they were subject to Relationship Reveal.
  • Not His Sled: Several episodes of Marple change the identity, motive, etc. of the murderer.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Jerry Burton in the recent ITV adaptation of The Moving Finger, to paraphrase his sister, came through the war with flying colours yet seems to find the peace utterly crushing.
  • Stripping the Scarecrow: In Nemesis, the killer steals the clothes from a scarecrow to wear during a murder and later plants the clothes in another suspect's suitcase to frame them.
  • Wacky Cravings: At one point in the 2004 adaptation of The Murder at the Vicarage, Griselda Clement (the vicar's wife) asks for apricot chutney to season her meal, from which Miss Marple deduces that Griselda is pregnant.