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.
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    Novels and short stories in which Miss Marple has appeared 

Novels:

  • The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
  • The Body in the Library (1942)
  • The Moving Finger (1943)
  • A Murder Is Announced (1950)
  • They Do It With Mirrors (1952)
  • A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)
  • 4.50 From Paddington (1957)
  • The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side (1962)
  • A Caribbean Mystery (1964)
  • At Bertram's Hotel (1965)
  • Nemesis (1971)
  • Sleeping Murder (written in 1940, published posthumously in 1976)

Short stories:

  • All thirteen stories from The Thirteen Problems (1932)
  • One story from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of Entrées (published in 1960)
  • Six stories from Miss Marple's Final Cases and Two Other Stories (published posthumously in 1979)


Novels with their own pages:

Adaptations with their own pages:

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • Lighter and Softer: The tone of the films was much more whimsical and comical than the Marple novels themselves, something Christie herself voiced a dislike for.
  • 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.
  • Mythology Gag: When Miss Marple gets a local taxi in the adaptations, she addresses the driver as Inch. This is a reference to the novels and short stories, in which the local taxi firm was originally owned by a Mr. Inch, but that it had changed hands and name several times since then. However, the locals always continued to refer to the taxi firm as "Inch's".
  • Right Behind Me: In "They Do It With Mirrors". Chief Inspector Slack almost seems to be expecting Miss Marple to turn up. He mentions that he keeps thinking of "that old busybody from St Mary Mead" — and promptly hears her polite "Good morning, Chief Inspector" from behind him. His expression borders on Oh, Crap!.
  • Sexophone: Any time Lucky Dyson shows up in "A Caribbean Mystery".
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Inspector Duckham for Inspector Craddock in "4:50 From Paddington".

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