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Literature / Miss Marple

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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, 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 in The Mirror Crack'd, 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 


Short stories:

  • All thirteen stories from The Thirteen Problems (1932)
    • "The Tuesday Night Club"
    • "The Idol House Of Astarte"
    • "Ingots Of Gold"
    • "The Blood Stained Pavement"
    • "Motive v Opportunity"
    • "The Thumb Mark of St Peter"
    • "The Blue Geranium"
    • "The Companion"
    • "The Four Suspects"
    • "A Christmas Tragedy"
    • "The Herb of Death"
    • "The Affair at the Bungalow"
    • "Death By Drowning"
  • "Greenshaw's Folly" from The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and a Selection of EntrĂ©es (published in 1960)
  • Six stories from Miss Marple's Final Cases and Two Other Stories (published posthumously in 1979)
    • "Sanctuary"
    • "Strange Jest"
    • "The Tape-Measure Murder"
    • "The Case of the Perfect Maid"
    • "The Case of the Caretaker"
    • "Miss Marple Tells A Story"

Adaptations with their own pages:

Examples from:

    Other stories and novels 
  • 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."
  • 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 (an 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 and several other standalone novels) 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.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: In her debut in "The Tuesday Night Club", 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. note 
  • 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.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: The novels which were narrated from a first-person perspective tended to use this trope — understandably, since little old ladies, no matter how much investigating they do, don't actually tend to spend a lot of time running around crime scenes.
  • 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 Gets Easier: For the murderers.
    Miss Marple: And you wouldn't have any scruples. You know one doesn't stop at one murder. I have noticed that in the course of my life and in what I have observed of crime.
  • 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.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Played with in "The Tuesday Night Club" from The Thirteen Problems; Joyce Lempriere can't think of a proper name for their spontaneously-made club, so she simply asks "What day of the week is it?" While it isn't stated that there is a calendar in her line of sight, it seems likely.
  • 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 her rather 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 several stories when Miss Marple remarks that a lot of tragic things happen in "peaceful" small villages than urban folk tend to assume.
    • Also, in ''A Murder Is Announced," we get this gem of a lampshading from Henry Clithering:
    "A man dies in highly suspicious circumstances in Chipping Cleghorn, and suddenly Aunt Jane is coming to stay."
  • 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 have 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.
  • Sequel:
    • Nemesis is the sequel to A Caribbean Mystery; the whole plot is due to the Dying Wish of Jason Rafiel, a character Miss Marple meets in the previous book.
    • The first six stories of The Thirteen Problems. The first story, The Tuesday Night Club, is the debut of Miss Marple; the five following stories are the subsequent meetings of said club, ending with Miss Marple's nephew, recurring character Raymond West, becoming engaged to one of the other club members.
  • Slap-Slap-Kiss: When Miss Marple witnesses a man and woman arguing and correctly deduces that they are secretly married.
  • Spoiler Title: "Tape-Measure Murder" gives away the murder weapon, thus giving a big clue that the dressmaker is the killer. This was not an issue with its original title, "The Case of the Retired Jeweller".
  • 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 takes an active part in the investigations. The readers usually learn about the case through various proxies, such as the local police.
  • The Summation: Novels usually end with Miss Marple explaining to someone (a detective or other supporting character) how she made her deductions and identified the killer.
  • 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.