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In her autobiography, Agatha Christie described the origins of Miss Marple (her most enduring creation, alongside Hercule Poirot) in a rather charming way. Christie wrote that Miss Marple was “the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my step-grandmother’s Ealing cronies—old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl". The description is fitting because in the eyes of a child, senior citizens equal Christmas coming early. They’re full of mystery and worldly wisdom and they have stories to explain everything; what more could a child possibly want out of an adult? This, to me, was always the decisive distinction between Poirot and Marple; over time Christie grew tired of Poirot’s intellectual pride and grandstanding (the latter is an all-too-common trait among men, it has to be said) whereas until the very end, she viewed Marple with the same childlike affection.
This same childlike affection is the most attractive quality of Marple: Twelve New Stories, a new collection of short stories featuring Christie’s detective. The authors are a mixture of crime writers (Val McDermid, Lucy Foley, Ruth Ware) and other well-received contemporary novelists (Jean Kwok, Leigh Bardugo, Karen McManus and others), many of whom have made their marks in other genres (Bardugo, for instance, is the creator of the Grishaverse series of fantasy novels, the basis for the Netflix show Shadow and Bone).
As is usually the case with multi-author anthologies, the tonality of this book is wildly uneven and by my count, at least four of the 12 stories here do not really need Marple as a character—replacing her with a generic sleuth would have worked just as well. Basically, they’re good whodunits; they’re just… not Marple stories.
However, when the collection is at its best—McDermid, Alderman and Ware, especially—it really is a treat for both Agatha Christie diehards and relative newcomers to the Marple lore. Ruth Ware’s story ‘Miss Marple’s Christmas’ does not feature a murder—the crime in question is a daring theft instead—but is the story that most closely resembles Christie’s style in this collection. McDermid sets her target even higher, her story ‘The Second Murder at the Vicarage’ being an elaborate homage to The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), the first full-length novel to feature Miss Marple. In one of the story’s knockout one-liners, McDermid even channels Oscar Wilde, by having the stoic Leonard Clement say, “To have one murder in one’s vicarage is unfortunate; to have a second looks remarkably like carelessness, or worse" (alluding to a similar line from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest).
My favourite story from this book—and I suspect this will be the case for a lot of readers—is Naomi Alderman’s ‘An Open Mind’ in which Miss Marple finds herself solving a slimy, much-reviled Oxford don’s murder on Founder’s Day at St. Bede’s College, circa 1970. This is, first and foremost, a beautifully plotted, highly cinematic story with ‘stock academic characters’ that will appeal to a broad swathe of whodunit fans. But Alderman also goes above and beyond the call of duty to deliver some thoroughly contemporary commentary on a host of things, really — drug consumption and its cultural cachet in the 70s, the insularity of academia and, of course, a premonition-like passage about the MeToo movement in academic circles. Turns out, the murdered don (Sir Cuthbert) was also a habitual harasser of female postgrad students.
“Cuthbert touched her up. Everyone said she ought to keep quiet about it. But she made a fuss, went to the University. Of course, Cuthbert said she’d been as keen as he was and just regretted it afterwards. He said, she said. And she had been caught in bed with a boyfriend after curfew a year earlier, so it all looked rather bad for her. She was passed over for a Junior Fellowship after that."
Of course, the harassment victim killing her tormentor would be too neat a conclusion for the murder mystery—instead, Alderman’s denouement both ties up things neatly and maintains the story’s thematic and symbolic connections to progressivism as a whole, MeToo and the idea of ‘progressive campuses’ being safe spaces for women.
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A lot of the stories in this collection also understand that the pleasures of reading Agatha Christie are not restricted to the murder mystery itself but also the accompanying trappings. For example, Christie’s descriptions of food—typically, feasts at the country houses where people would get killed shortly—were always a big draw for me. To that extent, I was not disappointed by Twelve New Stories, which picks up on Christie’s sumptuous food descriptions in a big way. The aforementioned Oxford dinner, for example, had a first course of “partridge stuffed with prunes on a bed of wild mushrooms" while the main course consists of “racks of venison with roast parsnips, blackberries, and a chestnut stuffing". As you read this story, you’ll be actively waiting to see what the next course is made up of.
The uncredited foreword to the book sums up the ageless appeal of Miss Marple, especially for female readers, in this way: “Christie had noticed that women, especially those in their later years who remained unmarried, were often patronised, overlooked and underestimated, but the world’s bestselling novelist knew well how little escapes such village stalwarts, that underneath demure lace caps could lurk the shrewdest of brains, capable of outsmarting even Scotland Yard’s finest." Twelve New Stories, despite its flaws and occasional missteps, understands this sentiment quite well and delivers some worthy sequels for Marple fans.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED17.11.2022 | 09:00 AM IST