The amateur sleuth mystery offers a pleasure not available in private eye novels, police procedurals, and legal thrillers. In all of them, the sleuth's job is to investigate crime. The amateur sleuth has some other occupation.
Agatha Christie's Miss Marple does what elderly spinsters in English villages do: gardening, charity work, and so on. To our surprise this life has given her a dark view of human nature that enables her to solve crimes.
In the decades since Christie launched the genre, readers have enjoyed stories of crimes solved by clergymen, anthropologists, nurses, flight attendants, herbalists, jockeys . . . anything you can think of really. In each instance the sleuth's specialized knowledge proves critical to answering the question "Whodunnit?'
Teachers and scholars are well-represented in the genre, most famously by Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote, a retired English teacher who becomes a successful mystery writer. I had lots of good role models for creating Nicole Tang Noonan, art history professor.
I'm thrilled that some readers have written to say they enjoy learning from my novels about art history. In particular, some have commented on Nicole's discovery in Dark Mural, which is based on a discovery I published in Comparative Drama. If you look at the fourth article in the table of contents above, you'll see it's by Richard L. Homan.
If you want to know what the discovery is, you might find Dark Mural more entertaining than my scholarly article.
When a body is found in the library in the home of Colonel and Mrs Bantry, the investigation is initially conducted by Colonel Melchett, chief constable of the county and a personal friend of Colonel Bantry. The impression of the gentry investigating itself is confirmed when Melchett says things like, "Dash it all, I'm not suggesting you strangled the girl---not the sort of thing you'd do. I know that."
Melchett is accompanied by Inspector Slack, "an energetic man who belied his name and who accompanied his bustling manner with a good deal of disregard for the feelings of anyone he did not consider important." Throughout the novel Slack takes the investigation very seriously.
This combination---investigator chummy with the upper classes accompanied by an underling focused only on finding the truth---also occurs in "Gosford Park," Robert Altman's multi-award-winning film from 2001. And, since the name of Colonel Bantry's house in The Body in the Library is "Gossington Hall," this book would seem to be a source for the film.
There are other similarities. People from the film industry turn up as suspects in both, much to the disapproval of the gentry. And in the film, as in the book, the body is found in the library.
There are differences as well, chiefly in the treatment of English social classes. Altman's film startled viewers in 2001 by taking the servants as seriously as the aristocrats. Agatha Christie keeps the servants in their places.
Strictly speaking, Altman was not the first to give servants their due. "Upstairs, Downstairs" a British television series of the 1970s divided its time between upper and lower classes.
And Altman was not the last. More recently, "Downton Abbey" was a transatlantic hit. Watching "Gosford Park," it's hard to miss Maggie Smith in the role of a disapproving dowager if you were a fan of that series. And, if you look carefully in the credits of the film, you'll see a screenwriting credit for Julian Fellowes, creator of "Downton Abbey."
When Agatha Christie published The Body in the Library in 1942, she was already a household name. Perhaps that's why she was confident enough to engage in a little self-parody.
When Mrs. Bantry wakes Colonel Bantry one morning by telling him the maid has found a body in the library, the Colonel replies, "You've been dreaming, Dolly. It's that detective story you were reading---The Clue of the Broken Match. You know, Lord Edgbaston finds a beautiful blonde dead on the library hearthrug. Bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I've never known a case in real life." Christie seems to be warning the reader that the premise of the book is typical for her mysteries set in English country houses.
Christie throws in quips about her profession throughout the book. When Miss Marple wonders who is calling her so early in the morning, the narrator recalls, "It was true that Miss Marple's nephew, a writer, and therefore erratic, had been known to ring up at the most peculiar times." No doubt she was replying to popular misconceptions about writers being oddballs.
And when one of the prime suspects meets Miss Marple and hears she "knows all about crime," he asks, "'Do you---er---write detective stories?' The most unlikely people, he know, wrote detective stories. And Miss Marple, in her old-fashioned spinster's clothes, looked a singularly unlikely person." Miss Marple, who will prove to be a genius at solving the crime, replies, "Oh, no, I'm not clever enough for that." Here she reminds me of Flannery O'Connor, who said, "Everyone knows what a story is, until they try to write one."
When the body of a young woman is found in the library at Gossington Hall, everyone assumes old Mr. Bantry has been keeping a mistress. But Mrs. Bantry tells her friend, Jane Marple, "Arthur isn't like that . . . . He's just, sometimes, a little bit silly about pretty girls who come to tennis. You know, rather fatuous and avuncular. There's no harm in it." I assumed poor old Mrs. Bantry was deceiving herself, which is what Christie wanted me to do.
Soon the police are questioning another wealthy old man, Conway Jefferson, who met the murdered woman at the hotel where she worked as a dance hostess. He explains that his son and daughter were killed in an accident years earlier and that he didn't want their spouses to have the burden of caring for him. Therefore, he says, "I got more and more fond of Ruby. I decided, gentlemen, to adopt her legally. She would become, by law, my daughter."
Miss Marple tells the police she believes Jefferson, and says she knew another old man, Mr. Harbottle, whose sister was called away to nurse a dying relative. In her absence, Harbottle began treating the maidservant as his companion. Miss Marple explains, "People said things, of course, but I believe there was no familiarity of any kind. It was simply that the old man found it much pleasanter to have a young, cheerful girl telling him how clever and amusing he was than to have his sister continually pointing out his faults . . . ."
Not content to give one example, Miss Marple tells a similar story about a "Mr. Badger" and goes on to cite the legend of King Cophetua and the beggar maid. Near the end of the book, a butler says he's seen many older men "adopt" younger women.
Christie's reason for piling up all these examples becomes clear when Mrs. Bantry begs Miss Marple to expose the murderer. Otherwise, she says, people will always assume her husband had an affair and killed to cover it up. Her husband will be shunned, will become lonely and depressed, and will die too soon. False assumptions are deadly.
I admire Christie for choosing to explore a relationship that is usually assumed to be sexual and for coaxing the reader along toward believing it isn't. The Body in the Library gives us a puzzle---How did the body get into the library? Who wanted it there? And why?---and a solution. It also delivers a powerful theme.
Many times I've heard that for the reader of Agatha Christie it's all about the puzzle---figuring out who done it. Undoubtedly she was a genius at making it hard to guess who the murderer is. The reader awaits the final scene in which the great detective says, "therefore it could only have been _____." The puzzle solved by the brilliant deduction is a formula for success as proven with Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot.
But I'm discovering other delights as I get around to reading some of Christie's novels for the first time. They are full of social satire---riffs on the fashions and fads of her day. Though they reflect the rigid class system of her society, they occasionally cast doubt on the fairness of that system. And there are reflections on human nature as profound as I've seen anywhere.
I've just finished reading The Body in the Library, the second of Agatha Christie's books featuring Miss Jane Marple. In my next few blog posts I'll give details of the delights I've discovered there.
But, I promise, I won't reveal who done it.
Agatha Christie is the best selling novelist of all time. That means she has sold more books than Stephen King, for instance. Or Charles Dickens. Her career spanned more than fifty years and produced sixty-six novels plus short stories and plays.
I am reading more of Christie's novels now for several reasons. First, though I had always thought of her as an old-fashioned mystery writer who belonged to previous generations, I now see she was publishing regularly through the 1960's and until her death in 1976, well into my lifetime.
Second, she wrote several kinds of novels. She is famous for Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and indeed they account for about two-thirds of her novels, but among the others is her best selling book, And Then There Were None, a murder mystery with no sleuth. She also wrote one narrated in the first person by the killer (I won't say which one). So there's lots to explore.
Also, since I want to write mysteries people will want to read, I'd like to learn from the best.