Sunday, 17 March 2013

Penguin no. 686: The Murder at the Vicarage
by Agatha Christie

'Because your job deals very largely with what we call right and wrong - and I'm not at all sure that there's any such thing. Suppose it's all a question of glandular secretion. Too much of one gland, too little of another - and you get your murderer, your thief, your habitual criminal. Clement, I believe the time will come when we'll be horrified to think of the long centuries in which we've indulged in what you may call moral reprobation, to think how we've punished people for disease - which they can't help poor devils. You don't hang a man for having tuberculosis.'

Agatha Christie has such a simple and conversational prose style, along with a strong focus on plot, and often provides a perplexed narrator to guide the reader through the altering course of clues and suspects, so that one of her books seems a fairly reliable choice for a long haul flight. Twenty-three hours of enforced idleness, disrupted sleep and increasing restlessness mean that anything requiring more than the most minimal concentration is best avoided. And so when I flew from Perth to London earlier this week I took along the most battered Agatha Christie vintage Penguin I could find on my shelf, planning to discard it once I arrived.

The Murder at the Vicarage was originally published in 1929. It is set in the small backwater of St Mary Mead, a village which seems oversupplied with ageing unmarried women of unworldly but inquisitive dispositions. Nothing occurs which escapes their notice, and there is no detail so insignificant that it will fail to excite their interest. They pass their time watching their fellow villagers, inferring the motives and intentions behind every action, and sitting in judgement upon those they have observed. The best, or perhaps the worst, of these is Miss Jane Marple.

Many in the village dismiss her as a meddlesome old woman, but such animosity may be a reflection of her skill, for she has an uncanny ability to speculate accurately; Miss Marple differs from the other village spinsters in possessing a shrewdness they all lack. Her putative hobbies are gardening and bird watching, so that she is often out of doors concealed behind her shrubbery, able to observe others without herself being seen, but it is clear that her real passion is the study of human behaviour. Through constant observation of the most insignificant details she hopes to find underlying patterns which will help her to understand why people think and behave the way they do. So far she has tested her theories by solving a few small village mysteries, but now a murder has been committed next door at the Vicarage, and Miss Marple has taken a keen interest in the progress of the police investigation.

The victim is Colonel Protheroe, resident of the Hall, and local church warden and magistrate. He was shot through the back of the head early one evening while seated in the study of the Vicarage awaiting the imminent return of the vicar. He had always been a fairly disagreeable man, inclined to be dogmatic in his ideas, and with a particular enthusiasm for imposing punishment in the interests of serving justice. He is not generally liked, not even by his nearest relations. His wife is having an affair, his daughter is longing for financial independence, he has just sent a local poacher to gaol, and he was about to embark on a thorough investigation into a few pounds missing from church funds. It means that the village is filled with potential suspects, at least seven by Miss Marple's reckoning, many of whom had actually been overheard wishing for the Colonel's demise in the hours preceding his murder.

The police response is enthusiastic but ineffective, as while Inspector Slack is intent on getting a conviction, his preferred accused is any person against whom he can build a convincing case. Miss Marple is more concerned with identifying the person who is truly guilty.

Agatha Christie weaves into her simple story an interesting exploration of the motivations of criminals and the best approach in dealing with them. She creates two characters with firm but opposing viewpoints: Colonel Protheroe with his unequivocal ideas about justice and punishment, and Dr Haydock, content to ascribe all crime to glandular dysfunction, and to believe that malicious intentions and unethical people do not exist. She illustrates the flaws inherent in both sets of beliefs, and is clearly suggesting that the answer is far more complex, and something more pragmatic is required.

My trip didn't begin quite as I'd planned, as I arrived in London to find that I couldn't continue on to Brussels, as all Eurostar services had been cancelled due to heavy snowfalls in France and Belgium. It was a little daunting to be stranded in London, jet-lagged and longing for sleep, with no organised accommodation. I  made it to Ghent the following day, and since then have travelled onto Bruges, Newcastle and Edinburgh, visiting some lovely bookshops along the way, and finding about 50 Penguins. Today I head to Glasgow.


  1. I'm sorry to hear about the disruption to your plans - but it sounds like things are going more smoothly now - and you're finding Penguins!

    I think Christie would be good on a flight - but she is such a quick read that I'd need more than one!

  2. I agree with Lisa about needing more than one. But oh how I do love Miss Marple. Your travels sound exhausting, but 50 Penguins is a terrific haul. Look forward to hearing more soon.

  3. I'm trying to work my way through all Agatha Christie's stories, though I have to admit I've slowed down over the past few months. I'll get back on track though, because I can't think of another author who is so reliably entertaining. I hope your trip is going well.



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