In real life, accidental detectives are about as likely as unicorns gaining the right to vote. Yet, we still cling to the notion of seemingly innocuous people finding themselves embroiled in murder and intrigue because it’s romantic. What would the canon of cozy mystery fiction be without this leap of faith? Where would Rita Mae Brown be? Or Lilian Jackson Braun? Or all those cats? And what about Angela Lansbury?
But before Lansbury was “murder, she writing” her way into the 1980s, she had a turn as the subtly crafty Miss Jane Marple in the 1980 film version of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d. Perhaps not as readily formidable as Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, Miss Marple pervades our consciousness not just as an awesome detectrix, but more holistically as a kind zenned-out guru. Miss Marple is genuinely cool, insofar as there’s nothing overtly cool about her. This is why she’s such a serious badass, and a dose of “Marple Style” is arguably the greatest gift Dame Agatha Christie ever gave us.
We know Jane Marple doesn’t seek out the situations she finds herself in, and she certainly isn’t passive aggressive about her detection skills. No. Miss Marple is aggressively passive, full of irony and calm deductions that, if imitated, would probably cause some of us who are wound too tight to be unwound. Sherlock Holmes, conversely, is constantly in need of stimulation and hyper-aware of his own boredom. Miss Marple, at least outwardly, isn’t. It just comes to her. If all great detectives were equated to members of The Beatles, Miss Marple would certainly be George Harrison, content to hang out on the beach, listen to people’s stories, and see what turns up.
In my favorite Agatha Christie novel, A Caribbean Mystery (1964), a vacationing Marple finds herself trying to figure out why the aging but seemingly healthy Major Palgrave suddenly has died. (The novel is fantastic because it is precisely one of those books that pejoratively get referred to as “beach reads.” Well, let me tell you, there’s nothing better than a beach read that actually takes place on the damn beach.) Near the start of the book, Miss Marple questions a woman named Molly Kendall, closely associated with the tragedy, and strange dialogue ensues:
“Yes, it’s horrid having a death here. It makes everyone depressed. Of course—he was quite old.”
“He seemed quite well and cheerful yesterday,” said Miss Marple, slightly resenting this calm assumption that everyone of advanced years was liable to die at any minute. “He seemed quite healthy,” she added.
“He had high blood pressure,” said Molly.
“But surely there are things one takes nowadays—some kind of pill. Science is so wonderful.”
“Oh yes, but perhaps he forgot to take his pills, or took too many of them. Like insulin, you know.”
Miss Marple did not think diabetes and high blood pressure were at all the same kind of thing. She asked: “What did the doctor say?”
Because this novel employs a nice, easy and close third-person point-of-view with Marple, we get her pithy thoughts juxtaposed with her calm, near-ironic statements. The true manipulation here is Marple letting this Molly person know she digs science and is therefore educated. But the suspect tells her an obvious lie anyway. You could argue that this is simply a trick created by Agatha Christie and that Miss Marple is totally unrealistic and everyone would see through her little-old-lady act. But it’s not an act. A little old lady who digs science would say things like “science is so wonderful.” Miss Marple is polite, which is one of her weapons. People don’t see things they don’t want to see, and so if you’re polite and ask the right questions, you’ll often get the answers no one else can. In The Moving Finger (1942)—oddly narrated in the first-person by a character named Jerry Burton—Miss Marple subtly corrects a group of people on how murders really work:
Miss Marple had resumed her fleece knitting. “You know,” she observed pensively. “To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick.”
“The quickness of the hand deceives the eye?”
“Not only that. You’ve got to make people look at the wrong thing in the wrong place—Misdirection, they call it, I believe.”
“Well,” I remarked [Jerry]. “So far everybody seems to have looked in the wrong place for the lunatic at large.”
“I should be inclined, myself,” said Miss Marple, “to look for somebody very sane.”
Miss Marple’s irony is in overdrive in this scene. She drops in phrases like “I believe” and “must be” as though she’s never thought of these things before. These fools don’t know who they’re dealing with! And unlike a Sherlock Holmes-type, she suffers these fools gladly. Though the end-goal of a murder solved and a job well done are certainly gratifying to Miss Marple, she doesn’t seek it out the way some of her literary predecessors did. Of course, if we think of her as a real person (and why not?) she must get satisfaction from the crimes being wrapped up, just the same as Holmes. Her happiness is tied up in figuring out what has happened, who has done it, why and how. But her approach is simply to sit around and be herself. Her aggressive passiveness is in full effect: her irony is manipulative, and nearly unintentionally so. This is simply how she behaves. And the best part about it is that it works for her—every time.
Again, we could view Miss Marple’s style as a cool affect, a deception that allows her to get what she wants. But why get cynical about it? When I interviewed writer and filmmaker Nicholas Meyer a few years ago for an article about Sherlock Holmes, he observed that the Conan Doyle stories make up something of a “secular religion.” And I think strong detective fiction like that featuring Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple is the same. She’s a pro-science, kind-hearted, polite person who only needs to sit around and do her thing. There’s no need to make a fuss about how awesome she is. She knows she’s great, and soon, as the chapters unfold, everyone else will too. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be so centered, so quietly confident? Because it’s there in that quiet, yet relentless competence that Miss Marple reveals what she truly is: a hero.