Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Murder at the Vicarage: "But my hobby is - and always has been - Human Nature"

Agatha Christie Challenge:
Book 12
Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple.
You Don't Want to Tangle
with this Dame!
One of the things I like about Agatha Christie's novels is that I can enjoy them, even when they're not her best. That's certainly the case with The Murder at the Vicarage, the first appearance of Miss Marple in a novel.

On the whole, The Murder at the Vicarage is an engaging two-dimensional bit of fluff that's worth a read for the sheer pleasure of seeing the genesis of Jane Marple. Nevertheless, the story felt trite and formulaic, and to my mind, the many subplots distracted from the narrative's pace. And unlike many of her other works, where the characters are developed and emotionally charged, the characters in this book seem lifeless and detached from the real world.

What's interesting about this first Miss Marple mystery is how little is devoted to the crime solving spinster that would become world famous. That's the book's major shortcoming. Of course, Miss Marple solves the murder, but she's not the focus or even a major character. It's only when Miss Marple appears that the book comes alive.

In the many Marple movie and television adaptations, the Miss Marple character is so dominant that the actresses playing her have become closely associated with the role. Margaret Rutherford, Helen Hayes, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine McEwan, Julia McKenzie, and Joan Hickson have all played Miss Marple with varying degrees of success.

Rutherford's Miss Marple was boisterous, over-the-top, and comical. On its own terms, Rutherford gives stellar performance, but it's not Miss Marple. Likewise, the great American stage actress Helen Hayes had a try at the part but was woefully miscast, as was Angela Lansbury. Simply put, Hayes was too American and Lansbury too robust. Julia McKenzie, the current Miss Marple, does a fine job, but frankly, she's too full of life to be playing an aging senior.

For my money, Geraldine McEwan was the most interesting of the Marple's. She shows Jane's darker side. A woman that's shrewd, calculating, and even sinister. But again, she's not the Miss Marple of the novels. That distinction goes to Joan Hickson who fits the role to a tee. Hickson conveys wisdom, frailty, and wistfulness. She's a woman who's seen the best and the worst of human nature. It's Hickson's version that's depicted in The Murder at the Vicarage, and I think it's why Agatha Christie told Hickson, "I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple."

Rating: C+

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