Jun 8 2011 9:00am

Miss Marple, Everlasting

Geraldine Mcewan as the lady-like sleuth Miss MarpleIn the genteel drawing room, elderly Miss Jane Marple sits in her chair, hands encased in black lace, her fingers working knitting needles on a dull colored yarn. She barely participates in the conversation around her, except perhaps to ask a seemingly unimportant question. How often have you read that exact scene or one very like it?

Since her first introduction to mystery readers in the short story, “The Tuesday Night Club” published nearly eighty-five years ago, the amiable and omniscient Miss Marple is forever underestimated by the characters surrounding her.  The dozen or so novels which demonstrate her cunning methods of crime solving, beginning with Murder in the Vicarage, (1930) have been read in numerous languages during the ensuing decades. Even today Miss Marple books are likely available in every bookstore and library around the globe, as well as in most e-reader formats.

So what is it about Miss Marple? Why does she live forever on our bookshelves and in our minds, even as gunslinging women with exceptional physical prowess have come to prominence in the mystery world? (See Carrie Netzer Wajda’s Criminal Element post Today’s Female Crime Fighters: Not Nancy Enough?”

It is likely that Miss Marple’s near invisibility lets the reader identify in an “if she can solve the puzzle, so can I” kind of way. I know I’d be hard pressed to chase criminals around town and it isn’t likely that I could force a confession out of a villian. Miss Marple is proof that an attentive and rational intellect can be more effective than actual pugnacity. People differ extensively in degrees of brawn and physical skills but every reader has a brain and while we may not like to repeat gossip, we often listen when it comes our way. I once wrote that Miss Marple has staying power because every reader knows that within the events and conversations of each novel or short story are the subtle hints to the resolution of the mystery, and yet, no one sees the clues except, of course, the deceptively unassuming Miss Marple who infers the worst and is frequently correct.

(Left) Margaret Rutherford (Right) Joan Hickson: looking a bit identical?In describing Jane Marple, her creator, Agatha Christie, wrote, “There was no unkindness in Miss Marple, she just did not trust people. Though she expected the worst, she often accepted people kindly in spite of what they were.”

Helen Hayes in the titular role of Miss MarpleMiss Marple’s quiet, almost timid, nature, peppered with clever observations, translates beautifully to video. Besides motion pictures, we viewers are fortunate to have the BBC and PBS bring Miss Marple to life, portrayed by a number of fine actresses. The ones I best remember are Margaret Rutherford who played the role in several movies when I was a child and Helen Hayes who starred in two movies in the mid-eighties. On the BBC and PBS over the past twenty years, Joan Hickson played the elderly, amateur sleuth as did Geraldine McEwen and Julia McKenzie. And let’s not forget that before Angela Lansbury solved many a mystery as J.B. Fletcher, she was also Miss Marple a time or two.

(Left) Margaret Rutherford and (Right) Angela Lansbury: who Marpled it better?

Take a look at this BBC article on the actresses who took on the modest and reticent look of the venerable Miss Marple. 

Jennifer Garner the latest Miss MarpleDisney Studios, always a great purveyor of fantasy, has come up with their most fantastical plan yet—a young Miss Marple, to be played by thirty-eight year old Jennifer Garner. The young, fresh woman that Disney plans to mold takes the heart and soul out of the true Miss Marple, whose advanced age and ineffectual appearance is what permits her to be a crime solving superwoman.

If Jennifer Garner wants to be Miss Marple, let her have the role when she earns her own gray hair, wrinkles and a penchant for dowdy clothes. Barring that, I’ve heard Hollywood can do wonders with make-up.

From 1956, Gracie Fields was the earliest on-screen Miss MarpleUPDATE: Sharp-eyed reader Ayo Onatade offers this entry. Gracie Fields, the top grossing British actress of the 1930s, who beat Margaret Rutherford to the role by 5 years, starred in a Goodyear Playhouse version of “A Murder is Announced” in 1956.  Yet another formidable Marple!






Go to the TV Crime feature section for more articles and discussions of your favorite small-screen shows.

Terrie blogs at Women of Mystery.  One of her recent short stories can be found in the anthology Crimes By Moonlight and another can be read on the Beat To A Pulp website. 

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. bungluna
Please say it ain't so! Not content with ruining perfectly good books by bad casting they're now going to ruin classics by 'modernizing' them? Lord save me from constipated imaginations.
2. Leslie Elman
Loved this post until the last bit. Jennifer Garner? From Alias?

It'll never fly Orville.
Terrie Farley Moran
3. Terrie
@bungluna--I wish I hadn't read it repeatedly with my own two eyes, but it is so! @Leslie, yes, that Jennifer Garner! Can you believe it?
Leigh Lundin
4. Leigh_Lundin
>Miss Marple is proof that an attentive and rational intellect can be more effective than actual pugnacity.

Yes, exactly. I read a recent Hollywood trend report that warned movie goers not to expect thoughtful American films anytime soon. Sad we live in an era that devalues intelligence in favor of mindless combat, but at least we can fall back upon libraries of great stories.

There is one interesting point… What was Miss Marple like in her youth?
Terrie Farley Moran
5. Terrie
Leigh, I seem to recall that in the Marple novels and stories we get glimpses of a younger Miss Marple through conversations with her long standing friends or her own recollections and I think that Christie wanted us to believe that even as a young woman Jane Marple was a "sit in the corner, knit, and watch the world go by but take it all in" kind of young woman. Of course that may be how I read it because I love her as she is. What Hollywood wants us to see may be another thing entirely.
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