In 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.
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.”
Miss 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.
Take a look at this BBC article on the actresses who took on the modest and reticent look of the venerable Miss Marple.
Disney 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.
UPDATE: 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!
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