When you think feminist icon, Agatha Christie’s lady detective Miss Marple may not be at the top of your list. But as it turns out, there’s more to Miss Marple than meets the eye. In fact, her flying-under-the-radar status is exactly what makes her such an expert detective.
“By 1960, Agatha Christie was apparently exhausted with male know-it-alls,” Alice Bolin writes at Electric Lit. “She had grown to despise her most famous detective, Hercule Poirot, whom she described as ‘an egocentric creep.'”
So, Bolin argues, Christie went on to invent Miss Marple, “her little old lady heroine, whose quiet expertise in the comings and goings of village life and the universality of human nature made her an unlikely master detective.” We spoke to Bolin about her essay “Miss Marple vs. The Mansplainers,” and why Miss Marple’s status as “spinster” makes her the ultimate feminist detective hero.
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You write that Christie inherited just as much from Jane Austen as Arthur Conan Doyle. Do we know anything about Christie’s reading habits? Was she an Austen devotee?
Christie certainly read Austen, but as far as I know was more enamored of the Victorians, especially Wilkie Collins. She loved to read detective fiction!
There’s been much discussion over the categorization “spinster” lately; Briallen Hopper’s great review of Kate Bolick’s Spinster called for a re-definition of the term. What do you think Christie would think about this new theory of spinsterhood?
I love that review! I definitely felt I was riding the wave of Spinstercore with this piece. I have no real way of knowing, of course, how Christie would have felt about the definition of the spinster as a patron saint of “the weird, difficult, dissonant, queer.” But many of them are about tracking an English society that has been disrupted by two world wars; men who died in the war, women who have taken on new roles, and villages and neighborhoods that have been permanently changed are all integral to her plots. English village society in her novels is remarkably feminine, and straight male patriarchs, both in the village structure and in the police, are less than useless. It’s not a utopia, but in a weird way it is that spinster fantasy where strange, unmarried women are appreciated by all, including straight male patriarchs, for their unique intelligence.
Raymond Chandler claimed that “old lady” detectives didn’t want to face up to the fact that “murder is an act of infinite cruelty.” Doesn’t this belie that all crimes involve murder? Doesn’t Miss Marple’s ability to solve a variety of crimes would elevate her (to the level of say, Sherlock Holmes)?
It is definitely a frustrating argument on Chandler’s part: maybe village mysteries and American noir are not the same genre. Maybe not all detective fiction has to be the same? I think Chandler knew he couldn’t construct as tight a mystery as Christie, but, in that traditionally masculine way of dealing with feminine talent, questioned whether constructing a mystery was a worthwhile skill at all. Ultimately his novels are not really about solving crimes, but about a sort of existential urban chaos that can never be solved. Which is great! The Miss Marple novels are the same but different: they’re about a Sisyphean commitment to reorienting and rectifying a traditional village and family structure that was threatened from all sides.
You claim that Marple’s mission (or rather, Christie’s) was to break down the Victorian ideal of “home sweet home.” What do we know about Christie’s domestic life?
I don’t think Christie would have ever acknowledged that she was trying to break down the ideal of the Victorian home—she was, rather, documenting the dangers to it. She was not in any way a confirmed spinster, entering several failed courtships before she married her first husband. But her domestic life was sort of unwillingly modernized in the same way of the Victorian families in her books. When she and her first husband were married, he was on leave from fighting in France in World War I, and she was working as a VAD nurse. They separated in 1926 because he was in love with someone else, and she “disappeared’ for 11 days—an incident that is still confusing and mysterious. She married her true love, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, in 1930, and traveled with him to digs around the Middle East. Her domestic life was colorful and eventful, not village-staid. I think that’s just what we would expect from such a literary celebrity.
The early danger of the novel was that people in the same place could be having diverging, individual experiences—the family was not gathered around the hearth listening to father read the bible, but each silently on their own, potentially morally corrupting, adventures. This, of course, was exactly the novel’s appeal. The novel is a messy, hungry, hybrid form: it can contain or imitate basically any other literary form (the letter, the poem, the diary, the footnote, the essay, the technical report . . .). That sort of fun, subversive mess is the novel—and that includes both Gravity’s Rainbow and Danielle Steele novels, though of course in different ways.
Which Miss Marple novel do you think people (who have never read Christie) should start with?
They should certainly start with her first, Murder at the Vicarage, where we are introduced to her as just another nosy village lady. But my favorite is A Murder is Announced, which is half mystery novel, half comedy, with caricatures of a paranoid slavic housekeeper and the obviously coded lesbian roommates Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd. It has a genuinely satisfying ending, too.