This novel marks the debut of Miss Marple, Christie’s other beloved fictional detective, a gentle and harmless-looking old lady with a keen interest in human nature and a remarkably clear view of its dark side. I couldn’t say if it’s the best Miss Marple whodunit, but it ranks as my personal favourite for being so enjoyable to re-visit. I lost count of how many times I picked up my old tattered copy of The Murder at the Vicarage (now replaced with a more respectable one) for a quick and easy in-between comfort re-read.
Though Miss Marple is of course responsible for solving the murder, she is not a main character here and her appearances are in fact fairly sparse. Instead the story is narrated by Leonard Clement, a mild-mannered vicar in the village of St Mary Mead, a tiny sleepy place where everybody either knows everyone else’s business, or is busy nosing it out via the all-powerful gossip network. As the book title suggests, Clement’s house becomes a crime scene when the vicar finds Colonel Protheroe, a wildly unpopular local magistrate, shot in his study. Kinda awkward when, only a day before, the vicar proclaimed that anyone who murdered Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service.
No one is really upset by this news, but hey murder is murder. Due to his social standing in the village the vicar becomes involved in the investigation, but as expected the police have no chance of solving the crime. Luckily, Clement’s good neighbour Miss Marple is there to offer her skills of deduction and observation. In fact, she can think of at least seven people in the village who had a plausible motive and opportunity for murder.
The Murder at the Vicarage is as masterfully plotted as any solid Christie mystery, however for me the charm of the book has always been in the setting, characters and the novel’s gentle sense of humour and sarcasm. Christie’s English villages, with their malevolent undercurrents hidden behind the placid quaint exterior, are one of my favourite settings of hers, and St Mary Mead introduces the reader to a cast of characters who continue to pop up in the later Miss Marple books. They may not be particularly deep characterisations mind you, but they do give you a snapshot of the time and place and are fun to come back to. The vicar’s home life is a big source of humour, between his frivolous much-younger wife who’s hopeless at house-keeping and their sullen servant who is a terrible cook. The police also have entertainment value in Inspector Slack, an abrasive but energetic individual who hilariously contradicts his name.
P.S. Strangely enough, the original book is still not anywhere near as funny as the Russian translation I read all those years ago, which seemed to boost the humour aspect even more. I noticed the same thing about Jerome K. Jerome‘s Three Men in a Boat; the English original is funny for sure, but the Russian translation had me in absolute stitches.