The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie – Book Review

I made a mistake in my review of The Murder at the Vicarage: while it was Miss Marple’s full-length novel debut, it wasn’t her first appearance, rather it was in a 1927 short story called The Tuesday Night Club. Later, it became the first chapter in this entertaining collection of thirteen short stories, which together form a sort of episodic novel. Midway through the book, I realised that I have actually read it before, but the details of each story completely evaporated from my memory so it was like reading them anew.

The premise for the first six stories is simple: five people of different ages and professions are enjoying a weekly social gathering at Miss Marple’s house, and every time one of the guests offers a real-life crime mystery for the others to solve. They pretty much all go the same way: a guest tells their story, the others offer their (wildly incorrect) solutions, before fluffy old Miss Marple takes a break from her knitting and nails the solution from the comfort of her chair, more often than not relying on the parallels between the cases and her own experience of village life. Human nature, says Miss Marple over and over, is the same everywhere, after all. The next six stories repeat the formula with another group of people at a different dinner party, where Miss Marple is invited by one of the previous guests, Sir Henry Clithering, a retired Scotland Yard commissioner. The last story is a standalone affair, with Miss Marple enlisting Sir Henry‘s help in solving the death of a local girl – she knows who the murderer is but has no proof to present to the police.

While the story structure might be repetitive, the mysteries themselves are clever and varied, though you can pick out the elements and ideas that made it into some of Christie’s later novels. Because of these similarities I figured out the perpetrator and the method a few times before the final reveal; after reading so much Christie you just know what odd detail to look out for and of course they’re easier to spot in a short story. A few stories earlier on have a supernatural, ghost-story tinge to them – an inexplicable death in the ancient pagan grove, sinister goings-on in small Cornish villages involving blood stains on the pavement and sunken Spanish galleons. It’s all eventually dismantled and brought down to earth by sensible Miss Marple of course, but it does provide a nice atmosphere. As always with a collection, some stories are more engaging than others, but there really isn’t a single dud in the bunch.

In the foreword, Christie mentions Miss Marple’s affinity with her own grandmother, who, despite being a pink and white Victorian lady with the most proper and sheltered of lives, had an uncanny knowledge of just how ugly the human nature could get and wouldn’t take anyone on their word. At first, the other characters see Miss Marple as a sweet, gentle, easily shocked old lady, but behind her twinkling blue eyes and self-effacing manner, she is remarkably hard-headed and capable of facing the bare facts better than most people. I tend to agree with Christie’s assertion in the foreword that this collection offers the real essence of Miss Marple for her fans.

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