Bingo row 2, dwelling–the titular vicarage/crime scene. The vicarage in England is where the pastor of the Anglican Church lives–it’s usually associated with teas with the church ladies and sermon-composing and parish administration, rather than murder–especially the murder of a church warden. The cover of my edition is annoyingly irrelevant–the vicarage is far more important than the graveyard.
We find out far more about the vicarage as a crime scene than as a dwelling here; Christie tends to sketch rather than paint a background. We know there is little money, we know the vicar is middle-aged and has a beautiful young wife who is bad at house-keeping, we know there’s an ineffectual servant, and we know that there is a murder in his study and Miss Marple lives opposite. We are given a carefully drawn map of the crime scene, however–though we may not know when the murderer made their entrance.
I often forget the “assessing quality and recommending (or not) to other readers” aspect of the review, so I’ll note that here–but it’s hard, because if you find Christie to be twee or frustrating or whatever, you won’t like this–but if you like Christie, or mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s, or books set in English villages, this is absolutely an excellent one–the plot hangs together well, and there’s a delightful sense of lightness and deftness with the characterisation and setting.
The Murder at the Vicarage is usually the sort of novel that people think about when they think about Christie–an English village, a corpse for whom no one can truly grieve, a quirky private detective, and a wry narrator, with each element of character and plot and location carefully placed and balanced, a house of cards built on a foundation of rationality, order, and communally determined morality, infused with a general air of reassuring pastoral cosiness.
I’ve spent a great deal of my research career, such as it is, arguing that in fact Christie is neither cosy nor pastoral, that a sense of anxiety and fragmentation and general messiness underlies the lucidity of her detective novels and the green pleasantness of her England.
And yet, while on holiday, I will reach for a Christie if one is handy, as I have done for well over half my life. I first read The Murder at the Vicarage, for instance, in the early 2000s on a Midsummer night on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago, killing time while the haze of beer-and-vodka-and-too-many-cigarettes around the campfire wore off, long before I thought writing about Christie could be a thing (and indeed it wasn’t, really, then), and forgot where I was–and I reread it now, similarly suspended in time, a PhD and a pandemic and a cancer episode later. Books connect us to our old selves, I riffed recently to undergrads–but I was not entirely mistaken, I think.
So, about the book itself. The vicar, Clement, is the narrator, and according to genre convention, also a sort of Watson figure to Miss Marple, though he doesn’t fully realise this himself. He’s an English gentleman, whose duties are performed dutifully but with little passion–until, frustrated by the baser sides of his parishioners that keep being revealed, he preaches a sermon that hits home for too many people. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster, who views gossip and observation as her duties, and performs them with enthusiasm:
She was looking full at Griselda as she spoke, and I suddenly felt a wild surge of anger.
‘Don’t you think, Miss Marple,’ I said, ‘that we’re all inclined to let our tongues run away with us too much. Charity thinketh no evil, you know. Inestimable harm may be done by foolish wagging of tongues in ill-natured gossip.’
‘Dear Vicar,’ said Miss Marple, ‘You are so unworldly. I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?’
That last Parthian shot went home.
Miss Marple is an effective detective; her methodology involves close attention to servants’ comments, performing gentility and frailty to put people off their guard, and expertly interpreting the everyday dramas of village life:
‘I suppose you consider us very much out of the things down here?’
Raymond West waved his cigarette. ‘I regard St Mary Mead,’ he said authoritatively, ‘as a stagnant pool.’
He looked at us, prepared for resentment at his statement, but somewhat, I think, to his chagrin, no one displayed annoyance.
‘That is really not a very good simile, dear Raymond,’ said Miss Marple briskly. ‘Nothing, I believe, is so full of life under the microscope as a drop of water from a stagnant pool.’
Indeed, the village is teeming with transgressive desires, seething resentments, and petty crimes, revealed during the murder investigation. The murder itself is a crime of passion–or is it? Christie rarely lets unbridled passion entirely take the reins–there’s usually a hard-headed motive of self-preservation and a stash of cold hard cash involved somewhere. The suspects include a flaky young flapper, a mysterious lady recently arrived in the village, and the curate (assistant to the vicar)–so far so conventional, so middle-class.
But, to return to the uneasiness beneath the gentility, there’s also musing on the nature of crime and evil. The village doctor, a traditionally reassuring figure, believes that that criminal impulses and acts might be the result of physiological imbalances rather than a legal or moral issue:
Too much of one gland, too little of another – and you get your murderer, your thief, your habitual criminal. Clement, I believe the time will come when we’ll be horrified to think of the long centuries in which we’ve punished people for disease – which they can’t help, poor devils. You don’t hang a man for having tuberculosis. […] But it’s not a moral lack – it’s a physical one.’
‘What you say is terrible!’
‘No – it’s only new to you. New truths have to be faced. One’s ideas adjusted. But sometimes – it makes life difficult.’
Not Agatha casually bringing the whole house of cards crashing down.