Review: The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Book status: Reread. Permanent collection.
Genre: Murder mystery; amateur detective fiction.

It‘s funny how some books can stay in one‘s memory for ages, with even tiny plot details remembered, while others, equally good, seem to simply evaporate from one‘s brain. This is one of those books. I remembered nothing about it, not a single thing, which is good, because the main objective of this kind of mystery, besides being entertaining, is to engage the reader in trying to solve the case ahead of the sleuth.

The narrator of the book is Leonard Clement, the vicar of St. Mary Mead. At the beginning of the book he and several other people express wishes that Colonel Lucius Protheroe, the local magistrate and churchwarden, would die. Protheroe is shown to be an unpleasant man, a harsh judge, domestic tyrant and quarrelsome to boot. Everyone is shocked but no one grieves much when he is found shot dead in the study at the vicarage, where he had been waiting for the vicar to return from a house-call. Several people had reasons to want him dead, but who actually went ahead and killed him?

It‘s no secret that out of Agatha Christie‘s two best known sleuths, I prefer Miss Marple. I read all the Marple books several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the exercise. I thought that since I‘m on a Christie kick, it was about time I got reacquainted with Miss M, and what better place to start than the first full-length Miss Marple story?

The Murder at the Vicarage is the first of the Miss Marple books but she had previously appeared in some short stories. However, in this book her character is by no means fully developed. As described by the narrator, she is admirably clever and notices everything, but is also not a very nice person, being a busybody and a spreader of gossip that is sometimes just a bit malicious. Of course, we are seeing her through the vicar‘s eyes, but still, she doesn‘t have the feel of more likeable Miss Marple of the later books.

The story is entertaining and the descriptions of people are amusing, especially those of the vicar‘s family and of the town gossips, of whom Miss Marple is one. I especially enjoyed an interchange between the vicar and Inspector Slack, the policeman assigned to the case, that is surely the inspiration for a similar exchange in James Anderson‘s homage to the Golden Era detective story, The Affair of the Mutilated Mink.

Vicar Clement is a keen and sarcastic observer of people and their foibles, although he doesn‘t always correctly guess their thoughts and motivations, and this makes him an excellent foil to Miss Marple, who never seems to be wrong about people‘s characters or their motivations.

The mystery itself is a clear prototype for the plot of a later Poirot novel (to name it would give away too much), but with a smaller cast and fewer bodies. It is just as far-fetched, but not as skilfully executed, but enjoyable none the less.

Conclusion: Not the best of the Miss Marple books, but still enjoyable.

P.S. As with so many other books that have been constantly in print for decades, I found so many covers for this book that I just might do a cover discussion of them.

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