by Barb, working in her new study in Portland, Maine. There are still some boxes to go through, but it’ll do for now
I’ve been working on a new project for my publisher, Kensington Books. It’s actually an update of a novel I wrote in 2011. I finished it, but then the Maine Clambake Mysteries came along, I got busy, and the manuscript has been languishing in the proverbial drawer ever since. Okay, in the virtual drawer. I stole the original first chapter for a short story that was published in Level Best Books Noir at the Salad Bar.
The book is titled, Jane Darrowfield, Professional Busybody. I originally conceived of Jane as my Miss Marple. My version is contemporary, and takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I thought a modern Jane would be divorced, not never-married. And instead of learning everything she needed to know about human nature from observing the citizens of St. Mary Mead, my Jane has seen it all at her job, climbing the ranks of AT&T and later all the permutations of what eventually became Verizon. And –would we even think of her as “old”? After all, old has gotten very much older.
I devoured the Miss Marple stories as a kid, back before YA literature was a thing. I loved them, but over the years, between the movies and the TV shows, my memory has gotten quite fuzzy. Back when I wrote the book the first time, I re-read the first Miss Marple and the last.
Just as Mickey Mouse appears rat-like in his early appearance in Steamboat Willy (1928), Miss Marple is an unpleasant gossip whom people avoid in her first appearance in The Murder at the Vicarage (1930). In Nemesis (1971), the last full-length book written (though not published), Miss Marple is much as we know her and is very much at the center of the mystery.
Struggling with point of view and tone as I rewrite my manuscript, I thought I would turn back to the master. I picked three from an internet list I found of the “best of the Miss Marples,” The Moving Finger (1943), A Murder is Announced (1950), and A Pocket Full of Rye (1953). Each was fascinating in its own way.
In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple turns up late–the book is more than 80% done. She plays a key role, but not the only role in the solution. The book reads, honestly, as if it is someone else’s story entirely, and then her publisher told Christie, “you better make it a Miss Marple,” after it was done.
Indeed, this is a characteristic of these early Miss Marple mysteries. She shows up a little sooner in A Murder is Announced, and her reputation precedes her, at least among the detectives. But it is not her story in any sense and there are only two scenes from her point of view, though she is the major driver of the solution. I haven’t finished A Pocket Full of Rye, the police are well on the case and have interviewed all the major suspects and we’ve not yet seen Miss Marple.
Keeping your sleuth scarce is a wonderful technique for a mystery writer. Going into her point of view is fraught–to play fair we most reveal all she knows, and a distant sleuth will be more exotic, their thought processes and techniques more inscrutable. (See Conan Doyle.) However, it won’t work for me in this case.
Nonetheless, I plan to keep re-reading. Christie’s language and descriptions are far more wonderful than she gets credit for, and her pictures of privileged life during and after the World War II are so interesting. The puzzles are great, of course. I always get a piece, but never the whole.
Readers: Are there any Christie fans among us? What are your favorites? What should I re-read next?