So taken was I with the idea of reading Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novels in sequence that I had the second book down off the shelf before I had finished the first. I hadn’t read the book for years, but I’d seen a television adaptation not so long ago and I could remember the characters, and pretty much all of the plot. But I was still eager to press on, and to see what reading the original novel might show me.
The first thing I noticed was that ‘The Body in the Library’ was quite thin – this was a much shorter novel than ‘The Murder at the Vicarage’. And that there was quite an interval between the two books – twelve years and twenty more novels. I wonder why? Did she not suit the ideas her creator had? Did she not see potential in the character? I wonder …
The story was very quickly off and running. Mrs Bantry woke thinking that she had dreamt of her maid crying, ” … there’s a body in the library.” She hadn’t. And there was. An unknown young woman, wrapped in an unknown rug.
Colonel Bantry called the proper authorities and Mrs Bantry called her good friend Miss Marple.
“You want me to come up?”
“Yes, I’m sending the car down for you.”
“Of course dear, if you think I can be of any comfort to you …”
“Oh, I don’t want comfort. But you’re so good at bodies.”
“Oh no, indeed. My little successes have been mostly theoretical.”
“But you’re very good at murders. She’s been murdered you see, strangled. What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean. That’s why I want you to come and help me find out who did it and unravel the mystery and all that. It really is rather thrilling, isn’t it?”
“Well. of course, my dear, if I can be of any help to you.”
This was the same world but a rather different Miss Marple. A gentler character, with a wider social circle and an enhanced reputation. I wondered if I should go back and check what had happened in the short stories that Miss Marple had appeared in between her first two novels. And I wondered where a lady as curious and practical as Mrs Bantry had been when a body was found in the vicarage next door to her good friend Miss Marple.
But on with the story.
Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack had another murder to investigate. The made enquiries about missing persons, and swiftly identified the murder victim as eighteen-year old Ruby Keene, who had been working as a dancer at the Majestic Hotel in the seaside resort of Danemouth, eighteen miles away.
The first suspect was Basil Blake. He lived near the Bantrys. He worked in the film industry. He had a vibrant, party-going lifestyle. He had been seen with a blonde young woman …
Mrs Bantry promptly decided that she and Miss Marple should take a holiday in Dartmouth.
Ruby had been reported missing by Conway Jefferson. He had been a successful industrialist, but he had lost his legs in a terrible accident that also claimed the lives of his wife, son and daughter. He was a rich, elderly invalid, his household made up of Mark Gaskell, his daughter’s widower, Adelaide Jefferson, his son’s widow, and Peter Carmody, Adelaide’s nine-year old son from an earlier marriage.
A strange household, and Ruby had nearly become part of it. Mr Jefferson had taken a shine to Ruby, and she had played up to him. He planned to adopt her, to settle some money on her.
Interesting characters. Strange relationships. And motives for murder.
Mr Jefferson was determined that the truth should be uncovered and so he called in his good friend Sir Henry Clithering, a retired police commissioner. Now Sir Henry was already acquainted with Miss Marple and Mr Jefferson was an old friend of the Bantrys. That made it very easy for Miss Marple to meet and talk with all of the concerned parties.
She didn’t uncover new facts, or use her little grey cells, but she added observation of the characters and their relationships to her observations of the corpse.
The psychology and the conversations were wonderful . I was struck by Mr Jefferson’s account of his relationship with the dead girl, by his understanding of why he had acted as he had. And by Adelaide Jefferson’s apparent honesty about her relationship with her father, how it had changed, how she saw the future. I hoped that she was being honest, that she wasn’t involved with the murder.
The police also took an interest in Ruby’s cousin, Josie Turner, who had brought her to work in the hotel, and in her dance partner, tennis professional Raymond Starr.
And then there was another body. It seemed that another missing young woman.
That allowed Miss Marple to see what had happened.
The action moved back to St Mary Mead, and it was lovely to see Len and Griselda Clement, and one of two more of Miss Marple’s neighbours again.
Miss Marple demonstrated that the police were thinking along the wrong lines, and saved that day. The police sprang a trap, the truth was revealed and justice was served.
This wasn’t Agatha Christie’s most elegant mystery, but it was serviceable the logic worked. I found the degree of unbelievability acceptable – though there was one little cheat, something that Miss Marple found out that wasn’t mentioned until much later.
But I was satisfied as I turned the pages, and satisfied when I reached the ending.
Now I just have to decide whether I should move on to the next novel – The Moving Finger, which I remember not at all – or go back to read the short stories that make up The Thirteen Problems ..