“Write what you know” is the kind of aphorism doled out to aspiring authors like public money at a bank’s board meeting, and aged 72 Agatha Christie – world’s biggest-selling author of crime fiction, with a West End play entering its eleventh consecutive year – knew a lot about being old and a lot about crime. So is it any surprise that this return to crime-solving elderly spinster Miss Jane Marple is so damn good? It’s the first Miss Marple book to actually feature the wily old fox with any regularity since They Do it with Mirrors (1952) as she only really put in a cameo in both A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) and 4:50 from Paddington (1957). Of the 16 books Christie would publish from this until her death six of them would feature Marple, composing practically half of the canon, and arguably a familiarity with her subject helped; it’s an impression reinforced by the opening pages of The Mirror Crack’d… wherein the indignities of old age are charmingly laid out from Aunt Jane’s perspective and you can almost see Christie winking at you while she writes.
That there is a murder, and that Miss Marple eventually lays the culprit by the heels, is not in itself surprising. What is surprising – what makes this book a distinct highlight for me in the 65 of Christie’s I’ve now read – is the environment, the milieu if you will, that is built up around both the murder and Miss Marple as she investigates. See, she’s getting on, her wings are clipped as she can’t get around like she used to, and is reliant on the good graces of the investigating officer to bring her up to date and seek her opinion in order to be involved. Alongside this you have a new housing development intruding upon the timeless bubble of St. Mary Mead, a busybody carer looking after Aunt Jane following a bout of illness and various other interpersonal relationships and conflicts and it all just ties together and breathes rather marvellously. For sheer setting this is possibly the best writing Christie has done thus far in her career, and I don’t say that lightly.
The mystery must also work, of course, and while no-one is going to compare this favourably to the classics of her younger days I think it’s very clever. I twigged about fifteen pages before the reveal and was both quite excited to see it all tumble together so well and, then later, delighted to see I was correct. The plotting is akin to Five Little Pigs in that there seems to be a small amount of information spread rather thinly (thankfully without that book’s tiresome repetition), but it’s carried off with such charm and grace that I found it an effortless and utterly delightful read. If your notion of Christie is all fusty old ladies and stuffy drawing rooms then you may be surprised at the progressive attitude she takes on many factors, something that frequently appears in her novels. Here again is a motif of the older generation moving out of the way for the youngsters coming through, which I’m certain is deliberately present in books from this era of her career like Cat Among the Pigeons and The Pale Horse. And, of course, it’s all the more piquant for this being such a bloody good read.
With Christie’s 125th birthday looming I should probably dip into my wellspring of enthusiasm and add to the volumes of articles discussing the lady and her work. The problem is that I don’t know how to go about describing what Agatha Christie and her writing mean to me. I’m aware she’s not the best author of her generation, and sheer quantity of output alone shouldn’t be measure enough to designate significance, but I will stand and defend her against all-comers. Mainly it’s her unfussy, unpretentious plotting, the complexity of the schemes she cooked up over a nearly 60 year career, and the fact that when she’s good she’s very very good, but even that doesn’t come close to covering it. Still, in that regard this could hardly have been better-timed; a perfect reminder of why we love her, why she endures, and why so much of today’s crime writing simply would not exist had she kept working as a pharmacist. That’s for another time, however. For now, this is highly recommended.