“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.
8 thoughts on “#12: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) by Agatha Christie”
Great review! Has been a couple of years since I’ve read a Miss Marple, though she is one of my favourite fictional detectives. I think The Murder at the Vicarage and Nemesis are the my favourite Miss Marple novels. I always wished there had been more Miss Marple novels.
Many thanks! My favourite Marple to date – The Moving Finger – actually frustrates me a little in the way she is parachuted in to provide the solution at the end. It’s a truly fantastic mystery and a fabulous novel, however, so I have to wrap my head around it being my favourite Marple in spite of the Marple element not necessarily being to my liking. Sometimes I worry I think about these things too much… Great to know there are still some good ones to come, too, and, yeah, there really aren’t enough of them (not that anyone should take this as incitement for a “celebrity author continuance”…unless Anthony Horowitz is interested…)
yeah that did bother me too when I read The Moving Finger. Not sure a new author continuing the Miss Marple canon would meet up to my expectations. I don’t tend to enjoy those type of books which are a continuation of another author’s series. The only exception to rule for me is probably Jill Paton Walsh and her Lord Peter Wimsey novels, but I think that’s because I read them a while after the original novels and because I am less attached to LPW as a character.
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Shall stop playing blog-chase after this (apologies!), but am with you on the continuations. Horowitz’s Holmes universe books are far and away the best of anything in that vein, but much like you I’m aided by a lesser attachment to the later Holmes canon. That said, so much else in terms of Holmes pastiche is just awful, so anything even half decent is going to stand out.
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Yes Holmes has definitely been over-pastiched now.
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