After 41 years, 12 novels, and 20 short stories, Nemesis (1971) represents the end of the road for Agatha Christie and her spinster detective Miss Jane Marple. Marple herself would survive her creator in the posthumously-published Sleeping Murder (1976), but since that was written decades prior — and the collection Miss Marple’s Final Cases (1979) consists of uncollected stories from much earlier in Christie’s career — this the final time they would have together.
It’s arguably more difficult to chart Chrisite’s relationship with Miss Marple than it is with Poirot. You can feel the author becoming increasingly disenchanted with her little Belgian as her career hits about 1950. Poirot was an increasingly desultory presence in his own books — cropping up as close to the end as possible, to allow Christie the space to explore new ideas, or maybe just so she didn’t have to spend quite so long looking at him — and his coterie of tics and quirks left him feeling increasingly displaced without ever explicitly addressing it. The weirdest experience of Christie’s writing for me is still the picture of Hercule Poirot in a greasy spoon cafe in Third Girl (1966), and the concept of his existing in a world full of Brutalist architecture and poky, grimy blocks of flats is simply too great a mental dissonance for my brain to even begin to process.
In contrast, as Christie aged she seemed to develop more purpose for her spinster detective. That same year of 1950 saw the publication of what many consider to be the pinnacle of the Marple oeuvre with A Murder is Announced (1950), and that’s still in the first half of the eventual Marple canon. Indeed, it would have been difficult to even talk about Marple as one of Christie’s ‘regular’ sleuths in 1950, as she had by that point published as many books featuring Aunt Jane as she had the oft-overlooked Superintendent Battle to whom she would never return besides a sly casual wink. Frequently, Christie was happy for Aunt Jane to conduct things from the sidelines or the back seat — third novel The Moving Finger (1942), the sixth A Pocketful of Rye (1953), and the seventh 4.50 from Paddington (1957) — and if Poirot remained largely unchanged in his outlook, Marple reflected on the unstoppable advance of Progress in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) and the steady fading into obsolescence of the Old Ways in A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and At Bertram’s Hotel (1965).
To put this in approximate context, see the graphic below — it indicates the books Christie had published up to and including Nemesis by main sleuth. Broadly:
Green = Poirot Red = Marple Blue = Tommy & Tuppence Yellow = Battle Black = Standalone
Every tenth book is designated with an arrow above it (for no other reason than to help wth counting) and decades are shown beneath. Click on the image to make it bigger. Please. It took me freakin’ ages to make.
My thoughts on those individual Marple titles can be found at the links above, and I firmly believe Christie had more and more sympathy for and interest in the old girl as she herself aged and began to share the experiences that Miss Marple was to encounter: not simply curtailed freedom and ability, but also being viewed as “an old pussy” who is out of date and can easily be dismissed as harmless and of no interest to younger, brasher types. And so what of Nemesis, the last book Christie would write, and being written at a time when author and character have the most in common with each other?
Well, the book itself exists at a difficult time. Recently, resident Christie expert Brad vouchsafed the notion of trying to sort Christie’s works into eras, and while her Experimental and Peak periods may be up for some debate, there was a uniform acknowledgement that we’re very much in the downturn of Christie’s career by 1971. I’ve found positive things to enjoy in Endless Night (1967) and Hallowe’en Party (1969), but will freely acknowledge that By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) is — kindly — uneven and ill-focussed, and Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) is a hot garbage fire spilling noxious fumes into any room that contains it. So even if Christie wants to say something about Miss Marple, does she retain the necessary skill or mental acuity to do so?
Man, this is the problem with writing about someone when you’ve read 74 of their books; laying out the context takes a while.
Undeniably it’s a book with problems, not least of which is that it needs a serious edit. Anyone approaching this in an experimental frame of mind could probably start reading at chapter 5, and skip out chapters 8 and 22 in their entirety. And yet should it be so surprising that, if this is the last time Christie is to spend with her grande dame, she gets a little mawkish, a little drawn out? Yes, too many details are dwelt upon to very little consequence, but it feels tremendously loving — like someone telling a meandering story about a dead parent purely so that they can pull out and reminisce over all the details which made that person special to them. Christie knows how the Miss Marple story ends, but this is her ending now, and she is going to delay that last goodbye for a while, so as to enjoy the company of an old friend one last time.
I had my concerns following Passenger to Frankfurt, because the writing in that book is so loose and languid, occasioning only fleeting glimpses of the talent which once poured out of Christie’s pages. However, Nemesis is superbly written — I mean, really superbly, with a positive cavalcade of arch asides, blankly witty prose, and aching reflection crammed together in a way that this series only really adopted in its latter stages. The Christie of Passenger to Frankfurt struck me as thoroughly incapable of writing…
“Mamie is very sensitive to atmospheres,” said her husband proudly to those around him. “Why, once when we were in an old house down in Louisiana…”
The narrative of Mamie’s special sensitivity got into its swing and Miss Marple and one or two others seized their opportunity to edge gently out of the room and down the exquisitely moulded staircase to the ground floor.
…or of possessing enough humour to have a character wheedle information out of a vinagerish post mistress with the following observation:
Mrs. Vinegar was looking quite kindly now, touched by Miss Marple’s patent incapacity and general state of senility and dither.
Or, indeed, even of Miss Marple playing up to the perception of her as a gently senile, dithering old boot when those loquacious opening chapters have her saying “Good morning, Edward” to the St. Mary Mead taxi driver “whose actual name was George”. There is here far more talent and understatement than was evident in the entirety of that preceding novel, capturing other characters in equally blithe asides — such as certain members of the tour party Miss Marple finds herself on viewing the death of one of the other members as an accident because “it was more comfortable that way”, or the slightly fustily prim interplay of the solicitors Mr. Broadribb and Mr. Schuster — that previous evidence would have placed beyond Christie’s capabilities.
It’s true that the plot lacks Christie’s typical tightness in construction, and that her misdirection falls painfully obviously into one of the gambits so perfectly summarised by Noah recently. The idea of Miss Marple fulfilling the posthumous wishes of an old acquaintance in being sent on a bus tour of the stately homes of England with the vague notion of detecting and correcting some long-forgotten misdeed is necessarily loose, and the structuring of this investigation gives us a bus party of some fifteen people to get to know before we end up in a side venture that may or may not have something to do with this request. You’re not entirely sure if you should be looking at her fellow travellers, at the three sisters who offer to put her up, or even elsewhere at some of the people who surround this scheme (precisely what is Miss Cooke up to, after all?). I can see a lot of criticism surrounding the somewhat nebulous nature of this novel, and yet it’s one of the things which I enjoyed the most.
The plot here is not about the plot per se, it’s not about the clever scheme Christie has cooked up to shanghai and misdirect you. The plot here is far more about Miss Jane Marple’s tremendous acuity for evil and how she responds and acts when faced with situations that strike her as falling under that category. Indeed, that’s all Jane Marple was ever about. Certainly she would seek to impose herself in certain investigations, but the Marple books have always been far more concerned with the notion of evil, how it presents itself, and what sort of response can be mustered in response.
She looked round the church in which she was sitting. It looked so peaceful. The reality of Evil was hard to believe in. A flair for Evil — that was what Mr. Rafiel had attributed to her. She rose and walked out of the church and stood looking round the churchyard again. Here, amongst the gravestones and their worn inscriptions, no sense of Evil moved in her.
Was it Evil she had sensed yesterday at the Old Manor House? That deep depression of despair, that dark desperate grief. Anthea Bradbury-Scott , her eyes gazing fearfully back over one shoulder, as though fearing some presence that stood there — always stood there — behind her.
“I would not set myself up as a good judge of people,” she says later. “If you think I know all about what I am supposed to be doing here, you are wrong”. And then, later in that same conversation: “I do not like evil beings who do evil things”. Undeniably a sense of evil — not of the people, but of the deed — is what motivates Marple in these cases, playing on the words of John Stuart Mill that “bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing”. Sensing evil, proving evil, and being unable to do nothing when presented with the proof, was something that Christie developed far more readily as her career wore on — everything from A Caribbean Mystery onwards is built around this essential theme — and never more successfully than in this closing tranche of Marples.
“A fishing expedition where the fish did not rise” is how Christie herself phrases this structure, and for the intended outcome it is the perfect way for Jane Marple to go about her task. If there is no evil there to be detected — if the basis on which she is sent on this trip is false hope — she will not detect it. In not being told who to look out for or what she is investigating, her natural nose for the wrongness in human nature is being left to find what scent will inevitably remains if it ever existed. She is, as the title betokens her, Nemesis, to be set upon a righteous track and to see it through to the end. And when we reach the conclusion — a murder committed out of nothing more pure than love — it’s a devastating, heart-breaking reveal of the ways Evil has been able to twist something and someone into a shape never intended, and it feels right that Miss Marple is the one to uncover it. Hercule Poirot’s tics, thinly masking his creator’s disdain for him, would have no place undercutting the horror of this solution.
It’s fitting that what is essentially a defence of a rambling, overlong novel turns out to be such a rambling, overlong post. There’s much more here I’d love to discuss — and one theme in particular which, perhaps due to recent cultural developments, I’m deliberately shying away from — but time and my readers’ patience is now increasingly of the essence and so we must draw to a close.
I suppose you can tell a lot about Christie’s attitude to her maiden lady by the final glimpse we get — not our final sight, of course, but Christie’s. The author leaves her creation £20,000 to the good (close to £300,000 in today’s market), and leaving upon the more imaginative Mr. Schuster “a vague impression of a young and pretty girl shaking hands with the vicar at a garden party in the country … young, happy, going to enjoy herself”. That an elderly lady in her dotage shold leave her elderly lady on such a positive note is perhaps unsurprising — we’re hardly going to close on the image of Miss Marple returning to a fire-ravaged St. Mary Mead to find Raymond West being publically flogged for his infelicities in avoiding taxation on his earnings, resulting in her having a heart attack and collapsing to the floor (not least because there’s one more book to come, naturally, but also because…well, we just wouldn’t) — but I like to think Christie is sending the old girl off to enjoy herself, having utilised her skills in a way that the author herself is very happy with.
No bitter “Clear orf!”, this, no sighing and dusting of the hands having finally divested oneself of an unwanted burden. When Agatha Christie wrote that final line and knew she was unlikely to ever return to Jane Marple again, I think the intention was to do right by the character and to provide some happiness in whatever happened from that point on. Am I heartened by the notion of Christie not simple wishing to be rid of her, because they were a good match and had some marvellous times together. Hopefully Christie felt the same.
Though, of course, this will all be blown out of the water if Hercule Poirot is met with identical good fortune in Elephants Can Remember (1972)…
Brad @ AhSweetMysteryBlog: Is the novel a total loss? Well, no. Miss Marple’s final confrontation with the killer is a chilling scene, maybe not as shocking to readers as she intended it to be but effective … And if Christie’s mighty talents have faded due to her own age and infirmity, here it serves as a parallel to the situation Miss Marple finds herself in her last case. At least we can cherish the time spent so intimately with a character we have loved since she first sat by the fire in 1927, listening to her friends recount odd stories of open cases, every one of which she solved without dropping a stitch. And we can hold to our hearts the legacy of an author who, for the better part of fifty years, baffled and delighted us.