It's been a long, long time since I've read one of Agatha Christie's works novels, but the first novel featuring Miss Jane Marple seemed like a good place to (re-)start. As reintroductions go, The Murder at the Vicarage hits all the right buttons while leaving a little to be desired, but it is a dead good read nonetheless.
In quiet little St. Mary Mead, everybody minds their own business while gossiping about the skeletons in next door's closet. When the unpopular Colonel Protheroe is shot, there's no shortage of suspects: his beleaguered wife and daughter, the young artist Lawrence Redding, the mysterious Mrs. Lestrange, the secretive Dr. Haydock, even the venerable vicar, Leonard Clement (who narrates the story). The police think they have the case solved when they receive a confession, but that turns out to be the tip of a very big iceberg. As the clock ticks and an innocent man hovers at death's door, a demure spinster makes a deduction.
As I said, I haven't read one of Christie's mysteries for a long time, but The Murder at the Vicarage has everything that has come to embody her brand of detective fiction: clues, characters, anonymous letters, mysterious telephone calls, clocks running fast, trains running late, red herrings, a misleading time of death, false confessions, and of course, incompetent police officers. The perfect refresher, in just one book.
With a book like The Murder at the Vicarage - and, I'd imagine, the rest of Christie's catalog - the devil is really in the details; when you're scanning every paragraph for clues, everything starts to look like a clue. Maybe it's my fault - the Christie part of my brain is probably unsharpened, but instead of being able to work out what was going on, I had to let myself be strung along from plot twist to plot twist. If that was Christie's intention for the reader, then more power to her - she deserves it. I prefer the reader to make informed guesses based on what's been presented thus far. The Christieologists and more ardent readers might have done a better job. Me, as I said, I just tried to keep up.
The interesting thing about Miss Marple - based on this one book alone - is that she isn't a paragon of perfection. Much as Leonard Clement respects and admires Marple's powers of observation and deduction, she is shown very much to be one of the little old ladies of the village, who gossips, believes the worst in people and has a patronizing, condescending attitude toward the youth of St. Mary Mead. I don't know if that's true in all the other Miss Marple books, but it was nice to see a protagonist who wasn't serenaded by choirs of angels at every turn.
Much as The Murder at the Vicarage has everything the world has come to love from Agatha Christie, it's not perfect. Following along is a challenge, as I said, but once Marple explains her deductions to Leonard Clement and the (naturally) baffled Colonel Melchitt, everything is wrapped up in a flash. Again, maybe that's Christie's method and I'm simply out of touch, but I did find the book wanting in those places. That didn't stop me from getting hooked; the case is genuinely intriguing and perplexing, and once you get over the bumps, you'll find yourself locking the doors and turning every page to find out who committed The Murder at the Vicarage.
4.0/5.0: The Murder at the Vicarage will please everyone, from the Christie experts to those looking for a place to start reading her work.