Crime Scene - - AGATHA CHRISTIE SPECIAL - By Steve O’brien

Marple or Poirot? For Agatha Christie fans it’s the clas­sic first-date “Bea­tles or Stones” ques­tion. Are you a Miss Marple head or a Her­cule Poirot nut? Christie her­self never ex­pressed a pref­er­ence for one or the other, although Poirot lovers are al­ways keen to point to­wards the heftier lit­er­ary legacy (33 nov­els com­pared to Marple’s 12) as proof that she favoured the squat Bel­gian sleuth with the man­i­cured mous­tache.

Yet Miss Marple was a cre­ation taken di­rect from the life of the young Agatha Christie. She’d never known a real Her­cule Poirot. He was a wholly fic­tional con­coc­tion, a char­ac­ter in­spired by her ab­sorp­tion in the male-heavy de­tec­tive fic­tion of the era. Marple, on the other hand, was in­spired by Christie’s own grand­mother and the wiz­ened Vic­to­rian dames that pop­u­lated her child­hood. “Though a cheer­ful per­son,” Christie said of her grand­mother, “she al­ways ex­pected the worst of ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing, and was, with al­most fright­en­ing ac­cu­racy, usu­ally proved right.” It could be Marple she’s talk­ing about there.

Miss Marple is a watcher, not a doer. From her thatched crib in St Mary Mead – im­pos­si­bly idyl­lic on the sur­face, rife with every hu­man flaw and foible un­der­neath – Jane Marple peruses the world around her through a blur of knit­ting nee­dles. Her sleuthing tal­ents come from ob­serv­ing, lis­ten­ing, pick­ing clues up from the fool­ishly off-guard. “I am afraid I am not clever my­self,” Marple said, “but liv­ing all these years in St Mary Mead does give one an in­sight into hu­man na­ture.”

Poirot doesn’t have that acute peo­ple­watch­ing power. He’s a pro­fes­sional de­tec­tive, a Sher­lock­ian brain­box con­cerned more with method­ol­ogy and de­tail than with the com­plex­i­ties of the hu­man mind. Un­like Marple he has ac­cess to the lo­cal police, to Scot­land Yard, to the Sûreté. Well trav­elled, he dines with blue bloods and mixes with the pow­er­ful and the in­flu­en­tial. Miss Marple, in con­trast, is a lady un­trou­bled by the racier pulse of the city and cer­tainly isn’t per­mit­ted to comb through Scot­land Yard’s files. The police to her are al­most blun­der­ing ama­teurs.

In her decades-long ca­reer, Christie al­ways re­sisted part­ner­ing up the two de­tec­tives. “Her­cule Poirot, the com­plete ego­ist, would not like be­ing taught his busi­ness by an el­derly spin­ster lady,” she said. The near­est we ever got was Mar­garet Ruther­ford and Tony Randall cross­ing paths in The Al­pha­bet Mur­ders (1965).

While we’ve seen var­i­ous small screen Marples since, it’s Joan Hickson who re­mains the de­fin­i­tive model, who best cap­tured the quiet stee­li­ness and de­tached com­pas­sion of St Mary Mead’s gos­sipy spin­ster. (Fa­mously, Christie her­self ear­marked a young Hickson for the role, telling her in the 1940s, “I hope one day you will play my dear Miss Marple.”) Mar­garet Ruther­ford’s por­trayal barely counts – her thigh-slap­ping take was a mil­lion and one miles from the lit­er­ary Marple – and Christie never warmed to the Marple movies made in the 1960s.

The more re­cent Marple adap­ta­tions, first with Geral­dine Mcewan and then with Ju­lia Mcken­zie, irked the Christie purists. Plots were spiked, char­ac­ters ex­punged, even killers were changed. And Jane her­self was given a need­lessly tragic back­story, hav­ing had a doomed love af­fair with a mar­ried sol­dier killed in the First World War. The Miss Marple of the books, by con­trast, lived a life of – oc­ca­sional mur­der aside – thun­der­ing or­di­nar­i­ness. Knit­ting, gar­den­ing and study­ing the lives of her fel­low vil­lagers is what fills her days. If she was alive to­day she’d be a soap opera junkie.

Miss Marple is Christie’s great­est cre­ation be­cause she’s us, sat in an arm­chair watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to these peo­ple buzzing about, look­ing for that lit­tle de­tail that doesn’t make sense, that hubris­tic slip-up that gives ev­ery­thing away. “It re­ally is very danger­ous to be­lieve peo­ple,” she said in the fi­nal Marple novel, Sleep­ing Mur­der. “I never have for years.”

The Miss Marple Col­lec­tion star­ring Joan Hickson is avail­able on DVD.

Her­cule Poirot may be Agatha Christie’s most fa­mous de­tec­tive, but was the ego­tis­ti­cal Bel­gian bested by an el­derly English lady with a sharp mind and a pes­simistic streak? Crime Scene makes the case for Miss Marple.

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