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.