The title of this post is a line by Miss Jane Marple, that unforgettable prototype of the intelligent, interested, principled, elderly lady sleuth.
Several months ago, the Complete Miss Marple Collection (digital version) was on sale at amazon for a truly ridiculous price–something like $5.99. Being a fan of Dame Christie, I snapped it up (yes, I have all of them in print, and have for at least forty years, but many are in Spanish, and all of them are falling apart at the seams, from age and use).
With one thing and another, I’ve been reading snippets here and there, until a few weeks ago. Feeling a bit sick, I finally fell into one of the stories.
Not so much.
See, things that I barely noticed before, or that I was able to shrug off when I did notice, now bother me a great deal, making it difficult for me to fully enjoy these stories that, for so long, were among my favorite reading.
Allow me to explain.
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There are, I think, a number of things to keep in mind when reading Dame Christie’s œuvre, though they all stem from the same point: who wrote them, and the time and place¹ when they were written. All these stories were written by a white female Brit born in the last decade of the nineteenth century to an upper class, wealthy family. The twelve novels and various short stories in this set were published from 1930 to 1976, and directly reflect the casual racism, religious bigotry, and entrenched xenophobia of Dame Christie’s class during this period.
Mind you, I won’t go so far as to say that the author herself was racist, anti-Semite, and/or xenophobic; or whether she was aware (or even cared, if she was aware), about these traits in her writing. I will say that her characters use racist terms, and that racist stereotyping often plays a part on the characterization of minor players, as does class.²
In short: privilege and discrimination galore!
So, for example, in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, we have the Italian butler; he’s referred to as a wop by at least one character, and–of course!–he tries his hand at blackmail, and is shot dead for his trouble.
In The Body in the Library, all professional dancers are either foreigners, or lower class people–and definitely devious gold diggers out for whatever they can get. A little extra slut shaming thrown in, should the dancer in question happen to be female.
In A Caribbean Mystery, coloured people are always cheerful and polite, while being lazy by nature. Oh, and the one female of color character who actually gets a name, ends up murdered–after trying her hand at some friendly blackmail.
And so on and so forth.
As someone born and raised in Mexico, and with a significant degree of privilege, I am, in a sense, removed from being directly offended by the xenophobia–the closest Agatha Christie came to Latin America (in her writing, at least), was to have mon ami Hastings live in Argentina for a while, and to write a couple of light skirt minor characters here and there.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but notice it, along with all the other prejudice I mention above. As a preteen, I found these things a bit jarring, and as I grew older, and hopefully a bit more aware, they nagged at me a bit. As an adult, I find these view quite offensive.
Which has very much diminished my enjoyment of the mysteries themselves.
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However, if a reader is able to…well, somehow block, or otherwise ignore, these aspects of the writing,³ there is plenty to enjoy in Dame Christie’s writing in general, and in several of these stories in particular.
The plots tend to be clever, and, with few exceptions, there’s no Deux ex Machina. Instead, there’s good, solid writing. Miss Marple’s inner reflections and cattiness can be quite funny, even as her view of humanity is plenty dark–she’s always willing to think the worst of people, and to be right nine times out of ten.
Which reminds me: I was surprised by some of the expressions used by Miss Marple during her internal musings, mostly because they feel so modern, so current. Which, in turn, is another reminder that language tends to be cyclical. A bit like fashion, in a sense.
Personally, I prefer the earlier novels, and specifically those that embody the cozy mystery–a limited cast of characters, with all the information necessary for the reader to come to the correct conclusion, presented so cleverly that, most, if not all the clues are overlooked.
Accordingly, I find In Bertram’s Hotel to be probably the weakest of the Miss Marple stories, as it revolves around vast conspiracies and a large cast of characters in the wings–so to speak–who know more than the reader does, at any given time.
In terms of this particular collection, I really liked the presentation. There is a general table of contents, and a table of contents for each novel. The cover art for each book is also included, and there are very few typos or other formatting errors.
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¹ In this case, ‘place’ means more than a geographic location–it refers to the specific mores, and prejudices, from which the author perceived the world.
² And here, I am using class in a very specific way: upper middle class and upper class people are “us,” with everyone else, regardless of intelligence, decency, or any other positive attributes, being inferior by nature.
³ More privilege: I can detach myself enough to do this, at least to a degree.