This is the first full length Miss Marple novel (earlier appearances had been in short stories).
It is easy to forget that when Agatha Christie wrote this in 1930 that it was far from being a “cozy” – a murder set in a small English village populated by apparently nice middle-class people who attend church, buy their groceries for delivery from the local shop and drink tea out of bone-china cups while gossiping about whose servants fail to polish the silver properly. Although St Mary Mead – the village in which the novel is set – has undoubtedly been the model for many such imitations that make up that sub-genre, this is a far more radical novel than its successors.
What is frequently overlooked is that it marks the entrance of one of the first female detectives to the genre in a full-length novel.
The great detectives of the Golden Age were previously (and for some time afterward remained) an almost exclusively male club. Christie already had Hercule Poirot. Dorothy L. Sayers had Lord Peter Whimsey. Margery Allingham had Albert Campion. John Dickson Carr had Dr Gideon Fell. Edmund Crispin had Professor Gervase Fen. Freeman Wills Crofts had Inspector French. Ngaio Marsh had Roderick Alleyn. G. K. Chesterton had Father Brown.
Christie, it is true, did include the female Tuppence as one half of her Tommy and Tuppence, light-hearted adventure stories but even though smarter than husband Tommy, she was not a standalone lead character in the way that the other detectives listed here were. There were also isolated examples of “Lady Detectives” from the Victorian era (indeed, one of these books has been published by the British Library as part of its Crime Classics series) but they had already sunk into obscurity by the dawn of the Golden Age.
Yet here was a woman solving the crimes and doing so by close attention to the facts, sharp observation and an understanding of human nature which, as Miss Marple herself points out, is the same the world over whether it be in a cosmopolitan city or a small village. No reliance on “female intuition” here.
In fact Miss Marple provides the role model for all the female detectives, private investigators and forensic scientists who have followed in her wake, solving crimes that baffle their male colleagues. Without Jane Marple’s trailblazing there would be no path for Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawsi, Patricia Cornwell’s Dr Kay Scarpetta, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan to follow.
So tip your hats (and deerstalkers should you prefer), gentlemen, to the mould-breaking Miss Marple.