Written seventy-eight years ago, this book still feels modern and fresh.
It’s brimming with energy, humour, and sharp observations and has a twisty plot that kept me guessing right to the end.
‘The Body In The Library’ was published in 1942 but it feels fresh, light and modern. It has a clever plot that I didn’t even begin to guess the truth of but which didn’t feel at all like a cheat.
I was pleased to see that the police were shown to be quite competent and did most of the leg work. This made the story more convincing and provided me with plenty of evidence to mull over without any chance of me figuring out what was going on. The competence of the police also served to highlight how Jane Marple’s insights were and how ruthlessly she used them to extract information unavailable to the police by pressing the buttons of the people she interrogated.
I love that Jane Marple is driven by insight into people’s wickedness, frailties, vanities and self-deceptions, with empathy coming almost as an afterthought and only then for people that she sees as innocents. I realised that I wouldn’t want to meet her unless she was on my side and even then, she’d know things about me that I don’t even admit to myself.
Until I read ‘The Murder At The Vicarage’ last September, my impressions of Jane Marple came entirely from adaptations of the novels for television. Now that I’m encountering the original text, I wonder how the TV people came to have left out most of the humour. They seem to have paid more attention to the period clothes and cars than to the tone of the novel.
There is a strong undercurrent of humour in ‘The Body In The Library’, some of it aimed at the genre in an in-joke kind of way, but most of it aimed at the pompous, the unkind and the hypocritical.
Jane Marple has a rare understanding that while class is important, it is money that drives our most desperate actions. She is able to see well-to-do gentlefolk with disconcerting accuracy, seeing beyond the manners and the social position to the person beneath, but is also able to do the same thing with people who make their living serving the gentlefolk. This makes Jane Marple something of an outsider, a status she seems entirely comfortable with.
I think the thing I enjoyed most about the book was the humour. From the start, ‘The Body In The Library’ reads like a rather drole assault on the more ridiculous elements of detective fiction combined with wickedly accurate evocations of what she calls ‘the ruling class of censorious spinsters’.
The whole set up of the book, the finding of the body of an unknown young woman in the library of a respectable Colonel, is positioned as so unlikely (except in detective books) that it is hard for the Colonel and his wife to accept the possiblity of it being real. This takes a swipe at detective fiction (where such discoveries go unremarked) and makes the discovery a source of humour rather than horror, that sets the tone for the novel.
Christie doubles-down on this by having the Colonel’s wife, Dolly, call Jane Marple (even though it is not yet eight o’clock in the morning) and invite her to come to the house. Dolly explains that she wants Jane to come because she knows about murders and:
‘What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean. That’s why I want you to come and help me find out who did it and unravel the mystery and all that. It really is rather thrilling, isn’t it?’
I thought this was fun but also a reality check we readers of mysteries who emphasise the puzzle of finding the murderer over the brutal death of the person murdered.
When Christie moves on to show how the village gossip network functions, she doesn’t miss an opportunity to deride the unconscious entitéement of the gossipers. I particularly liked this description:
‘What news?’ demanded Miss Hartnell. She had a deep bass voice and visited the poor indefatigably, however hard they tried to avoid her ministrations.
I used Poirot as my jumping-off point for reading Christie. Now I wish I’d started with Jane Marple. I think Christie likes Jane whereas she only tolerates Poirot. There are exceptions of course. ‘The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd’ is pretty hard to beat.