Out this week, "Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making" is the second volume compiled from Agatha Christie's notes and letters based on 73 unpublished notebooks. Below, we publish an exclusive excerpt from a previously unseen Miss Marple story, introduced by the book's editor, John Curran.
Miss Marple solved her last case, "Sleeping Murder", in 1976. Christie fans the world over had their last glimpse of the elderly detective sitting on the terrace of the Imperial Hotel in Torquay calmly elucidating an intricate murder plot. (Incidentally, it was on this very same terrace over forty years earlier, that Hercule Poirot met the fascinating Nick Buckley and was drawn into one of his most interesting cases, Peril at End House.)
In "Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making", thirty-five years after we bade farewell to Miss Marple, we re-visit, in a different version, one of her earlier triumphs.
Jane Marple made her detective debut in a series of short stories, the first of which, ‘The Tuesday Night Club’, appeared in December 1927. Over the following fifty years she solved murders, robberies and assorted crimes in a further nineteen short stories and a dozen full-length novels.
Despite having spent most of her life in the tranquil surroundings of St Mary Mead she had, as several Chief Constables will attest, plumbed, at second-hand, the depths of human iniquity. By acutely observing all that went on around her, she was able to extrapolate from the seemingly insignificant and realise that the village school-boy Tommy Bond playing a practical joke on his teacher was, in essence, the same as the trick played on Colonel Bantry when someone deposited a dead body in his library. Simple, when you know!
Her nephew Raymond West is baffled at her perspicuity because life in St Mary Mead is, he fondly imagines, as calm as a mill-pond; but Miss Marple reminds him that a pond is teeming with life – below the surface.
"The Case of the Caretaker" was first published in 1942 and is typical Marple and Christie territory – a country village, a pair of newly-weds, a lot of rumour and an unexpected death. I found this different version of the short story – called significantly "The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife" - in Greenway House among the mass of papers that constituted the history of Agatha Christie’s literary career.
As soon as I read the manuscript I realised that it was longer, better and more convincing than the story we have known for the last 70 years. Unlike the earlier version this case is set in St Mary Mead, Miss Marple plays a more central role and the final explanation is more convincing. Why it lay in a cupboard gathering dust for a lifetime is a mystery - "The Case of the Missing Manuscript"! It sounds like a case for Miss Marple…
From "Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making. More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks" by John Curran (Harper, $25.99)
"Beasts!" said Clarice Vane to old Miss Marple. "Absolute beasts some people are!"
Miss Marple looked at her curiously.
Clarice Vane had recently come to live with her Uncle, Dr. Haydock. She was a tall dark girl, handsome, warm hearted and impulsive. Her big brown eyes were alight now with indignation.
She said: "All these cats – saying things – hinting things!"
Miss Marple asked: "About Harry Laxton?"
"Yes, about his old affair with the tobacconist’s daughter."
"Oh that!" Miss Marple was indulgent. "A great many young men have affairs of that kind, I imagine."
"Of course they do. And it’s all over. So why harp on and bring it up years after? It’s like ghouls feasting on dead bodies."
"I daresay, my dear, it does seem like that to you. You are young, of course, and intolerant, but you see we have very little to talk about down here and so, I’m afraid, we do tend to dwell on the past. But I’m curious to know why it upsets you so much?"
Clarice Vane bit her lip and flushed. She said in a curious muffled voice: "They look so happy. The Laxtons, I mean. They’re young, and in love, and it’s all lovely for them – I hate to think of it being spoilt – by whispers and hints and innuendoes and general beastliness!"
Miss Marple looked at her and said: "I see."
Clarice went on: "He was talking to me just now – he’s so happy and eager and excited and – yes, thrilled – at having got his heart’s desire and rebuilt Kingsdean. He’s like a child about it all. And she – well, I don’t suppose anything has ever gone wrong in her whole life – she’s always had everything. You’ve seen her, don’t you think—"
Miss Marple interrupted. She said: "As a matter of fact I haven’t seen her yet. I’ve only just arrived. So tiresome. I was delayed by the District Nurse. Her feelings, you know, have been hurt by what—"
But Clarice was unable to take an interest in the village drama which Miss Marple was embarking upon with so much zest. With a muttered apology she left.
Miss Marple pressed onwards, full of the same curiosity that had animated everyone in St Mary Mead, to see what the bride was like.
She hardly knew what she expected, but it was not what she saw. For other people Louise Laxton might be an object of envy, a spoilt darling of fortune, but to the shrewd old lady who had seen so much of human nature in her village there came the refrain of a popular song heard many years ago.
"Poor little rich girl . . ."
A small delicate figure, with flaxen hair curled rather stiffly round her face and big wistful blue eyes, Louise was drooping a little. The long stream of congratulations had tired her. She was hoping it might soon be time to go . . . Perhaps, even now, Harry might say—? She looked at him sideways. So tall and broad shouldered with his eager pleasure in this horrible dull party.
Oh dear, here was another of them! A tall grey haired fussily dressed old lady bleating like all the rest.
"This is Miss Marple, Louise."
She didn’t understand the look in the old lady’s eyes. She would have been quite astonished if she had known what it was:
"Poor little rich girl . . ."