Miss Marple #5
Guests fill an English home when word spreads there will be a murder there. And there is…
A gem amongst the Marple canon (and her only entry in the Christie Top Ten), A Murder is Announced takes a delightful premise – the announcement in a village newspaper that there will be a murder, at a specific time and place – and runs with it. From the opening scenes, as the entire village feigns disinterest while actually gearing up for the big event, to the slowly discombobulating aftermath in which her array of characters can’t quite fathom what is happening within the confines of their safe little hamlet, it’s solid Christie fun.
The net of suspects is a little wider than usual, including some slightly “racy” characters in the lesbian pair, although their sexual nature is mentioned only in asides and implications, rather than made explicit. The novel is a perfectly contrived locked-room mystery, which we can’t put together but where every clue seems to expose one person and exonerate another. While the solution is (as usual) a bit far-fetched, there is a strong emotional resonance from both the murderer’s actions, and the unwittingly tragic actions of the other characters.
Not everything is perfect. The multiple mistaken identities are excessive for any situation, let alone a quaint village, but I’ll forgive it on this occasion as the stakes are high. And one element at the climax – namely a sudden skill of legerdemain developed by Miss Marple – is pointedly silly. But in spite of this, Christie clearly enjoyed this novel, and that enjoyment comes across to the reader, making this Christie’s best novel of the 1950s, and a source of solid adaptations for both Joan Hickson and Geraldine McEwan.
Along with the characterisations, clever plotting, and delightful premise, one of the reasons that A Murder is Announced is so high is because it exemplifies a classic Christie formula, a formula which – sadly – is often altered in the ’90s and ’00s TV films to accommodate deeper portrayals of the characters. Now, I’m one of the biggest supporters of these deeper, slightly more tragic adaptations, but – and this has struck me constantly since I began this project, and hence have watched endless hours of Christie adaptations – it can prove very frustrating. In a 90-minute film, you get 20 minutes of exposition and 20 minutes of increasing character tensions before the murder even happens. This is followed by each suspect getting one short scene (except the biggest star, who might get two), a second murder, a few scenes to tie up loose ends, and then a denouement. In short, the screenwriter gives us the same information, just that much of it comes before the murder. Not inherently a problem, no, but I often yearn for the ‘classic’ formula in which the murder occurs very, very early on. Seeing the process of Poirot or Marple putting together the clues through extensive interviews and twists is much more interesting, but perhaps it comes across stronger in a novel than on film. Either way, it’s the standard for many of my utter favourites, such as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Death in the Clouds, Cards on the Table and this.
Finally, then, the question: why do four novels beat this in my rankings? Well, at this point it’s innovation. The remaining four are all 10/10 jobs. A Murder is Announced may be the most perfect example of Christie’s standard crime fiction, but what’s to come are perfect examples of Christie’s innovative crime fiction. Can’t wait!
Marple ranking: 1st of 14
Next time: Christie’s most sadistic family drama, and the Dame’s own favourite amongst her novels.