Miss Marple solves her most famous case in Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel The Body in the Library. One morning, the servants at Gossington Hall, home of Colonel and Mrs. Bantry, get up to find the body of a completely unknown strangled platinum blond girl lying on the hearth rug in the library. Eagerly, Mrs. Bantry picks up her phone and calls Miss Jane Marple in nearby St. Mary Mead to come over and exercise her detection gifts. Inspector Slack, who was shown up by Miss Marple in the previous book, Murder at the Vicarage, gets right to work sending out notices of the young lady to neighboring towns. When asked by Mrs. Bantry to investigate the scene, Miss Marple makes a number of observations, some of which are seemingly unimportant but later prove essential to solving the case. In the meanwhile, the thoughts of Chief Constable Colonel Melchett and Colonel Bantry turn to a most disagreeable artist who works for Lemville Studios and has been parading a platinum blond around town. Could that girl be their mysterious victim? However a visit to Blake’s home reveals his blond alive and fighting angry with him.
It does not take long before Inspector Slack identifies the victim as Ruby Keene, a dancer at the Majestic Hotel, who disappeared the night before. When her cousin Josie comes to identify her, they learn that Ruby has been filling in for Josie dancing while Josie has had an injured ankle. This moves the case to the Majestic, so that is where Mrs. Bantry is determined she and Miss Marple must go.
When the police go to the Majestic, they learn that Ruby had been especially close to Mr. Conway Jefferson, a rich man paralyzed in a plane crash that killed his wife, son, and daughter. So now he travels everywhere with his son-in-law and daughter-in-law. He reveals to the police that he had decided to adopt Ruby and was going to leave her a great deal of money, leaving several people with possible motive to kill Ruby.
We are now introduced to Sir Henry Clithering, former head of Scotland Yard, whom we got to know in the short story collection The Tuesday Club. Coming at a desperate summons from Mr. Jefferson, Sir Henry proposes bringing in Miss Marple as a consultant, having spied her sitting in the library. This is where Sir Henry makes that famous comment about Miss Marple:
“Downstairs in the lounge, by the third pillar from the left, there sits an old lady with a sweet, placid, spinsterish face and a mind that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it all as in the day’s work. . . . Where crime is concerned, she’s the goods.”
This book well deserves its good reputation. It draws out the character of Miss Marple, often making statements that seem to be non sequiturs but which really get to the heart of the matter. We see her theory of human parallelism, that if one person reminds you of another, then the first person is likely to behave in a similar manner to the second. And in the end, Miss Marple solves the case, when the professional investigators acknowledge that they never would have been able to. The book contains a satisfying conclusion that makes us all slap our heads that we never spotted the solution ourselves.
It is interesting to note that this book was published in 1942, just at the height of World War II, yet there is virtually no sense of the war in the book. The one exception is when Miss Marple explains to Colonel Bantry that, far from being soft, Basil Blake had done ARP (Air Raid Precautions) work and at the age of 18 brought a whole family out of a burning building, only to have it crush him when he went back to rescue the family’s dog. But even here, the context is vague, and if you did not know the date of this book and the fact that the ARP was established in 1937, you could just as easily assume the war mentioned was the First World War.
Christie published 12 books during the war, yet only one, N or M?, touches on the war directly. I picture Christie as working hard to produce these books as her contribution to the war work by giving people relief from their fears and exhaustion and reminding them of the England that they were fighting to preserve. Then once the war ended, her books dealt pretty directly with the aftermath of the war, once again encouraging people that they were all in things together.
Another thing that stands out to my modern sensibilities is the cavalier attitude towards both being drunk and driving drunk. No one issues an objection to Blake’s driving drunk, and when Colonel Bantry learns of a troublesome thing Blake did while drunk, he reacts with understanding:
“Bottled, was he?” Said Colonel Bantry, with an Englishman’s sympathy for alcoholic excess. “Oh, well, can’t judge a fellow by what he does when he’s drunk? When I was at Cambridge, I remember I put a certain utensil – well – well, nevermind.”
To me, this response, especially to Blake’s driving drunk, is not only irresponsible but downright dangerous, but in 1942, especially in Britain, as the quote highlights, people didn’t recognize the dangers of drinking too much.
Here are just two other fun details where Christie seems to be enjoying playing with. Her 1936 Cards on the Table introduces her alter-ego, Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, who writes famous mystery books, and the book A Body in the Library is mentioned as one of her most famous. Six years later, Christie names her own book the same thing. The other fun internal reference comes when the son of Mr. Jefferson’s daughter-in-law asks Sir Henry Clithering for his autograph. He says that he already has several mystery writers’ autographs, including that of Agatha Christie.
Stephanie Cole provides the narration of the audio edition of this book, and she keeps the book moving enjoyably. She becomes Miss Marple as she reads the part and does a great job creating voices for the other characters. The book is already a lot of fun, but Cole helps to keep it alive.
I really recommend The Body in the Library to anyone. It has such great characters and a fascinating plot. I can understand why this book is many people’s favorite Miss Marple book. I give it five stars!
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