This is what I was reading while almost everyone else in the country was watching the first new Sherlock (she said smugly. And then Sherlock was available to watch online and then I did almost immediately so please feel free to mock any further smugness).
On the subject of Miss Marple’s greatness, I’m fond of this piece by Sarah Rees Brennan.
A version of last weekend’s column.
The question of who wrote the first detective novel, like all questions of genre-origins, is one that probably isn’t worth answering, though it’s always worth discussing. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often given this credit (Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is sometimes cited as the first English language detective novel), and it’s as good a place to start as any. Poe’s Dupin is a genius, the sort of person who is regularly consulted by the police, and has an admiring audience at any time in his companion, the narrator of the piece. It’s a convention that shows up in later detective stories as well—Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings being particularly well known examples. It makes sense; a story narrated by Holmes or Dupin would verge on incomprehensible (and probably quite annoying) without someone more like the reader to interpret. Agatha Christie takes it further and provides in Hastings a narrator whose words generally make the reader feel considerably more on top of things than Hastings himself. I love all of these fictional detectives but a thing in common they have is an assumption that they will be listened to. The very presence of their narrator-companions attests to this; these men exist within the books as listeners, their presence is proof that there is something worth listening to. And yet I prefer the ordinary witness who has to struggle to be heard, who cannot take for granted a world in which her opinions are immediately worthy of respect; the detective who doesn’t look like one. I am suspicious of an Agatha Christie reader who prefers Poirot to Marple.
Long before Christie (and before Conan Doyle) there was Anna Katharine Green, the American author of a number of nineteenth century detective stories. Most of Green’s stories focused upon another great detective, Ebenezer Gryce. But her hero is fallible, and in The Affair Next Door Green introduced Amelia Butterworth, a nosy, middle-aged woman who manages to out-deduce even Gryce.
It’s not easy to be a woman and be taken seriously in nineteenth century New York, and Amelia is very aware of this. Modesty is not an option; only a very strong sense of self-worth can survive her constant setting-aside. Amelia may not have had the opportunities for experience that her male counterparts have had but, she says, “though I have had no adventures I feel capable of them”. She must constantly be on the alert lest compliments she receives have a patronising tone, she changes her name to one she thinks sounds more sensible, she is ridiculed as a busybody. And yet it is she who finds the vital clues, she who proves Gryce wrong and saves two innocent men from wrongful arrest.
The Affair Next Door is wonderful because Amelia is wonderful. She is exactly what she seems to be—a woman in her fifties, concerned with appearances (she purposely feeds two young guests poor meals so that she won’t appear to be trying to impress them), far too nosy and unaware of how ridiculous she often appears. But it’s okay that she is all of these things, and these traits help her, and we’re never allowed to forget that she’s more than that. She’s acerbic, prejudiced (“I don’t like young men in general” she informs us), worried about her writing style (“Excuse the metaphor; I do not often indulge”). In some ways she reminds me of Miss Marple; the two women are vastly different in temperament, but in neither case are appearances deceptive. Whether it is Miss Marple’s gentle Victorian demeanour, or Miss Butterworth’s pushy society spinster, these women’s greatest strengths are exactly the things for which others dismiss them. By the end of the novel Amelia Butterworth has won Gryce’s respect (she collaborates with him in two more mysteries) but we’re under no illusions. With or without his support, she will still have to push to be heard, every time.