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Miss Marple is, after Hercule Poirot, the second of Agatha Christie's big two detective characters. She was second to Poirot both chronologically, making her debut seven years after him, and in the affections of the public, but it is reported that of the two of them Christie herself much preferred Miss Marple.
She made her first appearance in the short story "The Tuesday Night Club" in 1927, and first featured in a novel in 1930, with The Murder at the Vicarage. In all, she appeared in 12 novels and 24 short stories.
Miss Jane Marple is a little old spinster lady living in the English village of St Mary Mead, with an occasional tendency to stumble into murder mysteries. Her gently ultra-conventional exterior hides a keen perception and wide-ranging understanding of human nature from which she gains insight that lets her proceed where the official detectives are baffled. The kicker is that this wisdom is derived entirely from her observation of one village's life; confronted with a horrific murder, she invariably can draw the 'village parallel' between the suspects' behaviour and some random schoolboy prank or irregularity with the church funds. ("Human nature is much the same everywhere, I find...")
Miss Marple's first screen adaptation was in 1961, when she was portrayed by Margaret Rutherford in four films beginning in that year. The films are well regarded as comedies, if not as adaptations. Only the first was even based on one of Christie's Miss Marple novels, and that not very closely. Also, Margaret Rutherford is the polar opposite of the sweet old lady of the novels, playing the character as essentially herself: burly, resolute and outspoken. Miss Marple has also been portrayed on film by Angela Lansbury, who later went on to feature in another Little Old Lady Investigates role in Murder, She Wrote — which itself owes a huge debt to the Marple mythos, in particular the small-town setting.
Of several television adaptations, the most faithful and best regarded is the BBC's Miss Marple series (1984-1992) of telefilms, starring Joan Hickson. More recently, ITV's Marple starring Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie (2004-present) is a much looser adaptation, as with the Rutherford series frequently sharing only the titles with the original novels.
Novels in which Miss Marple has appeared:
- The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
- The Body in the Library (1942)
- The Moving Finger (1943)
- A Murder Is Announced (1950)
- They Do It With Mirrors (1952)
- A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)
- 4.50 From Paddington (1957)
- The Mirror Crack'd (1962)
- A Caribbean Mystery (1964)
- At Bertram's Hotel (1965)
- Nemesis (1971)
- Sleeping Murder (written in 1940, published posthumously in 1976)
Agatha Christie's stories and novels about Miss Marple provide examples of:
- Amateur Sleuth
- Annoying Patient
- Asshole Victim: Colonel Protheroe in The Murder at the Vicarage is the most despised man in the village; even the vicar says that killing him would be a service to the community.
- Big Screwed-Up Family: The Fortescues in A Pocket Full of Rye.
- Black Sheep
- Busman's Holiday: A Caribbean Mystery and At Bertram's Hotel both have Jane being roped into solving a murder while on vacation.
- Canon Welding
- Close Knit Community: Saint Mary Mead. Also sometimes the location of the mystery
- Comic Book Time
- The Ditz: Gladys in A Pocket Full of Rye. It... doesn't end well for her.
- The Dutiful Son
- Expy: Miss Marple's initial characterisation owed quite a bit to Caroline Sheppard of the Hercule Poirot novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; Caroline's creator enjoyed her so much she revived the type as the star part.
- Flower Motifs
- Gossipy Hens
- Have a Gay Old Time
- He Knows Too Much: Why Major Palgrave had to die in A Caribbean Mystery.
- Important Character, Important Evidence
- The Ishmael: Vicar Clement in The Murder at the Vicarage, Jerry Burton in The Moving Finger.
- Little Old Lady Investigates
- Maiden Aunt
- Market-Based Title: 4.50 from Paddington became What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! in the US.
- Mystery Magnet
- Never Found the Body
- Never One Murder
- New House, New Problems: In The Mirror Crack'd.
- Obfuscating Stupidity
- Rear Window Witness
- Sarcastic Confession
- Slap Slap Kiss - when Miss Marple witnesses a man and woman arguing and correctly deduces that they are secretly married.
- The Summation
- Sympathetic Murderer
- The Vicar
- Woman Child: Marina Gregg in The Mirror Crack'd
- You Would Make a Great Model: This happened to one of the victims in The Body in the Library.
The Margaret Rutherford films provide examples of:
- Bitter Almonds:
- In Murder Most Foul, Miss Marple detects the presence of cyanide because of the smell.
- In Murder Ahoy!, she rules out cyanide because the snuff she suspects someone was poisoned with lacks it.
- Dolled-Up Installment: Of the four Margaret Rutherford films, the second and third were based on Hercule Poirot novels, and the fourth was a completely new plot.
The BBC series provides examples of:
- The Cat Came Back: In The BBC series, Inspector Slack is driven to annoyance, if not actual distraction, by the way Miss Marple keeps showing up whenever he tries to investigate anything in St Mary Mead.
- Gilligan Cut: From the BBC version of "The Body in the Library".
Colonel Bantry: I am not going downstairs to ask if there is a body in my library.
- Hand of Death: A frequent occurrence in the BBC versions.
- Makeover Montage: In "The Moving Finger".
- Right Behind Me: In the BBC "They Do It With Mirrors". Chief Inspector Slack almost seems to be expecting Miss Marple to turn up. He mentions that he keeps thinking of "that old busybody from St Mary Mead" — and promptly hears her polite "Good morning, Chief Inspector" from behind him. His expression borders on Oh Crap.
- Sexophone: Any time Lucky Dyson shows up in the BBC "A Caribbean Mystery".
- Suspiciously Similar Substitute: Inspector Duckham for Inspector Craddock in the BBC adaptation of "4:50 From Paddington".
- You Look Familiar: Many years before starring in the BBC series, Joan Hickson played a housekeeper in one of the Margaret Rutherford films.
The ITV series provides examples of:
- Dolled-Up Installment: A significant proportion of episodes of ITV's Marple are derived from Agatha Christie novels that originally contained neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot.
- It Is Pronounced "Tro-PAY": Lettice in the ITV version of "Murder at the Vicarage" would like to make it clear that her name is not pronounced the same way as the vegetable.
- Nobody Over 50 Is Gay: Subverted with the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd in "A Murder is Announced", although the adaptations tend to make their pairing much more explicit than the novel did.
- Psycho Lesbian: Just about every lesbian couple in the adaptations turned out to be this, especially if they were subject to Relationship Reveal.
- Not His Sled: Several episodes of Marple change the identity, motive, etc. of the murderer.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Jerry Burton in the recent ITV adaptation of The Moving Finger, to paraphrase his sister, came through the war with flying colours yet seems to find the peace utterly crushing.