I owe a lot to my Mum. It’s from her that I inherited my ridiculous sense of humour, my disdain for housework – and, most importantly, my love of reading.
The thing is, although my Mum and I are both readers, we’ve never really been into the same kinds of books. She reads crime novels; thrillers – even historical fiction. Her shelves are full of novels by Lee Child and John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell. They’re quite different to the books on my shelves. Though we talk about reading all the time, we’re always discussing completely different books.
When I was growing up, most of my family’s books occupied a huge, floor-to-ceiling shelf in the passageway between bedrooms. My Mum’s books held a special fascination for me for two reasons: firstly, because there were so many of them, and secondly, because they were kept on the top shelf, out of our reach.
Amongst my Mum’s books were her Agatha Christie novels. I remember their simple, covers, all variations on the same design; a neat row of white spines. I vaguely recall some of the titles…
But, for some reason, I’ve never read a single Agatha Christie novel.
Until now, that is. I always intended to read an Agatha Christie for Book to the Future. This is the one I chose.
The Body in the Library
by Agatha Christie
Published in 1942
I’ve never considered myself a particular fan of the crime genre. So when I picked up Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel, The Body in the Library; the second of her Miss Marple mysteries, I didn’t really know what to expect.
My first Agatha Christie left me intrigued. I found myself oddly drawn to The Body in the Library. But not for the reasons you might think…
As the novel begins, Mrs. Bantry and her husband, Colonel Bantry wake up to discover their servants have found a body in their private library.
Their middle class sensibilities are rattled. After all, this isn’t just any body. It’s the body of a “flamboyant” young woman. She’s platinum blonde, with over-the-top makeup, elaborately coiffed hair, blood-red nails, and a cheap, tawdry dress and shoes. What will the Bantrys do? And, more importantly, whatever will the neighbours say?
After speaking with the local police, and taking a jolly good gander at the body, Mrs. Bantry calls her old friend, Miss Marple, to help crack the case quickly, before any nasty rumours should happen to spread around the village.
To complicate things further, there’s another murder. A Girl Scout is discovered, dead, in the shell of a burnt-out car. Could there be a connection between the deaths of these two very different girls? And will the killer strike again before Miss Marple can work out what’s going on?
What surprised me, as I read The Body in the Library, was that I wasn’t particularly interested in the actual murder mystery at all. What most attracted me to The Body in the Library was the way in which Agatha Christie portrays middle class village society. The murder itself was well-written, but how the novel’s characters react to it was fascinating.
Miss Marple, and a gaggle of police investigators work together to solve the crime. Their motivation isn’t so much bringing the girl’s killer to justice, but clearing Colonel Bantry’s name before word of the crime gets out and ruins his social standing. Meanwhile, Mrs. Bantry sees the dead girl in her husband’s study as a form of middle class entertainment. On the phone to Mrs. Marple, she says:
“What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean” (p. 18)
Meanwhile, the murdered Girl Scout, not that much younger than the first victim, hails from a middle class family, and her death is dealt with in a completely different manner. One of the inspectors investigating the case comments that, while the first victim “might have asked for what was coming to her”, the second victim was different, and he comments that “he’d not rest until he’d tracked down the man or woman who killed her”.
There’s no sympathy at all for the first victim. Not even from Miss Marple herself. Marple comments that the dead girl wasn’t “a lady”, that she was obviously ill-bred; not of their class.
I’d always imagined Miss Marple to be a sweet, kind old dear. Reading The Body in the Library, I realised I had her all wrong. She’s a judgmental old biddy, a dreamcatcher for village gossip, scandal and drama. Her opinion of human nature is surprisingly dark.
So, what’s Agatha Christie really up to? She contrasts these two young, female victims in a way that makes me wonder to what extent she’s parodying her own characters, poking fun at their middle class sensibilities. She subtly makes light of their double standards – not even her heroine, Miss Marple is safe from ridicule.
But just because I found myself distracted from the novel by Christie’s portrayal of village life in the nineteen forties, that’s not to say that there was anything wrong with the novel’s plot. The Body in the Library is ingeniously plotted, with twists and turns that kept me guessing until the very moment Miss Marple revealed the killer’s identity. My theory was, of course, totally wrong. It’s as if she knew what I was thinking and stayed one step ahead of me the whole time. I was impressed by Christie’s intelligence.
The writing itself is straightforward. There’s a lot of dialogue. The novel’s opening is quite lovely, but after that, Christie doesn’t bother much with descriptive passages. She gets straight to the point, her plot powering ahead with driven purpose. It’s a bit of a shame, because I enjoyed the first few pages of the novel very much.
The Body in the Library has one substantial weakness. While Christie spends time developing some of the novel’s characters, there are others she leaves completely blank. The team of inspectors who show up to investigate the crime are particularly badly written. There are so many of them that they seem to bleed into the one, rather vanilla, character. Christie doesn’t put any effort into distinguishing between them, so it’s impossible to tell them all apart. They have names, but no distinct personalities.
But despite this big problem, I found The Body in the Library an interesting distraction. Though I can’t help but wonder whether or not my particular reading of this novel was justified. Was The Body in the Library‘s tone of quiet subversion something that Christie intended? Are her other novels quite as clever?
I guess the only way to find out would be to read more Agatha Christie books.
This, as they say, could be the start of something…
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
(Gah. Why did I ever think using this idiotic rating system was a good idea?? If I used numerical ratings, like any normal bookblogger, I’d give The Body in the Library a score of three and a half)
Should you read it?
I’ll leave this one up to you. The Body in the Library really got me thinking. When I get a chance, I’m going to explore a few more Agatha Christie novels…but which ones? Do you have a favourite? There are so many – where should I begin? Help!
In a word: