MISS MARPLE: THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY

“There she sits: an elderly spinster; sweet, placid …

… so you’d think,” retired Scotland Yard chief Sir Henry Clithering (Raymond Francis) says when describing Miss Marple to his friend, wealthy paraplegic Conway Jefferson (Andrew Cruickshank). “Yet,” he continues, “her mind has plumbed the depths of human iniquity, and taken all in a day’s work.” And Vicar Clement, the narrator of Agatha Christie‘s first Miss Marple story, 1930’s Murder at the Vicarage, couldn’t agree more: “Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is the more dangerous,” he observes on one occasion.

So, while Milchester C.I.D.’s Inspector Slack (David Horovitch), in charge of the investigation into the death of the platinum blonde whose body has mysteriously appeared in the library of Colonel Bantry (Moray Watson), squire of the village of St. Mary Mead, is still hot on the pursuit of the wrong suspect(s), Miss Marple – called in by her friend Dolly Bantry (Gwen Watford), the Colonel’s wife – has already found the solution; relying on her ever-unfailing “village parallels,” those seemingly innocuous incidents of village life making up the sum of her knowledge of human nature, to which she routinely turns in unmasking even the cleverest killer.

Originally airing on TV between 1984 and 1992, the BBC’s adaptations of Agatha Christie‘s twelve Miss Marple novels featured Joan Hickson in the title role; quickly establishing her as the quintessential Miss Marple even in the view of the creator of the grandmother (or rather, grand-aunt) of all village sleuths and “noticing kinds of persons,” Dame Agatha herself. (In fact, after seeing Hickson in a stage production of her Appointment With Death, as early as 1946 Christie had already sent her a note expressing the hope she would one day “play my dear Miss Marple.”) Prior versions, partly involving rather high-octane casts, had seen as Miss Marple, inter alia, Angela Lansbury and Margaret Rutherford, but had been less faithful to Christie‘s books. While Lansbury holds her own fairly well when compared to the character’s literary original in 1980’s “Hollywood does Christie” adaptation of The Mirror Crack’d (and that movie’s ageing actresses’ camp showdown featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak is a delight to watch) the four movies starring Rutherford are only loosely based on Christie‘s books: Dame Margaret’s Miss Marple, although itself likewise a splendid performance, has about as much to do with Agatha Christie‘s demure and seemingly scatterbrained village sleuth as Big Ben does with the English countryside, and of the scripts, only Murder, She Said is at least loosely based on an actual Miss Marple mystery (4:50 From Paddington), whereas two of the others – Murder at the Gallop and Murder Most Foul – are, instead, inspired by Hercule Poirot stories (After the Funeral and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, respectively), and Murder Ahoy is based on a completely independent screenplay.

The Body in the Library was Christie‘s second novel-length Miss Marple mystery, written twelve years after The Murder at the Vicarage and following two short story collections featuring St. Mary Mead’s elderly spinster, The Thirteen Problems (1932, a/k/a The Tuesday Club Murders) and The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories (1939, also featuring Hercule Poirot and Parker Pyne). The mysterious dead blonde’s appearance at the story’s very beginning was Christie‘s response to a friend’s request for a dead body in her next novel’s first chapter. In the BBC productions, this was the first Miss Marple mystery to air (in three installments in 1984), followed a year later by the likewise multiple-episode A Pocket Full of Rye and A Murder Is Announced, as well as the movie-length The Moving Finger. Only in 1986, the BBC followed up with a movie-length adaptation of The Murder at the Vicarage. The last of the twelve features, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, dates from 1992.

Following the rule that ever since Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Lestrade every great private detective needs a policeman he can outwit, the creators of the BBC series inserted the character of Inspector Slack into almost all storylines – hardly in keeping with the literary originals, which are set over a period of more than 30 years and thus, exceed the career span of a policeman already advanced on his professional path at the time of his first encounter with Miss Marple; even if the BBC’s Slack is promoted from D.I. in The Body in the Library (where he really does appear) to Superintendent in The Mirror Crack’d. Yet, Hickson‘s and Horovitch’s face-offs are a fun addition; and one is almost ready to pity Slack, who hardly ever gets a foot down vis-à-vis Miss Marple’s quick rejoinders and, in the words of Sir Henry Clithering, “wonderful gift to state the obvious.”

From the library of the Bantrys’ Gossington Hall estate, the present mystery’s trail leads to the nearby seaside resort of Danemouth, where the dead girl – identified by her cousin Josie Turner (played by Sting’s wife Trudie Styler) as one Ruby Keene – had worked as a show dancer at a large luxury hotel. In classic Christie fashion, the cast of suspects includes everybody from rich Mr. Jefferson’s son in law Mark Gaskell (Keith Drinkel) and daughter in law Adelaide (Ciaran Madden), the spouses of Jefferson’s deceased children – who have taken the place of their dead partners in the rich old man’s life, and have every reason to resent upstartish Ruby for whirling herself into his favor, to the point of his decision to adopt her and settle a large sum of money on her in his testament – to shallow tennis pro and dance instructor Raymond Starr (Jess Conrad), who has hopes of his own regarding Adelaide Jefferson, as well as flamboyant Basil Blake (Anthony Smee), whose extravagant lifestyle and connections to the movie world in themselves provide ample grounds for a close look at him. But while Inspector Slack insists that the case will be solved by “good old-fashioned police work,” Miss Marple’s “village parallels” and her attention to such things as the dead girl’s fingernails prove uncannily superior – and they also allow her to connect this case to the disappearance of another young woman, an incident offhand dismissed as unconnected by Slack.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: BBC (1984)
  • Director: Silvio Nazzarino
  • Producers: Guy Slater & George Gallaccio
  • Screenplay: T.R. Bowen
  • Based on a novel by: Agatha Christie
Cast
  • Joan Hickson: Miss Jane Marple
  • David Horovitch: Detective Inspector Slack
  • Ian Brimble: Detective Constable Lake
  • Gwen Watford: Dolly Bantry
  • Moray Watson: Colonel Bantry
  • Andrew Cruickshank: Conway Jefferson
  • Ciaran Madden: Adelaide Jefferson
  • Trudie Styler: Josie Turner
  • Keith Drinkel: Mark Gaskell
  • Jess Conrad: Raymond Starr
  • Anthony Smee: Basil Blake
  • Debbie Arnold: Dinah Lee
  • Arthur Bostrom: George Bartlett
  • Sally Jane Jackson: Ruby Keene
  • Stephen Churchett: Major Reeve
  • Astra Sheridan: Pamela Reeve
  • Karen Seacombe: Florrie Small
  • Raymond Francis: Sir Henry Clithering
  • Frederick Jaeger: Colonel Melchett
  • John Bardon: PC Palk
  • John Evans: Inch (uncredited)

 

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