Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Body In the Library by Agatha Christie

191 pages
Published in 1942 by G. P. Putnam's Sons
Reprinted in 2006 by Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc.
New York, NY

I'm fairly certain I have read The Body in the Library once before, a long time ago, but I do not remember exactly when and I could not remember anything about the story, which made this re-read just as enjoyable as if I'd never before set eyes on the book.

Although The Body in the Library does not rank as one my all-time favorite mysteries by Agatha Christie it is an excellent read, a page-turning mystery and I definitely agree with what Agatha Christie said in a Time magazine article in 1956 that it is has the best opening to a book she has ever written.

The Plot:
"Colonel and Mrs. Bantry are shocked when they wake one morning to find the dead body of a young platinum blonde on the floor of their library. Nobody in the village of St. Mary Mead seems to know who she is, but everyone has a theory about the crime. The ensuing investigation follows a twisted trail from this quiet village to an upscale hotel in the nearby town of Danemouth, where the victim worked as a ballroom dancer and bridge hostess. As the local inspectors sift through emerging clues to identify a suspect, Miss Jane Marple, St. Mary Mead's resident sleuth, always seems to be one step ahead of them." (Summary courtesy of the publisher)

My Thoughts:
As I mentioned in my review of N or M? Agatha Christie actually wrote The Body in the Library at the same time she was writing N or M? It was the early years of World War II and Agatha Christie was living alone in London while her second husband Max Mallowan was serving in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in North Africa.

Unlike N or M? this novel is pure "Who-dun-it". International spies, the threat of German invasion, food rations, gas masks and blackout curtains have no place in the little town of Saint Mary Mead. It's as if Christie set the story a few years in the past when England was full of life and parties were plenty. I imagine The Body in the Library, although a murder mystery, must have been a relief in a way for readers. While reading this novel they could put out of their mind all thoughts of war and focus on the puzzle set before them.

Although not present in the edition I read, earlier copies of The Body in the Library included an author's foreword where Christie described "the body in the library" as a cliche of detective fiction. But as typical of her excellence as a story teller Agatha Christie she didn't leave it at that. She created a variation on this theme -- she decided that while the library should be completely conventional the body must be highly improbably and sensational. And it works. Many readers consider The Body in the Library to be a parody of sorts, poking fun at the detective fiction genre. But of course it is more than that. Christie weaves a mix of spine-tingling danger and comic relief in a story that keeps you reading late into the night.

The Body in the Library is only the second novel to include Miss Jane Marple as detective. Perhaps that is why I have yet to feel as emotionally attached to Miss Marple as a character like I have with Hercule Poirot. Although Miss Marple makes the occasional appearance in short stories between 1927 and 1942 she doesn't appear in a novel after her first, The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930 until this one over a decade later. It is also interesting to note that while Miss Marple is the one who solves the mystery of the body in the library, she only makes occasional appearances in the story and to the casual reader it would appear she won't be the one to solve the case... until all of a sudden she does. How different Miss Marple is to Hercule Poirot. Some of this has to do with the difference in personalities and some if I think has to do with the fact that Agatha Christie was still working on developing Miss Marple as a character when she wrote The Body in the Library. Whereas with Poirot by the 1940s she had already included him in over twenty novels and several short-stories. From the 1940s on Miss Marple take a more central role in the mysteries that Christie wrote. I am curious to see how her character develops from book to book and if I will find myself eventually preferring her to Poirot.

The Body in the Library has been adapted to film only twice. The first time was in 1984 with actress Joan Hickson playing the role of Miss Marple. Although an older adaptation (nearly 20 years) this version is faithful to the original novel. The second adaptation was released in 2004 with Geraldine McEwan in the lead role as Miss Marple. Unfortunately this adaptation is less-faithful to the book with many additions and subtractions from the original plot, including a complete change in motive and murderer. To add insult to injury the screenwriters included a relationship twist that was not part of the book and appears to be added just to appeal to modern viewers. Personally if I had to choose between these two adaptations I would pick the former over the latter version. I prefer a faithful adaptation to anything modern.

Up next: Hercule Poirot returns in Five Little Pigs also published as Murder in Retrospect.


Caniad said...

I always loved the Joan Hickson version of the film, particularly in the way it brings out the social problems the family faces after the body is discovered in their library.

The recent version with Geraldine McEwan angered me with the liberties it took. Christie's story works just fine without the need to sensationalize it with modern additions. After seeing it, I decided to skip any further McEwan versions of Miss Marple. (I also hated how McEwan seems delighted with the crimes that occur and that she gets to solve a delicious little mystery, rather than quietly upset and determined to right the wrong, as Hickson is.)

Yvette said...

I too loved the Joan Hickson version best. The later Miss Marple treatments are not a Miss Marple I'd recognize from the books. Simply awful. I stopped watching after the first or second hours when I realized that the film makers had ruined the original characters and plots.

The Joan Hickson version is also notable for the vision of a small English village is gives us. A place where gossip can ruin a man's reputation almost in the blink of an eye. And yet it is a beautiful, almost a fairy tale place. I love not only the Hickson casting, but the rest of the cast as well.

Of course, it is a wonderful book to begin with. The whole plot, in a way, hinges on Miss Marple's sharp-eyed knowledge of young girls.