I first discovered Agatha Christie when I was touring Ireland with my cousin in 2002. Sure, I’d heard of her. And I had read a couple of American mystery writers. But the light had not shone upon me yet.
After a long terrifying day of driving on the wrong side of the road, Teresa and I checked into a bed and breakfast in our great grandfather’s village, Crossmolina, Co. Mayo. Crossmolina is smaller than Wasilla, Alaska, if you can imagine, and rolls up the carpet at about 6 PM. That evening, after dining in a neighboring town, we wandered into the sitting room where we found the proprietress watching television. She patted the couch beside her and then said, “I love Miss Marple.”
That was the first day of the rest of my life. From then on, I wanted to be Jane Marple .
Miss Marple is the quintessential crone. That archetype has floated down to us through the ages in Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology, has been analyzed modernly by Carl Jung and discussed by Christopher Vogler. But the center of most of those ancient and modern mythological tales is the hero, some young man who bumbles through life and needs a series of helpers to keep from getting killed. Most writers have dismissed the crone and, I argue, unfairly so.
What about the crone? She’s powerful. She’s smarter than everyone else. She sees things no one else sees by virtue of her wisdom. She’s aloof, above the fray.
In modern story telling, writers are advised to attach personal stakes to our hero. No such personal stakes for Miss Marple! It never gets more personal for her than the crises of her best friend, Dolly Bantry. (As much as I love Joanna Lumley, Gwen Watford will always be Dolly Bantry to me.) Miss Marple is called upon to solve mysteries because of her unique crime solving abilities, analogizing the present puzzle to the evils she has previously witnessed in the English village. She answers the call because justice must be done. She is Nemesis, the avenger.
And Miss Marple is scary. With that one look, Joan Hickson told you that she knew what you’re thinking. I remember old ladies turning that look on me when I was little and being terrified. I probably had cookie crumbs in my hair giving me away but at the time I thought those old ladies could read my mind.
I need to work on that look. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep making it up as I go along. What about you, Mysteristas? Who is your favorite archetype?
Look for my new column, Ipso Facto, in the Guppies’ newsletter, First Draft. The debut article “Courtroom Theatrics” was published in the March 1, 2016 edition. Topics will cover the law and crime writing.