The Murder at the Vicarage (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: UK: Collins, 1930; USA: Dodd Mead, 1930

The first appearance of Miss Marple, “the worst cat in the village”, and hence disliked by everybody; for example, the vicar, who narrates the story, is “repelled” by her “eager curiosity.” This eager curiosity is, however, turned to good account when the vicar finds the bullying Colonel Protheroe shot dead in his study. Attempts to fix the exact moment when the shots were fired and the fact that the vicar’s clock had been tampered with add zest to a problem composed largely of people’s movements on the evening of the crime. The case is further complicated by a number of sub-plots, “things that don’t really matter, but that get in the way”. The solution, when it comes, is a reworking of SPOILER The Mysterious Affair at Styles, but without the clues. Had John Dickson Carr written this book, the reader would have been told where a certain character’s earrings were on Friday, of the contents of the anonymous letters, and exactly what type of rock it was.

Blurb (UK)

In the peaceful village of St. Mary Mead nothing ever happens.  So it seems almost incredible when Colonel Protheroe, the churchwarden, is discovered, shot through the head, in the Vicarage study.  Everybody thinks they know who has done it—including Miss Marple, the real old maid of the village who knows everything and sees everything and hears everything!  She declares that at least seven people have reasons for wishing Colonel Protheroe out of the way!  Excitement dies down when somebody confesses to having committed the crime.  But that is not the end, for almost immediately somebody quite different also confesses!  And there is a third confession through the telephone!  But who really killed Colonel Protheroe?

Blurb (US)

If you are looking for an exciting, well-knit detective story, filled with people who are people and not puppets, and with a surprise at the end which has been so cleverly prepared that although you know it’s coming, you haven’t the least suspicion of what it may be, we advise you to read this book.

The scene of the story is the town of St. Mary Mead – more specifically, the quiet study of the little vicarage, where, returning from a sick call, the unobtrusive padre discovers, in a pool of blood, the body of his murdered friend, Colonel Protheroe.  Seven persons might have profited by this unfortunate circumstance, as one of the most unconventional and shrewdest detectives in all fiction proceeds to point out.  But which of the seven committed the murder?

As customary in an Agatha Christie story, the solution is a complete surprise.  And in the unravelling of the plot, there is never a dull moment; the characters and the dialogue are thoroughly amusing; and the whole atmosphere is pervaded by the brisk gaiety which readers associate with Agatha Christie’s best work.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (6th November 1930): Who shot Colonel Prothero?  Was it Redding, who confessed to shield Mrs. Prothero, but whose confession proved at least partly false?  Was it Mrs. Prothero, who confessed to shield Redding, but whose confession also proved at least partly false?  Was it the mysterious Mrs. Lestrange, Prothero’s divorced wife?  Was it Lettice, her daughter, forbidden by Prothero to see her mother?  Was it Archer, the poacher, whom Prothero had threatened?  Was it Mary, the sharp-tongued vicarage servant, Archer’s sweetheart?  Was it the vicar himself, who tells the story, and whom Prothero had as good as accused of stealing church money?  Was it Hawes the curate, who had had encephalitis, which destroyed his morals?  Was it the parson’s wife, to prevent Prothero from telling her husband of her flirtation with Redding?  Was it the spurious Professor Stone, or was he only guilty of jewel-theft?  As a detective story, the only fault of this one is that it is hard to believe that the culprit could kill Prothero so quickly and quietly.  The three plans of room, garden, and village show that almost within sight and hearing was Miss Marple, who “always knew every single thing that happened and drew the worst inferences”.  And three other “parish cats” (admirably portrayed) were in the next three houses.  It is Miss Marple who does detect the murderer in the end, but one suspects she would have done it sooner in reality.

Nation and Ath (K.C. Tomlinson, 25th October 1930, 150w): As a ‘hider’ the author is decidedly clever, keeping the secret to the end.

Sat R of Lit (R.I. Center, 22nd November 1930, 160w): Any book by Agatha Christie attracts attention but when she really hits her stride in a full length detective story, as she does in The Murder at the Vicarage, she is hard to surpass.  Without a doubt this is the best detective story Agatha Christie has written since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

NY Times (Bruce Rae, 30th November 1930, 130w): The talented Miss Christie is far from being at her best in her latest mystery story.  It will add little to her eminence in the field of detective fiction.

John O’London’s Weekly: Colonel Protheroe is discovered shot dead in the Vicarage study.  Three people confess and dear old Miss Marple, the village scandalmonger, who is an excellent entertainment in herself, counts up on her fingers at least seven people who would be glad to have the colonel out of the way.  In fact, but for this old lady’s imagination, the criminal would never have been caught.

Morning Post: Humour and mystery are admirably blended in this clever story of Mrs. Christie’s, whose pen can draw the quaint twists of village types as ably as it can unravel the involutions of a crime.  Of all the personalities concerned, Miss Marple stands pre-eminent, making us agree with her creator that ‘Really Miss Marple is rather a dear’.