Books

An Unholy Affair

My second Agatha Christie novel is the first book in the “Miss Marple” series: “The Murder at the Vicarage,” published in 1930.

Judged by today’s standards, the nature of crime it describes is neither complex nor macabre enough to make you shut your eyes. In keeping with everything else in the Edwardian era, the homicide too, is rather dignified and elegant.

No one is more disliked in the one-horse village of St. Mary Mead than Colonel Lucius Protheroe.

When he’s found slumped on the bureau in the vicarage study, with a bullet in his head, the police don’t have to go far in search of his killer.

He turns himself in. Lawrence Redding, an artist, owns up to it with alacrity. Simultaneously, his paramour, who’s also the victim’s wife, admits to doing her husband in.

Human nature being what it is, one doesn’t readily confess to having committed a heinous crime—unless one were caught in the very act, were hoping to reduce a sentence, or were cuckoo. The guilty pretend to be innocent, till proven guilty.

Luckily for the love birds, therefore, very little credence is placed on their confessions and they’re cleared of suspicion. With them out, the field is thrown wide open to the suspects, their number only growing as the investigation trundles along.

On a parallel track, Miss Jane Marple, who one might imagine as an antique and rural version of a female head of M15, is picking up crumbs of old maid tittle-tattle. Gleaning from it useful morsels and kneading it with her sharp logical reasoning, she narrows it down to seven, the parson included.

Though there’re gaps in how Miss Marple arrives at identifying the killer, the plot does build up to a surprise. The culprit isn’t an unlikely one, as one might expect, coming out of nowhere. It’s someone, very likely, with a motive as obvious as the sky.

More exciting than the plot, which I found meh, was the peek it gave into telecommunication of the day. It was the heyday of the wrong number. Because calls were manually connected by an operator, sitting in front of a switchboard, at a telephone exchange, mistakes often happened.

Miss Marple shows up at the most opportune moment courtesy of a ring meant for the ears of another. “The telephone,” she explained. “So careless with their wrong numbers, aren’t they? You spoke to me first thinking I was Dr. Haydock. My number is three five.”

Earlier, a frustrated Colonel Melchett barks into the receiver: “Wrong number, wrong number—always wrong numbers! And a man’s life hanging on it. HALLO—you have me the wrong number … Yes—don’t waste time—give me three nine—nine, not five.”

The technology of the era, for all its clumsiness, didn’t always hinder. Come to think of it, had it been flawless, had no wires got mixed up, there wouldn’t be helpful accidents, would there?

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