She lives in the little village of St. Mary Mead. She looks like an ordinary spinster, in tweed and with a curiosity as wide as the world, but when it comes to solving mysteries, she turns out to have a sharp logical mind. In the best detective story tradition, she often embarrasses the local "professional" police, usually by making an analogy with some village occurrence or character.
When we first meet Jane Marple she is very much the stereotypical spinster of the last century - blue-eyed and frail, wearing a black lace cap and mittens, and constantly knitting. She is also a gleeful gossip and not especially nice. The first Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage sees a markedly different Marple to the one who would appear in later books, as she modernized and became nicer over the years.
Miss Marple is able to solve difficult crimes not only because of her shrewd intelligence, but because St. Mary Mead, over her lifetime, has put on a pageant of human depravity rivaled only by that of Sodom and Gomorrah. No crime can arise without reminding Miss Marple of some parallel incident in the history of her time.
As with her other famous detective Hercule Poirot, Christie wrote a concluding novel to her Marple series, Sleeping Murder, in 1940 and saved it for her old age, causing some embarrassing discrepancies as people who were written off as dead (such as Dolly Bantry's husband, Colonel Arthur Bantry) by the time her mystery "Nemesis" was published, which was the preceding Marple mystery but actually the last one written, appear alive in Sleeping Murder having been resurrected from the fictional dead. Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, shortly after Christie's death, and was the last of her novels to be published, although, again, it was written in 1940.
Books featuring Miss Marple
- The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)
- The Body in the Library (1942)
- The Moving Finger (1943)
- A Murder is Announced (1950)
- They Do It with Mirrors, or Murder With Mirrors (1952)
- A Pocketful of Rye (1953)
- 4.50 from Paddington, or What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw! (1957)
- The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962)
- A Caribbean Mystery (1964)
- At Bertram's Hotel (1965)
- Nemesis (1971)
- Sleeping Murder (written around 1940, published 1976)
- "The young people think the old people are fools, but the old people know the young people are fools" – Miss Marple's motto, in several of the books and stories.
Although popular from her first appearance in 1930, Jane Marple had to wait thirty-two years for her first big-screen appearance; when she made it, the results were disappointing to Christie purists. Murder, She Said (1962, directed by George Pollock) was the first of four British MGM productions starring Margaret Rutherford, a magnificent comic actress but too boisterous and loud for the prim and birdlike character Christie created. This first film was based on the 1957 novel 4:50 from Paddington (U.S. title, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), and the changes made in the plot were typical of the series. In the film, Mrs. McGillicuddy doesn't see anything because there is no Mrs. McGillicuddy. Miss Marple herself sees apparent murder committed on a train passing hers. Likewise, it is Miss Marple herself who poses as a maid to find out the facts of the case, not a young friend of hers who has made a business of it.
The other Rutherford films (all directed by George Pollock) were Murder at the Gallop (1963), based on the 1953 Hercule Poirot novel After the Funeral; Murder Most Foul (1964), based on the 1952 Poirot novel Mrs McGinty's Dead; and Murder Ahoy (1964), not based on any Christie work.
In 1980, Angela Lansbury played Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack'd (EMI, directed by Guy Hamilton), based on Christie's 1962 novel. However, Lansbury is only on screen for a short time, the bulk of the film being taken up with the machinations of an all-star cast that included Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Geraldine Chaplin, Tony Curtis, and Kim Novak. Edward Fox appeared as Inspector Craddock, who did Miss Marple's legwork.
American stage and screen legend Helen Hayes portrayed Miss Marple in two American made-for-TV movies, both for CBS: A Caribbean Mystery (1983) and Murder with Mirrors (1984). Sue Grafton contributed to the screenplay of the former. Hayes's Marple was benign and chirpy.
Television and Radio
American TV was the setting for the first dramatic portrayal of Miss Marple. Gracie Fields, a legendary British actress, played the geriatric sleuth in a 1956 episode of Goodyear TV Playhouse based on A Murder Is Announced, the 1950 Christie novel.
There was a long-running and popular BBC TV series in the 1980s with Joan Hickson, an octogenarian herself, who had appeared in a small role in the Rutherford film Murder, She Said. The consensus among Christie devotees was that hers was the definitive performance. All twelve Miss Marple novels were dramatized: The Body in the Library; The Moving Finger; A Murder Is Announced; A Pocket Full of Rye; Murder at the Vicarage; Sleeping Murder; At Bertram's Hotel; Nemesis; 4:50 from Paddington; A Caribbean Mystery; They Do It with Mirrors and The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. All these serializations were shown in the United States on the PBS Mystery! series. It was also televised in Germany. The television show followed the plots of the books considerably more closely than did the Rutherford films.
Angela Lansbury, after playing Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack'd, went on to star in the TV series Murder, She Wrote as Jessica Fletcher, a novelist who solves crimes. The character was to some degree based on Miss Marple and another Christie character, Ariadne Oliver.
In 2004, Granada Television, in collaboration with Agatha Christie Limited, produced four adaptations (namely The Body in the Library, Murder in the Vicarage, 4.50 from Paddington and A Murder is Announced) starring Geraldine McEwan in the title role, and also featuring Joanna Lumley, Ian Richardson, Zoe Wanamaker, Miriam Margolyes, Janet McTeer, Derek Jacobi, Claire Skinner and Stephen Tompkinson in supporting roles.