Marple-style Meddling: Five Crime Novels with Amateur Detectives
Since her creation in 1930, Miss Marple has remained one of the most enduring and endearing characters in crime fiction. A far cry from the hard boiled detectives which proliferate the genre, Miss Marple’s charm and her skill as a investigator come from the deliciously unexpected nature of her talent. Cheerful and dowdy, the characters around her little expect her worldly and incisive observations, as she lays down her knitting needles to unmask another dastardly criminal. There is a particular joy in reading from the eyes of the amateur sleuth, muddling through without the resources of official investigators, only to emerge triumphant as the unobserved observer with all the answers. Below is a list of five crime novels, each with their own unsuspecting detective who might find Miss Marple’s predicaments all too familiar.
G.K Chesterton: The Innocence of Father Brown
Before there was Miss Marple, there was Father Brown. Coming at the end of the Holmesian era in the early 20th century, Father Brown embodies many of the characteristics later seen in Miss Marple. He is friendly and shambling while deeply knowledgeable of human nature, in this case coming from Father Brown’s experience with ministering to people as a parish priest.
Presented in the form of short stories The Innocence of Father Brown takes us through twelve cases with the bespeckled amateur detective as he demonstrates his uncanny ability to uncover the truth. Father Brown’s deductive reasoning is based on a strict process of logic but unlike his contemporary Sherlock Holmes, it is one which utilizes introspection, and wisdom gained in experience, rather than scientific experimentation. These are thoroughly enjoyable tales in which Chesterton shows his skill at creating both intellectual puzzles, and masterfully evocative prose.
Fred Vargas: The Three Evangelists
Vargas’ Parisian based crime novels largely focus on her detective protagonist Commissaire Adamsberg, but this gem of a novel sits a little to the left of that narrative stream. The Three Evangelists centers on three down-on-their-luck historians: Matthieu, Marc and Lucien, who decide to share a tumble-down house together, along with Marc’s ex-detective godfather, Vandoosler. They agree to supplement their pitiful incomes by helping their neighbour, retired opera singer Sophia Simeonidis, to investigate a tree that’s been mysteriously planted in her garden. However when the story turns up a dead body, the investigation gears up and the protagonists must use their historian skills to muddle through the web of clues. The narrative itself is both charming and clever but where Vargas really shines is in her characters. Both eccentric and endearing, the Evangelists, along with the roguish Vandoosler, serve as the real heart of this story.
Ian Sansom: The Case of the Missing Books
Where Christie’s Marple stories relish in their own quaintness, Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books takes this to a whole new level. His protagonist Israel Armstrong moves from London to an exciting new job which turns out to be a mobile librarian in the small and damp town of Tumdrum in Co. Antrim in Northern Ireland. Having lost his clothes and his money Armstrong’s woes only grow in inconsequentiality as he begins to investigate the books which are missing from his library. Armstrong is the only sleuth on this list who is without skills or talent in investigation but that won’t stop him from trying. Sansom’s story is a cosy crime which is low on crime, but it is filled with eccentric characters and shambolic adventures.
Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose
Where The Case of the Missing Books is small, The Name of the Rose is expansive, encompassing medieval philosophy, history, theology and logic. Set in the 14th century, Brother William of Baskerville is sent to a Benedictine Monastery to look into accusations of heresy, but finds himself the investigator of a much more sinister series of events: a series of bizarre deaths based on the Book of Revelation. As an amateur sleuth Brother William gifted in his deductive reasoning, a detective before there were detectives. With clear allusions to the Sherlock Holmes narratives (even in the name Baskerville) Brother William and his aide Adso of Melk embark on an investigation which is rife with enigmas pulled from Eco’s in depth knowledge of semiotics. The mystery is wonderfully constructed and Eco’s portrayal of the medieval world is unparalleled.
P.D. James: Death Comes to Pemberley
A collision of worlds where Jane Austen meets crime fiction, P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley imagines a sequel to Pride and Prejudice in which the inhabitants of the stately home at Pemberley are confronted with a murder on their premises. With no real police force to speak of, the mystery is left to the local magistrates, of which Darcy is one. Stepping into his detective role, Darcy is not overly intellectual but certainly observant. However, what is most interesting is his reluctance to take on the role, as he is confronted with the possibility of incriminating or absolving his long-standing nemesis Wickham. James’ manages to capture the flow of Austen’s prose without painstakingly recreating it, allowing the book to have a modern feel while capturing the tone of the era. Where most authors would balk at the challenge of writing an Austen sequel, James takes it head on, creating a work which captures the original work but also deftly traverses to the crime genre with Darcy as the unlikely and unwilling detective.