Special k and I watch a lot of who-dunnits. Sherlock (Holmes), Poirot, Whitechapel, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. But my very favourite is Miss Marple.
The show, for one thing, is ridiculously well made. Sharp scripts, beautiful sets, well-shot and chock-full of Britain’s best actors. There’s something about Miss Marple, too, that sets her apart from other detectives. She’s unassuming (she doesn’t, like Poirot, introduce herself as The Best Detective Alive) but never submissive. I love watching the people around her underestimate her and then gradually change their minds – though her behaviour remains constant. I love the melancholy wrapped up in this woman people assume is doddering or numb, because she’s old.
The latest episode to air on the ABC was ‘At Bertram’s Hotel’. Here are four things I adored about it:
1) Miss Marple’s assistant for the episode is one of the hotel’s maids, a woman called Jane. The first time she talks alone to the war-stricken detective she says to him, “Just because I’m in a pinny, don’t make me stupid.” “Well,” he says. “That’s me told.” Her sister worked in munitions during the war, and told her that women’s equality had arrived. Then the war ended and Jane found herself in service. Like nothing had changed at all.
Working with Miss Marple to solve the murder she proves herself to be quick and clever – catching on about ten times faster than the detective to everything that’s going on. At the end of the episode she quits her job at the hotel, because she figures the police force will be recruiting women soon. “What do you think?” she asks Miss Marple. “I think,” Miss Marple replies, “it sounds exactly the sort of thing I’d never have done at your age. And always wish I had.”
Oh, and this conversation begins with Jane telling Miss Marple that Detective Bird has asked her to go away with him – not to get married though, no, just to live together for a while and see they get on. Her idea.
2) Which brings me to the romance. Detective Bird is a disillusioned soldier who seems to have been exhausted by the war. His declaration of love is the very best kind.
“Miss Cooper. Jane. Um. I wondered if I could. If you would be so good as to, er. If you would maybe like to consider.” *long, nervous pause* “You’re the most wonderful, intelligent, beautiful woman I’ve ever met. When I first saw you, you took my breath away. And it hasn’t come back yet. When I’m near you I feel drunk. Or dizzy. Or drunk and dizzy. And like I’m walking on air.”
“And if whatever you may think of me is a fraction of what I feel for you–”
“If there’s any hope you could in your heart–”
“What’s your first name?”
My favourite thing about this gorgeous declaration is that when he says “And like I’m walking on air” he’s uneasy, unsettled, like walking on air is terrifying.
3) ***SPOILERS FOR THE MYSTERY***
This is just one example of Agatha Christie’s mastery of her genre.
A set of identical twins are staying at the hotel, and early on Miss Marple notes that she can tell them apart because one of them is left-handed, one right-handed. The twin she’s talking to thinks she observed his left-handedness because he held his paper under his left arm. It feels like a fairly obvious set-up for a case of mistaken identity.
Indeed, during a critical scene one of the twins appears looking for the other, with a book tucked very definitely under one arm. The other twin arrives soon after, with a hat in his other hand. It felt a little deflating, because it was so obviously the same twin.
During the “all-is-revealed” scene Miss Marple calls them out on it – but absolves them of the murder. They were off stealing jewellery.
The actual murder is much more complex, and involves two girls passing themselves off as one girl, so as to be in two places at once. And what gave them away? One shoots with her left hand, the other with her right.
4) Miss Marple’s first name is also Jane. Jane-the-maid is quite clearly a girl after her own heart – one who will take after her in a new era. Sharing a name signifies all the other qualities they share. It also allows for a subtle, heart-breaking moment at the end.
The two Janes are talking, and then a man calls out, “Jane!” in a passionate, joyful way. The camera is on Miss Marple as she looks up, a kind of wonder in her face. Then pain. The man is Detective Bird, and he’s calling the younger Jane who goes blithely to him, to embrace him, to walk into the future with him. Jane the elder, whose love was killed in the First World War, remembers that she is an old woman, and her time for young love has passed.
For any Aussies who want to watch it, it’s up on iView at the moment.