The Body in the Library was Christie’s second novel to feature Miss Marple, elderly spinster of St. Mary Mead, though she had been featured in a number of short stories previously. It is generally considered to be one of Christie’s masterpieces and the best of the Marple novels. For my money, Christie actually bettered this one in 1943 with The Moving Finger, which is a magnificent and gripping Marple novel, but it would be churlish to let my preference for another entry in the series make me attempt to argue down the status of this one, which is certainly the masterpiece it’s been rumored to be.
Even back in 1942, a dead body in the library of a stately country home was a huge cliché. Christie, by her own admission, wrote her take on it as something like a dare to herself, to challenge herself to do something with the hackneyed plot that would actually be entertaining and of high quality. It is, of course, no spoiler to say that as the book opens, the happy home of Colonel and Mrs. Bantry is shattered by the discovery that there is a heavily made-up, fancily dressed dead blonde in their library. Village gossip being what it is, few people are prepared to believe the assiduous statements of the good Colonel that he has no idea who the dead woman is. It’s clear to everyone that Colonel Bantry was into something scandalous. The nervous, highly socially conscious Mrs. Bantry can’t take much more of this. Luckily, she has a dear friend who lives down the lane, a quiet old spinster with a strange intuition for puzzles of all sorts. Mrs. Bantry calls Miss Marple in on the case, in a scene that is characteristic of the warm, personality based humor that suffuses the entire novel. Miss Marple states that she hopes that she can be “some comfort to you” in Mrs. Bantry’s hour of need. “Oh, I don’t want comfort,” Mrs. Bantry says, “But you’re so good at bodies.” “Oh no,” Miss Marple demurely hesitates, “My successes have been mostly theoretical.” This isn’t, in a word, one of Christie’s dark novels, as The Moving Finger, for example, most assuredly is. Oddly enough, that’s fine. Christie was one of the rare writers who excelled at both light comic romps and dark psychological thrillers.
But back to the plot, or rather, not back to the plot, since, frankly, anything more than that would be kind of a spoiler. The above summary doesn’t even get all the way through the first chapter, but to even hint at the myriad twists and turns and discoveries that Christie has in store for the reader would be shameful. Christie’s novels remain the kind that should be read with as little foreknowledge as possible. Sometimes books are more enjoyable with a good, lengthy, in-depth introduction by a scholar in front of them. Agatha Christie’s books are not those kinds of books.
But if you’re secure enough in your intelligence to put genre distinctions behind you, these books are literary masterpieces. The pitfall of a genre writer is slavish adherence to convention and mindlessness. No one who has read Agatha Christie would ever accuse her of either of those things, except in certain instances, of which The Body in the Library is not one. The Body in the Library is as much an essential read as something like, well, let’s not pick anything in particular; I’ll just say it’s essential and deserves to stand on the shelf with the more “serious” “masterpieces” that people populate their shelves with. It is, for one thing, desperately funny. For another, it isn’t even two hundred pages long and yet is constructed so deftly that Christie is able to pack in twist after twist after twist without, unbelievably, making the book seem rushed at all. The pacing feels, as it often does in a Christie novel, languid and relaxed even as you realize with one part of your brain that it can’t actually be either of those things, that Christie has in fact planned this book down to the comma and is propelling you with not a single wasted word toward the climax she knows is coming. Christie’s characters are less flat here than they sometimes are. She creates genuine personalities and draws humor from those personalities, rather than falling back on situation based humor.
Christie’s books are often more philosophically complex than people give them credit for. She often has a theme that she is attempting to mine. This is easier to see in her darker novels than it is in her comic ones, I think. It’s easy for people to latch on to the fact that And Then There Were None is, for example, a work of genuine philosophical literature and that it has genuine themes and motifs that she is working with. But even her lighter material often had those same things. Partners in Crime, which is, probably her lightest work and certainly her funniest, is undeniably a thematic riff on fiction itself, a short story cycle that is as much an exercise in metafiction as Calvino’s work. Well, perhaps not “as much” as Calvino, but I think you see what I’m getting at.
The thematic issue in this one seems to be the disruption of the family. There might be something very modern about it, something about the way the war was disrupting families and changing families forever. The intrusion of a dead body into the Bantrys’ home opens the novel and their inconvenience is mostly played for laughs. But later the investigation leads to a family that is decidedly strange, a family that has been warped by death. The aging Conrad Jefferson has lost both his son and his daughter to violent death, but he travels with his son’s widow, Adelaide Jefferson, and his daughter’s widower, Mark Gaskell. Adelaide also brings along her son from a previous marriage, Peter Carmody. Together they form a family of incredibly tenuous connections and in the confusing glut of last names that this one “family” has to deal with, Christie seems to capture something of our modern world. Conrad Jefferson travels with a son, a daughter and a grandson to whom he has not a single blood connection. There’s more going on there than just a confusing family; Christie is, I think, saying something about the increasingly fluid bonds of family and of identity. There’s more I could say to back up this theory of the novel, but it would require revealing more about the plot than I’m comfortable with. But when the novel is read with an eye to what Christie is saying about the family as no longer concrete, the details will leap out as obvious, I think.
At the end of the day, this book gives a kind of pleasure that is absolute and perfect. It does not replace more literary or more “serious” kinds of reading, but neither can all the “serious” books in the world replace the experience of a genre novel written with a sure hand, a philosophical point and a cracking good plot. Agatha Christie remains the bestselling mystery novelist of all time. Perhaps the highest praise that can be given to her is for me to simply point that fact out and then note that most of the time there is a certain amount of injustice felt about who ends up as a bestselling author and who doesn’t. In this case, however, there is no injustice. Call Christie a rarity: a best seller who deserves it.
5 out of 5 stars.