12 Contemporary Writers Take on Agatha Christie's Iconic Miss Marple

Photo credit: Design by Michael Stillwell
Photo credit: Design by Michael Stillwell
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Miss Marple is back. In Marple: Twelve New Mysteries, twelve writers tackle Agatha Christie's famous heroine. The stories are classic Christie, but each author puts their unique spin on the elderly detective—Jean Kwok's Marple tale places the detective on the cruise ship Jade Empress en route to Hong Kong, whereas Lucy Foley's finds her in the fictional small town of Meon Maltravers in England.

"I was stunned to be asked," Kwok tells Town & Country. "I think back to the young girl I was, a poverty-stricken first-generation immigrant who devoured Agatha Christie’s novels while on the subway, heading to work at a clothing factory in Chinatown, and I’m beyond grateful."

The writers all have varied backgrounds, and not all have published written short stories, or mysteries before. "It’s a huge honor," Foley tells T&C, "both to have been asked to write a story in homage to a writer I have been so inspired by and also to find myself doing so alongside eleven other authors I have such respect and admiration for."

In addition to Kwok and Foley, four more of the Marple contributors—Karen M. McManus, Alyssa Cole, Kate Mosse, and Ruth Ware— chatted with Town & Country about the impact of Agatha Christie, what it means to take on Miss Marple, and their favorite mystery tropes.

T&C: What was the first Agatha Christie novel you read? What impact did it have on you?

Jean Kwok: I read A Caribbean Mystery when I was a young girl trying to learn English and it made a tremendous impact on me. I was a first-generation Chinese immigrant. I didn’t speak a word of English when we first moved to New York City from Hong Kong and I would make lists of books I wanted to read to improve my English. Even though very little penetrated the bubble of culture and language that delineated my world then, Agatha Christie did transcend those boundaries. I loved reading about Miss Marple and how she managed to outsmart everyone around her, despite being constantly underestimated. As a girl growing up in a conservative Chinese family, both Miss Marple and Agatha Christie herself were inspirations to me.

Lucy Foley: It was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and it was the book that hooked me on Christie—the twist absolutely floored me and it’s so cleverly put together. I have since enjoyed rereading the book and spotting all the little clues Christie leaves for the reader along the way.

Karen M. McManus: And Then There Were None, when I was about 13 years old. To say that I was blown away would be an understatement; I remember closing the book and sitting silently in my chair while trying to absorb the brilliance of that plot twist. And then I read the whole thing again, to pick up on all the clues I missed. That book made me a mystery lover for life, and it was one of my inspirations for One of Us Is Lying.

Alyssa Cole: I didn't read Christie until I was an adult, and the first full-length novel was The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. The impact it had on me, after reading a casual mention of an orgy very early on in this story about an old woman amateur detective, was that Christie was much more subversive than I'd imagined.

Ruth Ware: I honestly can't remember, but I think it may have been Sleeping Murder. That's certainly one of the first I remember thinking about in detail—I would have been quite young, maybe early teens, and I remember being quite unnerved by the combination of the idyllic, almost quaint early part of the story, as Gwenda is house hunting and stumbles over her perfect house, and the way that morphs slowly into a nightmare of suppressed memories struggling to surface.

Kate Mosse: On a cold, rainy English summer holiday in Devon in the 1970s when I was thirteen or fourteen, I found a novel on the shelf of our rented cottage. Everything smelt of paraffin heater and damp, it was too wet to go out and I had read all the books I’d brought with me. An old Fontana paperback, blue and green, with just the author’s name in block capital letters and the title—The Body in the Library. Curled up on a window seat, I read it in one sitting and loved it. A small village in England, like the one I lived in in Sussex, with a clever, unique, uncompromising older woman sleuth. It was my first Christie, my first Miss Marple, and the first novel I ever discovered for myself. Best of all, was looking at the front of the book and discovering that Agatha Christie had written, ahem, one or two others novels too…. It was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with Miss Marple.

What did you enjoy about channeling Agatha Christie and writing a Marple story? What was the biggest challenge?

Mosse: To make sure that my Miss Marple was a tribute to the one-and-only Jane Marple, but also that my murder mystery fitted with the kinds of puzzles, deceptions, and situations that Christie put her heroine in. I think we all felt the sense of responsibility, to honor the original but also introduce her to a new generation of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. I chose to set my story in the late 1940s, a few years after the end of World War II, when life in England was changing quickly.

Cole: Well, it was a challenge because Miss Marple has such a huge worldwide fan base, and Agatha Christie has such a writing style that is known and beloved by millions. So the challenge was finding things in her writing that resonated at the same frequency of my own writing so that I could write a story that Christie fans would enjoy and that, if all went to plan, would capture the essence of Miss Marple but still be clearly an Alyssa Cole story.

Kwok: The greatest challenge was knowing that if I didn’t do this well, I would enrage many, many fans. It was a tremendous privilege and honor to be asked to write a story involving such an iconic character as Miss Marple. When it first occurred to me to place her on a cruise ship to Hong Kong, I was a bit worried that I was perhaps taking her too far away from her usual haunts but Agatha Christie’s great-grandson James Prichard was so supportive. In fact, he said, “Could we possibly see her actually in Hong Kong?” So that was wonderful.

I wanted to bring a modern sensibility to Miss Marple while staying respectful to the original character. For me, it was so meaningful to bring Miss Marple to Asia and have her doing Tai Chi and enjoying dim sum while she solves a series of murders in her classic manner.

Ware: I loved getting to work with a pre-existing set of characters—it's one of the things I feel most envious of, as a standalone story writer, I never get to return to beloved, familiar characters. So to be able to do that with someone else's toy box was such a treat. I supposed the biggest challenge was feeling like my story had to live up to the hugely high standard Christie herself set in the many short stories featuring Miss Marple. It's really hard coming up with a compelling mystery and resolving it in just a few thousand words. Novels are much easier!

Foley: I loved having the opportunity to dive into Marple’s world and read all of the stories and novels and watch all of the TV adaptations. The challenge, of course, was getting over my nerves about trying to step into the great Agatha Christie’s shoes and get into my own rhythm — but once I did I had such fun with it.

What is your favorite mystery trope?

Foley: The idea of ‘just desserts’: Fate catching up with characters and forcing them to pay for their past misdeeds!

Kwok: The female detective. I love the way Miss Marple is constantly underestimated because she is both elderly and a woman, and how she overcomes the condescension around her to solve the mystery every time. She doesn’t rely on muscle or fire power but rather she utilizes her knowledge of human nature.

Cole: My favorite mystery trope is "hidden in plain sight," i.e., whatever the resolution of the mystery is, it's something that has been there for the reader to see the whole time, but slightly out of focus.

Ware: Locked room, hence why I keep coming back to it in my own novels!

Mosse: What you might call a ‘switcheroo,’ where the rug is suddenly pulled out from under the readers’ feet and you realize you’ve been looking at everything from precisely the wrong angle!

McManus: Anything locked door; give me an isolated location and a bunch of sketchy characters, and I'm in heaven.

What's the best place to read a mystery?

Mosse: In winter, by an open fire with a cup of tea, the wind whistling outside and the curtains drawn. In summer, in the shade beside a swimming pool with a glass of cold, iced white wine.

Kwok: Anywhere but in the dark! I tend to turn on all the lights while reading so I don’t get too spooked. I love curling up in bed to read, though. Being able to read a gripping novel before falling asleep is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Cole: On the couch, on a rainy day! (I live on an island, so no fireplace, but I do enjoy watching fireplace videos in the winter, when I'm missing the cold!)

Foley: By the fire, definitely. Perhaps best during the holidays as an escape from family drama (and as inspiration…?!)

Ware: Curled up in an armchair in front of a blazing hearth, in the drawing room of a remote country house with the wind whistling in the chimney and sleet battering at the windows. There's nothing more delicious than being cozy and warm inside on a bitter, miserable day.

McManus: Someplace warm and well-lighted on a cold, dark night.

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