My comfort books of choice are mysteries.
This is in part because a good mystery can engage your mind while being separate from the real troubles of your life. But it’s also because when I was around 10 or 11 I graduated from reading Nancy Drew to diving into my mother’s extensive pile of Agatha Christie books.
That is, I associate those books with the somewhat simpler time of childhood.
As a kid, I vastly preferred the Poirot novels to the ones featuring Miss Marple, and I continued in that preference until after my mother died and I ended up with a bunch of her books. I picked up a Marple and discovered I liked those stories much better than I had as a kid.
It might have been because I had reached the age that Jane Marple is in some of the early books. Christie wisely never quite specifies her age, but at a guess she’s in her late 50s in the early ones and maybe pushing 90 by the end. I was ready for stories about a smart old woman.
And Miss Marple is very smart, a reminder that the misogyny of the 20th century wrote off a large number of intelligent women with a lot to offer society. Christie’s plots are always absurd, but that doesn’t take away from Miss Marple’s powers of observation and detection.
I recently discovered that one of the ebook providers through my library has the Miss Marple books and, in need of some comfort reading, I’ve been going through them. Last week I finally decided to try The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, one of the later books, published in 1962 when Christie herself would have been in her 70s.
As a rule, when I re-read a mystery, I’ve forgotten who actually “done it,” though pieces of the story come back to me. (This rule does not apply to books I’ve read multiple times, such as Gaudy Night.) But in this case, I not only remembered who the murderer was, I also remembered that I really hadn’t liked the book when I was young. So I wasn’t sure what I’d think.
I did like it better this time, though I was also much more aware of the ableism, racism, and issues of social class that permeate the story.
On the other hand, it wasn’t ageist. One key subplot involves the companion who now lives with Miss Marple because of her health. This companion is the sort of person who talks to her charges as “we” and ignores their preferences because she doesn’t believe they are mentally competent. Since we see her from Miss Marple’s POV, we understand just how grating that behavior is for an old person, even one who needs some assistance.
But the real reason I’m writing about this book is that it slipped out of the comfort reading category because of a key element of the plot that feels all too relevant in a time of ongoing pandemic.
Discussing that requires a major spoiler for the book, which I might not do except for the fact that it was first published 60 years ago and I suspect that very few people who really want to read it and be surprised have not already read it.
If you fall into that small class, don’t keep reading. Continue reading “Comfort and the Lack of It”…