Recently, I was discussing my love of mystery author Agatha Christie with several other well-read Christie fans, and we discovered that the first Christie mystery novel we read was either And Then There Were None or Murder on the Orient Express. It stands to reason—they are two of her three best-selling books. The first is a stand-alone mystery suspense novel, and the latter features her most famous character, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. In fact, almost every one of Christie’s most popular books features Poirot. But what about her dear Miss Marple?
Now, before you start to feel bad for Jane Marple, remember when I say not as many people read her books, they have still sold millions of copies. So she’s still doing all right. She is still arguably the most beloved woman detective in literature. My point is that Hercule Poirot—who Christie herself once called a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”—still gets most of the spotlight. So this post is a celebration of Miss Marple and several other great ladies from the land of cozy mysteries!
Who is Miss Marple?
Jane Marple is an elderly spinster who lives in the village of St. Mary Mead and often finds herself at the center of mysteries. While seemingly a bothersome busybody, especially in her earlier stories, Miss Marple is actually as clever as a fox and as observant as a hawk. Her habit of imagining the worst in everyone pays off when it comes to solving crimes, and she winds up working as an amateur consulting detective quite often. She may come off as a nosy old crone, but try underestimating her and see where that gets you.
Christie has said that she based the character of Jane Marple on several of her step-grandmother’s elderly friends. Miss Marple first appeared in a short story titled “The Tuesday Night Club” in 1927, and her first novel was The Murder at the Vicarage, which was published in 1930.
Why is she so popular?
The expression “With age comes wisdom” exists for a reason. Miss Marple shows young readers of her books that older people are not doddering or useless. And she reinforces to older readers that they still have worth and can still have adventures in their old age. Plus, the idea that someone who looks sweet and unassuming, like a person’s nana, is actually a shrewd detective who catches murderers in between her knitting is a delightful scenario precisely because it’s so unexpected. (In her forthcoming memoir, Two Truths and a Lie, real-life private detective Ellen McGarrahan mentions that during her training, her instructor told her that women make the best detectives because society continues to underestimate them.) It is this quality about Miss Marple that later also made Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher a success. (More on her later.)
The Best Miss Marple Books
Someone calling things the best is subjective, but I do fancy myself a bit of an amateur Agatha Christie expert. I have read all of her books at least three times, and some a few times more. So here are the Marple books I would call her best:
The Murder at the Vicarage (1930): Miss Marple's first novel; in it, she must figure out who killed St. Mary Mead's most detested man.
Death by Drowning Previously The Thirteen Problems (1932): A collection of stories, in which Miss Marple is throwing a party and each of her thirteen guests must provide a tale of mystery.
A Murder Is Announced (1950): When an ad in the back of a newspaper that names the date and time a crime will be committed is brushed off as a prank, and then it actually happens, Miss Marple is on the case.
The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962): When a St. Mary Mead local is poisoned at a party for a visiting celebrity, Miss Marple must figure out if she was really the intended victim.
Sleeping Murder (1976): A young woman asks Miss Marple to help her figure out the mysterious things that keep happening in her house, and they wind up solving an old crime. This was Miss Marple's last case.
Other great women detectives in cozy mysteries
The cozy mystery genre is vast and full of wonderful amateur detectives, but there are a few ladies who have earned a place alongside Miss Marple:
The Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters: Amelia Peabody is an English heiress and Egyptologist whose adventures in Egypt are documented in the series. They have a bit more romance than the Marple series. (Of course, any romance at all is more than there is in the Marple series.) First book: Crocodile on the Sandbank.
The Agatha Raisin series by M.C. Beaton: Another Agatha! Agatha Raisin is a retired middle-aged public relations agent who moves from London to the sleepy town (aren’t all towns sleepy in cozy mysteries?) of Carsely in the Cotswolds, and eventually opens her own detective agency.
First book: Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death.
The Booktown Mystery series by Lorna Barrett: A mystery book set in a mystery bookstore! The hero of the series is Tricia Murphy, the owner of a bookstore in New Hampshire, whose adventures in detection start out when she is accused of murdering her competition and must clear her name. First book: Murder is Binding.
The Murder She Wrote series by Jessica Fletcher (actually Donald Bain): Maine’s most famous mystery novelist and amateur detective, played for 12 years on television by the beloved Angela Lansbury, started “writing” her own series of cozy mysteries after the show ended. The character of Jessica Fletcher was a contemporary (at the time) take on Miss Marple. First book: Murder, She Wrote: Gin and Daggers.
And here are a couple of my favorite new cozy mystery detectives I think you should check out:
The Noodle Shop Mystery series by Vivien Chien: When Lana Lee returned to her hometown and went back to work at her parents’ restaurant, the last thing she thought would happen was murder. Oh wait, the last thing she thought would happen was she’d be a suspect in a murder. First book: Death by Dumpling.
The Ice Cream Parlor Mystery series by Abby Collette: Bronwyn Crewse was honored to be asked to take over her family’s ice cream parlor, but a murder the first week of the grand reopening finds her working instead to clear her father’s name. First book: A Deadly Inside Scoop.
What to Read Next
Liberty Hardy is a Book Riot senior contributing editor, co-host of All the Books, and above all else, a ravenous reader. She resides in Maine with her cats, Millay, Farrokh, and Zevon, who hate to read.