Miss Jane Marple is one of Agatha Christie’s most beloved detectives, but until I read The Body in the Library, I’d only encountered the shrewd spinster in one other novel (The Murder at the Vicarage). As a result, I wasn’t able to form much of an impression of Miss Marple, unlike I have with, say, Hercule Poirot, who has starred in many more of Christie’s novels.
So I was looking forward to The Body in the Library, the second novel featuring Miss Marple. Unfortunately, after an excellent start, I ended up being disappointed with the work as a whole.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): The novel opens with a servant making a shocking discovery at the Bantry residence: there’s a dead body in the library. The victim is a young blonde woman, but neither Colonel nor Mrs. Bantry recognize the woman. The servants, too, declare that they have never seen the woman before, so there’s nothing left to do except call the police.
Though Mrs. Bantry believes that her husband is speaking the truth, she nevertheless knows that the other residents of St. Mary Mead won’t be as easily convinced. Fearing that rumors will get out of control and ruin the Colonel’s reputation if the mystery isn’t solved quickly, Mrs. Bantry calls her friend Jane Marple in to take a look at the crime scene.
Miss Marple and the chief of police Colonel Melchett arrive at more or less the same time. Col. Melchett doesn’t object to Miss Marple taking a look around, so that’s what she does. She soon notices a few small details about the body that will turn out to be extremely important later on.
After a while, Col. Melchett and his subordinates are able to identify the body as Ruby Keene, an 18-year-old professional dancer who had been working at a nearby hotel. This identity was confirmed by Josie Turner, Ruby’s cousin, roommate, and co-worker.
Now that the police have a starting point, they’re able to come up with a few solid suspects such as Basil Blake, Raymond Starr, Mark Gaskell, and Adelaide Jefferson. Each of the suspects had a motive for murdering Ruby, but they also had alibis to account for their whereabouts at the time of the murder.
Eventually, however, Miss Marple is able to piece together what happened, and she helps unmask the real killer in dramatic fashion.
My Reaction: I thought The Body in the Library had one of the best opening sequences that I’ve ever read in a mystery novel. I loved the idea of a perfectly respectable family waking up to discover a murdered stranger in their library. I was very eager to see where the investigation would lead and how the mystery would unravel.
However, I was extremely disappointed with the route that Christie wound up taking here. For one thing, Miss Marple barely even figured in the book at all! She makes a short appearance at the very beginning after being called in by Mrs. Bantry, but then she basically disappears while Col. Melchett and the other police officers question all the suspects. Miss Marple returns near the middle of the book, at which point my interest in the mystery had waned considerably.
Besides Miss Marple’s limited participation, another thing that bothered me about this book was the way that Christie didn’t give the reader in-depth portraits of the main suspects. We got quite a bit of info about Conway Jefferson, but of course he wasn’t even in the running. None of the suspects that I named above were given much more than cursory treatments, so it was hard to get a true feel for any of them.
Overall, I wouldn’t consider The Body in the Library to be one of Christie’s best. If you’re hoping to get a good look at Miss Marple, or even to just get a good mystery, you won’t find it here.