Welcome to a new series of articles centered around breaking down, and understanding Nemesis, a Miss Marple Mystery, by Agatha Christie. If you’re curious, and wish to follow along, you can purchase the book here! (or make use of your public library, of course! <3) We'll be breaking down several things, focusing on the Tension, the Characterization, and the Plot Threads, while searching out this mysterious Agatha Christie Code that I've heard so much about! Nemesis is a story in the middle of the Miss Marple Mysteries, a series about an old woman, Miss Jane Marple, who happens to solve mysteries in between gardening, knitting, and enjoying her golden years. Most people at that age are happy reaping the benefits of the recent changes to pensions and counting things off their bucket list, but each to their own. At twenty two chapters, we’re going to be breaking down each chapter and looking over it. At the end, I’ll give a final post about what I’ve learned from the intrepid Miss Agatha.
In the afternoons it was custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.
This is the first line of the novel. Odd choice, honestly, but it works, because it shows off a certain oddness about Miss Marple in the first place. Then, odder still, Miss Marple goes off on a tangent about how often her paper is late because the boy delivering it is either late, or has handed off his route for a little while, or has been sacked.
Strangely enough, this drew me in immediately, if only because I really felt like I was listening to the mental ramblings of an old lady. But another part of it shows just how very AWARE Miss Marple is about EVERYTHING. She knows more than just ‘oh the paper’s late, I can’t read it with early morning tea.’ She knows WHY her paper is late, which is something few people even bother paying attention to.
The pacing so far is unbearably slow. I haven’t figured out anything other than what this old woman is doing with her afternoon. Which appears to be reading a newspaper she’s nicknamed “The Daily All-Sorts”. Then, we are treated to another rant, this time about being unable to find anything in the Times. This rant seems devoted to her lamenting how things have changed from when she was young.
A wonderful way to show us her age, and also an intriguingly clear indication that perhaps the so-called Agatha Christie Code is correct. She seems very intent on describing Miss Marple’s thought process in larger-than-life detail. Here, we find out another odd detail about Miss Marple.
“It’s sad really, but nowadays one is only interested in the deaths!” – Miss Marple
She seems to be looking to see if anyone she knows has died, or perhaps given birth, or gotten married. An odd passtime, but when one has all the time on her hands that Miss Marple seems to, I can see why it would become interesting. Everything about Miss Marple at this point seems to be just this side of odd for an old woman. Miss Christie is leaving us hints as to just how odd Old Miss Marple is underneath. This is wonderful examples of characterization. But still, nothing has happened yet.
Finally, Miss Marple comes across a name that stirs some familiarity. Jason Rafiel, listed in the obituaries. She can’t seem to remember who it is, but she has no doubt it will come to her. In fact, we are treated to a long process of her figuring it out. She begins by looking out the window, lamenting that the doctors refuse to allow her to garden. Another hobby we find she enjoyed that now she is restricted. Poor Miss Marple, her old age is catching up to her. Turning away from the window, she picks up her knitting, which appears to be a pink jacket, just missing the sleeves.
Now pink wool, this triggers something of her memory. As we can see:
Pink wool. Now wait a minute, where did that fit in? Yes- yes- it fitted in with the name she’d just read in the paper. Pink wool. A blue sea. A Carribean sea. A sandy beach. Sunshine. Herself knitting and- why of course, Mr. Rafiel. That trip she had made to the caribbean. The Island of St. Honore. A treat from her nephew Raymond. And she remembered Joan, her niece-in-law, Raymond’s wife, saying: “Don’t get mixed up in any more murders, Aunt Jane. It isn’t good for you.”
Do you see what she did there? Miss Agatha Christie just took us through a perfect example of how the mind ACTUALLY works! After scent, touch is the closest sense to memory, followed by sight! Now, Miss Marple didn’t just remember this up, as if it were a scene, no, it’s broken down into actual recollections, actual thoughts. Instead of a flashback, we get a disjointed connection through various memories.
And like any of us, Miss Marple doesn’t just remember everything about that trip at once. No, she has to tease it together, starting with the names. She remembered the elderly Major, whose name continued escaping her. Then she remembers the kind of man Mr. Rafiel had been. Not perfectly, as some people are want to do. She remembers him being an obstinate man, as well as strong, as well as rich. Difficult, irritable and shockingly rude, she remembers. Clearly he made an impression on Miss Marple. And, not only has she remembered Mr. Rafiel, but others too.
Mrs. Walters, a widow and Mr. Rafiel’s secretary. Mr Rafiel’s Masseur-Attendant, Arthur Jackson, who she thought was a rather doubtful character. But instead of being sure of Jackson’s name, she continues to question it. This is a very organic process of tracking down what the thoughts and memories of this time were. And clearly she is remembering the people specifically, not the events. I assume this was Miss Christie’s way of not rehashing the entire events of the previous book, but instead teasing us along into remembering it as well.
Then comes Miss Knight, who was once Miss Marple’s own companion, a young woman she’s rather happy to get rid of. But for some reason, she keeps messing up her name, thinking of her as Miss Bishop. She even quips about it:
“Oh dear,” said Miss Marple again, “I always get all the names wrong. And of course, it was Miss Knight I was thinking of. Not Miss Bishop. Why do I think of her as Miss Bishop?” The answer came to her. Chess, of course. A Chess piece. A knight. A bishop.
I’ll admit, at this point, Miss Christie had me hooked as a writer, although perhaps not as a reader. Such an organic transition, and a clear definition of this character’s mind. Already I am aware that she notices things others don’t care about, and she puts together odd connections, forming them in her mind to remind herself of things. I haven’t even had to read the rest of the series, and I find myself feeling like Miss Marple is an old friend.
She gives us a rundown of how she and Mr. Rafiel had been partners, for a time, but she never gets around to explaining in what. This makes me want to track down the book previous and read it. Well played, Miss Christie. We find out that Miss Marple was quite excited about these events, and it makes us excited too. Already, we’ve found ourselves enthralled by the way Jane Marple sees the world.
Then, we get to meet Cherry, who is now Miss Marple’s Companion. It seems that Miss Marple uses Cherry as a bit of a sounding board. Also, the voices between Miss Marple and Cherry are quite different. I find myself seeing Cherry as perhaps african american, if only because of the vernacular she chooses.
“You did have it in for little Gary Hopkins I must say,” said Cherry. “When you caught him torturing his cat that day. Never knew you had it in you to go for anyone like that! Scared him stiff, you did. He’s never forgotten it.”
“I hope he hasn’t tortured anymore cats.”
“Well, he’s made sure you weren’t about if he did,” said Cherry. “In fact I’m not at all sure as there isn’t other boys as got scared. Seeing you with your wool and the pretty things you knits and all that- anyone would think you were gentle as a lamb. But there’s times I could say you’d behave like a lion if you was goaded into it.”
Also, a wonderful choice there, to show us Miss Marple’s sense of rough justice through the eyes of Cherry, her companion. At this point, I’m also hoping to see more of Cherry. Their interaction seems quite natural, that of a companion and someone of an age beyond adulthood.
Let’s pause for a moment and talk about the syntax of Miss Christie’s work. So far, I’m seeing quite a large number of ‘said’s, and very little added description. She was clearly a follower of the ‘no adjectives’ rule, as well as a detractor from the ‘said is dead’ forum of discussion. However, I don’t feel it takes away from her work. The dialogue itself is well written, as well as showing us little glimpses of what we need to know about Miss Marple. There isn’t a word wasted here. I can see why Agatha Christie is said to be the single best-selling author in the world.
There’s a small break away from the heavy thinking to have a conversation with Miss Bartlett, a companion-gardener to one Miss Hastings. Then, her mind turns back to Mr. Rafiel, and gives us a wonderful description of their relationship. Ships that pass in the night. After that, she resolves that she will probably never think of him again. She’d look out for an obituary, out of what seems an honor for his passing, but she isn’t very hopeful about it. As a final thought, she notes that he hadn’t been anyone of major importance in any industry.
He had just all his life made enormous amounts of money…
What I wouldn’t give to make enormous amounts of money. But on another note, clearly, the foreshadowing here is pretty thick. On the second read through, I found things I hadn’t noticed, such as the Mrs. Hastings reference. Already we have so many characters to follow, and Miss Marple at the center of it all. Red herrings everywhere for a mystery that hasn’t even been introduced, and I’m excited about this book that literally NOTHING HAS HAPPENED IN. All Miss Marple has done is read her newspaper, think about old memories, and talk to two women for five minutes each!
Breaking it down, just a bit, we see already how Miss Christie built up the character for us, showing through thought and action just what sort of woman Miss Marple is. We know she has just a little lion inside her, and is the kind to beat a child senseless for torturing an innocent creature. We know that she has an impeccable memory for detail, although sometimes it takes her a minute and some odd associations to get there.
This entire first chapter was spent introducing the main character. But it wasn’t wasted at all. We weren’t bored to tears by a flashback of what happened in the Caribbean. We weren’t shown her beating the boy, we weren’t even shown her doing anything other than normal things. THIS is an introduction chapter. This is the type of first chapter that will get you published.
Here’s a challenge, then. Take the first chapter of your book, or first paragraph of your short story, or any beginning at all. And have the main character do nothing, but think. Explain who this character is, show it, by their thoughts and actions. Give us a snippet of your results in the comments! And don’t be afraid to tell me what you think about the article either!