The Body in the Library (1942) was the third novel by Agatha Christie
to feature amateur (in name only) detective Jane Marple
. It has been adapated for the screen
twice, and neither production was particularly large in scale. It is probably one of Christie's more underrated
works, rarely being mentioned in the same breath as the more famous Murder on the Orient Express
, Death on the Nile
, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
or And Then There Were None
. It is, nonetheless, a classic Christie novel and was reprinted, along with seven other of her works, in the fall of 2006 as part of the new Agatha Christie Collection
Settings and cast
Like several of the other Miss Marple books, The Body in the Library is set in the quiet town of St. Mary Mead
. In light of this, a number of the characters from this book are also in Murder at the Vicarage
, another Marple novel written more than a decade earlier. Due to St. Mary Mead's small-town nature, any out-of-the-ordinary event that might occur immediately becomes gossip fodder
. You could imagine how murder
could fit into that category.
As a result, the rather lengthy cast of characters that follows is so lengthy because the occurance of a situation such as the one in the novel in a town such as the one in the novel means that, no matter how hard the authorities try, everyone is going to get involved somehow. And so, in alphabetical order...
Sir Henry Clithering
Martha Price Ridley
The novel begins as Mrs. Dolly Bantry is asleep and dreaming
about, among other things, winning prizes for her flowers and upstaging the vicar
's wife at something or other. The dream takes a strange turn when she imagines that her maid flutters into her bedroom to announce that there is a body in the library
. Not understanding where this is coming from (it had nothing to do with the rest of her dream, after all), Mrs. Bantry wakes up to find that her maid really is
in her bedroom and is, indeed, telling her that she and the butler
have just discovered a corpse in the Bantry library. Mrs. Bantry and her husband rush down to the library to confirm it; the body of a young woman has been clumsily strewn on their library floor.
There is no indication as to how the body was placed in the library (no sign of forced entry, for instance), and while the Bantrys are adamant that they do not recognize the victim, Colonel Bantry eventually becomes an unofficial suspect (though he is suspected more by the citizenry than he is by law enforcement officials). Other suspects include a variety of other village-dwellers, including the by-all-accounts-creepy filmmaker Basil Blake.
As the investigation continues, the deceased is identified as Ruby Keene, a ballroom dancer. Officials eventually learn that there were many strange goings-on in Keene's life, including a particularly bizarre relationship with aged millionare Conway Jefferson, who is very rich while his family is hard-up for cash. Along the way, a second body is found -- this one burned beyond recognition, but similar to Ruby Keene's body -- and Mrs. Bantry, who has privately enlisted the help of noted amateur sleuth (and St. Mary Mead resident) Jane Marple in order to help clear her husband, may have helped uncover the answer.
The solution is a classic Agatha Christie solution, involving clues the reader may otherwise automatically dismiss as unimportant. In traditional whodunit fashion, Miss Marple seems to come out of nowhere with the correct answer.
Reaction (from critics and readers)
The novel was largely well received (there was none of the controversy that resulted after the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
, for instance), but as mentioned earlier, this is not considered to be one of Christie's most popular works. It is perhaps for this reason that it has never been the subject of a major film adaptation (though, as noted in other writeups, Christie and her estate have always been cautious about allowing full-fledged film adapations to be made).
It is particularly interesting to read this novel in the early 21st century, especially if you're a Blackadder aficionado. The chief inspector, Colonel Melchett, shares his name with a character from Blackadder Goes Forth. To this day, I have a hard time reading the novel and not picturing Christie's Melchett looking and sounding like Stephen Fry (not to mention bleating like a sheep on occasion). As well, the importance of the library to the plot is also reminiscent of games such as Clue, where a library is one of the options for the location of a murder. Christie notes in the book's forward that "the body in the library" was so clichéd as a murder-mystery concept that her book was practically an attempt to parody it. Interestingly, hers is probably the most famous and most widely known "body in the library" book.