The epitome of hidden depths: superficially a frail old lady with no special qualities, fundamentally a preternaturally observant Nemesis of those with murderous secrets.
The various adaptations over the years have showcased different interpretations of Marple’s character – it’s only recently that the scripts have permitted her a certain degree of wryness as she dissects the bloody businesses before her (although Margaret Rutherford’s Marple in the 1950′s managed to display a lovely background level of wry cynicism despite it not existing in the scripts). Disregarding how Christie wrote the character of Marple, on screen the first adaptations tended to have her just tripping over things that others had missed, instead of revealing how she seeks out opportunities to exercise her superior observational skills. That aspect is something I’ve enjoyed particularly in the Hickson/McEwan iterations of the role (I’ve yet to catch a McKenzie version), and perhaps ties into being less nervous about Marple’s archetypal Crone attributes.
It’s easy (and fashionable) to decry the skills of Christie in crafting her mystery novels, and criticisms of her as a fairly ordinary prose wrangler are valid, but those who decry her plots as formulaic are (a) overlooking that she’s the one who refined that particular formula; and (b) utterly missing that what really makes her novels special is not simply where she chooses to lay out her red herrings but how she builds and reveals aspects of her characters as part of an ensemble cast of suspects. The depths plumbed as the motivations of the characters unfold are truly extraordinary.
Poirot, by Christie’s own admission, had many ridiculous elements and while easy to admire is difficult to love because of his detachment from other people. Marple, by contrast, never resiles from being very warmly human even when she is at her most pitiless – perhaps the very best sort of Mary Sue.
Agatha Christie’s novels were some of the earliest where I ever felt the need to read everything that the author had written. I’ve moved past reading them now, and enjoy dramatisations instead (where I can judge the skill of the adaptation to a new medium). It’s still the characters that reign supreme (although the costume departments in recent adapations deserve special reference for the delight and delicacy they take in their task), and Christie always gives the deceased some dignity (and her characters are furious if others try to rob them of it).
I understand why Russell Davies devoted an entire episode of an otherwise rather silly story to exploring the allure of Agatha Christie. She’s worth it.