Christie’s ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ Bellatrix Lestrange’s Debut in Fiction?

In the interview Rowling did with Val McDermid, the interviewer asked ‘Robert Galbraith’ what his favorite Agatha Christie novel was. S/he said it was Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), which I read and wrote about here. McDermid, though, offered up a different title, Murder at the Vicarage (1930), and Galbraith said he thought that was great as well:

V:  It’s hard to pick a favorite of Christie. I cleave to the one that made me fall in love with her and ultimately with the crime genre, The Murder at the Vicarage.

JK: Oh, God, that’s so good.

V:  What I love about The Murder at the Vicarage is the humor.

JK: Yeah, she is. She’s very funny.

V: There’s a wonderful bit right at the beginning when she’s introducing the four spinster women of the parish, and she says, “Miss Harknell, who was much feared by the poor.” You just know exactly what kind of woman this person was…

JK: … instantly…

V: …  And I think Christie is never really given credit for her humor…

JK:  …that’s so right…

V: …I think we pick up on that and we understand that you can use humor inside the crime format.

So I bought a copy of Murder at the Vicarage, read it, and, y’know, it really is very good. And funny. 

More important, I think Rowling really has read it. For the links of it with the works of Rowling and Galbraith, make the jump!

The Names: There are quite a lot of names in Murder at the Vicarage that Potter-philes will recognize. Some of them, Dennis Clement and Rose the parlormaid, for example, are relatively common names that needn’t be thought of as possible sources for Wizarding World characters. Others, though, like Archer Haydock the physician and Mrs Archer the cleaning woman, might be distinct enough that Rowling made a note of it in her names notebook, from which she gives us Archer Evermonde, Minister of Magic. There’s a Mrs Wetherby, too, which, of course, is what Percy Weasley’s boss calls him to his brothers’ amusement at the Quidditch World Cup in Goblet. The wife of the vicar and story narrator, Griselda Clement, might also be a notebook entry from which Griselda Marchbank got her first name.

The three finds that I think are significant in the names-correspondence game, though, are Gladys Cram, ‘Gladys’ being something of a favorite for Rowling (she uses it for three characters), Colonel Lucius Prothero, a despised pure-blood zealot in Murder and the murder victim, and Mrs Lestrange, who plays an important background role in the story and whose secret life, revealed only in the story’s final pages, may have been the inspiration for one of the nigh on unbelievable plot points in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (assuming Rowling had something, anything, to do with its plotting).

The Press Report: Christie despised the tabloid press and their characteristic exploitation of other people’s misfortunes by exaggerating, distorting, and misrepresenting bland answers they may have given to questions into sensational headlines. She includes the headline and first paragraph of a newspaper story about the widow’s vowing to hunt down the murderer of her husband which is a template for Rita Skeeter’s Quick Quotes Quill treatment of Harry Potter from his interview before the weighing of the wands in Goblet

The Plot Points: Two jumped out at me. The first is that the murderer set the clock back at the murder scene in order to confuse the police investigators. When Cormoran Strike tells John Bristoe that this is what he must have done with his mother’s clock, he adds the observation that this is something like typical behavior for criminals. He might have said, “Do you think I’ve never read Murder at the Vicarage? It’s the first Miss Marple mystery, you clown!”

The second is that Rev Clement finds a single lapis lazuli earring at the scene of the murder, the desk in his study, albeit several days after the crime was committed. It turns out to be a ‘plant,’ someone has left it there to throw suspicion on another character who might be the murderer, and it suggests to the reader that there may be more substance to the hints that the vicar’s wife was unfaithful to him than he wants to admit. The fear of this cuckoldry rather haunts his narration because she is so much younger and flippant than he is.

Robin Ellacott finds a single diamond stud earring in her bedroom (Lethal White, ch 53), which, like Rev Clement, she immediately recognizes. There’s nothing subtle about the adultery here, of course; Robin’s discovery leads to her final break with her husband. As noted in ‘Lethal White: Flints and Head Scratchers,’ though, it seems as likely as not that this earring was, like the one in Murder at the Vicarage, left there deliberately. Sarah Shadlock very much valued her fiancee’s expensive gift earrings and it seems rather unlikely she wouldn’t have been aware that one was missing as she dressed post coitus with Robin’s husband.

As far as literary allusions go, Murder at the Vicarage is early Christie, so there’s little of the P. D. James quality in the book beyond a single coy reference to the detective novels of G. K. Chesterton. The keepers, I think, from this Miss Marple classic in terms of Rowling influence and take-aways, are all the general correspondences between Rowling/Christie — great character studies, the humor of daily life in a relatively closed community, the narrative misdirection and satisfying ‘big twist’ at the finish — and the likely name-list elements of Lucius and Lestrange with the planted earring as a misunderstood clue about what really happened. If Sarah turns out to have left the earring deliberately to foil Matt’s plans to reconcile with Robin, remember Murder at the Vicarage and it’s implausibly stray earring.

As always, I look forward to reading your thoughts. Please share them in the comment boxes below!

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