Of Murder, Justice, Love and the Darkness of the Human Soul
“Thousands of years ago, she had a measuring rod, a sword, and a whip – it’s called a scourge,” explains self-made millionaire Jason Rafiel (Frank Gatliff) to his nurse … and “she rode about in a chariot driven by griffins.” He is talking about Nemesis, the ancient Greek goddess of justice and vengeance, merciless punisher of human transgressions against the natural order, whose epithet was Adrasteia – she whom none can escape. “Last time I saw her,” Rafiel then adds, laughing with some difficulty, “she was wearing a pink wool shawl …”
For the old gentleman, virtually a step away from his own death at this point, is also speaking about Miss Jane Marple, elderly spinster from St. Mary Mead, whom he had met six years earlier on a Caribbean Island (see A Caribbean Mystery, 1965), where together they had unmasked a cold-blooded killer. And although gruff old Jason had initially had only contempt for the lady, apparently so completely out of her element with her knitting needles and tweeds, which she wouldn’t even relinquish under tropical blue skies and palm trees, he had soon changed his mind, realizing the powers of her razor-sharp logic and profound understanding of human nature. Thus, as he now sets about settling his own life’s final score, there is no question in his mind who to turn to for help – none other than Jane Marple will do. “I imagine you knitting headscarves and that sort of thing,” reads the commission she receives through his London solicitors (Roger Hammond and Patrick Godfrey) shortly after his death. “If that’s what you prefer to go on doing, that’s your decision. But if you prefer to serve the cause of justice, I hope you find it interesting.” And he quotes the bible: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.” (Amos 5:24).
So Miss Marple soon finds herself on an unexpected Historic Homes and Gardens coach tour; accompanied by her nephew Lionel (Peter Tilbury), who is seeking refuge with dear Aunt Jane after having been locked out by his wife. Also among the tour party are a Miss Elizabeth Temple (Helen Cherry), the recently-retired headmistress of a renowned private school, a Professor Wanstead (John Horsley), who turns out to be a specialist in criminal psychology associated with the Home Office, and two younger women named Cooke and Barrow (Jane Booker and Alison Skilbeck), who seem to be keeping a close eye on Miss Marple, but whose intentions are anything but clear.
The spinsterly sleuth’s charge is momentous indeed, and it involves Mr. Rafiel’s own estranged son Michael (Bruce Payne), once suspected of having murdered his young fiancee Verity Hunt. While the old millionaire doesn’t expressly say so, it quickly becomes clear that Miss Marple is to find Verity’s killer – even if that ultimately means charging Michael Rafiel. For old Jason has spoken of justice for a reason and, as Miss Marple later explains, “he wasn’t being entirely humourous” when dubbing her “Nemesis.” Indeed, he is relying not only on her “flair for evil” but, as importantly, on the fact that she will not “flinch” should she find out that Michael is guilty. But while things remain unclear to Miss Marple much longer than to Miss Temple, Verity’s erstwhile teacher, who now pays with her life for a fateful misstep on her own mission to uncover the truth, Mr. Rafiel has at least woven as finely-spun a web as he could in support of his avenging angel’s chore; and he has brought her in touch with everybody she needs to meet: Verity’s guardians Clothilde and Anthea Bradbury-Scott (Margaret Tyzack and Anna Cropper) and their sister Lavinia Glynne (Valerie Lush), Archdeacon Brabazon (Peter Copley), Verity’s and Michael’s marriage counselor and spiritual advisor, and a Mrs. Brent (Liz Fraser), whose daughter had disappeared around the time of Verity’s death. And Miss Marple soon realizes that the central clue to unmasking the young woman’s murderer is love: Verity wasn’t killed for her beauty, superior intelligence or money (none of which she possessed) – but, simply, because she was loved.
Originally airing on TV between 1984 and 1992, the BBC’s adaptations of Agatha Christie‘s twelve Miss Marple novels featured Joan Hickson in the title role; quickly establishing her as the quintessential Miss Marple even in the view of the creator of the grandmother (or rather, grand-aunt) of all village sleuths and “noticing kinds of persons,” Dame Agatha herself. (In fact, after seeing Hickson in a stage production of her Appointment With Death, as early as 1946 Christie had already sent her a note expressing the hope she would one day “play my dear Miss Marple.”) Prior versions, partly involving rather high-octane casts, had featured, inter alia, Angela Lansbury and Margaret Rutherford, but had been decidedly less faithful to Christie‘s books. While Lansbury holds her own fairly well in 1980’s “Hollywood does Christie” version of The Mirror Crack’d (and that movie’s ageing actresses’ camp showdown featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak is a delight to watch) the four movies starring Rutherford are only loosely based on Christie‘s books: Dame Margaret’s Miss Marple, although itself likewise a splendid performance, has about as much to do with Agatha Christie‘s demure and seemingly scatterbrained village sleuth as Big Ben does with the English countryside, and of the scripts, only Murder, She Said is at least loosely based on an actual Miss Marple mystery (4:50 From Paddington), whereas two of the others – Murder at the Gallop and Murder Most Foul – are, instead, inspired by Hercule Poirot stories (After the Funeral and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, respectively), and Murder Ahoy is based on a completely independent screenplay.
Nemesis, published only five years before Christie‘s own death, is darker in mood and atmosphere than earlier Miss Marple mysteries; and this 1987 adaptation faithfully maintains that spirit. My major quibble – one of the few I have with this series at all – is that it was produced before the 1989 adaptation of A Caribbean Mystery, which not only breaks the continuity in Jason Rafiel’s character (superbly portrayed by Donald Pleasence in the later-aired adaptation of the earlier-written mystery) but necessarily also leads to some incompleteness in establishing his and Miss Marple’s relationship. But much of this is made up in Rafiel’s final note to his sleuth, written in a frail hand and transmitted by a most significant messenger after Verity’s murderer is brought to justice: “Thank you, Miss Marple, my Nemesis. Shall we meet again?” I sincerely hope they did …
Pierre-Paul Prud’hon: Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime (1808)
Production Credits /
Cast and Crew
- Studio: BBC (1987)
- Director: David Tucker
- Producers: Guy Slater & George Gallaccio
- Screenplay: T.R. Bowen
- Based on a novel by: Agatha Christie
- Joan Hickson: Miss Jane Marple
- Peter Tilbury: Lionel Peel
- Helen Cherry: Miss Elizabeth Temple
- John Horsley: Professor Wanstead
- Jane Booker: Miss Cooke
- Alison Skilbeck: Miss Barrow
- Valerie Lush: Lavinia Glynne
- Margaret Tyzack: Clothilde Bradbury-Scott
- Anna Cropper: Anthea Bradbury-Scott
- Liz Fraser: Mrs. Brent
- Peter Copley: Archdeacon Brabazon
- Bruce Payne: Michael Rafiel
- Frank Gatliff: Jason Rafiel
- Roger Hammond: Mr. Broadribb
- Patrick Godfrey: Mr. Schuster
- Ann Queensberry: Miss Wimpole
- Nemesis at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple at the British Film Institute’s Screenonline
- Themis-Athena’s review of the Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple TV series as a whole and further individual episodes:
- Joan Hickson at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)
- Joan Hickson at the Internet Broadway Database
- Joan Hickson’s obituary in The Independent
- Joan Hickson’s obituary in The New York Times
- Themis-Athena’s artist page for Joan Hickson
- Agatha Christie Ltd.
- Agatha Christie’s biography at the Kirjasto Authors’ Calendar
- Themis-Athena’s Agatha Christie author page
- Project: Little Grey Cells: St. Mary Mead & Elsewhere
- Themis-Athena’s review of the Agatha Christie’s Poirot TV series and some of its episodes:
Nemesis statues: Left – from a temple and statue in Rhamnus (Attica, Greece), where she was held in particularly high honour. Centre: Louvre (Paris) – marble statue of Nemesis dedicated by Ptollanubis; found in Egypt, 2nd century AD. Right: Getty Villa Collection (Los Angeles, CA) – Roman Nemesis statue, c. 150 AD.