In The Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Jane Marple and the quiet village of St. Mary Mead make their first appearance. While many people see Miss Marple as a rival or replacement for Hercule Poirot (and while Agatha Christie herself had mentioned how much Poirot had irritated her), Christie does not admit to setting this old lady up as a rival for the little Belgian. The next time we see Miss Marple is twelve years later in the 1942 book The Body in the Library.
At the beginning of the novel, the narrator Reverend Leonard Clement wonders how to tell the story, as it is difficult to demarcate where the origin of an event is. Clement admits that one evening, during a dinner gathering, he himself remarked in a light hearted manner that “anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe would be doing the world at large a service”. For the Colonel is publicly recognised as a harsh and unforgiving man and the villagers of St. Mary Mead do not like him at all. In his role as a local magistrate and churchwarden, Protheroe is famous for his stern financial policy. In fact, he has arranged a special meeting with the parson about the church funds and account because questions have been raised about money matters. Parson Clement is to meet Protheroe at the vicarage the following evening to look into the accounts.
Meanwhile, the Clement introduces the various people in the village. Protheroe has a daughter Lettice, a rebellious young woman, who is very much against her father having control over her life, and deliberately does things against his wishes, such as sitting for the young painter Lawrence Redding in her bathing suit. Anne Protheroe, Lettice’s stepmother, however, is having an affair with Redding. When Clement accidentally discovers this, Redding tries to defend Anne, and angrily claims that he wishes Protheroe were dead so that they could be together. Clement persuades the lovers to repent what they are doing and to make a correct moral choice as soon as possible. Later that day, Anne tells Clement that they have thought about it and decided to separate.
The following afternoon at around 6.15 the parson receives a phone call from one of the local residents asking for help. He sets off but leaves word to his servant that he might be a little late for the appointed meeting with Protheroe, and asks the servant to let Protheroe wait in the study for him. When he returns to the vicarage, after finding himself the victim of a phone hoax, he bumps into a dishevelled Redding at the door. Clement enters his own study to find Protheroe dead, shot in the back of the head. Protheroe is leaning on the writing desk in a pool of blood; in front of him is a piece of writing paper with “6.20” on it and words to the effect that he cannot wait any more. The clock on the desk has overturned and stopped at 6.22. From the details of crime scene, it looks as if Protheroe did not want to wait for Clement and was writing a note to him when he was shot.
That night, the local residents hear with surprise that Redding has gone to the police, handed in his own pistol, and confessed to the murder. Only Miss Marple seems relieved that he has done so, but Clement thinks that Redding is guilty. Then not long afterwards, Anne Protheroe also confesses to the crime. But neither of their confessions are supported by the evidence: Dr. Haydock’s estimation of the time of death makes Redding’s confession too late, while Anne’s story of taking a pistol to shoot her husband is disproved by Miss Marple having seen her with no handbag. After these shocking revelations, the investigation reveals more and more unusual things. As Miss Marple claims, there are at least seven people who have a motive to want Protheroe dead.
Mrs. Lestrange was seen paying a visit to Protheroe the night before the murder, and servants have overheard heated conversations between the two. She also fails to provide an alibi for the time of the crime. Lettice, however, is so sure about Anne’s guilt that she deliberately drops Anne’s earring at the crime scene to be discovered. Archer the criminal poacher has a grudge against Protheroe, and has been heard publicly threatening to kill him. Hawes the priest is acting very strangely after the murder, and keeps referring to Archer’s open threat. One of the local residents, a Mrs. Ridley, got an insulting phone call at about the time of the murder; and a servant heard a sneeze near the crime scene at about the same time. Miss Cram, secretary to the famous archaeologist Dr. Stone, has been seen to carry a brown suitcase into the woods late at night and return without it. Miss Marple’s nephew, Raymond West, comes to visit and reveals that the person who calls himself Dr. Stone is a fake.
Reverend Hawes gets so nervous that one day he comes to Clement and asks him to take over one of his evening masses, because he does not feel up to it. Clement gladly takes over and preaches the virtue of repenting. That night, Clement gets a phone call from a strange man saying that he wants to repent. Clement immediately rushes to Hawes’ place and finds him lying unconscious from an overdose, beside a letter written by Protheroe accusing the priest of embezzling church funds. Clement thinks that this note is the one Protheroe was actually writing when he was shot dead, and that Hawes murdered him to hide his guilt. Dr. Haydock arrives and sends Hawes to the hospital. Miss Marple also arrives and is relieved to see that Hawes will be in good care, because she has finally figured out who is the murderer of Protheroe.
It was a murder well-planned by Redding and Anne. On the day of the murder, Redding pretended to be one of the parishioners and called Clement at 5.30 for help, then visited the vicarage when it was empty and left a pistol in one of the plant pots in the study. Later that day, Anne came to the vicarage to meet her husband and deliberately brought no handbag so that Miss Marple could testify to her innocence. She went into the study when Protheroe was writing the accusing letter to Clement, shot him, and came back out and walked in front of Miss Marple’s house to meet Redding. Then later still Redding visited the Vicar again, pretending that he had repented and decided to leave the village, but actually taking back the pistol and changing the written note on the desk. Miss Marple has reconstructed the story of the crime but she has no proof. So she spreads a rumour that new evidence has arisen and the police are about to make an arrest. During the night Redding visits Anne to discuss ways of escaping, and they are both arrested by the pre-stationed policemen.
Lee, Amy. "The Murder at the Vicarage". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 06 February 2004
[https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3409, accessed 22 October 2017.]