If you're seeking tips on how to be fulfilled and challenged in your 50s and beyond, you could do a lot worse than looking to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.
Introduced at around 60-years-old in the 1926 short story collection, The Tuesday Night Club, Jane Marple continued to track down killers while knitting baby booties until her final appearance in Sleeping Murder in 1976.
Christie's novels took note of the passage of time. So, Marple — whose murder-solving abilities were based on her knack for spotting parallels between suspects and the residents of her home in England's fictional St. Mary Mead — would have been 110 by then. But since Christie fudged the numbers, it's probably safer to think of the sleuth as somewhere around 90.
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Either way, over the course of dozens of stories and 12 novels — turned into a long-running PBS series — Miss Marple laid out a credo for finding fulfillment and fun in one's later years. Over the last year, I've been re-reading all 77 of Agatha Christie's books (and blogging about them at chrisandchristie.tumblr.com) and I'm about to finish the project, in what turns out to be the 125th anniversary of the author's birth. So I've learned a lot about that credo, which I've dubbed The Tao of Miss Marple:
Keep Learning New Things
"When you're young and strong and healthy and life stretches ahead of you, living isn't really important at all," says Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery (published in the U.S. in 1965). "But old people know how valuable life is, and how interesting."
Miss Marple's curiosity seems to know no limits.
"I take an interest in everything," she asserts in The Mirror Crack'd (1963), which she proves by buying piles of film magazines and devouring the stories about movie stars, a subject that had not appealed to her until there was a murder at the home of a star who settled in quiet St. Mary Mead.
In Murder at the Vicarage (1930), it's a sudden interest in American detective stories and, in At Bertram's Hotels (1966), it's race cars. The point is that Miss Marple will put down her crochet hooks and pick up whatever she needs to learn in order to bring a killer to justice.
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When Adventure Presents Itself, Grab It
Miss Marple has spent nearly her entire life in St. Mary Mead, which her not-as-smart-as-he-thinks nephew refers to as a "stagnant pond," but she gently puts him in his place, observing, "Nothing is so full of life under a microscope as a drop of water from a stagnant pond."
Nevertheless, she is always willing to brush aside the algae in the pond to see the rest of the world. She’s on vacation in both Caribbean and Bertram's, when her sightseeing is interrupted by the murders that follow her everywhere. Similarly, in Murder With Mirrors (1952), a school chum asks her to take a trip to look into the mental state of a mutual friend. In A Pocketful of Rye (1954), the police send her to investigate mysterious doings at a country estate.
It goes without saying that, if there hasn't been a murder before she arrives, corpses start popping up even before Miss Marple can unpack. As disconcerting as that must be, she never turns down a chance to travel to the scene of a juicy mystery, as in What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw (1957) and Nemesis (1971).
Some People Underestimate Older People. Use This To Your Advantage.
An inspector on the scene of a murder in Mrs. McGillicuddy describes Miss Marple as "fluffy and dithery in appearance but, inwardly, as sharp and shrewd as they make them." The narrator of Vicarage is more succinct: "If I were at any time to set out on a career of deceit, it would be of Miss Marple that I should be afraid."
Miss Marple knows strangers think she's just a pink, friendly old lady who does handcrafts (also good for your brain, by the way), so she repeatedly capitalizes on this. After questioning a suspect in Nemesis, for instance, Marple remarks, "She had no suspicion, I think, that I had any wish for the information apart from being — well, rather muddle-headed, elderly and very worried."
"Muddle-headed" like a fox.
In At Bertram's Hotel, she mock-innocently says, "The situation sometimes arises where you realize that though it is a public room, other people in it do not realize that there is anyone else in it." Coupled with the fact that some youths assume that older people don't hear well, this allows her to eavesdrop on several key conversations in the hotel lobby. Or, as she prefers it, "Taking an interest in other people has always been one of (my) characteristics."
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Later on in that book, Miss Marple "takes an interest" by using her supposed befuddlement to put herself on the scene where suspicious things are happening, "accidentally" leaving behind a pair of gloves once and sets of keys twice.
Your Brain Is Your Biggest Asset
Miss Marple is living (albeit fictitious) proof of recent studies suggesting that, far from becoming less agile, brains may function better as we age. The village parallels she uses to solve crimes, for instance, could only occur to a person who has enjoyed many years of observing human nature and making connections between people.
She may find it trickier to kneel for gardening and develop some rheumatism in her back as the novels progress but, if anything, the detective becomes sharper and quicker to spot the kinds of human behavior that can lead to murder.
"It's quite a pretty village," she agrees when an acquaintance asks about St. Mary Mead, but Miss Marple also knows the darkness: "There are some nice people living in it and some very unpleasant people as well. Very curious things go on, just as in any other village. Human nature is much the same anywhere, is it not?"
Marple's mental abilities are the direct result of a lifetime of observing humans — sometimes, as she admits in Vicarage, while using binoculars and pretending to bird-watch.
Don't Ignore Your Health
With some of us, it's yoga or meditation that does the trick. For Miss Marple, it's homicide.
Despite her advanced age, Marple never deals with serious health concerns in the Christie mysteries. That's because she always does what her doctors tell her to do, and what her doctors tell her to do is to use her innate talents.
Early in The Tuesday Club Murders, Christie writes the one scene in all of the Marple stories in which the white-haired detective is ill, with a complaint that is more mental than physical. Her doctor's orders? Find a murder to solve. Same thing in The Mirror Crack'd, where a friend asks if her doctor prescribed a tonic for her health and Marple replies briskly, "He recommended me to take an interest in murder."
It's not that Miss Marple is ever pleased to stumble across a neighbor who has been poisoned with arsenic, but she does recognize that those unfortunate situations help her get out of the house. As she puts it after the bodies start piling up in The Mirror Crack'd, "Inertia does not suit me and never has. A practical course of action, that is what I have been wanting."
Most of us, fortunately, never have to worry about our butcher being strangled or about replacing the choir director who was stabbed to death. But, even if murder doesn't come our way, we can learn from Miss Marple's example that it's the little things — curiosity about other people, trusting our common sense, looking at a problem from a different angle if the first one doesn't make sense — that help keep us happy and engaged throughout our lives.
Chris Hewitt is a movie and theater critic who has written for MSNBC.com, Today.com and The History Channel magazine and whose reviews have run in newspapers across the country.
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