Short Story Saturday: Evil in Small Places by Lucy Foley, (Miss Marple Mysteries)

“Evil in Small Places” by Lucy Foley is the inaugural story in the collection of twelve new Miss Marple stories written by modern crime novelists. MARPLE: Twelve New Mysteries published in 2022. This was one of my favorite books of last year Travel from the village of St. Mary Mead in “The Second Murder at the Vicarage or New York City in “Miss Marple Takes Manhattan.” These original tales include many familiar characters: Miss Marple’s nephew, Raymond West, her friend Sir Henry Clithering, Griselda Clement, the vicar’s wife, and a bevy of new faces.

“Evil in Small Places” by Lucy Foley is one of the best stories in the collection. It begins with the well-trod trope of Miss Marple visiting one of her innumerable friends in one of the numerous small villages in England. There she finds what she knows to exist everywhere: evil. It ends with justice for not one but two murders.

The Players

  • Jane Marple: An old school friend of Prudence Fairweather who is visiting while on her way to see a garden of illustrious Japanese maples.
  • Prudence Fairweather: Hosting Jane Marple over bonfire night. On her way to choir practice, she is assaulted by an assailant who the police believe murdered Celia Beautemps only moments before.
  • George Fairweather: Prudence Fairweather’s deceased second husband died after a long illness.
  • Alice Fairweather: Prudence Fairweather’s daughter from her first marriage. She married a wealthy family in the village.
  • Christopher Palfrey: A local poet widely rumored to have dedicated his latest book of romantic poetry to choirmaster Celia Beautemps. This has fueled gossip that they are having a torrid affair.
  • Annabelle Palfrey: Christopher Palfrey’s long-suffering wife.
  • Celia Beautemps: New choirmaster, Celia Beautemps, beautiful and flamboyant. She is supposedly French, but Colonel Woodage finds her vowels “dodgy.” Allegedly having a romantic entanglement with Christopher Palfrey.
  • Colonel Woodage: Choir member suspicious of Celia Beautemps past and dislikes her.
  • Mrs. Prufrock: The long-tenured choirmaster who Celia Beautemps rudely ousted. She has a deep grudging hatred of Celia Beautemps for taking her job.
  • Inspector Eidel: The local inspector tasked with solving Celia Beautemps’ murder.

The Mystery

Miss Marple is visiting her old school friend Prudence Fairweather in the village of Meon Maltravers on a chaotic Bonfire night. As revelers take to the streets, Miss Marple and her friend are ensconced in Fairweather House, chatting about the usual things: how difficult it is to get a well-trained housemaid and the slow miserable death of Prudence’s husband, George Fairweather, some years earlier. After Prudence has aired her minor grievances, Miss Marple discusses Prudence’s daughter, Alice. Alice has married a wealthy and influential family in the village, and Prudence believes this means they are finally accepted within the community of Meon Maltravers. Miss Marple is unsure of this assertion but does not press on. As the outside revelers become more boisterous and intrusive, Miss Marple remarks how seriously the people of Meon Maltravers take the Bonfire night holiday Prudence responds that here the night is not a commemoration of the death of the catholic rebellion but a revenge on the immolation of the protestant martyrs. Miss Marple remarks that revenge is one of the hallmarks of living in a small village.

With their discussion exhausted, they go into the melee on the streets, heading for choir practice at the local church. To avoid the crowds, they cut through a path in the woods, and Prudence starts telling Miss Marple about the controversial new choirmaster, Celia Beautemps, when an unearthly screech punctures the silence. Unnerved, the two women tell themselves that it is just a screech owl and keep threading their way through the tree line. Prudence informs Jane that in Celia’s short tenure, she has quarreled with the reverend, upset the local birding group by keeping the church lights on, is suspected of having an affair with the married local poet, Christopher Palfrey, ousted the previous choirmaster, and on top of that is a french woman of dubious background. Prudence’s gossip is interrupted when she is pushed to the ground by an athletic figure running through the woods. A little shaken, Prudence takes a moment to catch her breath, and while Miss Marple picks up the flashlight that was knocked from Prudence’s hand, she notices a small pebble lying on the ground, She pockets the pebble, and they move slowly towards the church.

As they approach the church, they hear an aria from Celia’s study and are stopped by a frightened maid who is unsure what to do. Prudence is unduly firm with the young maid and then brushes her aside to see Celia. In the study, Celia is lying in a pool of blood, clutching a malicious note in one hand and a blank envelope in her other hand. Her hands, reddened and raw with thick, misshapen yellow fingernails, caught her eye. With sharpness Prudence orders the maid to call the police before the other choir members arrive. Left alone with the body, Miss Marple begins looking for clues; she finds a copy of the poetry book dedicated to Celia from Christopher Palfrey, a small cheap urn, and a young woman in a white cap among her personal items.

Further investigation is cut short by the arrival of Christopher and Annabelle Palfrey and a gaggle of other choir members. Miss Marple can shrewdly deduce who is who from the brief sketches provided to her by Prudence. Each, in turn, pretends to be dismayed by her violent death, but as they cross-chatter, it seems everyone has the motive to kill her. Christopher Palfrey is the only party member who is aggrieved but keeps his feelings in check after a mollifying look from his wife. Annabelle Palfrey and the former choir mistress, Mrs. Prufrock, are gleeful at her demise since Celia wreaked so much havoc in their lives, and Colonel Woodage loudly proclaims that he knew she would meet a sticky end. Her French vowels were dodgy. He muses that she had a scandalous past and was some kind of spy at worst. Miss Marple listens to their conjectures until they are broken up by Annabelle Palfrey, who trained as a nurse in the war, administering aid to the dead Celia Beautemps.

Prudence returns, and soon after, Inspector Eidel arrives to take everyone’s statements. He begins with Miss Marple asking her to confirm that a man pushed her friend, Prudence Fairweather, to the ground on their way to Celia Beautemp’s study. Miss Marple corrects the inspector by saying they don’t know it was a man. She extrapolates that the whole incident was strange because the person could have easily avoided running into Prudence by swerving in either direction. Miss Marple is convinced the assailant wanted to shove her to the ground but cannot explain why. She extrapolates that it would be easy for the assailant to hide their clothes in the woods and then slip in with revelers on the street. Inspector Eidel, stunned by her reasoning, decides to follow her line of thinking and put officers amongst the partiers and in the woods to look for a clothes bundle. Prudence remarks that the threatening message Celia Beautempt had in her grip points to a killer threatening or blackmailing her, which throws further suspicion on the angry Mrs. Palfrey or Mrs. Prufrock. Miss Marple, however, disagrees and points out that the envelope hadn’t been addressed, making Celia that blackmailer.

In a fit of passion, Christopher Palfrey confesses to killing Celia Beautemps, but this is quickly dismissed as artistic temperament since Annabelle Palfrey keeps urging him to take his medicine for his weak heart from the sudden shock. He would be too frail to run through the woods after brutally killing Celia, according to Colonol Woodage, who knew his strained heart had made him ineligible for military service. Suspicions naturally fall on Annabelle Palfrey, who had motive, opportunity, and the murder weapon hidden in her handbag. However, the evidence against Annabelle Palfrey Miss Marple’s suspicion runs elsewhere.

As Prudence and Miss Marple leave the crime scene, they run into a breathless Alice Fairweather, who was late to rehearsal because her cat had a hurt paw. Alice Fairweather offers to drive them home, but Miss Marple wants to walk through the woods again to look for clues; however, nothing reveals itself. After a light supper and sleepless night, Miss Marple knows who killed Celia Beautemps and why.

The Motives

Nearly everyone in the choir had the motive to kill Celia Beautemps. Many wanted revenge for her poor treatment of them, Annabelle Palfrey being chief among them. However, Celia Beautemp’s petty squabbles are a convenient cover for her murder. Miss Marple wonders why Celia Beautemps came to the out-of-the-way village of Meon Maltravers if she was such an accomplished singer. Her poor French and weak backstory give credence to Colonel Woodage’s assertion that she is faking a great deal. Coupled with her raw hands and the picture of a young Celia as a maid, Miss Marple realizes that her friend Prudence once threw out a maid that was spoiled by her husband George shortly after her husband George Fairweather died. Now wealthy and respected in Meon Maltravers, Prudence, and Alice now have a lot to lose if George’s death had been murder. Reflecting on the photograph of George Fairweather, she understands that his pale, mottled skin wasn’t due to age or illness-but arsenic poisoning. Having discovered the true motive for Celia Beatemp’s murder, she must deduce how they committed the crime.

The Verdict

This story is a classic Miss Marple intrigue. A small village is teaming with personal vendettas, blackmail, and of course, a brutal murder informed by some past dark deed. It echoes past stories such as The Murder at the Vicarage and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie. Miss Marple is wholly unchanged from her earlier versions, bravely confronting the murderers and cleverly steering the police in the correct direction. While some other stories get the trappings of Miss Marple right: her twinkling eye, her fluffiness, her ability to land in trouble in far-flung locals, Lucy Foley understands the essence of Miss Marple: a woman who understands the petty grievances that eat up hearts and drive them to terrible evil. There are eleven other beautiful stories by famous authors not detailed in this review, so I urge you to buy MARPLE: Twelve New Mysteries and enjoy more thrilling adventures with Miss Marple.

Further Recommendations

Every month on this blog, we read a new Miss Marple book. You can read the introduction to the Miss Marple Monthly in this post and read my review of the January selection, The Murder at the Vicarage, by Agatha Christie here.

Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie

From Amazon: “Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories gathers together in one magnificent volume all of Agatha Christie’s short stories featuring her beloved intrepid investigator, Miss Marple. It’s an unparalleled compendium of murder, mayhem, mystery, and detection that represents some of the finest short form fiction in the crime fiction field, and is an essential omnibus for Christie fans.”

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple by Anne Hart

A newly revised edition of this thorough biography of Jane Marple was released in 2019 with additions from Geraldine McEwan, Julia McKenzie, Susie Blake, and June Whitfield. This biography has been meticulously researched, piecing together actual historical events during fictional Jane Marple’s lifetime and the snippets provided about Jane in her books, novels, television programs, movies, and radio programs. Her definitive biography is approved by the Christie estate and heralded as one of the best ways to understand the enigmatic Jane Marple.


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