David Aaronovitch in the Times yesterday had a wonderfully Agatha Christie-ish story. Writing about Dr David Kelly’s mysterious death, he brought up the 1984 murder of Hilda Murrell, an “elderly rose grower” from Shrewsbury, who was taken from her home and was later found dead in a little copse nearby. Hilda Murrell
was an elderly rose enthusiast, yes. But the story’s a bit more intriguing than that.
As Aaronovitch pointed out, Miss Murrell was also a tireless
anti-nuclear campaigner. (She also may or may not have been in
possession of documents about the sinking of the Belgrano, left
at her house by her nephew who was in Naval Intelligence at the time of
the Falklands War. Which is where the Kelly parallels come in.)
It made me remember all those moments when Miss Marple drifts off into
a little reverie about how a particularly gruesome murder puts her in
mind of the baker’s daughter back in little St Mary Mead.
Miss Marple works as a character because we recognise the essential
truth in her favourite saying: “Human nature is pretty much the same
everywhere.” Miss Marple was pretty keen on gardeners. According to
Agatha Christie’s best-loved creation, she very much admired Briggs,
the head gardener up at St Mary Mead’s Old Hall, who had an “uncanny
ability” to sense when the undergardeners were slacking off. It reminds
me of a real-life Miss Marple, Mavis Batey, who is one of Britain’s most important amateur experts on garden history.
It wasn’t until she turned up in a documentary about the programme
to break the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, though, that I realised her
steely mind had been put to ferocious use in World War Two. And yet you
would never know any of this, seeing her gentle grey-haired head at a
historical gardens meeting.
Old ladies can appear to be sweet little gardening enthusiasts, but
don’t imagine that means they won’t be sharp as a button. Elderly rose
growers may be hardened political campaigners too. Even Miss Marple,
who scarcely ever leaves the village, sees all kinds of things over the
hedge while she’s doing a little pruning. There’s just one lesson here.
Never underestimate a gardener.