In which we’re reacquainted with amateur detectives Tommy and Tuppence, on the hunt for a missing old lady, Mrs Lancaster, who lived in the same old people’s home as Tommy’s Aunt Ada, and had given her a painting of an attractive old house. But when Aunt Ada dies, and Mrs Lancaster has been removed from her old people’s home, T & T are at a loss as to how to get the picture back to Mrs Lancaster. Cue a search by Tuppence which ends up getting her deep in trouble. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
“This book is dedicated to the many readers in this and other countries who write to me asking: “What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence? What are they doing now?” My best wishes to you all, and I hope you will enjoy meeting Tommy and Tuppence again, years older, but with spirit unquenched!” That’s one of Christie’s rare dedications that needs absolutely no research. By the Pricking of my Thumbs was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1968, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the same year. Unusually, it doesn’t appear to have been published in magazine format, abridged or otherwise, before the Collins Crime Club edition, unlike most Christie books.
The book begins with an epigraph – one that explains the title of the book. “By the Pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. It’s from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and is spoken by the Second Witch in Act IV Scene 1. She says it just as Macbeth is about to come on stage; and there’s no doubt that he’s something wicked.
Answering Christie’s readers question, “what has happened to Tommy and Tuppence?”, I’m delighted to report that they are in fine fettle; possibly the best we’ve ever seen them, in fact. We last saw them in the frankly abysmal N or M? way back in 1941, prior to that we hadn’t seen them since operating their detective agency in Partners in Crime. In 1941 they were frustrated at not being involved in the war effort. Now it’s 1968, and they’re definitely retired, but Tuppence still has her restless flightiness and keenness to meddle in affairs that really aren’t her own. Tommy is still both solid and stolid, a reliable background figure of good renown, who fortunately has retained his old secret service contacts from the war. And they’re still looked after by Albert, their office boy in Partners in Crime, landlord of the Dog and Duck in N or M?, and now, apparently, live-in servant and chef extraordinaire provided it’s chicken. All three of them are presented in the same bright and breezy way that we remember them.
One tends to think that Christie’s writing and plotting tailed off towards the end, but following the sensational Endless Night, her follow-up By the Pricking of my Thumbs is still a pretty good read, with some fun characterisations, nice plot twists and a totally unexpected denouement. What starts out as a Find The Lady story, grows in creepiness and suspense into criminal revelations that you had no concept of at the beginning of the book. No spoilers, so I shan’t tell you if Tuppence finds her lady, but you won’t be disappointed – at least, not with the whodunit element.
However, there’s no question that the book suffers from Christie’s over-use of coincidences, although at least this time they don’t compromise the crime or the detection; nevertheless, they do make a lot of the framework of the book very far-fetched. There is also one big loose end that isn’t tied up; it’s as though Christie lost sight of some of her earlier plotting as she got going with her main theme. Alternatively, you could think of the big loose end as a big red herring. That’s for you to decide! I also felt the energy of the book sagged when Tuppence is in conversation with the locals in Sutton Chancellor; not so much with the Perrys, but when she spends time with Mr and Mrs Copleigh, Tuppence gets overwhelmed by all the characters she’s forced to listen about, and so do we. Fortunately, that whole sequence ends up with an unexpected and intriguing event.
Apart from a few references to known, real London locations, the majority of the book takes place in area based around Market Basing, which had been a focal point in Dumb Witness, Crooked House, and The Secret of Chimneys. Medchester, Shaleborough, and the main village of Sutton Chancellor are all creations of Christie’s imagination. There is a Cleveland Hotel in London, which is where Mrs Johnson is said to have taken Mrs Lancaster, and there is also a George Street not too far away, but the Cleveland Hotel isn’t actually on George Street, as Christie has it.
Other references are few and far between in this book. When Tuppence is looking through Aunt Ada’s jewellery she sees a “pinky stone, it must be a ruby this time and a small diamond in the middle. Oh, of course, it’s regard. Rather nice really. So old-fashioned and sentimental.” I’d never heard of that, but Regard rings were an early form of Victorian or Edwardian engagement ring with a row of six stones that spelled out the word Regard: ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond.
When Dr Murray is telling Tommy about well-known mass murderers who killed people they cared for, he mentions “the French woman, Jeanne Gebron, who was called The Angel of Mercy”, and “Nurse Warriner who kept a Home for elderly people.” Although they sound very convincing cases, I can’t see any reference to these people apart from in the context of this book – so this is Christie’s feverish imagination at work again. Philip Starke asks Tuppence “did you ever read Peer Gynt, Mrs Beresford?” “Who was she? Herself? The real one, the true one. Who was she – with God’s Sign upon her brow?” This isn’t a quote from Ibsen’s poem/play, but an allusion to it – when Gynt asks others “Peer Gynt? Who was he?”
Regular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money is unimportant in this book, and there actually only two sums referred to. Mr Copleigh says he would only pay £5 for a painting – that’s £60 today. Wouldn’t get you much. The other sum is £50 which is the value of old white fivers that were discovered in a secret compartment of a writing desk. That’s the equivalent of £600 today, which isn’t much in terms of a life’s savings. Old white fivers went out of circulation in 1961, so let’s assume they were hidden in 1960 – the equivalent of £50 in 1960 today is £800. That’s still not much.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for By the Pricking of my Thumbs:
Publication Details: 1968. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1971, bearing the price on the back cover of 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows an eerie broken doll in the foreground (very relevant) and a lady smelling roses in the background (not quite so relevant).
How many pages until the first death: Strictly speaking, 17 – but that isn’t a death that comes under investigation. Nor is the death announced after 31 pages – although it’s shown to be very relevant later. More relevant deaths are first mentioned after 77 pages; but if you’re waiting for an actual murder that happens in real time in the book, you’ll be disappointed.
Funny lines out of context: In conversation with Dr Murray: ““Death had resulted from an overdose of morphine.” “Good Lord!” Tommy stared and the ejaculation escaped him.”
Memorable characters: For the most part, the characters, although entertaining, are not hugely well drawn or memorable, with two main exceptions. First is Aunt Ada, a bullying hectoring old woman who distrusts Tuppence enormously, and will only talk to her nephew when she’s out of earshot – very believable and amusing. The other is the person responsible for all the crimes, so please allow me to move swiftly on without any further comment!
Christie the Poison expert: Morphine is discovered to be the cause of a death that had otherwise been considered to be due to natural causes.
Class/social issues of the time: None of Christie’s regular issues come to the fore in this book, which is in itself interesting; as it was the first time she’d written about Tommy and Tuppence for over 25 years, it’s as though she wiped the slate clean with her usual bugbears, to see if any other themes emerge. They do, although not extensively, and they can all be grouped under the heading Getting used to Growing old.
Tommy and Tuppence think about Aunt Ada as a problem; the problem caused by her old age, and who is going to look after her. “The days are past when Aunt Elisabeth, Aunt Ada and the rest of them lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants […] For the Aunt Adas of today arrangements have to be made suitable, not merely to an elderly lady who, owing to arthritis or other rheumatic difficulties, is liable to fall downstairs if she is left alone in a house, who suffers from chronic bronchitis, or who quarrels with her neighbours and insults the tradespeople.”
Other aspects of modern life prove generally irksome to older people – like the vicar of Sutton Chancellor. He bemoans the fact that the local council don’t mend the local signposts: “People who drive down these lanes aren’t usually trying to get anywhere in particular. People who are keep to the main roads. Dreadful,” he added again. “Especially the new Motorway. At least, I think so. The noise and the speed and the reckless driving. Oh well! Pay no attention to me. I’m a crusty old fellow.”
As well as local road arrangements, the vicar also objects to modernisation within the church – specifically the choice of Bible. Tuppence is looking for an Authorised Version in the church, but the Vicar can’t help her. “We don’t use that version in the church now, I’m sorry to say. One has to fall in with the bishop’s ideas, you know, and the bishop is very keen on modernisation, for young people and all that. A pity, I think.”
Another new modern-fangled invention is star-ratings on tourist accommodation. Today we’re used to seeing star ratings everywhere, but this was a relatively new thing in 1968. Tuppence asks Mrs Bligh for a recommendation for a local hotel: “It’s just a market town, you know. It doesn’t cater at all for the motoring trade. The Blue Dragon is a two-star but really I don’t think these stars mean anything at all sometimes. I think you’d find The Lamb better.”
Overall the sense you get from the social aspects of the book is a rejection of modernisation and a distrust of the complacency in the thought that life today is better because it is easier and more comfortable.
Classic denouement: Not at all, just one of those occasions when all the truth is revealed in a private conversation between two people. Hugely entertaining and unsettling though!
Happy ending? There’s a sense of relief for Tommy and Tuppence that their lives will go back to normal, but for everyone else there’s no particular improvement in any of their lives as a result of the experiences in this book.
Did the story ring true? Try as you might, you can’t overlook the major coincidences that Christie creates in order to get the story up and running. The fact that Tuppence recognises the house in the painting. The fact that the gallery run by Tommy’s friend Robert is actually mounting an exhibition of the works of the artist Boscowan. The fact that Robert knows Mrs Boscowan and can arrange a meeting between her and Tommy. The fact that Tommy and Tuppence’s daughter Deborah read an article in the newspaper that alerted her to the possibility that her mother might be in trouble. There are probably more!
Overall satisfaction rating: If you were just awarding a score on the basis of how suspenseful and surprising the ending is, you’d have no hesitation giving this book a 10/10. However, I think I have to dock it a couple of points for all the coincidences and untied up loose ends. But 8/10 is fair and a good score!
Thanks for reading my blog of By the Pricking of my Thumbs, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Hallowe’en Party, which I remember enjoying enormously on previous readings. However, all I can remember from those previous reads is that the book features a fatal bobbing-for-apples scene; and if there are apples, there’s bound to be the return of Mrs Oliver as well as our old friend Hercule Poirot. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!