In which brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton move to the tranquil country town of Lymstock to help with his recovery after a flying accident. But instead of quiet rural life they become embroiled in a hunt for a poison-pen letter writer who appears to have driven one poor resident to suicide. When another body is discovered, the police begin to investigate; and are stumped until one Miss Marple is invited along to consider the evidence. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!
The book is dedicated “To my friends Sydney and Mary Smith”. He was Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum; by all accounts a charismatic and thought-provoking man who always stirred Agatha’s imagination and brain, and the two of them loved to exchange intellectual banter together. His wife Mary was a painter; and the couple remained good friends with Agatha and Max throughout their lives. The Moving Finger was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in eight parts between March and May 1942. It was first serialised in the UK in Women’s Pictorial in an abridged form, in six parts, in October and November 1942 under the slightly shorter title, Moving Finger. The full book was first published in the US in July 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, only two months after her previous book, Five Little Pigs. It was published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in June 1943. Like Three Act Tragedy, the American version of the book is abridged by about 9,000 words from the UK version.
This has always been one of my favourite Christie novels. It hits the ground running at a tremendous pace, it has an intriguing and relatively unusual plotline and the central characters of Jerry and Joanna are very well drawn and completely likeable; quirky, mickey-taking, modern young things, Their growing romances as the plot develops are charming to observe, and Christie writes with a humorous flair and a very accurate sense of village life, with some intense characters. Sadly, it didn’t take me long to remember whodunit, but even so it doesn’t disturb one’s enjoyment of the narrative. Christie herself thought that this one of her best books.
It’s narrated in the first person by Jerry, an amiable, slightly feckless fellow of sufficient means that it matters not one jot that he’s unable to undertake any form of work or rigorous exercise. Life for him and Joanna is a long round of lunches, afternoon teas and mock sibling rivalry. The reader identifies himself with Jerry so readily that the “I” of the narrative almost becomes the reader’s own perspective of the book, which makes it a quick, easy and comforting read. At one stage he points out a fact that he says, in retrospect, should have stood out as a huge clue to solving the mystery – that the “a” of Barton had been changed to the “u” of Burton, on the envelope containing the letter opened by Joanna. In retrospect, he’s right; but at the time you’re too deep down in the narrative to come up for air and try to work that one out for yourself. Still, it’s very decent of him (and Christie) to telegraph a major clue for us to recognise in that way.
Part of the appeal of this book is the superb evocation of country life in a rural backwater. The Burtons rent from Miss Emily Barton, “a charming old lady who matched her house in an incredible way.” She’s often described as looking like a Dresden doll with formal petticoats and all that entails; and clearly her chintziness stems from her upbringing and her environment. “I must confess I did shrink from the idea of having Men here!” squeals Miss Barton, to whom the presence of a man in a house felt no more comfortable than having a horse in the house; probably less so. It’s the invasion of the outside world in the form of Jerry and Joanna that makes the disruption of the country life so interesting. Miss Barton “inquired diffidently if I smoked.” “Like a chimney,” said Joanna. “But then,” she pointed out, “so do I.” “Of course, of course. So stupid of me. I’m afraid, you know, I haven’t moved with the times […] yes, everyone smokes now. The only thing is, there are no ashtrays in the house.” […] “We won’t put down cigarette ends on your nice furniture, that I do promise you” replies Joanna. Times do change; today the Burtons would almost certainly not be allowed to smoke in a rented property.
This is a world and a time when neighbours like Emily Barton “came solemnly and left cards. Her example was followed by Mrs Symmington, the lawyer’s wife, Miss Griffith, the doctor’s sister, Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife, and Mr Pye of Prior’s End. Joanna was very much impressed. “I didn’t know,” she said in an awestruck voice, “that people really called – with cards.” “That is because, my child,” I said, “you know nothing about the country.” At first Joanna can’t adapt to the country style of dress: “she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect. She had sheer silk stockings and some irreproachable but brand new brogues.” Jerry advises she should wear “an old tweed skirt, preferably of dirty green or faded brown. You’d wear a nice cashmere jumper matching it, and perhaps a cardigan coat, and you’d have a felt hat and thick stockings and old shoes.” Christie goes to great length to describe the town and its heritage; phrases like “rival butchers” and a “hideous school” tell you so much of the quality and tone of life there. And of course, it wouldn’t be a country town if it didn’t have a witch; so everyone suspects Mrs Cleat, of being the letter-writer. Mrs Cleat may or may not be a witch, but she’s well aware of the usefulness of the reputation. “Mrs Cleat came from a family of ‘wise women’ […] and she’s taken pains to cultivate the legend. She’s a queer woman with a bitter and sardonic sense of humour. It’s been easy enough for her, if a child cut its finger or had a bad fall, or sickened with mumps, to nod her head and say, “yes he stole my apples last week” or “he pulled my cat’s tail”. “
The official investigation into the wrongdoings in Lymstock is undertaken by Superintendent Nash, a man who impresses Jerry as “the best type of CID county superintendent. Tall, soldierly, with quiet reflective eyes and a straightforward unassuming manner.” He brings in Inspector Graves from London to assist, because Graves has experience with other anonymous letter cases. “Inspector Graves smiled mournfully. I reflected that a life spent in the pursuit of anonymous letter writers must be singularly depressing. Inspector Graves, however, showed a kind of melancholy enthusiasm. “They’re all the same, these cases,” he said in a deep lugubrious voice like a depressed bloodhound.” However, they wouldn’t get to the bottom of it all without a certain Miss Marple from St Mary Mead.
It had only been a year or so since we had last met Miss Marple, and this will be her final appearance in a Christie novel for seven years. She makes a delayed entrance; it’s not until 117 pages have passed that Jerry makes a mention of “an amiable elderly lady who was knitting something with white fleecy wool”. She is a friend of Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife (whom we will meet again in The Pale Horse, some eighteen years in the future), and is staying as a house guest at the vicarage. She instantly pricks her ears up at the mention of murder and offers us a very incisive comment about the nature of “successful” murder: “To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick […] You’ve got to make people look at the wrong thing and in the wrong place – misdirection, they call it, I believe.” That’s very much at the heart of the crime in this book. No wonder, later on, Mrs Dane Calthrop says of Miss Marple: “that woman knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known.” Apart from those little insights, there’s nothing more for us to learn about the character of the old lady in this book.
Regular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Sadly, there’s no such place as Lymstock, although there is a Plymstock, which is an outer suburb of Plymouth, which is where I expect she got the inspiration. Combeacre, home of Colonel Appleton, Nether Mickford, where Rose the cook lives, and Exhampton, where Mildmay is a solicitor, are also fictional towns, although it’s not hard to see how they could be concatenations of other better-known places. Of course, when Jerry goes to London, he visits Harley Street which is most definitely real.
Moving on to some of the other references in the book; “merely kit-kat” says Jerry to Joanna, as the latter is teasing Dr Griffith for having walked past her rudely in the street. Merely kit-kat? What relevance is a chocolate snack? I’ve tried hard to work out whether this is some form of mid-20th century slang but I came to a standstill. Any ideas? Similarly, “bow at a venture”, which is what Jerry says to Griffith when he questions whether the Symmingtons’ son might have different parentage. To “draw a bow at a venture” is an old saying that comes from the Bible (1 Kings, 22:34), and means to make a random remark which may hit the truth. Well, I never knew that.
Jerry defends the art of not working in a brusque conversation with Aimée Griffith, where he cites Sir Edward Grey, who was sent down from Oxford for “incorrigible idleness”. Sir Edward, who had died in 1933, had indeed been a lazy student, but managed to create a career that included being Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1905 to 1916 under Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, as well as being the MP for Berwick upon Tweed.
When Jerry is talking to Elsie Holland about the second death, he notes “as she flashed around the corner of the stairs, I caught my breath. For a minute I caught a glimpse of a Winged Victory, deathless and incredibly beautiful, instead of a conscientiousness nursery governess.” Forgive my ignorance, gentle reader, but I had no idea what Jerry was referring to. But it’s the Winged Victory of Samothrace, on display in the Louvre Museum, a marble Hellenistic sculpture of Nike (the Greek goddess of victory), that was created about the 2nd century BC. You live and learn.
Christie quotes a Shakespeare sonnet: “So are you to my thoughts as food to life, Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground” – this is Sonnet 75. Jerry also sings a song to himself: “Oh maid, most dear, I am not here I have no place, no part, No dwelling more, by sea nor shore, But only in your heart” – this is “Oh Fair Dove, Oh Fond Dove” written by Jean Bigelow in the 1860s.
Did you know that Meerschaum pipes change colour with age and with use? Nor did I until I read that Jerry broke his by accident when he dropped it in astonishment at something Megan said. Who said that Christie isn’t educational?
Regular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book are both quite small, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Megan’s allowance is £40 a year – and she says you can’t do much on that. At today’s rate, that’s the equivalent of about £1300, so she’s absolutely right. The other sum is when she asks Jerry for a penny so she can buy some chocolate. How much is one old penny in today’s money? It’s about 30p. There’s inflation for you. That wouldn’t buy you anything!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Moving Finger:
Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in March 1971, price 5/-. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a pestle (but no mortar), with a cranberry coloured glass of… water? on top of an old handwritten piece of vellum. The pestle was probably used to commit the second murder, and the glass could contain dissolved cyanide… but the old scroll? Not a clue.
How many pages until the first death: 43. Sometimes you want a death to occur quite quickly, so as to keep the interest going. However, this is such a well-written book that you don’t think about it!
Funny lines out of context:
“I should imagine the people in these country places tend to be inbred – and so you would get a fair amount of queers.”
There are plenty of well fleshed-out characters to enjoy. Jerry and Joanna are a good starting point, townies camping out in the countryside and liable to make loads of mistakes. Prissy Mr Pye, blustering Miss Griffith, domineering Mrs Dane Calthrop, nudge-nudge wink-wink Marcus Kent all leave an enjoyable impression. And Partridge, the unforgiving maid to Miss Barton whom Jerry and Joanna inherit, is a great creation. As Jerry/Christie writes: “it was Partridge who brought the news of the tragedy. Partridge enjoys calamity. Her nose always twitches ecstatically when she has to break bad news of any kind.”
Christie the Poison expert:
The first person to die in the book consumes a solution of cyanide kept in the potting shed, used to destroy wasps’ nests. Today that all seems highly dangerous to keep such things in the household. There is some discussion in the book as to whether one would be more likely to take Prussic Acid – the old name for Hydrogen Cyanide – or some kind of soporific that would kill you more gently. Dr. Griffith describes Prussic Acid as “more dramatic and is pretty certain to do the trick.”
Class/social issues of the time:
A few issues raise their head, as they nearly always do. Much as I like the character of Jerry, from time to time he’s an unutterable snob, and he makes some assumptions that we will agree with him – and I don’t think we do! Trying to establish the writer of the poison-pen letters, Graves is convinced it’s a local woman. “I shouldn’t have thought one of these bucolic women down here would have had the brains” says Jerry. Bucolic is a harsh word to describe a person; and he falls into the trap of assuming country people and stupid people. Wrong, snob! In a later conversation he talks of “hitting miserable little maidservants on the head”; the word miserable shows a deep-seated dislike of working-class people; and later, again, he equates being homeless with being a criminal. Describing an inquest, where it was virtually ruled out that a stranger had committed the murder in question, Jerry notes: “no tramps nor unknown men had been noticed or reported in the district.” The fact that he mentions tramps specifically shows, I think, that he has very deep class issues.
The phrase “black slaves” is mentioned twice; once by Mr Pye as he recollects how the Barton girls had to fetch and carry for their monster of a mother, and once by Joanna as she disapproves of the tradition that a maidservant can’t arrange for friends to visit her at the house where she lives and works. Of course, it stands out today as a very uncomfortable phrase to use; however, at the time of writing it was, dare I say it, relatively enlightened. In another conversation, between Jerry and Aimée, about idleness, he shows her a Chinese picture of an old man sitting beneath a tree. “Aimée Griffith was unimpressed by my lovely picture. She said: “Oh well, we all know what the Chinese are like!”” Sometimes it seems as though Christie, through her characters, never misses a chance to take a dig at a foreign culture.
Being out-of-towners, you might expect Jerry and Joanna to be more forward-looking in their attitude to women’s rights and feminism. Jerry takes the rise out of the practice of keeping unpleasant issues away from the female of the species: “in novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women. It is implied that women must at all cost be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems. I am sorry to say that it never occurred to me not to show the letter to Joanna. I handed it to her at once. She vindicated my belief in her toughness by displaying no emotion but that of amusement.”
However, when he comes up against Aimée Griffith in full flow, it’s a different story. Christie never seemed certain of her own attitudes to feminism, and here you can see it in action. Christie has had plenty of likeable heroines (like Tuppence, Bundle, and of course Miss Marple herself) and she liked to see them get into scrapes through their own daring, but she also liked to see them get rescued by men. Here she has created Aimée Griffiths, who is somewhat cantankerous and who dislikes the book’s joint heroines of Joanna and Megan. She rounds on Jerry and what she takes to be his 19th century views with no holds barred. “”Your attitude, Mr Burton, is typical of that of most men. You dislike the idea of women working – of their competing –“ I was taken aback. I had come up against the Feminist. Aimée was well away, her cheeks flushed. “It is incredible to you that women should want a career. It was incredible to my parents. I was anxious to study for a doctor. They would not hear of paying the fees. But they paid them readily for Own. Yet I should have made a better doctor than my brother.”” It will be interesting to see if there is a noticeable change to Christie’s tone regarding feminism as time progresses – and the Second World War is over.
Classic denouement: Good, but not classic. The guilty party is caught in the act of a probable third murder by the police and, rather like Iago in Othello, we never hear from them again. We then pay a return visit to Miss Marple for her to plug the gaps. It’s quite exciting and rewarding, but not heart-pounding like some.
Happy ending? Yes. Marriage bells are heard for one couple, are in the offing for another couple, and a restoration back into acceptance is on the cards for a fifth person. We don’t discover the fate of the murderer, which is perhaps a trifle frustrating.
Did the story ring true? Yes. Unusually for Christie, this story doesn’t rely on some very far-fetched coincidences. The characters are largely credible, as is the motive for the crime. And you can easily appreciate how it would feel to be part of that village community, concerned that one of your number was a poison-pen writer or even a murderer.
Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a couple of tiny rankles it’s such a good read that I’m giving it a 10/10.
Thanks for reading my blog of The Moving Finger 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 Towards Zero, the final appearance of Superintendent Battle, in a story where the murder comes towards the end. I remember being frustrated by the lack of crime when I have read it in the past – it will be interesting to see if I still feel the same! 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!