I grew up in a wondrous world where every year, as the yuletide approached, an advertisement would appear in the newspaper announcing that Agatha Christie had done it again! Mind you, this began for me in the late 60’s, so we’re not talking about the titles that regularly make it on anyone’s Top Ten list. Still, my Aunt Rosalie made it a point of giving me the latest Christie for Christmas every year. It was the gift to which I looked forward the most.
I can’t give you a new Christie this year, alas, but I can offer some thoughts on one of her best.The Moving Finger (1943) is one of the few titles from my beloved 40’s that I have not covered here; it’s also a book that regularly figures in my own top ten list. And while there’s not a drop of snow to be found within its pages, let alone a cup of Christmas cheer, it’s the perfect Christie to curl up with on a dreary, rainy winter afternoon.
This is the third of twelve novels to include Miss Marple, but in that respect it’s an odd duck. True, there are aspects of Finger that are pure Marple: the village setting (perhaps Christie’s best village, too), the emphasis on character and social interaction over clueing and interrogation, the solution reached more by an intuitive understanding of how village life works than through ratiocinative logic. The main “problem” is that Miss Marple herself is reduced to a cameo player, not appearing until the final third of the book. Yet while her appearance is always welcome, the book doesn’t necessarily suffer by her absence. Would it be a lesser book had she not shown up – or would it be better without her – is a question for others to discuss. It is what it is . . . and it’s marvelous.
It almost wasn’t so, at least here in the United States. Sensing that American readers didn’t want to plod through a lot of charming British social comedy on their way to a mystery, the U.S. publishers essentially butchered the novel, excising 9000 words of pure gold. How lucky I am that, before I read The Moving Finger, a fellow Christie fan told me about a bookstore downtown that carried every one of her books, some of them in British editions. That is how I came to own and read the unexpurgated Fontana paperback edition. To those of you who like to troll the used bookstores for your latest Christie, you stand warned: check your copy, and make sure you have bought the whole thing!
Don’t read this edition!!
Like Miss Marple’s 1930 debut, The Murder at the Vicarage, this tale is narrated by a man who stands a little outside the regular community but is drawn in by aberrant social activity. While Leonard Clement is a known presence as the vicar of St. Mary Mead in the first novel, Jerry Burton is a complete outsider. An RAF pilot felled by a plane crash, he has just completed the grueling first stage of his recovery, and while his doctor assures him that he will make a full recovery, Jerry is advised to leave the bustle of London behind for a while. The prescription is specific:
“You’ve got to take life slowly and easily, the tempo is marked legato. That’s why I say, go down to the country, take a house, get interested in local politics, in local scandal, in Village gossip. Take an inquisitive and violent interest in your neighbors.”
Looking at it from a GAD angle, Jerry has been endowed all the markings of an amateur sleuth. He drafts Joanna, his beautiful, sophisticated sister to come down with him as companion, helpmate and, if necessary, occasional Watson.
Lymstock is a charming town, once an ecclesiastical center turned political hub that has since dwindled to a sleepy market town. It is densely populated with a variety of village types from every class, and one of the great charms of Finger is Christie’s ability to imbue a vitality into nearly two dozen characters. In fact, the first third of the novel resembles Jane Austen with its series of house visits, meetings in the high street, and bridge parties. Most, if not all, of the people we meet have lived in Lymstock all their lives.
The women here are particularly well delineated. There’s Miss Emily Barton, the elderly spinster who has leased her house to Jerry and Joanna whilst she tries to make sense of recent fluctuations to her finances due to taxes. The last survivor of a family of five daughters dominated by their mother all their lives, Emily has yet to really live and is terrified of men like Jerry, viewing them
“as interminably consuming whiskies and sodas and smoking cigars, and in the intervals dropping out to do a few seductions of village maidens, or to conduct a liaison with a married woman.”
There’s Mona Symmington, the local solicitor’s wife, whose “anemic, slighted, faded prettiness concealed a selfish and grasping nature.” Megan Hunter, Mrs. Symmington’s neglected daughter from her first marriage, is physically awkward (“more like a horse than a human being . . . In fact, she would have been a very nice horse with a little grooming.”) and refreshingly direct. Elsie Holland, the governess for the Symmington’s younger children, has the body of a goddess and the manner of a district nurse. Women clearly rule the roost in Lymstock. Aimee Griffith, the village doctor’s sister, is handsome, self-assured, and terrifying; Mrs. Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife, equally so. And finally, there’s Mr. Pye, collector of antiques and gossip, yet another of Christie’s unfortunately stereotypical effeminate men.
Jerry and his sister throw themselves into this village routine with great fervor. Jerry transfers some of his business affairs to Mr. Symmington’s law office, hires Dr. Owen Griffith to make regular house calls, and makes the rounds of the local denizens in an effort to be a good neighbor. What makes it all so exciting, even dangerous, is that Lymstock is undergoing its first moral crisis in memory: somebody is sending everybody in town revolting anonymous letters of the most prurient kind.
And that is how The Moving Finger proceeds for a while, as a novel of manners with a problem. The Burtons get a letter themselves, witness others receiving them, and take part in the buzz over who could be sending them. The villagers’ suspicions devolve to Mrs. Cleat, the local witch, while the local constabulary has, through the application of logical evidence, painstakingly created a portrait of the criminal: female, local, educated, middle-aged, probably unmarried.
It is Mrs. Dane Calthrop who looks past the damage wrought upon the community to put a human face on the letter writer:
“Think how desperately, violently unhappy any one must be to sit down and write these things. How lonely, how cut off from human kind. Poisoned through and through, with a dark stream of poison that finds its outlet in this way. That’s why I feel so self–reproachful. Somebody in this town has been wracked with that terrible unhappiness, and I’ve had no idea of it.”
Miss Barton, in a rare moment of outright criticism, accuses Mrs. Dane Calthrop of “such a curious habit of feeling sorry for the most unworthy people.” Yet I love the vicar’s wife, who supplies some of the naughtiest humor to the novel. When Jerry asks her if she or her husband have received any anonymous letters, she replies:
“’Oh yes – two – no, three. I forget exactly what they said. Something very silly about Caleb and the schoolmistress, I think. Quite absurd, because Caleb has absolutely no taste for fornication. He never has had. So lucky, being a clergyman.’
“’Quite,’ I said. ‘Oh, quite.’
“’Caleb would have been a saint,’ said Mrs. Dane Calthrop,’ if he hadn’t been just a little too intellectual.’”
And while none of the letters seem to contain even a modicum of truth – the one to Jerry and Joanna intimates that they are not brother and sister – Mrs. Dane Calthrop warns him that even if these are lies prompted by “blind hatred . . . even a blind man might stab to the heart by pure chance . . . And what would happen then, Mr. Burton?”
What happens then is sudden death, a suicide brought about by a letter whose contents cut too close. But then comes the second death, and this one is a particularly brutal murder . . . This leads Jerry into the second third of the novel, where he assumes the mantle of amateur sleuth, assisting the police with their inquiries and playing protector to a damsel in distress. Evidently, the doctor’s prescription was just the thing, as Jerry gets stronger and stronger with each passing day. We can only wonder if, given his chance, Jerry might not have solved the whole thing himself. But at the top of Chapter Ten, Jerry and Joanna are invited to tea at the Vicarage:
“The Dane Calthrops had a guest staying with them, an amiable elderly lady who was knitting something with white fleecy wool. We had very good hot scones for tea, the vicar came in, and beamed placidly on us whilst he pursued his gentle erudite conversation. It was very pleasant.
“I don’t mean that we got away from the topic of the murder because we didn’t. Miss Marple, the guest was naturally thrilled by the subject.”
Right away, Miss Marple begins to set the investigation right in the most charming way. She dismisses Mrs. Cleat as the letter writer and killer since, as the local witch, she would have “ill-wished” the victim dead instead of resorting to a skewer! Her understanding of the psychology of village servant girls is all Miss Marple needs to be cognizant of what a young girl saw that made her so upset and led to her death. And the old lady taps into the psychology of the letter writer with an acuity lacking in the residents of Lymstock. Finally, as if she senses that certain readers are a bit resentful that she is stealing Jerry’s thunder by her very presence, Miss Marple ropes him in to play hero at the end, resulting in the capture of a particularly ruthless killer (they almost always are in a Miss Marple novel) and the promise of love for both of the Burtons.
Christie draws her characters with such love here that, even as she imbues each of them with qualities that could fit the profile of letter writer and/or killer, she makes you wish for their innocence. In that sense, these folks come to life in ways that the residents of St. Mary Mead did not inMurder at the Vicarage. We are not overburdened with subplots, although Christie makes great use of the interconnectedness between the villagers to strew some effective red herrings in our path. We are also not ravished with clues, I’m afraid, and maybe this is precisely why Miss Marple is brought in toward the end. A rational man like Jerry wants a footprint he can examine or a pipe cleaner he can hold. All Miss Marple needs are her village parallels to tell her how people think and act, and the case is solved.
The ending here may not shock like Ackroyd or some of the classics of the 1930’s, but it feels inevitable and right. The best puzzles of the 1940’s – Five Little Pigs, Towards Zero, The Hollow, Crooked House– are simple when compared to Three Act Tragedy or Death on the Nile, but they are no less effective or enjoyable for that. And while Christie, from 1939 onwards, allowed a bit more darkness to creep into her fictional worlds, so that characters are more permanently scarred by crime, here the changes have a fairy tale-like quality, with even some of the most troubled villagers reaching their happy ending.
Well, that’s it for me. I have to leave my cozy bed, open the present my Secret Santa sent me – it’s used books, you fool! – and prepare for my day. My sister-in-law bakes the most delicious gluten-free scones in the world, and my brother is preparing a feast of prime rib, Yorkshire pudding, and trifle for dessert that would be welcome in any British home. And all on the shores of California!
Happy Winter Solstice to you all!