“Of my detective books, I think the two that satisfy me best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence. Rather to my surprise on rereading them the other day, I find that another one I am really pleased with is The Moving Finger. It is a great test to reread what one has written some 17 or 18 years before. One’s view changes. Some do not stand the test of time, others do.”
Agatha Christie, An Autobiography
“The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.” Omar Khayyam
American publishers could be ruthless, and as a result, we U.S. fans of Agatha Christie suffered, no more so than when it comes to The Moving Finger. It was actually published in the U.S. in 1942, nearly a year before it hit the shelves in the U.K.. The first incarnation was a truncated serialization from March through May in Colliers Magazine, but the shameful fact is that, even in novel form, American readers did not have access Christie’s original text.
I can’t tell you when I first read The Moving Finger, but I was fortunate enough that by this time I had become aware that Stacey’s Bookstore in downtown San Francisco sold British copies of Christie’s books. The Tom Adams covers captivated me, and Finger was one of the titles I snatched up. Therefore, all my life, I have been familiar only with the complete, unexpurgated and correct version of this novel. While the U.S. stripped the manuscript of backstory and character development, I assure you that my evaluation takes in every wonderful moment Christie intended for us to spend in the village of Lymstock.
According to John Curran, the first ideas for this novel were found in a Notebook item dated 1940. In this set of circumstances we find the name “Miss Marple.” Therefore, we can deduce that Christie intended from the start to write a mystery for that good lady. Like The Murder at the Vicarage and the first (best) part of The Body in the Library, Finger is set in a village that, if not St. Mary Mead, is just as rich and well-populated as Miss Marple’s home. The basic premise of a rash of filthy anonymous letters, with its connotations of repressed spinsterhood, is also right up Miss Marple’s alley.
We will ultimately have to address the elephant in the room – or, given the paucity of Miss Marple’s presence on the pages of this novel – the elephant in the back yard dipping its toe through the parlor door. The fact that her arrival is not only incredibly late but results in a complete reassessment of our narrator’s place in the proceedings must be taken into account. The question of whether or not this issue hurts The Moving Finger continues to this day to divide Christie fans. This is still a novel that I love and highly recommend. But even as I begin this post, in ranking it as a Miss Marple novel, I find myself torn.
* * * * *
In some respects, the opening of The Moving Finger parallels that of The Murder at the Vicarage. Our narrator is the male half of a charming pair – here a brother and sister – and he introduces us to the environs and characters of a charming village before propelling us into the mystery proper. Both narratives begin sort of in medias res: Reverend Clement is carving the lunch meat while remarking in an offhand manner about murdering Colonel Protheroe, while Jerry is receiving his doctor’s prognosis after an airplane crash that nearly killed him.
There are differences between Leonard and Jerry, the chief of which is that Mr. Burton is an outsider to the village setting (Lymstock, not St. Mary Mead). Jerry is also younger than the reverend, and single. Still, when you think of it, their circumstances are remarkably similar. They share an abiding interest in the people around them. For Clement, it is his job to ferret out the problems of his parishioners; for Jerry, it is his doctor’s prescription ”(to) get interested in local politics, in local scandal, in village gossip, (to) take an inquisitive and violent interest in (the) neighbors” in order to facilitate his own recovery. The main female in each man’s life is a bit of a madcap who is extraordinarily loyal to her man. And the female they will have to watch out for, who will ultimately sort out the mysteries both in their village and in their personal lives, is, of course, Miss Marple!
As an author, Christie was never a flamboyant stylist, but anyone who dismisses her writing as utilitarian or simplistic bordering on puerile need only read this opening to see how she could manage to be both efficient, charming, and funny. In ten pages, she lays out the central conceit of two outsiders and city people settling down into the alien environs of a village. She paints a rich portrait of the Burtons, fills us in on their backgrounds, and, with the receipt of an anonymous letter accusing them of faking their status as siblings, plunges them into the mystery proper. She introduces us to three of the main villagers – Miss Emily Barton, her maid Partridge, and Dr. Owen Griffiths – and mentions several more. And she does it all with such a light, humorous touch that the pages just fly:
“(Joanna) dangled the letter thoughtfully by one corner and asked what we were to do with it.
“The correct procedure, I believe, “I said, “is to drop it into the fire with a sharp exclamation of disgust.” I suited the action to the word and Joanna applauded.
“You did that beautifully, “she added. “You ought to have been on the stage. It’s lucky we still have fires, isn’t it?”
“The waste paper basket would have been much less dramatic, “I agreed. “I could, of course, have set light to it with a match and slowly watched it burn – or watched it slowly burn.”
“Things never burn when you want them to,“ said Joanna. “They go out. You’d probably have had to strike match after match.”
Despite the malign letter, however, the opening of The Moving Finger reads more like a mainstream novel, a 1940’s Cranford or Bridgerton (which has an anonymous letter-writer too!), than a whodunnit. The first death, occurring in Chapter Five, will be labeled a suicide for most of the novel, and the first unabashed murder – albeit a good, bloody one – happens in Chapter Eight. Why, the novel’s detective doesn’t enter until Chapter Ten, with less than forty pages of the novel to go!!!
Clearly, Christie is up to something a bit different here, and her choices have caused a split amongst her fandom as to whether it all works or not, both as mystery and as entertainment. It’s telling that the American version of the novel cut nearly nine thousand words out of Christie’s text, including the entire beginning section before the receipt of the first letter! I re-read that opening with great pleasure, but I can’t rate the hook as highly as, say, The Body in the Library. Part of this is not Christie’s fault: as we shall see, she is setting up a much more complex bluff here than in Vicarage, and so it’s easier to tie the opening of the earlier novel directly into the murder. Still, I find the Clements to be more charming than the Burtons, and the social comedy more vivacious. Plus, a major plus that the opening of Vicarage has going for it is . . . Miss Marple herself! She is, if not front and center in the first few chapters, then right next door, and she is delightful.
For these reasons, I must give the hook in The Moving Finger a slightly lower score.
The Closed Circle: Who, What, When, Where, Why?
If ever there was a reason to separate “The Marple Factor” from the other aspects of a novel, this book is the justification. In terms of the closed circle of suspects, I find this cast superior to either Miss Marple novel we have already read. I am also a big fan of Lymstock, which feels, despite its publication date, like the last pre-War village we will get out of Christie. Finally, in terms of mystery plot, Christie is firing on all cylinders here in her ability to present us with a false premise and lead us down the garden path for a long time. Sure, this is her plan in Vicarage (the real killers are exonerated early on) and Library (the victim is falsely identified), but those two examples are problematic for reasons I have discussed in those posts. Here, to my mind, everything works beautifully, and what seems like a charming village mystery becomes an homage to one of the most famous true crimes of the early 20th century.
“‘No, but seriously, Jerry, why do people write anonymous letters?’
“‘As I say, they’ve got a screw loose. It satisfies some urge, I suppose. If you’ve been snubbed, or ignored, or frustrated, and your life‘s pretty drab and empty, I suppose you get a sense of power from stabbing in the dark at people who are happy and enjoying themselves.’”
Christie’s affinity for well-drawn feminine characters and strong male narrators is well-known and evidentially apparent in The Moving Finger, so let’s start with Jerry Burton. We’re given so little background information about him that we must glean our opinions mostly from his observations of other people. In the fashion of modern times, the most recent TV adaptation (on Agatha Christie’s Marple) transformed Jerry from a basically decent and observant young man to a drunken lout in order that his experiences in Lymstock would transform him. (It also made it absolutely necessary for Miss Marple to show up much earlier in the proceedings.)
Mostly, what we learn is Jerry’s reason for being in Lymstock: he seems to fly for a living (or a pastime? Even this isn’t made clear!), and a recent crash has turned him into an invalid. Lymstock is the aforementioned prescription for his recovery, but we get only the vaguest sense that city boy Jerry looks down upon the country folk. At once point, he tells Joanna, “I should imagine the people in these country places tend to be inbred – and so you would get a fair amount of queers.” To his credit, though, he treats the natives with thorough decency and not at all in a superior manner. The same can be said for Joanna, established early on as something of a party girl with a slew of beaux, who cheerfully drops everything to spend half a year in seclusion with her brother.
Despite his invalidism, Jerry is a healthy young man with male appetites, whose interest in women is slowly recovering along with his health. He is also a fairly smart guy, in that his mad crush on Elsie Holland, the nursery governess to the Symmingtons, is immediately destroyed once the gorgeous young goddess opens her mouth:
“How strange that a girl could trouble your inmost soul, so long as she kept her mouth shut, and that the moment she spoke, the glamour could vanish as though it had never been. I had known the reverse happen, though. I had seen a little sad monkey-faced woman, whom no one would turn to look at twice. Then she had opened her mouth, and suddenly enchantment had lived and bloomed, and Cleopatra had cast her spell anew.”
And although he is drawn to a beautiful girl first and foremost, he is not beyond admiring the qualities of women who display other assets more prominently. Aimee Griffith, the doctor’s sister and a strong suspect for letter writer, is a loud, vital, alarming woman of excessive good cheer.
“I always found Miss Griffith rather overwhelming, though I admired her energy and vitality, and it was pleasant to see the beaming contentment with her lot in life, which she always displayed, and which was a pleasant contrast to the subdued, complaining murmurs so many women.”
Jerry comes off at his worst when dealing with Megan Hunter, perhaps the most problematic character in the novel. She really is one of Christie’s most interesting ingenues: as the only child of Mrs. Symmington and her first, awful, husband, she cuts something of a Cinderella figure. She is intelligent but gawky and socially stunted despite her age (20); she possesses the intense emotional life of a teenager but has a mature and keen instinct for the true nature of those around her. Joanna refers to her more than once as a “changeling,” and it’s certainly realistic, given her history, that Megan would be slow to blossom.
Ultimately, Jerry will fall in love with her – but not before he plays Pygmalion and whisks her off to London for a makeover. Nowadays, Pygmalion stories have fallen on hard times, and deservedly so. The latest Broadway incarnation of My Fair Lady, for example, tried with a single stage action to give Eliza Doolittle some agency. I’m willing to acknowledge the times and give credence to this fairy tale transformation.
What I’m less forgiving of is Jerry’s habit of describing Megan in animalistic terms.
“She looked, I decided this morning, much more like a horse than a human being. In fact, she would have been a very nice horse with a little grooming.”
When he finds her weeping in the family nursery after her mother dies, Jerry compares her to “some terrified animal, hiding,” and actually adds “I’m really surprised I didn’t hold out a carrot or a piece of sugar.” He also describes her as “a stricken gazelle” and as having “the disposition of a dog” and likens Symmington’s indifference to his stepdaughter to the treatment of a neglected dog. It isn’t pretty.
Taken by herself, Megan cuts a fascinating, if rather pathetic, figure and proves to be brave and resourceful in the end. In a modern novel, it would be Megan’s self-assertion over her family that “transforms” her, with no need for lipstick or a new hairstyle and wardrobe. As it is, her ending is a little cringy; still, up till then Megan makes for a fascinatingly different sort of Christie heroine.
There are several other prime candidates who fit Jerry’s description of letter writer. Both Miss Emily Barton, along with her maid Partridge, must come under consideration, particularly when the source material for the letters is found in her library. The story of Miss Barton, her “monster” of a mother and her four spinster sisters could provide fodder for a wholly different mystery. The 1930’s introduced some dominant Christie parents whose murder exposed how their cruelty had affected their offspring. Miss Barton is a sweet old thing who suggests to Jerry that the letters are a message from God, “to awaken us to a sense of our shortcomings.”
And then there’s Mr. Pye, a lover of antiquities who, like Mr. Ellsworthy in Murder Is Easy, is one of Christie’s queer characters. I have to say that it is to Jerry’s credit that he sees this in Mr. Pye but does not disdain him for it, unlike, say, Giles Ralston does to Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap. Still, Christie harps on Mr. Pye’s feminine nature, and to be fair, this gives us another ripe candidate for the source of the anonymous letters. He himself has no compunction for expressing his own disdain for the citizens of Lymstock. Still, he has excellent qualities: he’s brilliant at bridge, and he knows the people around him, as when he expresses opinions about the “atmosphere” at Miss Barton’s house, giving the astute reader reason to suspect that good lady of harboring dark feelings.
The other men are more, well, manly, including Dr. Owen Griffith, one of the “good guy” doctors in a profession you have to be wary of in Christie. He’s not bluff and hearty at all, merely a good fellow who will ultimately suit Joanna to a T. As for Mr. Symmington, the lawyer. I note Jerry’s description of him here:
“Symmington was the acme of calm respectability, the sort of man who would never give his wife a moments’s anxiety. A long neck with a pronounced Adam’s apple, a slightly cadaverous face, and a long, thin nose. A kindly man, no doubt, a good husband and father, but not one to set the pulses madly racing.”
Keep this description in mind for later . . .
Finally, like the author herself, I’ve saved the best for last and present . . . the vicar and his wife. The Reverend Caleb Dane Calthrop is the religious equivalent of an ivory tower academic. Jerry calls him “perhaps a being more remote from everyday life than any one I have ever met,” while the vicar’s wife has choicer words: “Caleb would have been a saint if he hadn’t been just a little too intellectual.” When she admits that the vicarage, like everyone else in Lymstock, has been plagued with anonymous letters, we learn even more:
“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.”
Mrs. Maud Dane Calthrop enters the pantheon of Wonderful Christie Ladies, alongside Ariadne Oliver and Dolly Bantry. She is a Presence, striking fear in the hearts of all the villagers with her “most devastating sincerity of speech.” Frankly, with her nose for sniffing out evil, she might have made a fine surprise villain in the end – but I’m glad she’s one of the good guys. She is the portal by which Miss Marple enters the story, and she will reappear in 1961’s The Pale Horse to assist with the appraisal of the very different form of evil that pervades that novel.
Furthermore, Mrs. D-C is one of the most intelligent figures in the book. She considers it her duty to her husband to “know what people are thinking and feeling.” She intuits Aimee Griffith’s unhappiness, and while she accepts that the Burtons are siblings, Jerry has the uncomfortable feeling that she can see whatever unnamed sins he might have committed. It is Mrs. Dane Calthrop who provides the first real clue. In fact, she hands it to Jerry, and the fact that he doesn’t understand its significance until Miss Marple explains it to him in the end signifies that, despite his prominence here, he is a Hastings, not a Poirot.
Mrs. D-C: There are so many things the letters might say, but don’t. That’s what is so curious.
Jerry: I should hardly have thought they erred on the side of restraint.
Mrs. D-C: But they don’t seem to know anything. None of the real things.
Jerry: You mean?
Mrs. D-C: Well, of course. There’s plenty of adultery here – and everything else. Any amount of shameful secrets. Why doesn’t the writer use those?
Plain as the nose on your face, Mr. Burton!
The plot purports to be about a disturbed individual whose hatred bubbles out in an series of poisoned pen letters. The early section, where the letters escalate and the people of Lymstock start to become openly alarmed, is quite well-rendered. The puzzling aspect, as mentioned by Mrs. Dane Calthrop, is that the contents of the letters, unpleasant as they are, are totally untrue, but as that good lady tells Jerry: “. . . even a blind man might stab to the heart by pure chance. And what would happen then?”
What happens is that Mrs. Symmington dies, evidently by her own hand, and the search for the letter writer intensifies as he or, more probably, she is now morally responsible for an unhappy woman’s death. Later, when Agnes, the Symmington maid, is brutally murdered, it is a foregone conclusion that the letter writer conked her over the head in an act of self protection since Agnes was not supposed to be at home when the letter purportedly arrived.
But this is Agatha Christie, and the whole affair is not what it seems. She returns to the tricks she deployed in The ABC Murders, where the crime is a personal one disguised as the public acts of a madman. And for this personal crime, Christie seems to have turned to an historical template that fascinated her: the murder by Dr. Crippen of his wife. More about that below.
When and where?
To be accurate, Lymstock is a market town rather than a village, a distinction that even Jerry notes, saying that the residents would be annoyed by the appellation of “village”. Suffice it to say that, whatever it is, Christie brings it to remarkable life. She even supplies a history – more, in fact, than she gives Jerry Burton! – and you feel that you know the streets and the people who walk along them. Despite the date of publication, this feels very much a pre-war town, with nary a mention of soldier boys, passing bombs, or rationing petrol. I know it’s a cliché to describe the setting as a character in and of itself – and I’m not sure that Lymstock qualifies in that way – but it does spring up beautifully from the pages and make The Moving Finger all the richer for it.
The Solution and How She Gets There (10 points)
“Mr. Symmington, a rather dry repressed, unemotional man, tied to a querulous and neurotic wife, and then suddenly this radiant creature comes along. I’m afraid, you know, that gentlemen, when they fall in love at a certain age, get the disease very badly. It’s quite a madness. And Mr. Symmington, as far as I can make out, was never actually a good man – he wasn’t very kind or very affectionate or very sympathetic – his qualities were all negative – so he hadn’t really the strength to fight his madness. And in a place like this, only his wife’s death would solve his problem. He wanted to marry the girl, you see. She’s very respectable and so is he.”
Thirty years previously, in the real world, Dr. Harvey Hawley Crippen was married to a nagging wife (who had also cheated on him). He fell in love with his secretary, Ethel le Neve, and since divorce was not an option, he murdered his wife, buried her in the cellar, and told the neighbors she had gone on a trip. Perhaps Richard Symmington was taking a page out of Crippen’s book but, seeing how the doctor’s plan went all wrong, came up with the idea for the anonymous letters. Certainly, Symmington’s utter respectability and patience were assets to his plan, for if I’m not mistaken, one thing that tripped up Crippen was he allowed Miss le Neve to move in while his wife was “away,” and the girl started parading around the house in Mrs. Crippen’s clothes.
The biggest risk to Symmington’s plan, frankly, was that after Mona’s death, Elsie Holland’s sympathies for her employer would not turn to thoughts of love; however, the lady did ultimately return his feelings (or maybe she just loved caring for his boys) and all would have turned out fine if a certain busybody from St. Mary Mead hadn’t been invited to stay with the Dane Calthrops and look into the matter.
The string of “clues” that lead lead Miss Marple to the truth are, in true Marple fashion, wholly behavioral. One must accept the idea that anonymous letters are usually written by women and usually deal with the various local scandals abounding in a community. As a result, for most of the novel it is drummed into our head that the killer is a middle-aged female of utmost respectability but with a nasty bee in her bonnet. The fact that both Miss Marple and her hostess, Mrs. Dane Calthrop comment on the false nature of the letters is a fair play behavioral clue, although jumping to the conclusion that the killer must be a man feels like overreach.
A second great clue is Mona Symmington’s suicide note, the scrap of paper upon which was written, “I can’t go on . . . “ It is a psychologically sound piece of deduction that a person would not write such an important message on a torn scrap; the idea that the message was part of a longer sentence, like “I can’t go on Tuesday” is a bit more whimsical – how lucky that the murderer would find something like this to make use of – but it doesn’t lessen the validity of Miss Marple’s main deduction.
I am indebted to the analysis of this novel by the late John Goddard in Volume Two of Agatha Christie’s Golden Age for a few other important ideas. He mentions a third clue that seems quite strong, and it involves the typewriter used to address the envelopes containing the letters. This had been in Mr. Symmington’s office until he donated it to the Women’s Institute where, by coincidence, Aimee Griffith used it to write her single letter to Elsie Holland. The fact that the letter addressed to Joanna Burton had originally been labeled for Miss Barton leads to the idea that the killer had typed up all the addresses before the typewriter had moved from the law office to the institute. This is a nice way to point to Mr. Symmington – except Miss Marple never utilizes this clue!!!
John Goddard also points to significant weaknesses in the rationale for Symmington’s guilt. Much is made that the letter writer is both sane and respectable, two qualities that we are reassured more than once apply to Symmington. And yet Miss Marple describes the man’s motive – his love for Elsie Holland – as a madness that “he hadn’t really the strength to fight.” It’s a troubling contrast.
Even more shaky is how Miss Marple says her path to the truth came about from a dream that Jerry had about the phrase “no smoke without fire;” in fact, she assures Jerry that, armed with this knowledge, he had all the clues he needed to figure out the truth. What Miss Marple is talking about here is how “no smoke without fire” led her to the idea of a “smoke screen” which reaffirmed her belief that the letters were a fake. That’s all well and good enough, but from there she leaps to the idea that the killer must then be a man, and what better man to plump for than the most obvious suspect, the husband – and what better motive could the husband have than that beautiful nursemaid living under his roof?
Except . . . there is absolutely no evidence or clue presented in the book that Symmington had any feelings for Elsie. It is simply a theory of Miss Marple’s, and it would hold no weight in court. Thus, we get the third instance of what will be a lasting habit in the Marple novels: a trap must be set for the killer in which he will attempt another murder. And, once again – as if he was contractually obligated as part of the Marple Universe to do so – the killer, who has been so patient and respectable and sane thus far, tries to stuff Megan’s head in a gas oven.
In sum, I like the clues about the letters and the suicide note, but I find many of Goddard’s qualms about Miss Marple’s path to the truth to be pretty convincing. I enjoy the ending here; I just don’t buy it as top-drawer Christie.
The Marple Factor
Miss Marple appears in exactly fifteen pages of my 160-page Fontana paperback edition, less than 9% of what perports to be “a Miss Marple mystery”. One can’t help but feel a bit cheated, especially if you are a big fan of the lady. Now, this is Agatha Christie’s thirty-third mystery novel, and she is operating at the top of her powers. But I would venture to guess that a majority of her fans share the opinion that, in terms of providing us with only the third published Miss Marple novel, the author has miscalculated.
The problem, however, is complicate. The case boils down to something so simple – fake letters mask husband’s plot to kill his wife and marry the pretty employee – that Miss Marple would have seen through it immediately. Thus, she really can’t come into the plot any earlier without turning the whole thing into a short story or by having our detective wander through the narrative from start to finish muttering, “I know whodunnit – but where oh where is the proof?!?” (There is certainly precedent for this!)
The other issue is – given Jerry Burton’s basic intelligence and Megan Hunter’s acumen and placement in the Symmington home, these two should have been able to piece the whole thing together. They could have received help from Joanna and Owen Griffiths and then all gone off on a double honeymoon. I can’t help feeling that Jerry Burton deserves more. He does the lion’s share of discovery throughout the novel, and his emotional growth is significant. His accident has left him feeling like less of a man. He can’t fly, the thing he loves most of all, and he doesn’t flirt, as Joanna complains to him. He is roused by Megan’s vulnerability and by the problem of the letters. He sees Megan alternately as a frightened animal or a child, but at the same time he defends her as a bright young woman to Aimee Griffith and rails against the Symmingtons for ignoring her. He is ripe for the role of hero-detective and for becoming a better man for it.
And yet, when Miss Marple enters, Jerry is knocked sideways. He is reduced to being a witness to a series of events: the capture of Aimee Griffith, the attempted murder of Megan. He exists for his muscle and his romance, but the brain he was using to put together the case plaguing Lymstock is subsumed by an interloper from St. Mary Mead. In a way then, Miss Marple exerts a negative force by coming in as a deus ex machina and robbing Jerry of fully earning an emotional recovery to match his physical one.
A counter argument could be that, in the Golden Age, the detective existed as an outsider. Certainly, Jerry begins the novel as an interloper to Lymstock, but he gains emotional traction very quickly, and his heart’s investment in the lives of the people he meets might kinda-sorta disqualify him as a Golden Age sleuth. And, at least, Miss Marple thanks him for his help at the end, saying his dream – as unsatisfying a “clue” as ever was – put her on the right track.
I love Miss Marple, and I’m always happy to spend time in her presence. We all must acknowledge that she is a true amateur with no official access to witnesses or evidence. In most of her novels, this has been solved by having her establish a relationship with the inspector d’histoire and/or by conducting a different sort of inquiry on her own, the kind that involves lots of tea and knitting and gossip. Here, though, even after she enters as late as Chapter Ten, she disappears again and, aside from a couple of brief appearances, lies low until its time for explanations. She isn’t even present when the trap against Symmington is conducted. For the first and only time, Miss Marple saves the day in what amounts to a glorified cameo.
The Wow Factor
Whether or not one sees Miss Marple here as an asset or a distraction (never a liability!), The Moving Finger is charming throughout. The town, the characters, and the situations all amuse and entertain us. Jerry Burton is a charming and funny narrator, and his relationship with Megan, despite a bit of “ick” factor, has us rooting for them both. Clearly, as a mere man, he needed a female perspective to grasp the wrongness of the domestic situation unfolding in front of him. He gains that perspective through the assistance of a group of delightful women: Megan, Joanna, Mrs. Dane Calthrop and, albeit briefly, Miss Marple.
Christie does a fine job of hiding the true nature of the crime in a camouflage of correspondence. John Goddard argues that a story about anonymous letters misses the “wow” factor . . . but I happen to like stories about anonymous letters. The combination of well-organized narrative and social comedy provides a mild wow. The love affair is a charming “city mouse, country mouse” tale of mismatched lovers learning to appreciate each other, at least until the Pygmalion angle intrudes and gives all the power to Jerry.
The Moving Finger may be more of a personal favorite than A-level Marple. It may charm rather than “wow!” However, this is my ranking, and I’m inclined to be generous.
FINAL SCORE FOR THE MOVING FINGER: 37/50
17 thoughts on “RANKING MARPLE #3: The Moving Finger”
Brad – I agree with your scoring and think you made the point well. Miss Marple is barely in this book because she would would have reached the solution immediately given her intuition and knowledge of human nature. But of course that would leave no story to tell and so where’s the fun in that. The same will happen again in A Murder is Announced (my favorite of the Marples and in my top five of all Christie’s works) as perhaps more Marple would mean pointing out the perpetrator far too soon.
Further to that argument, Murder is Easy has an insipid Luke Fitzwilliam as its detective; whereas if Christie had placed Miss Marple into the story, she would have spotted the culprit straight away just as Miss Pinkerton did.
It is interesting to contrast these earlier Marples and her limited presence with the later ones (e.g., The Mirror Crack’d and definitely Nemesis) as Miss Marple is in far more of the story.
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I’m halfway through re-reading Sleeping Murder in preparation for my next ranking. One of the problems is that the murderer here has much in common with the killer in Murder Is Easy, and since Miss Marple is present a lot she should spot this obvious killer right away. I think it’s less obvious to her in A Murder Is Announced for much of the novel, due to the confusion regarding the names.
I enjoy this one a great deal. The two romances were a bit weak, but the village and the brother and sister duo are entertaining. The mystery is not particularly well clued, but that’s often the case with Miss Marple books. I think this could have worked fine without Miss Marple’s presence, and with Jerry solving the mystery instead, perhaps together with Mrs. DC. I didn’t find Symmington’s infatuation for Elsie difficult to believe. He was hiding it, and repressing his emotions seemed to be his nature. I liked the fact that he had given himself away by being unable to send her a “foul letter”.
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Spoilers in here:
I can see the book’s flaws, but I love it. It’s my second favourite Marple after Murder is Announced, and I would argue, that it’s the Marple, in which the culprit is hidden best. It’s really a nice and well drawn cast of characters with some very believable Red Herrings, both those that are suspected my Jerry (Miss Barton, Aimee Griffith, Mr Pye) and those that we are meant to suspect without having it really spelled out in the text (Elsie and Megan).
As for clues: One clue, that I find very believable, is that Elsie Holland didn’t get a letter (before Miss Griffith wrote one, that is). It does not lead us directly to Symmington, but it is an indicator, that the killer is someone, who cares for Elsie.
Great analysis Brad – with I remembered it better. But the lack of the detective is usually a bummer, not least because it suggests there just isn’t much detecting to be had.
I have often felt that many of Christie’s books included Miss Marple or M. Poirot awkwardly and unnecessarily. One such story is Cat Among The Pigeons, which could and should have been resolved by Julia Upjon and “Adam Goodman.” Another is The Moving Finger, which could easily have been solved by Megan and Jerry (with a little help from Mrs. DC). Sometimes, Christie went with her instincts and produced a number of great stories that involved neither Marple nor Poirot (The Pale Horse, Secret of Chimneys, etc.)
A very good review of TMF Brad. I found myself nodding in agreement at every part. 😀
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I re-read The Hollow last year and Poirot seemed very awkwardly placed in that.
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You’re not alone in feeling that way, but I have always loved Poirot in The Hollow. The battle of wits between him and an entire family is a unique feature in the canon.
I actually don’t care for The Hollow, it’s one of my un-favorite Christies, so in fairness not much in it works for me anyway.
On the contrary, I LOVE The Hollow. Henrietta Savernake is an all-time favourite character, among the many other points that I simply love about this whodunit. In fact I remember that Christie herself said that Poirot was unnecessarily introduced in The Hollow (because the market demanded it!) and so when the it was adapted for stage, the first one to be cut out was Poirot!
I re-read it last year because I wanted to find out if my feelings about it had changed, but for some reason nothing in this one clicks for me.
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Actually, The Hollow doesn’t probably fall into the true whodunits. The murderer is a bit of an anti-climax. But I have enjoyed this one for its very engaging characterizations and not so much about the plot per se. Ditto with the book being highlighted – The Moving Finger.
That’s especially true of The Murder at the Vicarage for me. I love the book, but the murder plot itself I find just okay.
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I’m sure the lure of greater sales when a book includes “A Hercule Poirot mystery” on the cover was responsible for some of this. I for one wish Julia Upjohn had been in half a dozen more mysteries!
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Yes. Now THAT girl had a great investigative brain.
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I really enjoy The Moving Finger, but on my latest read mentally framed it as a successful story about the Burtons, that just happened to have Miss Marple in. (As you noted this made for some interesting adaptation choices later on…) The characters and village vibe are so engaging that I can’t help but love it…
The Moving Finger was one of the books that really hooked me when I first read it. I kept returning to it for multiple rereads – I found it that engaging. Joanna not being able to cut any ice with Patridge is explained by Jerry – ”She probably despises you as an inefficient housekeeper – you don’t run your fingers on the mantelpiece to see if there’s any dust…”. Joanna, who’s usually a hit with servants, has never been able to hit it off with Patridge. Plus when Patridge, on being told that Megan was coming in to lunch, ”sniffs” – and that sniff is loaded with a whole wealth of meaning that Christie manages to convince so effectively.
BTW, I was surprised to see in one edition that the word fornication (in Mrs. Dane Calthrope’s speech) was changed to flirtation, LOL!
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