Tag Archives: Miss Marple

Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye

A Pocket Full of Rye was published in 1953 as an annual ‘Christie for Christmas,’ though it was first serialised that autumn in an abridged version in the Daily Express.Product Details

It’s one of several Christie titles to be taken from a British nursery rhyme, in this case, Sing a Song of Sixpence. This rhyme also inspired two of her short stories, Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1941) and Sing a Song of Sixpence (1929). John Curran, writing in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks says:

The dramatic impact of an innocent nursery rhyme transforming into a killer’s calling card is irresistible to an imaginative crime writer such as Agatha Christie… The attraction is obvious – the juxtaposition of the childlike and the chilling, the twisting of the mundane into the macabre.

I’ve always found nursery rhymes faintly sinister in their own right. Even in childhood they seemed to retain a hint of their often dark historical origins.

This is the sixth novel to feature Miss Marple, although she doesn’t appear until eighty pages in, after the third death has occurred. The plot concerns the murder of Rex Fortescue, a rich businessman, the suspects are his family and staff. The setting is a town in the Surrey stock-broker belt, twenty miles from London. Baydon Heath was almost entirely inhabited by rich city men.

We see much of the investigation through the eyes of Inspector Neele who is considerably more acute than some policemen of Miss Marple’s acquaintance, Inspector Slack springs to mind.

‘Inspector Neele had a smart soldierly appearance with crisp brown hair growing back from a rather low forehead. When he uttered the phrase “just a matter of routine” those addressed were wont to think spitefully: “And routine is about all you’re capable of!” They would have been quite wrong. Behind his unimaginative appearance, Inspector Neele was a highly imaginative thinker.’

There’s an interesting comment of the time when Rex Fortescue is taken ill in his office:

‘It has to be the right hospital,’ Miss Somers insisted, ‘or else they won’t come. Because of the National Health, I mean. It’s got to be in the area.’

(The free British National Health Service had begun five years earlier).

The murders are staged to follow the lines of the nursery rhyme. After the third death, Miss Marple arrives on the Fortescues’ door step and is soon invited to stay – which always amuses me. She comes because Gladys, the murdered parlourmaid had previously worked for her. Miss Marple trained her in service and wants to offer the police any helpful insights into her character which may assist in catching her killer.

Inspector Neele accepts her help rather more gratefully than Inspector Slack at St Mary Mead.

He had been in two minds at first how to treat her, but he quickly made up his mind. Miss Marple would be useful to him. She was upright, of unimpeachable rectitude, and she had, like most old ladies, time on her hands and an old maid’s nose for scenting bits of gossip. She’d get things out of servants and out of the women of the Fortescue family perhaps, that he and his policemen would never get. Talk, conjecture, reminiscences, repetitions of things said and done, out of it all she would pick the salient facts.

A great summing-up of Miss Marple’s M.O.

The contemptuous murder with a peg placed on the dead girl’s nose, makes Miss Marple unusually angry. There are parallels with The Body in the Library where again, the murder victim is a young naïve girl. She describes Gladys as rather pathetically stupid and obviously feels a sense of responsibility to bring her killer to justice. It’s one of those moments when behind the fluffy old lady, the reader glimpses someone implacable, the murderer’s Nemesis.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how much I disagree with the view that Christie didn’t write believable characters. She simply wrote with a light touch. Here’s a character described through Inspector Neele’s eyes:

‘He knew the type very well. It was the type that specialised in the young wives of rich and elderly men. Mr. Vivian Dubois, if this was he, had that rather forced masculinity which is, in reality, nothing of the kind. He was the type of man who “understands” women.’

All you need to know. Agatha Christie trusted her readers’ imagination to fill in the rest.

Although there’s much to enjoy, A Pocketful of Rye isn’t one of my favourite Christies. The murders mimicking the nursery rhyme is too contrived for me and I prefer Miss Marple in a village setting, rather than an enclosed household of suspects.

Having said that, it’s a fine whodunit with a cleverly deceptive plot. The psychology is excellent – as always – and the character of Gladys is very poignant, revealing a greater depth to Miss Marple.




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Allingham and Christie – Two Christmas Stories

It’s fun to read Christmassy crime in December and this seems the only time of year I get around to re-reading short stories. This year I’ve gone back to Margery Allingham’s The Case of the Man with the Sack and Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Both have the classic pre-war set-up where the detective is invited to stay at a country house – although the Christie was published in 1960.

The  Case of the Man with the Sack was first published in 1937 in the December issue of The Strand magazine. It was included a year later in Mr Campion: Criminologist. It’s in print in the Arcturus anthology My Friend Mr Campion and other mysteries.

Albert Campion is implored to spend Christmas with his friends the Turret family at their East Anglian home, Pharaoh’s Court. Rising gaunt and bleak amid three hundred acres of ploughed clay and barren salting, all as flat as the estuary beyond. Good job it wasn’t Poirot, I can imagine how he’d shudder.

Lady Turret is ‘goat-touting’ over Christmas, that is entertaining a family of social climbers, masquerading as friends, in exchange for a fat fee. Allingham has lots of fun with the ghastly Welkins family. As expected in such tales, Mrs Welkins, a large middle-aged woman with drooping cheeks and stupid eyes, has brought with her an impressive diamond necklace.

I like this story a lot. It has festive atmosphere, humour, entertaining characters and an ingenious, satisfying plot.

The Turret family’s money-troubles are the ghost of Christmases to come for country house owners. By 1960 in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, society is changing.

In this story, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to spend a traditional English Christmas at  Kings Lacey, a manor house, which is part fourteenth century. He is on the trail of a famous ruby, stolen from an indiscreet young native prince. Although Poirot displays his customary soft spot for young people and their follies, it is only the guarantee of oil-fired central heating that coaxes him away from London in winter.

The title gives much away to the armchair sleuth and I do wonder if Christie was having fun with a nod to Sherlock Holmes’s adventure of The Blue Carbuncle.

I won’t say much about either plot as these are short stories but their similarities are interesting to compare. Both authors have the McGuffin of a precious jewel/piece of jewellery, the rambling country home decked with seasonal trimmings, snow on the way, outsiders at the feast (as well as the detective) and young couples. In both tales the lady of the house is more aware of the situation and ‘managing’ her husband.

The notable difference between them is the time period. In Margery Allingham’s 1930s, Lady Turret may have temporary money-troubles from her heavy losses at bridge but the family still entertain their tenants’ children at their annual Christmas party.

By 1960 at Kings Lacey, society is changing. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is suffused with nostalgia – and this reads as though it comes from the author rather than the characters. Agatha Christie wrote an appealing foreward to this volume of short stories, where she recalled the superb Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall, near Stockport. Abney Hall was the family home of her brother-in-law and many years later, she wrote The Adventure while staying there.

Mrs Lacey says to Poirot. My husband, you know, absolutely lives in the past. He likes everything to be just as it was when he was a boy of twelve years old, and used to come here for his holidays.

 And of herself: I simply long to have a small, modern bungalow. No, perhaps not a bungalow exactly, but a small, modern, easy to run house built somewhere in the park here, and live in it with an absolutely up-to-date kitchen and no long passages.

The granddaughter staying at Kings Lacey has got in with what they call the coffee-bar set. She lives in Chelsea and goes about without washing or combing her hair.

The Adventure of the  Christmas Pudding is an enjoyable read with interesting social detail but I felt dissatisfied with meeting Poirot so briefly. I miss the length of a novel. Of the two, I prefer The Case of the Man with the Sack. Trying to work out why, I think because I admired the puzzle and liked the humour. It was easier to enjoy the short story for what it was, without missing a murder so much – much as I  love Mr. Campion novels.

That’s the problem for me, a crime story without a murder just doesn’t satisfy in the same way. Understandably there’s a school of thought that Christmas tales should be lighter in tone and all end well but I like some darkness among the cheer. For me – in the pages of fiction only – there’s nothing like mulled wine, mince pies and murder…





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Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library

Colonel and Mrs Bantry had always believed that ‘a body in the library’ only happened in books.The Body in the Library (Miss Marple) (Miss Marple Series Book 3) by [Christie, Agatha]

This novel is the second outing for Miss Marple. Though published in 1942 – the first of two that year – it contains no reference to the War until a single mention near the end. Life in St Mary Mead is unchanged – apart from the racy young man, connected with films, who has taken ‘Mr Booker’s new house’ – until a body is discovered at Gossington Hall. A platinum blonde is lying strangled on the bearskin hearthrug and none of the household has ever seen her before.

Fortunately, Dolly Bantry immediately sends the car for her friend Jane Marple. There’s a lovely moment where Mrs Bantry leans on the local constable guarding the library, so Miss Marple can view the corpse before the arrival of Inspector Slack.

“There was the sound of a car scrunching on the gravel outside. Constable Palk said with urgency:

    ‘That’ll be the Inspector…’

    True to his ingrained belief that the gentry didn’t let you down, Mrs Bantry immediately moved to the door. Miss Marple followed her. Mrs Bantry said:

    ‘That’ll be all right, Palk.’

    Constable Palk was immensely relieved.”

Colonel and Mrs Bantry are lovable characters in a very English upper-class tradition; prominent in village life, the Colonel, a magistrate and friend of the Chief Constable. At first Mrs Bantry finds the mystery exciting. She says to Miss Marple:

    “What I feel is that if one has got to have a murder actually happening in one’s house, one might as well enjoy it, if you know what I mean. That’s why I want you to come and help me find out who did it and unravel the mystery and all that. It really is rather thrilling, isn’t it?”

However, both ladies know that if the murderer is never found, gossips will always think the dead girl was involved with Colonel Bantry and his reputation and peace of mind will never recover. The village rumour mill begins at once. I like the way Agatha Christie inserts some very funny lines at this point, contrasting with the underlying seriousness. Christie has often been criticised for writing underdeveloped stock characters. I disagree, feeling she had a great ability to sum up a character in a throwaway line or two.

    “Miss Wetherby, a long-nosed, acidulated spinster, was the first to spread the intoxicating information.”

    “’His poor wife.’ Miss Hartnell tried to disguise her deep and ardent pleasure… She had a deep bass voice and visited the poor indefatigably, however hard they tried to avoid her ministrations.”

Christie tells us all we need to know. Her skill reminds me of an artist dashing off lightning sketches. A great example of ‘less is more.’

The action soon shifts to the Majestic Hotel in the resort of Danemouth, about eighteen miles away. This part of the novel has lots of interesting social detail about pre-war stays in splendid seaside hotels – a popular trope in Golden Age crime fiction and one I particularly enjoy. This world would have been very familiar to Agatha Christie from her upbringing in Torquay. It is very like the setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase. In fact, Christie seems to be gently sending up the widespread fascination with crime, both fictional and true. (This certainly hasn’t dated). At one point a small boy says to the Superintendent:

“Do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H.C. Bailey. Will the murder be in the papers?”

There are also remarks in passing about the real-life Rouse case and the Brighton trunk murders, unusual for Christie, as far as I recall.

Despite the humour and attractive settings, Agatha Christie never loses sight of the fact that the theme is murder. She makes the reader aware that the story isn’t just an intriguing puzzle. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Someone evil must be caught and hanged. An innocent man must be saved from having his good name destroyed and being shunned. In fact, Colonel Bantry’s plight is horribly relevant today with the current fashion for ordeal by tabloid.

The solution to the mystery is classic Christie with a well-reasoned motive and a callous murderer. This is Agatha Christie at her finest with trademark twist and superb understanding of human nature in a vivid period setting. All this in only 154 pages. Highly recommended.

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Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie

Mrs McGinty’s Dead By Agatha Christie

Mrs McGinty’s Dead is an intriguing mystery, published in 1952. Its title comes from an old children’s game – echoing several other Christie titles which come from nursery rhymes. I’ve only heard of it played by adults. Years ago my family played ‘Mrs McGinty’s Dead’ at Christmas – a slightly different version than in the novel – and my aunt recalled playing it as a drinking game in the war-time R.A.F.

Mrs McGinty was a quiet, respectable charwoman who was found bludgeoned to death. Her lodger James Bentley was the only possible suspect with convincing evidence of his guilt. He has been tried and convicted of her murder. When the novel opens he is waiting for the death sentence to be carried out.

The case was investigated by Superintendent Spence, (who appears in Hallowe’en Party and Elephants Can Remember). He’s a thoroughly decent policeman. Despite building a seemingly irrefutable case, his instincts tell him the lodger isn’t the right type to be a murderer. He’s met too many and this time the psychology feels wrong. Spence takes his concern to an old friend and a bored Hercule Poirot gladly agrees to take another look at the case…

As usual Agatha Christie creates a wonderfully sinister atmosphere in the village of Broadhinny. We meet a varied cast of believable characters who seem innocuous though may have something to hide. It’s an interesting portrait of an English village a few years after the war. Times are gradually changing and the big houses are finding it hard to get someone who will come in and cook. A daily woman is ‘a treasure’ and employers are thankful for the half-day a week she can spare them. The sub-post office is still the hub of the community – sadly no longer in recent years.

The plot has that useful device for tension, a race against time. In prison the days of James Bentley’s life are running out. He’s accepted he’s on his way to the gallows and at first even Poirot can’t find anything missed. The way he finds the first faint hint of the trail is cleverly written.

This novel contains something more though, it’s full of delightful humour at Poirot’s expense. Agatha Christie was clearly having fun. The only accommodation in the village is at a private house where the charming hostess has no idea how to look after paying guests.

‘I do hope,’ she said, ‘that you’re not too frightfully uncomfortable?’

‘You are too kind, madame,’ he replied politely. ‘I only wish it were within my powers to provide you with suitable domestics.’

A miserable Poirot is suffering agonies of dust and disorder, gritting his teeth only to save an innocent man’s life. The descriptions of the run-down country house are very funny if you know his obsessive love of order. Early in the novel Poirot thinks proudly about his London flat, ‘There could truly be said not to be a curve in the place.’

Poirot’s old friend Mrs Ariadne Oliver also turns up in Broadhinny. Scatty yet surprisingly shrewd, she usually notices something pertinent that assists Poirot in his deductions.  Mrs Oliver – based on the author gently sending herself up -is having one of her detective novels adapted to a play. Her heartfelt comments on having her characters changed, surely echo Christie’s own thoughts.

There are plenty of suspects and an atmosphere of lurking danger, some clever misdirection and a brilliant reveal.

A fine example of classic village Christie from her heyday.


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The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie

I’ve just finished re-reading Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse and though I remembered enjoying it years ago, I’d forgotten just how good it is. Some might say it’s a piece of hokum but there’s nothing wrong with that – we love watching Midsomer Murders. Readers are always required to enter into a tacit agreement with an author to suspend disbelief and I’m happy to do that for an exciting tale. This is a real page-turner with great insight into human nature.

People tend to think of Agatha Christie as one of the four ‘Queens of Crime’ from the Golden Age of detective fiction (between the wars) and rightly so. Yet she wrote thirteen novels between 1961-73. Her final published novels Curtain and Sleeping Murder had been written many years earlier.

Although I love Christie’s earlier novels for their period setting, it is interesting to read her descriptions of changing times. Detective novelists with their eye for detail are some of the best chroniclers of social history. Published in 1961 – before the legendary swinging London of the sixties had begun – The Pale Horse starts in a coffee bar in the King’s Road, Chelsea. Not a setting you could ever imagine for Miss Marple.

The first sentence reads “The espresso machine behind my shoulder hissed like an angry snake.” Then comes a heartfelt paragraph on ‘contemporary noises’ which is surely the author reflecting on the modern world. Followed by a vivid sketch of the young customers – the beat generation. I felt I was there, seeing people she’d seen. The setting also has wonderful descriptions of seedy London streets and much of the novel takes place in familiar Christie territory, a peaceful village.

The Pale Horse is largely narrated by an academic who stumbles upon a mystery and begins to investigate. Although Christie is most famous for her series detectives, some of her finest novels were stand-alones. Another of my favourites with a one-off chance detective is Murder Is Easy, published in 1939.

I’m always struck by the astute way in which Agatha Christie wrote about evil. Often dismissed for writing cosy puzzles with an absence of blood, it seems to me that her characterisation of murderers is chilling. She didn’t need to describe violence and gore. Her forte was writing about the ordinary suddenly becoming sinister, wickedness glimpsed from the corner of an eye. Did you imagine it or could you just possibly be right?

The plot of The Pale Horse has one of Christie’s trademark distractions and there’s a final dazzling twist which I hadn’t recalled. Great fun and a deeply satisfying read.


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