In which Miss Marple solves the murders of a rather hectoring boss and father, and other members of his family and domestic household. A goldmine, a prodigal son, a nursery rhyme, a vengeful family and an unseen boyfriend all play a part. And just so that you don’t have to worry – I won’t reveal the identity of the murderer!
So here we are, having finished the first of my Agatha Christie re-reads. A Pocket Full of Rye, which I always want to write as A Pocketful of Rye, which apparently is wrong. This was my first exposure to Miss Marple in print, having only known her in the form of Margaret Rutherford on screen. As I mentioned elsewhere, the wonderful Miss Rutherford was a very over-the-top version of Miss Marple, and when you read the books with her in mind, it’s like an indivisible sum – Miss Rutherford into Miss Marple simply won’t go. On a re-read, or perhaps to a new reader, it’s maybe surprising that Miss Marple doesn’t appear in the book until almost halfway through; if you think she’s going to be the central character, think again. With hindsight you realise that this Miss Marple is much more like the Joan Hickson TV version – quiet, unassuming, and with all her activity going on in the cerebrum rather than in outward shows of derring-do. When the book first appeared, Miss Marple was already an extremely well-established character, and the vast majority of Mrs Christie’s readers wouldn’t have needed much in the way of an introduction to her. But if this is the first Christie you read, then you might be slightly underwhelmed when you meet her. The only adjectives Mrs Christie gives you to describe her when she first appears are elderly, charming, innocent, fluffy and pink. Not that much to go on!
I must have been very confused reading this book as a child. Not only does Miss Marple not feel like Margaret Rutherford, there’s all sorts of confusions with characters’ names too. For example there’s a Mrs Fortescue, who’s also known as Jennifer Fortescue, or Mrs Percival, or Mrs Val. I bet I thought they were four different people. There’s a character called Vivian Dubois, but, in one paragraph, where he is worried that the police will find some love letters, Mrs Christie actually refers to him as Vincent (and not Vivian), presumably by mistake. I probably thought they were twins. I wonder if that’s in all copies of the book, or just an error in my copy – the last paragraph of Part One of Chapter XI refers, if you want to check! Then there are the two Fortescue brothers, Lancelot and Percival (so named because their mother was a fan of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King). I probably thought it was a nod to 60s comedy calypso performer Lance Percival. Miss Ramsbottom’s overnight guest prior to Miss Marple was a Christian missionary by the name of Dr Mary Peters. All that evangelising and a gold medal winning pentathlete too. All highly confusing.
I’ve already mentioned how it was that Pocket Full of Rye was the first Christie book I read, and I do remember clearly the excitement of reading a “grown-up novel”. When you come to recollect the book though, I have to admit that it isn’t on the whole particularly memorable. Some Christies you can remember huge tracts from, including all the characterisations, the identity of the murderers and their victims, and even some of the best speeches and conversations. For me, A Pocket Full of Rye doesn’t come under that category. I couldn’t remember whodunit before I read it, and even whilst I was reading it, it didn’t come back to me. In fact I made a guess at whodunit whilst I was re-reading it – and I was wrong. So from that point of view, it’s written well enough to keep you guessing and it disguises its final reveal pretty effectively. The only thing I could remember about the book is who the victims were, and how they tied into the nursery rhyme. I don’t think it’s one of her most suspenseful reads, and it’s more of a mathematical puzzle than a character-based plot.
What did strike me as interesting was a running theme that to be a murderer you must be insane. Right from the start Inspector Neele considers his suspects’ mental health: “He classified Miss Griffith as a) not the type of a poisoner, b) not in love with her employer, c) no pronounced mental instability, d) not a woman who cherished grudges.” Later, an anxious Mrs Pat Fortescue tells Miss Marple “somebody in this house is mad, and madness is always frightening because you don’t know how mad people’s minds will work. You don’t know what they’ll do next.” During the denouement conversation Inspector Neele regrets that the murderer won’t be hanged because they’re “crazy” – to which Miss Marple replies that the person is “not crazy, Inspector, not for a moment!” This delight in applying mental health labels even applies to one of the victims, whom family members want to be assessed as suffering from “G.P.I. – General Paralysis of the Insane”. That’s an old fashioned terminology you don’t hear today.
There’s also a linked interchange about the nature of poisoners between Pat and Lance. “There’s something awfully frightening about a poisoner”, said Pat. “I mean it must be a horrid, brooding, revengeful mind”. “So that’s how you see it? Funny! I just think of it as businesslike and cold-blooded”. “I suppose one could look at it that way.” She resumed with a slight shiver, “all the same, to do three murders… Whoever did it must be mad.” Oh, that old chestnut again.
I was also not particularly impressed with these couple of sentences: “At the Pinewood Private Sanatorium, Inspector Neele, sitting in the visitors’ parlour, was facing a grey-haired, elderly lady. Helen MacKenzie was sixty-three, though she looked younger.” Sixty-three?? Elderly?? “Though she looked younger” but still considered elderly?? I’m not that far behind Helen and I still don’t think I’m middle-aged yet. But it is an interesting observation of what was considered elderly a mere 62 years ago, when this book was written.
The book isn’t over-stuffed with narrative threads but there are a couple of clever garden paths that lead you nicely astray and take your eye off a more obvious solution to the mystery. Miss Marple’s on quite good form, taking St Mary Mead as a microcosm of a world of seething emotions and all sorts of lawksamercy. Indeed, she has a personal link to one of the victims, so perhaps it’s not unsurprising that the two worlds collide.
So, gentle reader, for each of Mrs Christie’s books that I re-read I’m going to provide what I hope will be a helpful “at-a-glance” summary of how the book stacks up. See what you think about this assessment:
Publication details: 1953. My copy is a 1980 paperback by Fontana, 188 pages. In about 1979, I met a girl who was really into Agatha Christie. In order to impress her, I lent her a big carrier bag full of my Christie paperbacks. She moved. I had to spend ages finding replacement copies at car boots and charity shops. This was one of the many such copies.
How many pages until the first death: 7. That’s what I like, no hanging about.
Funny lines out of context: “there’s a sprinkling of….old pussies who love to potter round with a trowel”.
“He had that rather forced masculinity which is, in reality, nothing of the kind. He was the type of man who “understands” women.”
““Lovely legs she’s got,” said Constable Waite with a sigh. “And super nylons”.”
“I do think women ought to stick together, don’t you, Inspector Neele?”
“I began to realise, about two years after we were married, that Freddy wasn’t – well wasn’t always straight”.
Memorable characters: none outstanding; maybe Mary Dove, for her sangfroid under pressure. The way Mrs Crump is described reminded me of how you imagine Mrs White to be in Cluedo. By the way, does anyone else find it funny that the name of the Sergeant who first mentions the grain in the deceased’s pocket is called Hay? I was expecting a whole range of characters whose names were based on aspects of an arable farm.
Christie the poison expert? Yes definitely. Everything you wanted to know about taxine but were afraid to ask.
Class/social issues of the time: Quite a bit. Mrs Christie describes Yewtree Lodge as “the kind of mansion that rich people built themselves and then called it “their little place in the country”… a large solid red brick structure, sprawling lengthwise rather than upward, with rather too many gables, and a vast number of leaded paned windows. The gardens were highly artificial…” In other words, disgustingly nouveau riche.
Of a missionary visitor, Miss Ramsbottom says “black as your hat but a true Christian”. I can never quite decide if Mrs Christie was a latent racist or if it was just the mores of her time and “set”. Maybe this re-read will help me come to a conclusion. When asked about blackbirds, Lance replies “do you mean genuine birds, or the slave trade?”
Young Gerald is described as “an intellectual… he’s got a lot of unconventional and progressive ideas that people don’t like”.
Crump the butler is distrusted. For no apparent reason than for his stupid surname and the fact that he’s a butler.
You wouldn’t describe Mrs Christie as a feminist: “Adele Fortescue was a sexy piece….Her appeal was obvious, not subtle. It said simply to every man “Here am I. I’m a woman.””
Classic denouement? Not really. There’s no big showdown; the denouement takes the form of Miss Marple having a quiet, private conversation with Inspector Neele, explaining whodunit, how and why; the book ends before he confronts the murderer. Probably the best interrogation is by Neele on Dubois, where he reveals he knows the content of the first victim’s will.
Happy ending? Again not really. An innocent character is about to get a nasty shock, although another is saved from a blackmail situation. Miss Marple has a moment of triumph in the last sentence, but it’s not earth-shattering stuff.
Does the story ring true? The crime and the Sing-a-song-of-sixpence theme dovetail nicely. But Miss Marple gains access to Yewtree Lodge ridiculously easily.
Overall satisfaction rating: 7/10
Next book to read will be At Bertram’s Hotel, as that was the second book I read when I first discovered Mrs Christie’s work. Feel free to read or re-read and we’ll have a post-mortem in a week or two’s time!