Friday, February 09, 2007

A Pocket Full of Rye - Agatha Christie

First published 1953; cover shown is the 1970 Fontana Books (UK) paperback. Cover art by Tom Adams (who painted the bird using a rotting skeleton as a model).

This is one of the Christies where the murder is based on a nursery rhyme. These always seem a little forced to me; it's hard to believe any murderer would base their killings on a nursery rhyme. However, A Pocket Full of Rye is one of Christie's best in the nursery rhyme series.

The story opens with the sudden poisoning death of wealthy Rex Fortescue. Soon after Inspector Neele travels to the lavish Fortescue home two further murders follow in quick succession: Rex's young, glamorous second wife drinks a cyanide-laced cup of tea, and Gladys, the young housemaid, is found strangled under the clothesline, a clothes peg pushed on her nose.

The remaining Fortescues (Percival, the eldest son; Lance, the estranged younger son; Elaine, the only daughter; Jennifer, Percy's wife; and Miss Ramsbottom, the elderly aunt) are all possible suspects, each with their own grievance against Rex Fortescue. And then there's the housekeeper, Miss Dove, who may be the daughter of a man who died 25 years ago due to Rex's greed. Inspector Neele certainly has his hands full.

The inspector's chances of solving the murders are increased when Miss Marple from St Mary Mead arrives. It seems that Gladys the maid was originally trained by Miss Marple, and while she acknowledges that Gladys was a very stupid girl, she is also horrified at the indignity of the murder (especially that clothes peg). She has come to offer her help, and after ingratiating herself with the crochety Miss Ramsbottom she quickly settles in at the Fortescue's home.

While this is a Miss Marple mystery, she actually doesn't make an appearance until page 80. After that she keeps a low profile until the end, when she informs Inspector Neele that she knows who the murderer is, and why and how the crimes were committed. All along - since Miss Marple broached the possibility that the killer had based the murders on the "Pocketful of Rye" nursery rhyme - everyone believed that this was the work of an insane mind. But Miss Marple uncovers the truth: that the killer is very intelligent... and completely sane.

The finale of this novel is a favourite of mine. After returning home to St Mary Mead (and with the how, why and who of the murders still to be proven), Miss Marple finds an incriminating letter written by the late Gladys waiting for her. The killer was not as intelligent as he thought...

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