Our "From the Vault" feature last week was a fine Agatha Christie novel starring her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the "little grey cells." This week, let's turn to another of Christie's finest creations, Miss Jane Marple, spinster - and student of human nature. Her grasp of village psychology leads her to solve mysteries which have baffled the police. One of her best appearances, I think, is in The Moving Finger. Here, slightly edited as always, is how I reviewed that book nearly ten years ago:
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There’s a good reason why anonymous notes are often called “poisoned-pen” letters. These messages are hateful – and sometimes the recipients can’t handle the accusations, even when untrue. That can have tragic results – and the police may ultimately need some help tracking down the letter writers. That’s where Miss Jane Marple comes in.
Of Agatha Christie’s series detectives, I think my favorite is Miss Marple. As I’ve noted before, I find Hercule Poirot can be a bit smug, and when his annoyingly idiotic friend Hastings is around, the combination is usually insufferable. Miss Marple, however, though she has friends and admirers in the police force, usually doesn’t suffer the same intrusions from sidekicks, and she is usually quite low-key about her role in solving the most difficult mysteries.
I think The Moving Finger is among Christie’s best works, and it is interesting to note that Miss Marple, while she does solve the mystery, does so as almost a figure on the sidelines. She doesn’t even appear in the book until two-thirds of the way through the story. But – as is so often the case in these stories – her expertise at village life and her knowledge of how ordinary people are likely to behave make her the perfect detective to solve this mystery.
The Moving Finger was written in 1942, during the darkest days of World War II. It is narrated by a young man, a flyer who crashed during the war, and who is now trying to regain his health in a small and quiet English village. Small and quiet English villages, of course, are usually anything but small and quiet in such mysteries. And our narrator, Jerry Burton, and his sister, Joanna, soon find there is a great deal going on in the village of Lymstock.
There are the anonymous poison pen letters which are being sent to a lot of the villagers. They contain the usual kind of garbage found in such letters – lots of accusations of sexual misconduct and the like. While Jerry is inclined, at first, to simply ignore the letters, he soon finds that they are being received, and talked about, all over the village. While he is quick to dismiss the charges in the letters as nonsense, he discovers that a great many of the village gossips – and there are a lot of them indeed – tend to believe the old adage, “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”
Soon, the letters drive one woman to suicide. And that puts the letters in a new light – for it means that the author, when discovered, can no longer claim it was all a harmless joke. And that makes the whole affair more dangerous for everyone. Soon, there is a murder. And the police are baffled about who might be behind the letter-writing campaign.
It takes an expert to solve the case – and that expert is Miss Marple, invited to do so by the wife of the local vicar. Near the end of the book, after Miss Marple has exposed the letter-writer and killer, the vicar’s wife says of her guest:
“Look at her well. I tell you, that woman knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known.”
“I don’t think you should put it quite like that, dear,” murmured Miss Marple.
“But you do.”
“One sees a good deal of human nature living in a village all the year around,” said Miss Marple placidly.
That’s what I meant when I talked about Miss Marple’s low-key approach to solving cases of this sort. She sits in the background and knits and is often ignored – but all the time, she is listening and her insights into village life and human weakness lead her to finding the right solution which has eluded other investigators.
There are also a couple of love stories woven into the mix here, as both our narrator and his sister find potential mates in the village. The characters are quite well developed here, and few fit into the all-too-frequent stereotypes of village life.
Agatha Christie is said to have considered The Moving Finger among her favorite stories. I think that’s quite justified. For once, she plays scrupulously fair with her readers. All the clues are there – in fact, the narrator frequently calls attention to points at which, he says, he should have been able to figure out what was happening and who was responsible for it. But these clues, of course, are well concealed, with a great many red herrings dragged across the trail, and the solution, when revealed, may come as a surprise.
Most of Agatha Christie’s novels happily remain in print, and The Moving Finger should be easily available through your favorite book dealer or mystery bookstore. I recommend it strongly. I think it’s one of the best Miss Marple stories, even though, as I say, she remains on the sidelines for much of the book. I think the characters are generally quite likeable and sympathetic, and the use of a single narrator throughout works quite well.
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Next week, one of my favorite holiday mysteries, Tied Up in Tinsel, by Ngaio Marsh.