It’s unusual for me to come across an Agatha Christie novel that I can’t place. But, though I read every book she wrote in my teens, though I’ve picked up a lot of them again over the years since them, though I’ve seen any number of dramatistions, I remembered this, the third Miss Marple novel, not at all.
I wondered why. Was it me or was it the book?
Things began promisingly.
Jerry Burton, a war-wounded pilot had taken his doctor’s advice. He’d found a quiet house in a country village and he was going to spend a few months there with his sister, Joanna. It was to be a place to rest, relax recuperate …
The time and the place were captured beautifully.
But then. Jerry received a poison pen letter. It was fortunate he knew exactly what to do with it.
“The correct procedure, I believe is to drop it into the fire with a sharp exclamation of disgust.”
He did just that. But then he learned that his was not the first letter. Nearly all of the villagers had received one. And so he was as interested to meet his new neighbours as they were to meet the incomers.
At first it was almost a game, but that soon changed. One woman received a letter and on the very same day she was found dead, poisoned, and by her side a scrap of paper bearing the words “I can’t go on”.
The police investigation intensified. And they welcomed Jerry’s interest in the
case. He was in the village but not of the village, and so he could hear and see things that the police could not.
And then there was another death, in the same house as the first. A clear case of murder. And so the question had to be asked: was that first death really suicide, or was it murder too?
The police couldn’t identify the killer, and the villager grew more and more anxious.
The vicar’s wife asked a fried to stay. A friend who might be able to shed some light on what was going on. Miss Jane Marple.
Of course she could, and of course she did …
I can’t fault The Moving Finger as a study of village life. It catches the community, the gossip, the way life spreads beautifully, and there is some lovely, gentle humour as Jerry and Joanna adapt to a rather more old-fashioned way of doing things than they are used to.
I can’t fault the main storyline either. The business of the poison pen letters interesting and, though the plot had quiet moments, the construction was clever and there was almost always something to hold the interest.
In the end it was classic Christie: it made perfect sense but I hadn’t worked it out.
What I did struggle with was the characterisation: most of the characters were very well done, but one or two almost felt like parodies of Christie characters. Just a little forced, a little overwritten.
Miss Marple didn’t seem quite herself either. She arrived very late in the corner, and she offered a few suggestions as she sat, knitting, in one of the vicarage armchairs.
I wondered if Agatha Christie hadn’t intended her to be there at all, but as she neared the end of the book she realised she lacked a character who could see things through to the end.
This is the shortest of the Miss Marple novels, and I can’t help thinking it could have gained from being a little longer. A little more space for the characters to establish themselves, a little more space for Miss Marple herself might have made all the difference.
And maybe a little more plot, instead of a romantic subplot that didn’t really work.
So, now it’s all over, I do think the failing was with the book and not me. But I’m glad I re-read it.
It’s a good story, it’s a very readable book, but Agatha Christie has written much better, and I want to move on to one of her books I could happily pick up again and again.
The next Miss Marple is one of them – A Murder is Announced – and it’s already off the shelf.