No smoke without fire

Antique Corona typewriter, Book-ish, Crickhowell © C A Lovegrove

The Moving Finger
by Agatha Christie.
Miss Marple No 4.
Fontana / HarperCollinsPublishers 1961 (1942)

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

From ‘The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam’, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.

Our narrator, Jerry Burton, has arrived in Lymstock to recuperate after an aircraft accident, accompanied by his not unattractive sister Johanna. However, instead of the countryside tranquillity he has been prescribed by his surgeon he finds the village a hotbed of wagging tongues after poison pen letters have been delivered to selected individuals — including, in next to no time, his sister.

Then a solicitor’s wife apparently commits suicide as a result of receiving one of these notes. A week later a maid in the same household is found brutally murdered and her body hidden; despite the police investigating nobody seems very close to finding out who the killer is and how the murder might be related to the anonymous letters.

That is until, finally, the vicar’s wife decides to call in someone whom she describes as an expert, someone who knows the ins and outs of village life in all its labyrinthine ways. It’s Jerry who unexpectedly provides the clues he has been unconsciously sifting through, and which lead to the correct solution the expert arrives at; also unexpectedly, he discovers the true love he has, unknown to himself, been seeking for a while.

© C A Lovegrove

“To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick.”

Miss Marple

One of the key strategems a stage magician employs is misdirection, the skill of drawing the attention of the audience elsewhere so that the sleight of hand goes unobserved. When one fallout from the poison letters is that villagers start believing there’s “no smoke without fire” Jerry’s mind starts pondering on smokescreens, a classic example of misdirection. As the conjurer does, so also (our expert implies) does a cunning murderer. So too, I must add, may an ingenious writer of murder mysteries do, for Christie offers us close on three dozen characters, many with emerging backstories that serve to distract us so that we easily entertain several individuals as possible suspects. In the end, of course, it all depends not just on motivation but on means and opportunity, and it’s only with hindsight that we realise what has been staring us in the face all the time.

Written during the Second World War, The Moving Finger bears little indication of that conflict other than that the narrator appears to have been an aircraft pilot. He’s clearly a man of independent means to be able to convalesce in the country — seemingly somewhere in Christie’s home county of Devon — and to stay there for an indeterminate period. Nevertheless he’s an engaging narrator, despite one or two prejudices of the time (which possibly Christie knowingly sneaks in) such as describing one character as ‘ladylike’ where others might have referred to him as a confirmed bachelor. Despite a large cast Christie manages to made each main actor very distinctive, not so much in how they look but in how they speak and act.

She also invests her story with much quiet humour — indeed the final phrase is Joanna’s little joke — which helps counteract the unpleasant nature of the murders committed. But in truth our attention is focused on those anonymous missives with their cut-and-paste texts and typewritten addresses. Where does ‘the moving finger’ come into it all?

The title of this murder mystery derives from a phrase in Fitzgerald’s English translation of Omar Khayaam’s Rubaiyyat, one which doesn’t translate well; thus this novel appears in other languages with alternative titles — such as The Case of the Anonymous Letters, Terror Comes by Post, The Poison Pen, Shadow Hand, or The Mysterious Hand. The last couple of titles also recall the ghostly hand which, in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, wrote words on the wall at Belshazzar’s Feast: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin was interpreted by the prophet to mean that the king’s days were numbered, his deeds had been weighed and were found wanting, and that his realm would be divided among neighbouring nations. Both allusions are relevant to Christie’s novel: the Fitzgerald phrase implies that evil deeds done cannot be undone, while the biblical injunction suggests that one’s sins have adverse consequences, that they will ‘find you out’.

Let’s leave the bachelor Mr Pye to have the final word. ‘I’m a student,’ he says, ‘of abnormalities.’

They interest me. Such apparently unlikely people do the most fantastic things. In this case, my advice to the police would be — study character. Leave your fingerprints and your measuring of handwriting and your microscopes. Notice instead what people do with their hands, and their little tricks of manner, and the way they eat their food, and if they laugh sometimes for no apparent reason.

Mr Pye.

This is the sort of thing Jane Marple herself would advise. Or, indeed, what Agatha Christie would practise in her fiction.

Read for Readers Imbibing Peril / RIPXVI

20 thoughts on “No smoke without fire

  1. I had fun revisiting the book through your review; this was one I think where I wondered whether Miss Marple was written in at a later stage since Jerry seems to do much of the work. Regardless, the mystery itself was very enjoyable and Christie successfully threw me off track.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like it that Jane Marple comes in like a dea ex machina to wave her magic wand (er, knitting needle) over everything and make it right; and Christie, with just a few sentences, conveys the essence of the woman even as she appears to be just a late bystander to the main events.

      I agree, it’s most enjoyable, probably the most satisfying of her crime mysteries I’ve read so far (though that’s not many—I’ve quite a few to go!).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s true. I enjoyed seeing the initial lacy, fluffy Miss Marple evolve into the Marple we know–her essence remains the same all through, though.

        I also like the social commentary and observations Christie weaves into these, as well as the fact that Miss Marple’s age works in a way as a guise for her since people don’t take her as seriously as a threat (other than those who know her) just as Poirot does with his deliberately exaggerated foreignness.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely! A favourite Christie (and I’m very fond of the BBC Joan Hickson adaptation too). Agatha is just brilliant at taking your eye in totally the wrong direction – I never seem to work out the solutions but I have such fun on the ride!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Karen. I actually suspected the perpetrator early on because of an obvious misdirection, but then I’d already been misdirected to a number of other possible susoects! Clever—and just about feasible, I thought, because in some murder mysteries the solution often strains one’s credulity.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read this yet, but as I’m trying to work my way through all of Christie’s books I’m sure I’ll get to it eventually. I read another review of this one a few days ago which also picked up on the lack of references to the war. I suppose Christie might have felt her readers would welcome a bit of escapism!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve just finished a Christie for Readers Imbibing Peril too, I read Crooked House. I’ve read a few of her novels now, some standalones and a few of the Poirot series, but have yet to meet Miss Marple. This sounds like it might be a good place to start.


  5. Ha! As soon as I saw the post title this book sprang to mind – probably my favourite Christie of them all! I love everything about this one, from Jerry and Joanna and their separate romances, to the sympathy Christie makes us feel for unlikely characters, to the slightly more developed than usual roles of a couple of the servants, to the terribly sexist jaunt to London scene (which I feel I should feministically despise but secretly girlishly swoon over), to Miss Marple being brought in as an expert in evil. And the plot itself is so satisfying!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, one of the best Christie mysteries I’ve read so far, especially where characterisation is concerned. And yes, unlikely characters: Megan was definitely my favourite, but I also liked Mrs Calthrop, the vicar’s wife and Miss Marple’s friend. A great narrative, and I loved the period touches (even the prejudices!) and also the writing which still felt quite modern despite being nearly 80 years old.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed the tv adaptation of this one and thought at the time what a satisfying book it must be. Clearly I was not wrong. I’ll get to it one day and meantime, a great review, Chris, thanks 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Sandra, glad I inspired in you a wish to read it too! I watched a few of the Joan Hickson episodes way back in the day but none of them rang a bell when reading this one. Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple never quite matched up to Joan so I don’t think I watched more than one or two episodes of her version.

      Liked by 1 person

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