The Moving Finger
by Agatha Christie.
Miss Marple No 4.
Fontana / HarperCollinsPublishers 1961 (1942)
“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,From ‘The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam’, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.
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.”
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.
“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