Friday, September 30, 2016
Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: A POCKETFUL OF RYE (1953) by Agatha Christie
Of course I've read this Miss Marple book (7th in the series) many times over the years, but I'm enjoying it now in audible form for the first time, narrated by the wonderful actor Richard E. Grant.
Highly recommended, especially if you're (God forbid) not familiar with Miss Marple or Agatha Christie or even, Golden Age mysteries. A POCKETFUL OF RYE is as good a place to begin as any.
I don't know about you, but there's just something about Christie (no matter the mayhem involved) that I find soothing and comforting when I'm feeling agitated. And if this current election cycle hasn't agitated you then you haven't been paying attention. I also find English accents of a certain sort VERY soothing and comforting. Don't ask me to explain - it must be some kind of leftover childhood thing.
England, 1953. Living at Yewtree Lodge near London is a family which would, in Regency times, have been called 'Cits' - self-made rich folk of the slightly vulgar variety. The head of the family is shady business man Rex Fortescue, elderly and unscrupulous and altogether a bad lot. He has recently married a much younger woman, a manicurist whom he met in Brighton. (He and she are both types, certainly, but Christie was so good at categorizing with a few broad strokes.) One morning Fortescue goes off to work at the family firm, Consolidated Investments, and promptly suffers a very unpleasant death (well, strictly speaking, he dies later in the hospital, but he comes close enough in his office to call it a day).
It is wickedly amusing (if somewhat exasperating) to read how the frightened and bewildered office staff goes about prolonging Fortescue's death agony while they fumble about trying to figure out what to do for their boss who, in the meantime, is left writhing in his office. Christie could be wryly cruel when she wanted to be.
There's very little question that poor Rex has been poisoned and so Scotland Yard is on the case almost immediately. We meet the likable Inspector Neele whom I don't remember meeting before, though his name rings a bell. At any rate, the book belongs to Miss Marple even if she doesn't make her entrance until later in the story. The elderly sleuth becomes involved in the mystery in a very understated way, insinuating herself into the case in the cause of justice after the callous death of a gullible and not very bright young woman who'd once worked for her as a maid. But I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.
Let's back up. Rex Fortescue dies in hospital and during an examination of his clothing, a pocketful of rye seeds are discovered in his jacket. This perplexing clue will begin to make more sense after the second murder. But it is Miss Marple who first points out the nursery rhyme aspect. (Christie had a thing for nursery rhyme titles and tricks.)
The Fortescue family are not a nice bunch. (Their housekeeper calls them 'odious'.) So it is not an especially unhappy event when several of them are done away with. Even the unfortunate young parlor maid, ex-employee of Miss Marple, leaves a lot to be desired - her gullible stupidity offsets any sympathy one might have felt for her. There's hardly anyone to like here except for maybe one of the wives - an outsider named Patricia Fortescue, wife of Lancelot Fortescue, the black sheep of the family. And even she seems a bit drippy. Well, I mean, she's already buried two husbands, how cheerful could she be?
Rex Fortescue's young wife, Adele (30 years younger than hubby) is a blond babe with a roving eye. She is currently getting it on (when she's supposed to be out playing golf) with a gigolo (and boy did Christie know how to fashion gigolos - apparently once upon a time, this was practically a profession) named Vivien Edward DuBois. Don't have to describe him, you get it all from the name.
Second son and junior partner in absentia is Lancelot Fortescue (mentioned previously) who had until recently lived in Kenya, having gone off in a sulk to lick his wounds after a big dust-up years before with dear old dad. Left behind and still working for the family company is his older brother Percival (obviously the boys' mother had a thing for romantic literature), an unsavory sort with an eye on the main chance and not above skirting the law - so much so that Inland Revenue has their eye on him. He lives with his unhappy wife of three years, Jennifer. There is also a Fortescue daughter named Elaine who wants to marry a man her father doesn't approve of (don't they always?) and a dizzy old aunt, Miss Ramsbottom (Aunt Effie), religous zealot and older sister of Rex Fortescue's first wife, who spends a lot of time bemoaning the morals of the younger generation.
As an aside: Only the women in this tale seem to have what you might call 'normal' names.
But my favorite name has to be, Crump, the butler. A n'er do well who is tolerated only because Mrs. Crump is such a good cook. You see, the butler drinks. But good cooks are hard to find.
There is also an unlikely housekeeper named Miss Dove who has her own unvarnished take on the family and her own secrets to hide, so she fits right in. Lots of secrets in this house and when they all begin to unravel, it's like, 'Whew!' didn't see that one coming. That's part of the fun of this book, the mind-bending revelations and also the fact that there are quite a few murders. Lots of corpses usually mean a rip-roaring Christie tale.
As to how the nursery rhyme aspects rounds the thing up, you'll have to wait and see. There is a very satisfying amount of obfuscation in this tale of greed and family madness and if the ending is not exactly what one might have wished, it is satisfying enough.
The denouement is brought about by Miss Marple's knowledge of human character - character and pattern are the major clues here, so much so that if we pay close enough attention we too will know who is behind the killings almost from the beginning. Christie was a master of the sleight of hand and she often passed the card right in front of your nose while you were busy looking elsewhere.
Preordained destiny is the key here as well as in several other Christie tales. 'In my character is my fate' - something Shakespeare and others knew quite a bit about and is something Christie obviously believed as well. But this sort of thing seems to have gone out of fashion. Though I can't help but think that Christie and the others had it right. People will behave in recognizable patterns. They can't seem to help themselves.
This sort of character reading is probably the main reason Miss Marple was such an astute detective to begin with. Here, she is practically omniscient.
Read this book if you're in the mood for an excellent cozy mystery with plenty of clues, red herrings and Miss Marple at her sharpest. This is a book, by the way, that could also have been named, NEMESIS. For that is exactly the role Miss Marple plays, yet again.
P.S. It is interesting to note (at least to me) that the BBC or Granada or whatnot version of this particular story (done many years ago with Joan Hickson, the one and only Miss Marple as far as I'm concerned) is amazingly true to the book and very well worth watching - if you can find it.
Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.