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.
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I love Agatha Christie and Miss Marple, as well as all her other characters.ReplyDelete
I thought that at some point I'd stop reading Christie, but that point has never arrived. :)Delete
Of courser Joan Hickson is the one and only Miss Marple! I haven't read any Miss Marples for a while, so it's time to indulge!ReplyDelete
I reread several of them every year. I am never totally a Christie-free zone. And now I'm re-discovering the books on audible. SO wonderful.Delete
Such a nasty villain. Well, aren't they all, but he's so selfish and cold. Jane knows all.ReplyDelete
Richard Grant, eh? I might have to check that out.
You definitely should, Pat. HE is excellent! Well, so are the other Christie narrators: Hugh Fraser and of course, David Suchet (though he hasn't narrated many, those that are out there are FANTASTIC. Especially his narration of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Suchet's version of Mrs. Hubbard alone is worth the price of admission.)Delete
Yvette, I remember reading it a long time ago but hardly anything else. Your review makes me want to pick it up once again.ReplyDelete
It's a delightful book, Neer. Time to go back to Christie. :)Delete
I'm also a great fan of Miss Marple. The BBC productions with Joan Hickman are available on Netflix, and every other year I watch them all. It's been a while since I last read them, so maybe it's time once again. No, these are not forgotten or overlooked books around here.
I wish they were available on streaming at Netflix. But right now only POIROT is available and I've been watching and re-watching those. Only reason, in my view, to pay the monthly fee.Delete
This may be one of the few Miss Marple books I have yet to read, but now I want to go do so now. Thanks for the review.ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Richard. I hope you enjoy the book. I think it's one of the best of the Jane Marple books.Delete
It was definitely the BBC that did the Joan Hickson version and I remember liking it quite a lot - not read the book yet Yvette, at least I don't think so. I always think I've read all the Christies and then it turns out I am more than a little wrong ... thanks Yvette.ReplyDelete
You're welcome, Sergio. This is one definitely worth looking for. I am now busy adding several of the Christie books to my audio library. It's almost like 'reading' them again for the first time. :)Delete
Yvette, you had me at "Effie Ramsbottom"! Actually you had me at the get-go, but Effie certainly stuck. Fun review, as always.ReplyDelete
Well, Mathew, if you can't have fun writing these things, then what's the point? :) Effie Ramsbottom, you have to love British names. I mean, you really do. HA!Delete
i just reread this after 20 years or so; i thought to myself: "boy, this gal can really write, self!" i think i've read most of her output, but now may have to go back and reread the rest; Agatha was really a top notch writer... tx for the most enjoyable reminder...ReplyDelete
You're very welcome, Mudpuddle. Yes, she was an excellent writer. VERY underrated by literary types. It's easy to dismiss her work because after all, they're only mysteries. But this sort of thing is very difficult to do and do well as so many other would-be mystery writers have discovered over and over and over again.Delete
I am crazy about Agatha Christie. Love mysteries.ReplyDelete
Yvette, hope you are well.
Me too, Yvonne. Me too. I am well, I hope you and your little pup are doing well too. Love this time of year, even down here in N.C.Delete
Yvette, it seems to me as if Christie had fun writing this novel as well as selecting unusual names for her characters. Frankly, I haven't done much justice to Miss Marple and your review, as entertaining as ever, is pushing me towards her books. I left my proposed chronological reading of Christie couple of years ago.ReplyDelete
Well, Prashant, you know you do not have to do it chronologically. Just jump right in. I reread all my Christie favorites every few years. I just pick one up and begin reading and I am always, ALWAYS, immediately captivated.Delete
I have not read this Miss Marple yet. I am reading them in order and have only read the first three. But I will get there eventually. Glad to hear that it is a good one.ReplyDelete
I hope you'll eventually review your Miss Marples, Tracy. It's always nice to get a fresh perspective. I've been reading these books since I was a teenager - when dinosaurs roamed the earth. :)Delete
I know this book it's great. yvonneReplyDelete
Yes, it is! :)Delete