I vaguely remembered reading this Tommy & Tuppence novel many years ago and not being very impressed with it, but after suffering through Postern of Fate (the undisputed low point of my Christie re-readathon) I was probably inclined to view just about any other book in a favourable light.
This is not to say that it lacks real merits; while rather uneven and hardly one of Christie’s most elegantly executed mysteries, there’s a strong sense of cosy-yet-sinister atmosphere about the novel that I failed to appreciate first time around.
It all begins with a dutiful visit to the Sunny Ridge care home, where Tommy’s old cantankerous Aunt Ada resides. Aunt Ada is not the easiest of people to deal with, and rudely dismisses Tuppence, who wanders off and has an amiable chat with another elderly lady, Mrs Lancaster. Their conversation is unremarkable until, out of a blue, Mrs Lancaster asks Tuppence, “Was it your poor child? There behind the fireplace.”
Tuppence doesn’t think much about this random and creepy question, until Aunt Ada dies a few weeks later and the couple are back at Sunny Ridge to settle her affairs and sort out her possessions. They discover that an attractive painting of a house by a canal in Aunt Ada’s room was a gift from Mrs Lancaster, who has been since moved somewhere else by her relatives. Wishing to do a polite and proper thing, Tuppence is determined to contact Mrs Lancaster and ask her if she’d like the painting back, but the trail turns cold… suspiciously so, as if someone didn’t want her to be found.
On top of this, Tuppence is convinced that she’s seen the pretty house in the picture before, in real life. Guided by nothing more than vague memories, intuition and an eerie sense that something wicked this way comes, to complete the quote from Macbeth, Tuppence sets off on a quest to find the mysterious house and possibly rescue a sweet vague old lady, while Tommy is off at a secret conference with his secret service pals.
I’ve always thought of Tuppence as a mildly irritating and wishy-washy character, and this book hasn’t really changed my opinion. However her sleuthing adventure in the English countryside was my favourite part of the book. Maybe it’s the hunger for travel in the age of COVID talking, but exploring the quaint little villages and remote corners off the beaten track seems like a very attractive way to spend a weekend. Tuppence does eventually locate the house in a small village of Sutton Chancellor, along with a series of seemingly unconnected details: gravestones of a local family gone extinct, a friendly witchy woman who occupies a half of the mystery house with her husband, a string of unsolved child murders from years ago, and a creepy old doll stuck in a chimney. While this barrage of clues is a tad confusing, they do build up a compelling, ghostly atmosphere with a touch of the macabre. Plus I just love the trope of an old house with a troubled past.
By the Pricking of My Thumbs does suffer a bit from the kind of meandering conversations stuck on irrelevant details that plague the late Christie novels, and as a mystery it’s not especially satisfying. There’s little sense of real progression despite the abundance of clues and discoveries, and while the ending is shocking and effective, it feels very rushed, leaving some of the introduced plot threads flapping loose. It felt like in the end, Christie just wanted to get it all over with. But despite these flaws, and my continued indifference for Tommy and Tuppence as characters, this novel was much more enjoyable than I remembered.