This Miss Marple novel has many Christie tropes that I usually find very entertaining, among them a bickering family where everyone has a motive to bump off the detestable patriarch in charge, and murders that follow a nursery rhyme. On the whole though, the book just wasn’t as satisfying as some of its parts.
The novel begins at the office of an unscrupulous financial tycoon Rex Fortescue, who expires at the end of the chapter soon after drinking tea prepared by his glamorous blonde secretary. It’s quickly established however that his death had nothing to do with the tea, but deliberate poisoning while breakfasting in the company of his family earlier that morning. Bizarrely, the pockets of the dead man contain grains of rye, an outlandish detail that no one can satisfactorily explain. The police quickly latch on to Fortescue’s much younger wife as the suspect no. 1, but they’re dumbfounded when she too is found dead after drinking tea laced with cyanide. A few hours later, a maid named Gladys is found strangled in the yard, with the killer putting a clothespin on her nose.
So how does an unassuming old lady from a small sleepy village enter this triple murder? Well it turns out that unfortunate Gladys had learned the art of cleaning and serving while at Miss Marple’s home, and her death has affected Miss Marple deeply – especially the murderer’s cruel and contemptuous final touch with the clothespin. Though she looks like the world’s least likely avenging fury, the old lady is determined that this wickedness must be punished. Inspector Neele, the investigator in charge, quickly recognises her as a useful ally who might be more successful at extracting information from the members of the Fortescue household than the police. She also figures out that all those perverse little details are about the murderer following Sing a Song of Sixpence, a well-known nursery rhyme.
I was happy for Miss Marple to make an appearance and bring along some heart, righteous indignation and personal investment, because I can’t say that the story was holding my attention all that much beforehand. I’m not sure who to blame: the capable but bland Inspector Neele whose perspective dominates much of the book, or the Fortescue family. Early on, their enigmatic housekeeper shocks Inspector Neele with her frank summary of her employers as “odious and unpleasant”; unfortunately with some exceptions they’re not particularly interesting or engaging either. Christie did a much better job writing about dysfunctional families and their dynamics in her other novels.
I wasn’t really impressed with the mystery: it’s intricate and not without cleverness and red herrings galore, but when finally revealed the murderer’s plan feels unnecessarily overwrought. However the novel is not without some bright spots either. Christie had a great sense of humour, wry and light and very British, and in this book it comes through quite often. Lancelot “Lance” Fortescue, the family black sheep, is a charming rogue who has some amusing spats with his stuffy older brother (who is named Percival – love for Arthurian legends is no excuse to inflict these names on your children).
The book also wraps up with an unexpectedly emotional and poignant denouement that makes it one of my favourite Christie endings, even if the rest of the book is not on the same level.
P.S. Not that I didn’t know it before, but really you gotta love how weird and violent all those classic children’s nursery rhymes are.