The Moving Finger (Agatha Christie)

  • By Agatha Christie
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1943; US: Dodd Mead, 1942 (abridged)

The Moving Finger was one of Agatha Christie’s favourites; it was, she wrote in her Autobiography, a book she was really pleased with. But it seems a low-key, rather minor work without either the baffling puzzles and brilliant solutions of the 1930s, or the heightened character and drama of the 1940s.

Finger is perhaps the quintessential ‘cosy’ Christie: a small English market town, 50 years behind the times; respectable professional people (lawyers and doctors) and spinsters both male and female; poison-pen letters; deaths neatly off-stage (one suicide, one murder); and Miss Marple knitting pink fluffy woollen things in the corner.

The story is narrated by Jerry Burton, recuperating from a plane crash; Miss Marple turns up three-quarters through, and then explains the mystery at the end. Hers is, as others have observed, a cameo performance: a mere 12 pages – and she really doesn’t need to be in the book.

The plot is quite slight; there’s little detection, and only one criminal sub-plot. The deception is daring in its simplicity – but transparent if you tumble to it. Clever touches include a memorable linguistic trick (“I can’t go on” – does this work in other languages?) and a second victim who saw nothing.

Christie seems more interested in the people than the puzzle. While not one of her best mysteries, the social comedy is delightful: the sophisticated townees; the garrulous Mr. Pye; a glamorous goddess of a governess (until she opens her mouth); Aimée Griffith, forthright and abominably extraverted; the formidable Mrs. Dane Calthrop (with lobster); and bright, awkward Megan Hunter (one of Christie’s best adolescents).


1943 Collins

As a place to convalesce after a bad flying crash Lymstock sounded ideal.  So thought Jerry Burton when he took a house there for himself and his sister Joanna.  But they soon discovered that the undercurrents of this placid backwater were both swift and dangerous.  A poison pen was hard at work sending letters which were usually as ridiculous as they were unpleasant until one day—the shaft struck home and death resulted.  Who could it be in this peaceful, old world village who was bent on creating chaos?  The police found many suspects and their investigations revealed some surprising facts but they didn’t find the criminal and the letters went on circulating.  It needed an expert in human wickedness to solve the mystery of the moving finger.  Here is Mrs. Christie at her most subtle and her most entertaining.

1942 Dodd, Mead

It all began with those mysterious, threatening letters.  Almost everyone in the quiet village seemed to be receiving them.  Jerry Burton, an outsider who was down for a rest on doctor’s orders, got one.  So did fat Mr. Pye, who collected china; talkative Aimée Griffith; and others.  Things took a serious turn when the mousy wife of the local lawyer committed suicide after receiving hers.  Then a kitchen maid was found murdered and her body hidden away in an unused closet, and the peaceful town was in an uproar of excitement and suspicion.

The police could get nowhere.  Finally in desperation an expert was called in, “someone who knows a great deal about wickedness”, as the minister’s wife put it.  The “expert” turned out to be none other than little old Miss Marple, the redoubtable but seemingly innocuous spinster who made such a hit in The Body in the Library and Murder at the Vicarage.

Miss Marple knew a great deal about human nature, as well as wickedness.  How she unravelled the many twisted lines of this case by applying her knowledge, and prevented the wrong person from suffering horribly, makes an arresting story.  Agatha Christie has again written one of those astonishing detective novels for which she has long been noted.

Contemporary reviews

Books (Will Cuppy, 11th October 1942, 140w): Little Miss Marple who officiated in The Body in the Library and Murder at the Vicarage, repeats her lovable act with success, saving an innocent person from punishment and nabbing the fiend after a couple of serious casualties…  No major Christie opus, but it’s suitable light reading for all this author’s doting admirers, of which this department is one.

New Yorker (17th October 1942, 70w): Gay, witty mystery.  Mrs. Christie proves once more that she knows all the answers.

NY Times (18th October 1942, 120w): The story is swift-moving and highly original; one of the better productions by a writer whose work is always good.

Boston Globe (28th October 1942, 60w): This superlative writer of mystery stories rings the bell once more.

Sat R of Lit (31st October 1942, 40w): Satisfactory.

Time (2nd November 1942, 50w): A smoothly flowing and flawlessly constructed story.

Booklist (1st December 1942)

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 19th June 1943): ANONYMOUS LETTER-WRITER

Beyond all doubt the puzzle in The Moving Finger is fit for experts.  In Lymstock, a writer of anonymous letters does murder.  Though odd, thwarted characters live round every corner, the number who can be suspected of bloodshed is so closely limited that it ought not to be difficult to find the guilty.  But it is.  The author is generous with her clues.  Anyone ought to be able to read her secret with half an eye—if the other one-and-a-half did not get in the way.  There has rarely been a detective story so likely to create an epidemic of self-inflicted kicks.

Having expended so much on her riddle, the author cannot altogether be blamed for neglecting the other side of her story.  It would grip more if Jerry Burton, who tells it, were more credible.  He is an airman who has crashed and walks with the aid of two sticks.  That he should make a lightning recovery is all to the good, but why, in between dashing downstairs two at a time and lugging a girl into a railway carriage by main force, should he complain that it hurts to drive a car?  And why, since he is as masculine in sex as the sons of King Gama, does he think in the style, “The tea was china and delicious and there were plates of sandwiches and thin bread and butter, and a quantity of little cakes”?  Nor does it help verisimilitude that a bawling young female gawk should become an elegant beauty in less than a day.

Manchester Guardian (Charles Marriott, 25th June 1943): In reading The Moving Finger, by Agatha Christie, you forget that it is a “Crime Club” novel because you are so interested in the people as human beings.  This is not to say that the crimes—two murders and a series of “poison pen” letters—are not well contrived, but only that Mrs. Christie is something better than ingenious.  At least three of her characters, Megan, the engaging, ugly-duckling stepdaughter, Mrs. Dane Calthrop, the disconcerting rector’s wife, and Miss Marples, the gentle old maid and expert in human wickedness who unravels the plot while knitting and crocheting, are as original as they are convincing.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 14th August 1943): Miss Marple is Mrs. Christie’s second-string detective; and her appearance in a case is a sure index that it has not been judged worthy of Poirot.  The Moving Finger hardly taxes even Miss Marple’s powers: she just pops in at the end of the book to dust round and tidy up.  The story is the familiar one of a poison-pen in a small country town; but when it is told through the mouth of a simple-minded Air Force officer, we realise that Mrs. Christie is up to one of her favourite tricks.  The twist she puts into the dénouement behind the back of her simple airman is as neat as you could wish; but the material for mystification is so slight that a couple of love-interests are needed to fill out 160 pages—and love is not Mrs. Christie’s forte.  I was intrigued to find my own name suspiciously last on the list of suspects, but I gave myself the benefit of the doubt.  Was I right?

Daily Telegraph or Sketch: She is certainly the most versatile detective story writer we have.  Her stories are all like conjuring tricks; she is the greatest living expert in the art of misdirection.

Telegraph: There is no one like Agatha Christie for baffling the most experienced detective story readers; her vein of comedy is as fresh as ever.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): This is an early Miss Marple tale, in which that spinster appears late and does little with an excess of flutter.  But the plot as a whole is extremely adroit—a series of double twists on the writer of anonymous letters in a small English village.  The way in which false leads are given, withdrawn, and reused is a demonstration—if any were needed—of the author’s absolute command of her special genre.  The climax, by the way, gains much of its strength from the subdued tone of what precedes, yet that lower level of excitement detracts not at all from suspense.

The title alludes to the Rubáiyát.

Agatha Christie: A Talent to Deceive (Robert Barnard): Poison pen in Mayhem Parva, inevitably leading to murder.  A good and varied cast-list, some humour, and stronger than usual romantic interest of an ugly-duckling-into-swan type.  One of the few times Christie gives short measure, and none the worse for that.

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