- First published: UK: Collins, November 1953; USA: Dodd Mead, 1954
Well may the reader of this rather Grand Guignol tale narrated in Christie’s admirably smooth style agree with the capable Inspector Neele that the vividly drawn Fortescue family of Yewtree Lodge (none of whom have “any scruples … but plenty of money”) are “all very unpleasant people,” easily capable of poisoning the syphilitic Rex with the unusual taxine (from yew-berries) and his much younger wife with cyanide, and strangling the unfortunate maid, clipping a clothes-peg on her nose. Although Miss Marple does little but talk, she it is who recognises the (admittedly contrived) significance of the nursery rhyme and of blackbirds, either as practical joke or as the Blackbird mine (a classic example of Christie’s favourite trick of disguising a principal clue as a red herring); and, despite the admirable juggling with motives and opportunity carefully calculated to send the reader haring down the wrong path, finds the genuinely surprising solution: although much relies on the stupidity of a certain character, that stupidity is evident in the text. The only question that remains: why didn’t Rex Fortescue find the rye in his pocket?
“Inspector Neele was thinking to himself that Miss Marple was very unlike the popular idea of an Avenging Fury. And yet, he thought, that was perhaps exactly what she was…?”
Miss Marple came to Yew Tree Lodge because she considered it her duty to do so. Nobody knew what that benevolent old lady was thinking as she sat knitting and listening to what the various occupants of Yew Tree Lodge had to say to her.
The facts were certainly mystifying. There was the strange behaviour of Rex Fortescue before his death, the grains of cereal found in his pocket, the unexpected return of the prodigal son, and the cryptic pronouncement of old Aunt Effie: “Old sins have long shadows.”
In her mastery of the detective novel Agatha Christie has no rival. Once again she has written an exciting, baffling story, full of incident and mystery and peopled by queer and interesting characters. Once again her many readers have the chance to disentangle a series of crimes in a story which shows Agatha Christie at her incomparable best.
Inspector Neele wasn’t doing very well with his poison case at Yewtree Lodge. Some member of the family had obviously finished off the elder Fortescue with a dose of taxine, but none could explain the rye in his pocket or the practical joke of the black birds in the pie and on the library table. And then Miss Marple arrived on the scene, and the appearance of the vinegary little spinster was at once acclaimed by Inspector Neele. It was not long before she and Scotland Yard were comparing notes, and the cunning and duplicity of the guilty one became brazenly and dramatically apparent.
There is a continuing miracle in the soundness and skill of each new Christie novel that appears. The style never loses its briskness, the characterization is always plausible and persuasive, and a well-maintained suspense leads inevitably to an adroit and convincing finale. Readers of mystery stories may accept this new Christie with the time-honoured assurance that they are again reading the work of the Queen of them all.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 15th November 1953): Begins with poisoning of a sharp business man, develops into a series of murders done, apparently, to a nursery rhyme compulsion. Solution by Miss Marple, one of whose imbecile housemaid-protégées has got involved. Not quite so stunning as some of Mrs. Christie’s criminal assaults on her readers; the soufflé rises all right, but the red herrings aren’t quite niffy enough. But how well she nearly always writes, the dear decadent old death-trafficker; they ought to make her a Dame or a D.Litt.
Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 4th December 1953): THE MURDER GAME
Miss Christie’s novel belongs to the comfortable branch of detective fiction; it never harrows its readers by realistic presentation of violence or emotion or by making exorbitant demands on their interest in the characters. Crime is a convention, pursuit an intellectual exercise, and it is as if the murderer of the odious financier did but poison in jest. The characters are lightly and deftly sketched and an antiseptic breeze of humour prevails. It is a pleasure to read an author so nicely conscious of the limitations of what she is attempting.
Three murders (generally regarded, since Edgar Wallace’s time, as the maximum permissible) take place, apparently with nothing but the nursery rhyme about four-and-twenty blackbirds to connect them. Inspector Neele, an intelligent C.I.D. officer but no genius, has the good fortune, however, to be assisted by Miss Marple, and the assassin is duly unmasked. Miss Christie has a reputation for playing fair with the reader who likes to assume detective responsibility, and also for being one too many for him. In the present case it may be felt that the hidden mechanism of the plot is ingenious at the expense of probability, but the tale is told with such confidence that (like murder itself, in this pastoral atmosphere) it does not matter very much.
Spectator (Raymond Postgate, 25th December 1953, 90w): Improbable, but so competently written that it is much above the standard.
New Yorker (27th March 1954, 90w): This is not one of the author’s best books, but it is still a model of complex skulduggery in genteel surroundings.
Sat R (Sergeant Cuff, 17th April 1954, 30w): Smooth as mellow port.
NY Times (Anthony Boucher, 18th April 1954, 170w): This is the best of the novels starring Christie’s spinster-detective, Miss Marple.