Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mystery Reviews: Agatha Christie's The Moving Finger (1942)

Given my health issues, it's not surprising that I'm reading a lot more, especially since I have to spend so much time resting. Although I've read some good literary fiction and excellent non-fiction, when I am most tired, I turn to the fluff I love best: mysteries. And these days, I tend to move back and forth between tried and true classics from the golden era and contemporary cozies or police procedurals.

When I move in the direction of the golden era, I sometimes go back to my favorite writers and sometimes I go back and "discover" classic writers who are new to me. I enjoy both, but lately I've been on a bit of a Christie tear. Although I've read most of Christie's books (some more than once) it's been years since I've read a lot of them, so many years that they are either actually new to me or were read so far in the past they may as well be new because I don't remember them well. I certainly don't remember them well enough to remember "whodunit."

I find myself missing book review writing, so I thought that once in a while, I'd let myself exercise the old review writing muscles again. What better way to break back into review writing than with a review of an old-but-I-think-new-to-me Christie novel?

1942s The Moving Finger was the third Miss Marple novel ever published. I'm fairly certain this was the first time I ever encountered it, mostly because I don't remember ever reading a Miss Marple book in which Miss Marple appeared so little.

That was the book's most surprising feature by far. While Miss Jane Marple, Christie's white-haired detective, always has a kind of "background" role, she usually arrives on the scene fairly early and stays there consistently. While the main detectives hum along, attempting to solve the case, Miss Marple smiles gently, asks an inquisitive and seemingly innocent question or two (or four or eight or twelve) and before you can inquire, "Would you like another cup of tea, ma'am?" she has the thing solved. What's wonderful is that she always solves it with a twinkle and a sweet touch of poignancy, remembering someone she knew once who reminded her of the victim...and quite often the criminal. For a kind, elderly spinster, Miss Marple has no scruples about reminding everyone, character and reader alike, that people really can be quite wicked. And sad. And lonely. And unwise. And inattentive. It's in noting these kinds of characteristics in all people that she often discovers the line running right through the story that other, more professional sleuths all too often miss.

Speaking of missing, I miss her in this book. While I mostly liked the story's narrator, Jerry Burton, an airman recovering from an accident, I kept impatiently waiting for Miss Marple to show up on the scene and set him and his sister Joanna straight about what's going on in the little village in which they recently settled. They settle there in a rental home so Jerry can recover from his injuries; they think this out-of-the-way hamlet will provide Jerry with just the rest and peacefulness he needs. Little do they know that little out-of-the-way hamlets can sometimes be seething with scandals and unsolved crimes. This one certainly is.

In fact, the town of Lymstock, which "had been a place of importance at the time of the Norman Conquest"  but by "the twentieth century it was a place of no importance whatsoever," seems cozy and quiet enough for a convalescing soldier. But the Burton siblings haven't been there very long when they become the recipients of a nasty, anonymous letter, the kind put together with letters cut from an old book. It turns out that they aren't the only people in town to receive such a letter. Most of the town's most prominent residents have received at least one. These letters, whose typed envelopes tell little about their author, while the postmarks indicate the author is local, accuse people in vague and general terms of awful but unprovable things.

Jerry and Joanna find themselves trying to puzzle out the identity of the letter writer, but they, like the local police, can't get too far at guessing who it might be. In fact, in spite of the annoying embarrassment of the letters, hardly anyone takes them too seriously...until the shock of receiving one seems to send a resident into such a tailspin that she commits suicide. Or does she?

It's not long before a maid who served at the home of the dead woman also turns up dead, this time unmistakably murdered, presumably for something she might have seen. Before you know it, Scotland Yard is called in. And before you can pour yet another cup of tea (lots of tea gets poured in this one) another resident gets impatient with the professionals and calls in her old friend Jane Marple to try to figure things out.

By the time Jane got called, I was feeling rather impatient. She appears in only a handful of scenes, and while she's her sweet and smart self, asking the right questions and ultimately setting up the dangerous encounter with the correct suspect, I felt a bit cheated that we hadn't had more time with her. I'd be curious to know why she appears so little in the book. Did Agatha Christie already have a book ready in the wings without any Miss Marple at all, only to have her publishers tell her that the old lady's first two tales had been such a hit the public was demanding more? But if so, why not go back and put her in more from the start? It wouldn't have been so hard to do. If she was the friend of a resident in Lymstock, why not have her show up a fortnight earlier to visit? Or be called in by the friend before the first death in the town, just on the basis of the puzzle that needs solving about the author of the anonymous letters?

Besides being disappointed by not enough time with Miss Marple, I was a bit thrown off by the narrator. While I appreciated the way he thought through things regarding the mystery, I felt off balance by his lack of development from the beginning on. It took me a while to be sure he was male; it took me even longer to figure out his name (I don't think she mentioned it until well into the story, though she might have dropped it briefly and I just missed it). My favorite part of most Christie novels is her way with characterization, and she doesn't disappoint with a fine cast of townies and potential suspects, but I think she could have done more with her narrator, especially if we were getting page time with Jerry at the expense of page time with Miss Marple.

Ah well. Even Christie at her not-quite-best is still better than many people at their heights, and this was an enjoyable mystery with good touches of Christie humour and an interesting ending I didn't see coming. If you're a enthusiast for mysteries with elements of romance, I think you'll like what she does here too -- not in one part of the story, but actually in two.

I'm thankful that The Moving Finger wasn't where the Miss Marple stories ended...most of the best ones, in fact, were still to come.

***1/2 stars
First published in the US in 1942 and in the UK in 1943 

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