Written by Agatha Christie — Last year, we began Classics in September and it’s fair to say we included plenty of hardboiled and noir material from the 1940s and 50s. Chandler, Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald and James M Cain all featured alongside the Top Five Women of Noir. Maybe we didn’t include enough on the Golden Age of crime fiction. For Classics in September 2013 we’re putting that right, and have spotted a book on the shelf that seems to be the perfect introduction to Agatha Christie’s work.
Originally published on 9 November 1953, A Pocket Full of Rye was the sixth outing for Christie’s elderly amateur sleuth Miss Jane Marple. The novel was initially serialised in 14 heavily abridged instalments printed in the Daily Express newspaper between 28 September and 13 October 1953, before being integrated the following month.
As the book opens we are immediately drawn into the busy office of the wealthy financier, Rex Fortescue. It’s a well-ordered world with tea brewed at a specific each time each day. Fortescue’s personal secretary, Miss Grovenor, visits the staff kitchen to make her employer’s tea from his own personal supply in his own personal teapot. This kind of fuss being made over such a fussy character is often a harbinger of death in novels of this ilk… and crisis ensues not long after his morning beverage is served.
Within minutes Rex Fortescue is gripped by a searing pain. By the time he gets to the local hospital it’s too late and the only doctor to be administering to our victim is charged with determining the cause of death. This turns out to be taxine poisoning. It’s an unusual murder weapon – the toxin is derived from the seeds of a yew tree. However, what’s also strange is the discovery of some grains of rye in his suit pocket. How was the poison administered, and by whom? Why the rye?
Enter Inspector Neele of Scotland Yard, and the scene then moves to the home of the victim, Yewtree Lodge, where the cast of suspects gradually begins to gather. Suspicion initially falls on the widow of the deceased. Adele Fortescue is a young woman who obviously married the rich, older man for his money and conveniently has a paramour in the wings in the form of golf coach, Vincent Dubois. Could the pair have conspired to kill? The trouble with that theory is that within hours of Neele’s arrival, his prime suspect is found dead in the sitting room having just consumed tea and scones. When housemaid Gladys Martin is subsequently found strangled with a clothes peg on her nose, any theories the police have are thrown into disarray.
On hearing of her former maid’s death, Miss Marple determines to find out who killed the tragic young girl and treated her with such contempt by leaving the peg on her nose. By the time she arrives at Yewtree Lodge, an hypothesis has already begun to form in this shrewd old lady’s mind and it all centres around the nursery rhyme – Sing a Song of Sixpence. So, we’ve seen the rye, but where do the blackbirds fit in?
The first thing that strikes you as you read this book is the sense 0f being drawn into the story just as though you’re at the theatre. A Pocket Full of Rye is like play in three acts. The first sets the scene with the victim only being introduced towards the end, in his death throes, and the police arriving to investigate the murder. In act two, the dramatis personae are revealed together with their potential motives for murder. Agatha Christie is subtly inviting you to assess each character and determine for yourself who you believe to be the killer. Although present, Miss Marple’s role is to direct you, just as she directs Inspector Neele, with clues and tips on assessing the facts. But, will you make the same conclusion as Miss Marple when she makes the final reveal in the third act?
In total, Christie only wrote 12 novels featuring Miss Marple, although the character did feature in several short stories. The series has been dramatised and televised a number of times, and is easy to dip in and out of. For my money, A Pocket Full of Rye is the perfect introduction for anyone new to Christie. It may seem gentle and sedate, with the odd dash of humour added, but this is definitely a mystery with greed at its heart and a sting in its tail.
A Pocket Full of Rye is still in print, and is available for Kindle through HarperCollins.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars