Tuesday, 15 December 2009

A Pocket Full of Rye (1954)

Plot: Murder by nursery rhyme brings Marple to Yewtree Lodge.

This story mixes Death By Nursery Rhyme with the House of Evil magnificently. It helps that this is a really very well written book - it's full of carefully observed human behavious, and again features a typing pool (just as entertaining as in The Clocks and They Came To Baghdad). The typing pool gives us our opening:

"It was Miss Somers's turn to make the tea. Miss Somers was the neewest and the most inefficient of the typists. She was no longer young..."

Much is made of Christie's poisonous work at a dispensary, but clearly she also understood office warfare. The scene where the staff argue over who to call when they find their boss has been poisoned is brilliantly funny and also features a clash between Old Medicine and the NHS ("They won't come. Because of the National Health.") and even discussion of 999.

To prove that Christie has moved with the times, there's much discussion of The Servant Problem. Instead of the wonderfully staffed houses of the 1920s, Yewtree Lodge is understaffed, but order is kept by the marvellously dry Miss Dove not afraid to help out with cooking, cleaning and dishing up (an echo of the splendid Lucy Eylesbarrow in 4.50 from Paddington).

Yewtree Lodge is a return to the House of Evil that we first saw in The Mysterious Affair At Styles. The whole household are variously described as unpleasant, nasty and odious. These are all unhappy people bound together by secrets and mealtimes - an unhealthy atmosphere that results in murder. The catharsis of murder is like the cleansing of the stables - by the end of the book most of the cast may be dead, but those who remain have found a measure of happiness and contentment.

A lot of this is brought about by Miss Marple who is deliberately ordinary. The Police Inspector just accepts her: "Miss Marple was very unlike the popular idea of an avenging fury. And yet, he thought, that was perhaps exactly what she was."

She is both winged nemesis and a cup of hot cocoa. There's a lovely scene where we find Miss Marple has temporarily transformed Yewtree Lodge simply by sitting in a corner of it and knitting. As one character remarks:

"With the fire and the lamps and you knitting things for babies. It all seems cosy and homely and like England ought to be."

To which Miss Marple replies: "It's like England is."

If Miss Marple restores order, she also pigeon-holes people. Young Pat, married into the poisonous family, is, Miss Marple decides, out of place: "A background of shabby chintz and horses and dogs, Miss Marple felt vaguely, would have been much more suitable that this richly furnished interior decor."

Amidst all the bodies dropping like flies, it is easy to forget that Miss Marple comes not to avenge the death of the financier, or his fine wife, but their plain silly servant girl - simply because Miss Marple knew her and liked her, despite her foolishness. Again, it's a sign of the changing times that we get mention of holiday camps and motion pictures filling girls' heads with ideas above their station.

Again and again this is a novel about people being neatly dusted down and put in their proper place like ornaments. Poor Gladys would not have died if she hadn't had fancies beyond a teashop. Pat would be happier with horses. And Miss Marple decides that Mrs Percvial Fortescue is like Mrs Emmett the bank manager's wife in St Mary Mead. He had "married beneath him and the result was that his wife was in a position of great loneliness since she could not, of course, associate with the wives of trades people."

In this book we see clearly that Miss Marple does not strive for utopia, simply for the status quo. When asked if St Mary Mead is a nice place, she's not romantic:

"It's quite a pretty village. There are some nice people living in it and some extremely unpleasant people as well."

Structurally, the book makes another great change from formula Poirots of 100 pages of set up, a murder, some interrogations and some unmasking. The corpses start piling up pretty much from the first page, and you can tell that Christie is having enormous fun working out her plan.

This brings us to the nursery rhyme, which either both fits the story superbly and clangs around like ball bearings in a bean bag. It adds to the almost supernatural feeling of murder as a negative force of vengeance, the exact opposite of Miss Marple. The twists and turns of the plot that explain the rhyme are clever and cunning... but, at the same time, you realise the significance of the rhyme is the very weakness of it as a device. It's almost like the killer is revealing their plot. As Miss Marple points out at a certain point in the book, there will be no more killings because there is no rhyme left. Worse, she's worked out that there simply must be a connection between the blackbirds in the rhyme and the mysterious Blackbird Mine... a connection which makes it painfully easy to work out who the murderer is simply by spotting who keeps on mentioning the mine...

And yet this remains a great, great book and another triumph for Miss Marple. If not, we realise at the end, a triumph for the Royal Mail; Miss Marple gets home, order restored, chaos thwarted, and finds a misdirected letter which would have solved the case if it had been delivered on time.

NEXT: And Then There Were None: A triumph of plot over racism?


  1. You might like to submit this post to the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Blog Carnival. See details here.