Agatha Christie's swift, slim 1942 novel The Moving Finger
is a Miss Marple mystery which very nearly does not have Miss Marple.In my version (the spiffy new Black Dog & Leventhal edition), the grandmotherly detective makes her first appearance on page 144 of the book's 201 pages. That's like Bruce Willis making his first appearance in a Bruce Willis movie twenty minutes before the end credits roll. Fifty-seven pages do not allow very much time for a detective to solve a case.However, even though she has what can best be described as an extended cameo role in The Moving Finger
, Miss Jane Marple pulls it off in grand fashion, as always.The story is told through the eyes of Jerry Burton who has come to the little village of Lymstock with his younger sister Joanna after he's been injured in a wartime plane crash. His doctor has advised him to "lead the life of a vegetable" in a place where he can find peace and quiet.At first, Lymstock seems like the perfect haven. Sure, the residents are a little eccentric-—but who isn't
when they live in Agatha Christie Land, right? From the first page of the novel, we're told that something is amiss and it centers around a series of anonymous letters which have been sent to several people living in the village.As Jerry tells us after he receives the first crude message, It seems odd, now, to remember that Joanna and I were more amused by the letter than anything else. We hadn't, then, the faintest inkling of what was to come—-the trail of blood and violence and suspicion and fear.
That first letter accuses Jerry and Joanna of engaging in sexual activity most unbecoming of a brother and sister. Agatha never discloses the contents of the letters, but lets our imagination dance around the possibilities of what it says. I have a feeling that what we imagine is much more graphic than how readers in 1942 would have filled in the blanks. Whatever we guess the letters to say, the language would not have been suitable for World War Two era readers.During a visit to the local doctor, Jerry happens to mention the letter (which he impetuously burned in the fireplace). Dr. Griffith drops his bag and exclaims, "Do you mean to say that you've
had one of them?"The epidemic of anonymous poison letters has been spreading around Lymstock for some time, Griffith tells Jerry, all of them "harping on the sex theme." The local solicitor Symmington was accused of illicit relations with his secretary ("Miss Ginch, who's forty at least, with pince-nez and teeth like a rabbit"), and even the doctor himself has received a letter which claims to have knowledge of him sleeping with some of his lady patients."What is this place?" Joanna wonders. "It looks the most innocent, sleepy harmless little bit of England you can imagine."That is Agatha's forte, of course-—ripping away the thin skin of gentility and good manners to reveal the gory, pestilential truth beneath. What reader hasn't known a two-faced, scheming liar who gets his or her jollies out of seeing innocent people suffer? Agatha knew how to craft a clever, often outlandish plot around an ordinary truth.Eventually, the venomous accusations become too much to bear and one character commits suicide-—ah, but was it really suicide? Perhaps there's something deeper, darker at work in Lymstock than just flooding the mail with wicked letters. Maybe there's more to it than just "sex and spite." Soon, paranoia is gripping the town: There was a half-scared, half-avid gleam in almost everybody's eye. Neighbor looked at neighbor.
The police are called in as more bodies begin to pile up and while the investigators do their best to sort through the psychological patterns they find in the letters, it isn't until Miss Marple makes her late entrance in the novel that we know the village residents can breathe a sigh of relief. It won't be long before this "tame elderly maiden lady" will unmask the letter writer.Sandwiched chronologically between The Body in the Library
and Murder in Retrospect
, The Moving Finger
is a fine addition to the Christie library. Agatha herself was partial to it, as she wrote in her Autobiography
, "I find that another one I am really pleased with is The Moving Finger
. It is a great test to reread what one has written some seventeen or eighteen years before. One's view changes. Some do not stand the test of time, others do."With its keen psychological probing of rumor and paranoia, this Christie mystery certainly stands the test of time.more