Review: The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 1

I’ve been reading the Miss Marple books in order. Even though they’ve all been murder mysteries, the small-town vibe and gossip keep them light. Usually, series with a recurrent investigator feature that character as the lead, but the three Miss Marple stories I’ve read all feature different narrators. Miss Marple has been increasingly far from the action until here, in The Moving Finger, she only makes an appearance at the end.

The placid village of Lymstock seems the perfect place for Jerry Burton to recuperate from his accident under the care of his sister, Joanna. But soon a series of vicious poison-pen letters destroys the village’s quiet charm, eventually causing one recipient to commit suicide. The vicar, the doctor, the servants—all are on the verge of accusing one another when help arrives from an unexpected quarter. The vicar’s houseguest happens to be none other than Jane Marple. (Goodreads)

Jerry is my favorite narrator so far. He’s in the country to recuperate from a flying accident and has a jovial relationship with his sister, Joanna. They’re initially outsiders in Lymstock and Joanna doesn’t immediately get the memo on country dress:

I added: “Your face is all wrong too.”
“What’s wrong with that? I’ve got on my Country Tan Makeup No. 2.”
“Exactly,” I said. “If you lived in Lymstock, you would have on just a little powder to take the shine off your nose, and possible a soupçon of lipstick—not very well applied—and you would almost certainly be wearing all your eyebrows instead of only a quarter of them.”
Joanna gurgled and seemed much amused.
“Do you think they’ll think I’m awful?” she said. (Loc 8022)

The pace of the mystery is slower than in other Christie books I’ve read and the murder takes a while to happen. Through the first act, Jerry and Joanna are left to puzzle over anonymous notes which don’t seem terribly threatening at first. Tension builds nicely through these scenes while the reader waits for something to happen. The letters make wild and improper accusations, but they’re so obviously false that everyone’s reaction is to throw them on the fire. For a time, this is the biggest mystery:

“There are so many things the letters might say, but don’t. That’s what is so curious.”
“I should hardly have thought they erred on the side of restraint,” I said bitterly.
“But they don’t seem to know anything. None of the real things.”
“You mean?”
Those fine vague eyes met mine.
“Well, of course. There’s plenty of adultery here—and everything else. Any amount of shameful secrets. Why doesn’t the writer use those?” (Loc 8835)

In related mysteries: Why does Miss Marple take so long to arrive? Without her, the case moves along fine. Jerry makes a few deductions of his own and the investigators seem competent enough. Miss Marple’s presence feels tacked on (though it’s very welcome). I suppose it’s for the best that she’s minimally involved. For her to be centrally involved in each case, all the murders would have to take place in, or very near, St. Mary Mead, which would quickly strain credulity. St. Mary Mead is a lovely, sleepy village; it shouldn’t be awash with corpses. It’s amazing how many TV shows slide into this pitfall—as soon as the “regular Joe” starts investigating murders, bodies turn up everywhere… at weddings, in their favorite cafe, falling from the sky, and so on.

And Then There Were None is still my favorite Christie novel. The Miss Marple stories are more fun, but the solutions have yet to be as satisfying. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple’s explanation verges a bit close to “if everyone is acting according to stereotypes and generalizations, then here is the motive for the murder.” There was some of this in Murder at the Vicarage too, but it wasn’t as vexing since Miss Marple could also draw on her first-hand knowledge of her friends and neighbors.

Overall: 4.4 (out of 5.0) Unexpectedly, I have mixed feelings about Miss Marple’s presence in her own mystery series! She has a great way of making cryptic observations until she’s ready to solve the case, but she didn’t get to do much of that here. Also, the romantic side-plot felt unconvincing. I’m still not completely sure whether it’s entirely comedic or if it’s meant to be heartfelt too.

Image credit: Goodreads

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

19 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  3. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  7. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  8. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  9. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  11. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  12. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  13. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  14. She by H. Rider Haggard
  15. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  16. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  18. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  19. ??? (To Be Determined)

5 thoughts on “Review: The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie”

  1. I’ve read other reviews that describe how Miss Marple becomes less of a character in her own series. I wonder if these books were written during the age of the internet if she would help out on cases by email people advice or recording a podcast on how to be a good detective!

    Do you think Christie got tired of writing Miss Marple and thus practically cut her out of her own series? I know L.M. Montgomery got tired of writing about Anne Shirley. The more the books go on, the less Anne is even a presence. She slowly becomes “mother.”

    I definitely know what you mean about one small town having a constant body count. That’s why I love books that play with a theme instead of using the same character. There is an entire series of cozy mysteries about murder in connection to baking and cooking. I don’t believe it’s the same person, but the titles are all food related. Right now I’m reading a sexy vampires book that is part of a series, but the same character doesn’t come back–it’s just that these are all the author’s vampires books lumped together under a common series title. Otherwise, how many vampires could one human meet? Or have sex with??

    1. A Miss Marple podcast would be amazing! Or a pen-pal service—Murder by Mail or something. Haha.

      It would be a shame if Christie was tired of writing Miss Marple by book 3. I don’t know much about her personal life or writing process. I think it’s easier to read books without knowing too much about the author. If I’m curious, I might look up a biography after I’ve read the bulk of their work.

      Congrats on finding a non-repetitive vampire series! I’m still traumatized by Twilight; it’ll be a while before I touch vampire fiction again. 🙂

  2. I struggle with crime fiction. So many people are addicted to this genre and I am not.
    I must be missing something. I read AC ‘The Crooked House’ …and I must admit I was wrong and completely surprised by ‘whodunnit’ . I missed all the clues.
    But I never give July I’ll try Rex Stout’s Some Buried Caesar.
    Your #20BooksOfSummer reading progress is going very well….!
    PS: I’m not an Anne Tyler fan either….

    1. I’ve started reading crime fiction pretty recently. For the most part, I like the older/classic stuff better because it stays focussed on the mystery and clues. Some of the new titles are excessively gory/cruel and I end up putting them down halfway through.

      Have you read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant? I really think that’s Tyler’s best since its characters are a little less static. Writing the second half of my Breathing Lessons review was really cathartic. I still can’t believe how much Maggie got under my skin. That woman needs professional help.

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