The Three Grand Dames of Mystery: “The Moving Finger”


The Moving FingerJerry Burton has just been released from the hospital after six months spent there recovering from a serious back injury after he crashed the plane he was piloting and moves upon doctor’s orders to what he expects to be a slow village where nothing happens in Agatha Christie’s 1943 The Moving Finger. Jerry and his younger sister, the suave and stylish Joanna, move to Lymstock and soon immerse themselves in village life, where they become friends with all the locals. Thus, they are surprised when Jerry receives an anonymous note, known as a poison pen letter, stating that the cheap woman he is living with is not his sister, but really his lover. Disappointed that they clearly are not as welcomed in the community as they had assumed, the pair burn the letter in their own private ritual. However, soon Jerry learns that the whole village has been inundated by such letters. And though the letters have no basis in truth, people keep repeating the phrase, “No smoke without fire!” to indicate suspicions.

The poison pen letters lead to tragedy when, one morning, the maid wakes up Jerry with the news that the wife of the local solicitor, Dick Symmington, is dead. Jerry and Joanna have, in a way, taken in the woman’s daughter, Megan Hunter, an awkward 20-year-old who is treated like a little child by all around her, but especially her mother and step-father. So upon hearing of this death, the siblings go to invite Megan to stay with them for the near future, where they learn Mrs. Symmington has taken her own life upon receiving a letter claiming that her second son is not the son of her husband. It looks to everyone that for once there really is fire, meaning reality, with the smoke of rumor. But people now recognize that the crime has gone much past the offense of anonymous letters.

Jerry gets involved in helping the police to work to solve the matter, since the letters began before he moved to the village, making him clearly innocent. Different people interpret the feelings of the letter writer in different manners, but what they neglect to realize is the feeling of fear. That becomes evident when another body turns up. It is only after the second death that the wife of the vicar decides that she must act and bring in a crime specialist. Thus Miss Marple enters the scene.

This book is unusual in that Miss Marple plays only a minor role in it, something you wouldn’t expect for such a famous character. The character of Jerry, who narrates the book, is well developed, and he does keep the book moving. However, I did get mad at him once. He makes the comment about Megan that she is the ideal woman because she does what he expects of her without complaining. I have to just keep reminding myself first that Jerry is a product of his time, 1943, and that the narrator does not always speak for the author. Since Agatha Christie demonstrated a strong character in her personal life, the comment made by Jerry probably speaks less for her than for the stereotypical man of the day.

I also liked the interplay between Jerry and Megan as they get to know each other. Gradually, Jerry moves from seeing Megan as a child to recognizing her as a woman. They have interesting discussions about life, and though her education has been very limited, Megan has intriguing ideas about what made Goneril and Regan, the daughters of Shakespeare’s King Lear, behave as badly as they did. The pair end up discussing philosophy and the nature of work, showing positive views of Megan that contrast with the one in Jerry’s ideas earlier.

According to Wikipedia, the title of “The Moving Finger” refers to the finger that wrote on the wall at the banquet held by Balthazar in the book of Daniel. It can refer to the unseen person behind the finger that wrote the letters in the book. But also, the person writing these letters purposely disguised her or his typing by using a single finger all the time to keep the typing pattern uneven.

When over the age of 90, Joan Hickson, the definitive Miss Marple, had recording equipment brought into her house, since she was too weak to go to a studio to record the book. Now it is common for narrators to have sound-proofed recording studios in their homes, but at the time it was highly unusual. While Hickson does a great job of performing the book, I really wish that they had selected a different book for her to read. The book is narrated by a man, so it makes no sense for a woman to do the professional recording. Therefore, as much as I love the job Joan Hickson does, I choose to listen to the version read by Martin Jarvis . He really sounds as I imagine Jerry must sound. Jerry came to life right before my eyes as I listened to this book. He also handled the voices of the women characters fairly well, though Miss Marple came across as a bit shrill. I was impressed by his job as narrator.

The Moving Finger is a lesser recognized book by Christie, probably because Miss Marple doesn’t appear until the end. While I consider it one of the weakest Miss Marple books, I do think it is much better than many Poirot and other books by the famous author. It has a creative plot, one that few readers will be able to guess. I give the book four stars.

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