Agatha Christie liked using nursery rhymes as a unifying theme, and A Pocket Full of Rye, the only Miss Marple book to use this method, does this more strongly than in any other book. For those who do not remember both verses of the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” let me include them here:
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king.
The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And nipped off her nose.
Rex Fortescue, a rich financier, suddenly goes into convulsions while he’s at work and dies. Curiously, his jacket pocket is filled with cereal grain, which no one can explain. The doctor recognizes his death as coming from taxine poisoning, which comes from berries of the yew tree. This seeming clue turns out not to be very useful when Inspector Neele discovers that the entire Fortescue family, minus the younger son, lives in Yew Tree Lodge, so everyone must have access to the poison. Showing up at the “lodge,” which Inspector Neele sees as an estate rather than a lodge, Neele finds fakery and apathy about the death of the patriarch. The housekeeper, the “demure” Miss Dove, shows little emotion, while the extremely young new Mrs. Rex Fortescue, whose name is Adele and is “a real sexy piece,” per Miss Dove, pretends to be broken up in grief but still keeps the letters from her visiting lover. Mrs. Percival Fortescue, whose name is Jennifer, becomes taken up with wondering about the funeral arrangements. Then, Miss Ramsbottom, the almost fanatically religious sister of Rex Fortescue’s first wife, decides that God struck her brother-in-law down for his wickedness. When Percival, the older son, arrives from a business trip, he just wants to think about the company and reveals under interrogation that he has been worried that his father has become insane, making reckless purchases and behaving dangerously. In the past, Rex has been unscrupulous and cut throat in his business dealings with others. Thus, if it weren’t clear that Rex had to have been poisoned at breakfast, he would have a lot of enemies. Then, just as Neele thinks of Adele as his chief suspect, she is found dead too. And so is Gladys, the parlor maid, discovered taking in the laundry and with a clothes peg on her nose. Meanwhile, Lancelot, the younger son and black sheep of the family, comes home from exile in Kenya after having been summoned by his father, who seems to be impressed by Lance’s new wife, part of the “aristocratic riff-raff,” and wants to start over.
Now, enters Miss Marple. Gladys had been her own parlor maid whom Miss Marple got from the orphanage and trained before Gladys moved on to bigger and better jobs. Feeling responsible as the only family Gladys could claim, Miss Marple arrives at Yew Tree Lodge and proceeds to ingratiate herself to the inhabitants in her quest to represent her former maid. Noticing a lot of comparisons to the nursery rhyme, she sends Inspector Neele on the track of blackbirds and uses that to help solve the case.
This book is very creative in its solution and treatment of the case. I love the way that Christie used the nursery rhyme so effectively in developing the story and plot. Some of her contemporary critics were less than effusive in their reviews of the book, but I disagree about this. Christie showed once more why she was so skilled at playing fair with her readers by using all main characters as suspects and killer while still making the solution hard to guess. Her incorporation of the nursery rhyme into the whole book is clever and effective.
One element that I find interesting is Christie’s deviation from her usual style of creating characters the readers can like and identify with. Usually, even the murderer is someone we can at least sympathize with and get some connection to. But in this book, none of the characters are particularly nice. Lance comes across as a fairly charming rogue, and his wife, Pat, is someone we can at least pity for the hard life she has led. But the other characters do not give us much to relate to.
I also thought I’d point out another curious trivia detail from the book. The poison that kills Rex Fortescue, taxine, comes from the yew tree, and the doctor identifies it as something with no redeeming properties. At the date of publication, 1953, this was true, but a decade later, scientists discovered that taxine is effective at treating cancer. It is now the key ingredient in the chemotherapy drug tamoxifen, which is the main drug used for breast cancer in particular.
Rosalind Ayres performs the narration of the audio edition of this book. She does a great job at helping to draw the listeners into the book and has created excellent voices for the characters. Her gentle Irish accent for Miss Dove and voice of a drunkard in the butler, Crump, are just two examples of her terrific voices.
I enjoy A Pocket Full of Rye as a creative, clever book with my favorite Agatha Christie detective. It ranks in the middle of my list of favorite books in this series. I give the book four stars.
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