Rex Fortescue, his wife, and parlourmaid are all murdered in quick succession by a killer who has made only one mistake that they couldn’t possibly have foreseen – Gladys, the maid, used to work for Miss Marple and she will let nothing get in the way of her duty to help solve the very wicked murder of her former employee.
Grains of rye were found in Rex’s jacket pocket, Adele had been eating bread and honey for tea, and a clothes peg had been clipped onto Gladys’ nose – Miss Marples believes these are all connected to the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”.
She is aided by Inspector Neele, who is delightfully described as:
“a highly imaginative thinker, and one of his methods of investigation was to propound to himself fantastic theories of guilt which he applied to such persons as he was interrogating at the time.”
And yet despite this quality, even he cannot put together a theory for what has happened, and it is Miss Marple with her comprehension of human character who sees her way once again to the truth.
I think this book is the first time where Miss Marple’s role is clearly marked out as Nemesis when Inspector Neele thinks:
“that Miss Marple was very unlike the popular idea of an avenging fury. And yet that was perhaps exactly what she was.”
This case is extremely personal for Miss Marple – we have come along way from the parlour game solving of “The Thirteen Problems” – which is seen in some of the most powerful last lines in a Christie:
“The tear rose in Miss Marple’s eyes. Succeeding pity, there came anger – anger against a heartless killer.”
But even this over-ridden by the satisfaction of a job well done – she could not have saved Gladys from her fate, but she has played in her part in seeing her murderer is not unpunished:
“And then, displacing both these emotions, there came a surge of triumph – the triumph some specialist might feel who has successfully reconstructed an extinct animal from a fragment of jawbone and a couple of teeth.”
The solution, for me, is ingenious – it is at once ludicrous and yet perfectly fits this particular set of characters.
Recurring character development
She is tall – at least from Crump’s perspective – but light and spare.
Inspector Neele recognises that although she doesn’t look like the popular idea of an avenging fury, that is exactly what she is. This foreshadows her later role as Nemesis.
Her maids come from St Faith’s Home.
Her house is called Danemead.
Signs of the Times
Post-war rationing is still in evidence. Miss Grosvenor’s legs are “encased in the very best and most expensive black-market nylons”. The Fortescue’s have no scruples and can get hold of as much butter, eggs, and cream as they want.
When Rex Fortescue is taken ill there is confusion as to who to call. Possibly a hospital but which one – “It has to be the right hospital or else they won’t come. Because of the National Health, I mean. It’s got to be in the area.” Whether people at this time would really have been confused is unclear. The main problem is that for reasons of respectability they don’t immediately call 999.
When told that the dead man’s pocket contained cereal, Inspector Neele asks if it is breakfast cereal and mentions Farmer’s Glory and Wheatifax. Googling the former I found some promotional wooden figures which had been issued in the 1930s. The brand was owned by Alley Brothers and was a form of toasted wheat flakes, claimed to be the first British breakfast cereal. Searching for the latter only returns the passage from the book in various translations.
Inspector Neele was brought up at the lodge at the gates of Hartington Park, now taken over by the National Trust. The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty was formed in 1895 and given statutory powers in 1907. It became the owner of many country houses and stately homes in the mid-1900s as owners could not afford the upkeep or the death duties.
Miss Ramsbottom wonders if Inspector Neele has come about the wireless licence. My Grandma who was born in 1920 always referred to the radio as the wireless. A wireless licence was introduced in the UK in 1923 at a cost of 10 shillings per year following the creation of the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1922. No licence to listen to the radio was required from 1971 onwards.
Sergeant Hay feels that “Alice in Wonderland” is the type of content that would appear on the Third Programme, to which he does not listen. This was the third of the BBC’s radio networks after the Home Service and the Light Programme and ran from 1946 to 1967 after which it was replaced by BBC Radio 3. It was deliberately highbrow, criticised as being elitist for reasons such as broadcasting “two dons talking” but was supported by Ellen Wilkinson, the Education Secretary, who had written “The Division Bell Mystery” in 1932.
Miss Ramsbottom’s father was a strict Plymouth Brother. The Brethren movement actually began in Dublin in 1827 before being introduced to England in 1831 at Plymouth.
Percival suggests that Lance might climb Mount Everest. Although this book was published in December 1953 after the world’s highest mountain had been conquered in the May, it was probably written before anyone had succeeded in doing so.
Mention is made of the wonders that M and B makes in treating pneumonia. Sulfapyridine is an antibiotic which was commonly known as M&B 693 as that was the code given to it by May & Baker, the chemical company whose chemist, Lionel Whitby, discovered it.
References to previous works
Inspector Neele becomes aware of Miss Marple’s reputation during the case and when he mentions it, she replies that Sir Henry Clithering is a very old friend.
The choice of Gladys as first murderer is brilliant for a number of reasons. Firstly she is a servant and S. S. Van Dine’s rules tell us that servants are not allowed to be murderers. Secondly she is connected to Miss Marple and just like Jessica Fletcher’s close friends and relations in “Murder, She Wrote” can’t possible be the killer, despite all the evidence against them – at least I’ve never seen one where they were!
So although she virtually confesses to Inspector Neele:
“I didn’t do anything. I didn’t really. I don’t know anything about it.”
He (and we) overlook the fact the she looks guilty and terrified because that is what witnesses, especially of her class appear to be.
Second murderer Lance Fortescue is so obviously a bad hat that again we overlook him as too obvious a red herring, especially as he has an alibi for the murder of his father – which we should have been immediately suspicious of!
I love the clue about the Russian truth drugs hidden amongst Gladys’ newspaper cuttings, which themselves are just another item within her room. It reminds me of other clues such as the contents of the passengers’ luggage in “Death in the Clouds” and the contents of Mrs Ascher’s room in “The ABC Murders” – the one bit of gold in a list of rubbish – and yet identifying the treasure is so hard to do.
The whole scheme works because of Gladys’ naivety – we are told by Miss Marple that “she was a very silly girl” and “the credulous type”.