Following a serious ‘plane accident, Jerry Burton is sent to the country to recuperate with his sister Joanna as company. They haven’t been in Lymstock long before they receive an anonymous letter that states their relationship is conjugal rather than sibling. Other villagers have already received similar missives but they aren’t taken that seriously until one of the messages hits too close for comfort and a lady commits suicide as a result.
As an outsider, Jerry is taken into the confidence of the police as they try to identify a letter writer who may now have to kill to keep their secret. However it is only when the vicar’s wife calls in an expert that the case can be closed.
There were a couple of quotes that caught my eye for very different reasons:
One character says “I loved Maths…it’s heavenly. I think there’s something heavenly about numbers, anyway, don’t you?”
And Jerry’s own thoughts on their landlady: “Emily Barton, I think, has a mental picture of men as interminably consuming whiskies and sodas and smoking cigars, and in the intervals dropping out to do a few seductions of village maidens, or to conduct a liaison with a married woman.”
Something else which particularly stuck out, which I commented on when reviewing Busman’s Honeymoon, is the poor lot of the servant. In this case, at least from Partridge’s perspective, not being able to use the telephone and not being able to entertain friends (even in the kitchen). Plus the fact that Agnes Woddell’s name initially is completely unknown to Jerry, even though he has been entertained by the Symmington’s – a whole class of non-people.
Not a top-tier Christie, but still much more than satisfactory.
Recurring character development
Her current maid is called Edith.
Signs of the Times
Though first published in 1942, the story is set pre-war although the mention of brave young men who fly may mean that the clouds of war are gathering.
Miss Emily Barton has no ashtrays in her house but recognises that everyone smokes now.
Joanna is surprised that people leave calling cards.
Colonel Appleton is described as being “a Blimp type”. Colonel Blimp was a cartoon character created by David Low in 1934. He was a satire of reactionary British views and was the model of a stereotypical retired army officer.
At one point Owen Griffith greets Jerry but ignores Joanna. He says he didn’t see her and she says “After all I am life size” to which Jerry says “Merely kit-kat”. It appears that he is saying that she isn’t that tall as a kit-kat is a half-length portrait of one of the members of the 18th century Kit-Cat club.
Jerry shows Aimee Griffith a Chinese picture called “Old Man enjoying the Pleasures of Idleness”. Christie refers to this picture herself in the foreword to her autobiography.
The song that Jerry hums which begins to end with “Oh maid, most dear, I am not here” is taken from “Sailing beyond Seas” by Jean Ingelow (1820-97).
When Jerry talks about tinned food being shipped in from the far-flung limits of empire Joanna says “Life ivory, apes and peacocks?” which is a quote from the poem “Cargoes” by John Masefield (1878-1967) who was Poet Laureate at the time.
For a brief moment Jerry sees Elsie Holland as a Winged Victory. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is a (now headless) sculpture of the Greek goddess Nike.
The Symmington boys played Animal Grab, which I envisioned as some form of horseplay but is actually a Snap type game where you make the noise of the animal paired rather than saying “snap”.
Mr Pye says “Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues” which is a quote from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part II”.
Mr Pye refers to the case of Lizzie Borden who was tried and acquitted of the 1892 axe murders of her father and stepmother.
Napoleon’s Book of Dreams was a great stand-by of Jerry’s old nurse. Napoleon’s Oraculum (or Dreambook or Book of Fate) was a translation made at Napoleon’s personal request of a manuscript found in an Egyptian tomb in 1801 during a French military expedition. He consulted it before making major decisions.
The Shakespeare sonnet quoted in a letter is number 75.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “How – At least two deaths with different means”.
In typical Christie fashion, this is a poison pen mystery which is nothing of the sort as Miss Marple says in her summing up:
“You just come down to the actual facts of what happened. And putting aside the letters, just one thing happened – Mrs Symmington died.”
Unlike in a previous mystery, the assumption of the writer’s gender here is much more persuasive, though we are also presented with a male (but deliberately unmanly) suspect in Mr Pye. However, as this is Christie the reader should perhaps have been more suspicious.