#69 – By the Pricking of My Thumbs

When visiting Tommy’s aunt at Sunny Ridge old people’s home, Tuppence meets Mrs Lancaster who, seeing her looking at the fireplace, asks “Was it your poor child?” then goes on to say “That’s where it is, you know. Behind the fireplace.”

Three weeks later Aunt Ada has died in her sleep and the only trace of Mrs Lancaster is a picture of a house that she gave her before she was taken away by relatives. A house that Tuppence has seen once before, if only she could remember where.

So while Tommy attends the annual conference of the International Union of Associated Security, she wends her way through the English countryside to find the mystery house and to see whether Mrs Lancaster really did know about a historic crime.

I quite enjoyed this book up until about two thirds in and the appearance of Mr Eccles and everything went all Bertram’s Hotel for no reason whatsoever. I liked how Tuppence and Tommy both got to the same result by different means and it is good to see them at the next stage of their life together. With a better ending this would have been a fitting ending for the Beresford saga…but then we’d still have Postern of Fate to come!

Recurring Character Development

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford

Are now an elderly couple. Traces of his red hair remain but generally it is a sandy-cum-grey colour. Her black hair is now adulterated with random streaks of grey.

His mother has been dead for nearly forty years.

They’ve been married for over thirty years and their son and daughter are also married.

They honeymooned in Ostend.

She enjoys White Lady cocktails.

She has a god daughter called Anthea.

Albert Batt

Is now portly and is the Beresfords non-live-in servant.

His wife’s name is Milly and his youngest child is called Elizabeth. Some of his other children are Charlie and Jean.

Before meeting the Beresfords worked for six months with an antique dealer.

Signs of the Times

When Tommy mentions a book that teaches five year olds to paint in water colours his friend Robert says “Grandma Moses in reverse.” Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) only started painting seriously at the age of 78 and enjoyed a very successful career despite starting so late in life.

References to Previous Works

They reminisce about the events of N or M? What they thought may happen at the end of that book can’t have come to pass.


The Problem of the Wire Cage (1939) by John Dickson Carr

Hugh Rowland wants to marry Brenda but she is engaged to Frank Dorrance asWire Cage under the terms of his uncle’s will they only inherit his fortune if they marry. the only exception is if one of them dies before the wedding can take place which is more than a little awkward for Brenda when Frank’s body is found in the middle of a clay tennis court which shows both their footprints leading to the body but only hers returning. If she didn’t strangle him then who could have done so without leaving any trace of their presence?

Enter Dr Gideon Fell thus:

“He turned round like a galleon and blinked towards the lighted house. They saw eyeglasses on a broad black ribbon; a vast pink face beaming like that of Father Christmas; and a bandit’s moustache.”

This type of crime is right up his street; the ordinary, as he says himself, is not for him:

“My scope in police work, I cheerfully admit, is limited. I could not tell you whether it was One-Eyed Ike or Louie the Lizard who cracked Isaac Goldbaum’s safe. If I were to attempt shadowing anybody, the shadowee would find himslef about as inconspicuous as though he were to walk down Piccadilly pursued by the Albert Memorial. Nor can I take one look at a footprint and tell you who made it. No. I am – h’mf – merely your consultant on the outré; or, to put it more popularly, the old guy who enjoys funny business.”

The plan of the court showing the wire fence surrounded by tightly growing poplars surrounded by a yew hedge reminded me of one of my favourite Father Brown stories – although the method there could not possibly have been used in this case.

When I came across a particular phrase I remembered a murder method from a short story which would fit the bill and for a time I was sure I was right – and then after more was revealed I decided I was wrong. Until another thing was mentioned and I thought I had been on the right track but the second murder meant that was no longer possible (at least without breaking the Knox Decalogue!). So I was most satisfied to be proven wrong when Dr Fell revealed both the method and the murderer.

Not a first-rate Carr by any means, but tier two is still better than many people’s best.

This is part of my series on the 100 Greatest Literary Detectives.