18 February 2014
Review: BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS, Agatha Christie
First published 1968
This version published for Kindle (Amazon) 2010
Synopsis (Agatha Christie site)
‘By the pricking of my thumbs Something wicked this way comes.’ When Tommy and Tuppence visit an elderly aunt in her gothic nursing home, they think nothing of her mistrust of the doctors; after all, Ada is a very difficult old lady. But when Mrs. Lockett mentions a poisoned mushroom stew, and Mrs. Lancaster talks about ‘something behind the fireplace’, Tommy and Tuppence find themselves caught in an unexpected adventure involving a strange inheritance, a mysterious house, black magic, and a missing tombstone.
This is Tommy and Tuppence Beresford's last "outing". Tommy has worked in "intelligence" all of his life, Tuppence has raised a family, and now they are retired. Tommy still gives lectures and consults in the intelligence field, and is about to go off to a conference for a few days, leaving Tuppence at a loose end.
The story begins when they visit Tommy's Aunt Ada in a geriatric nursing home and Tuppence, rejected by Aunt Ad! Spends her time with a Mrs Lancaster who makes a strange reference to a child in the chimney. Mrs Lancaster subsequently disappears, Aunt Ada dies, and Tuppence is not satisfied with explanations of where Mrs Lancaster has gone. And so the case begins. Tommy returns home from his conference to find that Tuppence has gone off sleuthing and has disappeared.
What I find interesting about these later Christie novels is how she has returned to each of her major characters and updated what has happened to them. (Although in the case of both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot these novels were written well ahead of when they were needed.)
Unlike Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot though, the Beresfords have aged in "real" time. While the Secret Service became Tommy's career, Tuppence has only been allowed "out of the house", so to speak, occasionally, apart from some active service in intelligence in World War II, and here you get a sense of wasted talent. A bit of feminism from Christie?
Another of the quirky things about this novel is that Christie seems to be exploring the nature of senility and dementia. For example some of the residents of Sunny Ridge where Aunt Ada lives are downright cranky at times, and many get their memories muddled up, and some even believe at times they are someone famous. At other times they clearly remember events from decades before, and recognize faces from the past.
What creates a serial killer? You could say that the last few pages of the novel focus on that issue.
An elderly woman believes that she has been chosen, but that at the same time she is suffering retribution.
"What I'd done was murder, wasn't it, and you can only atone for murder with other murders, because the other murders wouldn't really be murders, they would be sacrifices."
At the end of the novel Tommy tells Tuppence "Don't ever do it again." and she agrees. "I'm too old."
This indeed is their swan song.
I've been looking for signs that Christie's own mental powers were diminishing at this stage of her life, and I've come away feeling that she still had a lot to say. True, this is an unlikely tale, an escapist cozy, but I found it impressive.
My rating: 4.5
I've read this for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.