By The Pricking of My Thumbs, Agatha Christie

agatha christie

Agatha Christie can always be relied upon to keep me reading long after I should have switched off the bedside light. Even when she’s not at her best (which she sadly isn’t in By the Pricking of My Thumbs), her novels contain so many complexities, clues and red herrings that I’m compelled to read on and on and on just to find out who did what and how. I long ago gave up trying to piece together the clues myself however, preferring to leave the hard graft to the sleuths, whether that is the flamboyant professional Hercule Poirot or the quietly razor-sharp amateur, Miss Jane Marple.

It was years before I realised via a BBC series that Christie had created two other sleuths;  Tommy Beresford and his wife Tuppence.  By the Pricking of My Thumbs is the fourth novel to feature this pair though the first I’ve read. Unlike her other sleuths, Christie advanced the ages of this page with each novel according to real time, so in By the Pricking of My Thumbs we find them as grandparents rather than the  bright young adventurers introduced in the first book published in the 1920s. Advancing age has not however dimmed their interest in adventures or their ability to smell when something isn’t quite right.

 

Their suspicions are aroused after a visit to Tommy’s Aunt Ada at Sunny Ridge Nursing Home.  Tuppence is perturbed by another resident, a Mrs. Lancaster, who, in the midst of a conversation suddenly asks: “Was it your poor child?”and goes on to talk about “something behind the fireplace”. Three weeks later Aunt Ada dies and leaves Tommy  a painting given to her by Mrs.Lancaster. Tuppence wants to return the painting to its rightful owner but learns Mrs Lancaster has been removed from Sunny Ridge and all attempts to contact have come to nothing. Tuppence is sure the house featured in the painting is one she has seen before. If she can only find that house she might be able to find Mrs Lancaster, she reasons. With Tommy off at a conference, she has time on her hands to go in search of the house, and the missing woman. It’s a quest that leads her to a village where multiple children were murdered some 20 years earlier and a house considered haunted by some locals.

The solution is a complex one, involving a doctored painting, diamond smugglers, secret rooms and a woman who Tuppence thinks could pass for a friendly witch.  One of the first critics of the novel, Robert Barnard, wasn’t impressed with the way the novel progressed, commenting that it started well but declined rapidly into “a welter of half-realised plots.” I didn’t notice any half-finished plots myself though I did feel the ending was rather rushed. The middle section moved along at a satisfying pace however.  This features Tuppence primarily, following her as she uses logic and determination to pinpoint the house in the painting and interview a few of its neighbours before going missing.

I’m glad I encountered Tommy and Tuppence in their advancing years rather than as the “bright young things” of the 1920s as they were portrayed in Partners in Crime and The Secret Adversary. Their age gives them a more reflective edge which Christie plays up in the early chapters when they discuss whether to visit Aunt Ada.

It is regrettably true that in these days there is in nearly every family, the problem of what might be called an “Aunt Ada.” …   Arrangements have to be made. Suitable establishments for looking after the elderly have to be inspected and full questions asked about them. … The days are past when [they] lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants.

Not that the Beresfords have any illusions about all elderly people being sweet natured and docile. Tuppence takes the stance that some in their eighties are perfect devils and she will feel sorry only for those elderly people who are genuinely nice.  When the book begins neither she nor Tommy actually think of themselves as old or realise that other people automatically considered them deadly dull solely on account of their age. But by the time the book reaches its climax, Tuppence, threatened by a killer, comes face to face with her own reality: that she is old and her body is not that of the young girl who put her life in danger while operating on the fringes of the intelligence service.

Miss Marple will always remain my favourite Agatha Christie sleuth but I’d be happy to meet up again with the Beresfords in the next, and final novel Postern of Fate when apparently they are in their seventies and have retired to a rambling old house in a quiet English village.

Footnotes

About this book: By the Pricking of My Thumbs was first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1968.  The title of the book comes from  one of the witches’ speeches in Act 4, of Macbeth. 

Why I read this book: I found this in a list of books published in 1968 when I was searching for something to read as part of the #1968club hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen at kaggsysbookishramblings. I needed a change of pace after reading Vernon God Little.

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on November 3, 2017, in Book Reviews, British authors, Crime and thrillers and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. I’d never heard of Tommy and Tuppence before the tv adaptation, which got middlinlg reviews so I skipped it. This doesn’t the best intro to them though the slightly gothic feel which comes over and the stuff about aging is interesting.

    Not sure I’ll go back to Christie now. I read lots by her as a teenager but was rather burnt by one which was a stand-alone and ended up celebrating fascism. It rather put me off her though ti seemed very much sui generis and I’ve never come across it since in reprints suggesting that it may just have been a very bad book by her.

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  2. I dislike the way that recent Christie adaptations have shoe-horned Miss Marple into stories she has no business being in – the recent outing of this story has her in, and I dont remember her having much (any?) involvement in the book. There are enough Tommy and Tuppence stories for the BBC to have made a series “back in the day”, so why cant ITV be investing in them now? Or will the actors only turn up for a “Marple” story but not a Beresford.

    And I too like that the characters are getting older (same happens in the Ngaio Marsh Alleyn stories) – at least they kept that bit in the TV adaptation!

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  3. Since my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence it’s fairly clear I’m a fan of these books. I agree they’re not Christie’s best, but I love the characters, especially Tuppence. And I found this book particularly creepy with all the “Was it your poor child?” stuff. Those Fontana covers by Tom Adams are wonderful – they were coming out when I had just started working and I bought one each fortnight on payday. They’re still the ones on my bookshelves – older, yellower, and well-thumbed now.

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  4. One day, I would love to reread all of her books. I did read all of Sherlock Holmes this year, so maybe soon

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  5. Great review, the ending probably is a bit rushed but I must say I did love it. More for it characterisation than anything else.

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  6. I went through an Agatha Christie phase in my younger days, but not the Tommy and Tuppence novels. No particular reason for that. I guess I just read what was available from the local library at the time – mostly Miss Marple if my memory serves me correctly!

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  7. I think I’ve read every AC there is. I went through a major Blytonesque phase in my youth – a kind of recovery from university reading – and so I found everything I could by certain authors and AC was one of them.
    But I didn’t get any better at solving the crimes…!

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    • I watched a fascinating drama about Blyton last week which made her to be a truely horrid woman. She would have children to tea (they’d won it in a competition) and have lots of jelly eating and games but would insist her own children were nowhere to be seen and they never got to play games at all with her. How much of this is true I don’t know but there had to be a grain of truth

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      • Well, although like most children of that era when there wasn’t much to choose from, I liked her books, as an adult I judge her by the words on the page. In all her mysteries, (Fives, Sevens, school stories) it turns out to be people with ‘swarthy’ complexions who do the deed, or who are dishonest and lazy, and her middle-class children patronise and outwit stupid adults who are invariably working class, such as servants or police. Individually, a Blyton book does no harm, but collectively they may contribute to the development of attitudes and values that I despise. A responsible adult can easily counter this, but really, when there are so many wonderful children’s books around now, I can’t fathom why anyone today would want their kids reading Blyton. It’s nostalgia, I suppose. But I used to find, as a teacher-librarian, that although parents sometimes donated Blyton books for the school library, they stayed on the shelf because the kids much preferred reading stories about children they could identify with, from their own era.

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  8. Love the old Fontana cover

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  9. I am disproportionately fond of Tommy and Tuppence, even when the books are acknowledged as not amongst Christie’s best! 🙂 And I bet this *was* a change after Vernon God Little!

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  10. I have never read Christie, and I am feeling left out, so I might have to start. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. I read Christie as a teenager via a friend of my mother’s who lent me all her copies. However, she didn’t like the Beresfords and so I only got to know Poirot and Miss Marple. I haven’t re-read any of the novels since then and I’d love to find time to go back to her. Maybe the Beresfords are the way to go because they would be new reads.

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  12. Horrible confession time: while I have heard of Tommy and Tuppence thanks to my lovely book blogging friends, I have never read an Agatha Christie novel!! *ducks to avoid thrown object* However, my book club is reading Murder on the Orient Express in December. That’s after the release of the movie, but the movie is why someone voted for it. Should I watch the movie first, or read the book first?

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