Monday, April 18, 2011

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

Very fun fluff from the mistress of intelligent, if somewhat pedestrian, fluff -- just the thing to devour on a day off, when you have decided to try for the first time that old-fashioned egg-and-mayonnaise treatment supposed to be so good for lustrous hair. This experiment entails a lot of sitting around, with your head swathed in plastic wrap and a towel, so why not read? 

It's a tale of a country village murder, just as Agatha Christie invented it. Well done. Certainly we never see the murderer coming. And it's a Miss Marple tale, too, although that delightful lady, frustratingly, does not show up until the story is five-sixths finished. She is much more visible in the short stories that bear her name, rather than in the novels. As for the romance between Jerry and Megan, that is a little stiff. Bravo to Christie for trying to imagine herself into the mind of a man abruptly in love, but her sensibilities just aren't quite in it. Jerry limping on his "sticks" is too elderly and Megan too childlike for them to be convincing as a pair. Effeminate Mr. Pye is far more fun. (He reminds me of Georgie in the Mapp and Lucia novels.) "And then," he gushes the only time we meet him, "the dreadful old woman died, but of course it was far too late then. They just went on living there and talking in hushed voices about what poor Mamma would have wished."

Christie is at her best with old ladies like Mr. Pye or the five elderly spinsters whom he is gossiping about, or indeed with Miss Marple. I've always liked the way she uses sharp-as-a-tack old women to comment upon the twentieth century's mostly direful social changes. Her old ladies always know the routine of a correctly run country house, or what to wear to what occasions, but more importantly they know how to spot an unscrupulous man, or when to sack an unsatisfactory housemaid and never mind compassion for the lower orders, she's a thief who doesn't deserve a good reference which she would then use to prey on her next employer. The old ladies know "wickedness," and that human nature has not changed no matter that we've freed ourselves from corsets, hats, and (we imagine) bigotry and prejudice, not to mention silly old-fashioned inhibitions on our marvelous self-expression. It's all very refreshing. In one of her gentle arguments with her nephew Raymond, who is a very modern and enlightened and compassionate writer, Miss Marple notes what happens when whole generations decide to chuck most of what their ancestors knew about life. "Young people," she sighs, "say things that were never talked about in my day, but their minds are so terribly innocent ...."