Thursday, February 1, 2024

Second Apparition: A Bloody Child/ By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), Agatha Christie

The penultimate Tommy and Tuppence Beresford mystery, By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) was published five years before their final adventure, Postern of Fate (1973), reviewed here, and reflects the author's greater control over her narrative powers in her late seventies compared with her early eighties.  The narrative has a far clearer beginning and end, though it bogs down in the middle, as was Christie's wont in her later novels.  

From At Bertram's Hotel on, pretty much all of her books, with the exception of the suspense novel Endless Night (1967), get muddled in the middle, as Christie stirs up a cloudy mass of obscure detail that she cannot quite disperse at the end.  The mashed pulp may be piquant in taste, but there's the danger of its sticking in the throat.  

The author's ability to produce really "clean" detective novels, with a clearly explicated plot and  clueing, had diminished, and she chose more to publish between 1965 and 1973 books which were thrillers or which had strong thriller elements: At Bertram's Hotel (1965), Endless Night (1967), Thumbs, Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) and Postern.  Only Third Girl (1966), Halloween Party (1969), Nemesis (1971) and Elephants Can Remember (1972) are pure detective novels, and none of these I would say is a major Christie, though Third Girl and particularly Nemesis have, in my estimation, considerable pleasures.  Nemesis, in particular, makes a fine curtain call for Miss Marple, the events in the later Sleeping Murder (1976) clearly having taken place before those in Nemesis.  (It's hard to reconcile Poirot's final appearance in Curtain, 1975, which seems clearly to take place in the Forties or perhaps Fifties, with all the "mod" stuff in Third Girl.)  

Thumbs brings Tommy and Tuppence back for the first time since they appeared in 1941 in the wartime mystery N or M?  Before that they had appeared two decades earlier in the novel The Secret Adversary (1922), which was set in 1920, in the early days after the previous world war.  They had also headlined Partners in Crime, a collection of short story pastiches of other mystery detectives, in 1929.  With one exception these charming stories first appeared between December 1923 and December 1924, the exception being "The Unbreakable Alibi," a Freeman Wills Crofts pastiche which was first published in 1928.  

Essentially Tommy and Tuppence (TT) were happy creatures of the madcap Roaring Twenties who Christie had decided to bring back in an espionage thriller when a second war with Germany broke out in 1939.  (Espionage thrillers understandably become quite the rage during the Second World War, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.)  Much is made of TT being a middle-aged couple in that book, as they were the only Christie series sleuths who aged in real time.  One might have thought that during the Fifties Christie might have retrieved the couple for a Cold War thriller, but instead she gave us the nonseries spy novels They Came to Baghdad (1951) and Destination Unknown (1954).  

So when TT pop up at in 1968 in Thumbs they had not featured in any Christie mystery for nearly three decades.  A whole generation of Christie readers had been born and grown to adulthood since the last one.  I wonder how many Christie fans even remembered TT, though it is true that The Secret Adversary was reprinted at least four times in paperback between 1946 and 1967, Partners in Crime at least three times between 1958 and 1963 and N or M? at least six times between 1947 and 1968.  N or M? in particular seemed to inspire paperback cover artists.  

Thumbs is the purest "mystery" of the TT novels, not really a spy novel or criminal gang thriller like her earlier two, thought, rest assured, references to the activities of a criminal gang do pop up in the story.  It's hard to call it a true detective novel, though, because the detection done by Tommy and Tuppence--really one should say Tuppence and Tommy, as the lady is, as ever, the catalyst to it all--is desultory and weak.  Tuppence relies more on intuition and hunches and she only solves one part of the mystery herself, the author saving up a big surprise for her (and the reader) in the final chapter.

But this is getting ahead of myself.  The book opens with TT visiting Tommy's cantankerous, possibly demented aunt, Ada Fanshawe, age 83, at a care home for elderly ladies.  She's a splendidly done nasty old crone, and Tuppence encounters a couple of additional aged denizens of the place, a woman she dubs Miss Cocoa because she querulously complains she hasn't had her cocoa, and a nice, white-haired, old lady named Mrs. Lancaster, who carries a glass of milk and creepily asks Tuppence whether that's her poor child behind the fireplace.  

As I recently posted about about here, this notably is the third and final appearance of this strange character in the Christie canon, her two previous ones being in Sleeping Murder and in The Pale Horse (1961), in the latter of which she is only recalled by another character.  I think the old woman is actually the same character and not just an incident Christie forgetfully kept repeating in books. It is in Thumbs that the character, named Mrs. Lancaster in this one, has by far her most significant appearance.  Incidentally, there is also a Mrs. Lancaster who appears in one of Christie's supernatural tales from the Twenties, and, while the two Lancasters bare some affinity with each other, I don't believe they are the same woman.  

Not long after TT's visit, Aunt Ada dies in her sleep at the home.  They learn that Mrs. Lancaster had given Ada a pretty painting of  house by a canal, but when Tuppence sees about returning it to her if she wants it back, she finds that Mrs. Lancaster was taken out of the home by a supposed relative and cannot now be traced.  Needless to say this gets Tuppence's dander up and she's tries to find Mrs. Lancaster herself.  

By coincidence, Tuppence is certain that she saw the house in the painting when she was on a railway journey and this becomes her means of locating it, which she eventually does.  It turns out that the house is in the vicinity of Sutton Chancellor, a village located a few miles from a favorite fiction haunt of Christie's, the town of Market Basing,   In Market Basing she meets a number of locals and hears a lot of strange things and eventually gets to the truth of the mystery, or rather the truth gets to her....

Thumbs is a lot more enjoyable than Postern of Fate, but given that Postern is the worst book Christie wrote, that's a limited compliment.  I would still say, though, that this is a decent book, despite the fact that the chronology of the past (this is another book about murders--in this case child murders--in the past) gets pretty muddled.  

For the most part Christie doesn't even try to provide dates for us.  Tuppence goes about listening to chatty  people who go on and on about the past, a pretty haphazard means of detection.  "What the hell am I doing here, anyway?" Tuppence angrily asks herself at one point, as "waves of fatigue swept over her."  One might almost suspect that this was how Christie felt when she was writing the book and trying desperately to provide a coherent, satisfying mystery.  

Later on, Tuppence frets to Tommy: "We've got hold of a lot of things.  It's as bad as a village jumble sale....We've got far too much of everything.  There are wrong things and right things, and important things and unimportant things, and they're all mixed up together.  We don't know where to start."  This almost sounds like a mystery author complaining about the agony of plotting and admitting to her readers that's it's all gotten pretty messy.  

If you've read the book, follow me into the SPOILERS SECTION below, where I try to follow the chronology of the book's mystery plot.


As readers of the book will know, it turns out, when Tuppence, visiting the deserted Canal House, finally encounters Mrs, Lancaster again, that the old woman, aged about seventy-five, is a maniac serial murderer.  She tries to poison Tuppence, like a later character in Postern of Fate, and when that doesn't work, she tries to stab her to death with a stiletto, in a scene rather resembling one from an earlier Christie novel.  (You probably know which one.)

Of course mad Mrs. Lancaster is foiled in her attempt to slay Tuppence and she drinks the poisoned milk herself.  Exit mad Mrs. L.  We learn that she killed "Mrs. Cocoa" with morphine at the care home.  (Did she kill Aunt Ada too, I wonder.  Aunt Ada was suspicious that something wicked was going on in the place.) 

Mad Mrs. L. was also responsible for the child murders, because she had gotten pregnant when she was running round, for fun, with a gang of crooks, and she had an illegal, botched abortion, which resulted in her becoming afflicted with a mania to provide her child with friends in the afterlife by murdering other children.  (This definitely recalls, without the murderous element, the early supernatural story, "The Lamp," where the perfectly decent mother is also named Mrs. Lancaster.)  

We also learn that after Mrs. L. got tired of her criminal career she married local landowner Sir Philip Starke.  (She came from a prominent local family that was inbred and dying out, the implication being that they were prone to insanity.)  After the marriage she started murdering children and, instead of doing the responsible thing, like telling the police, Sir Phillip, with the help of his loyal secretary, Nellie Bligh, had her placed in a series of care homes, away from children (though she later killed more people).  It was Miss Bligh, incidentally, who panicked and coshed Tuppence when she thought she was getting near the truth, putting her into the hospital.  Apparently Miss Bligh and Sir Phillip are just to be let off for their misdeeds,, why, exactly?

Young Agatha Christie with dolls
colorized by Olga Shirnina
Oh, Agatha, you wicked girl!
You made this book creepy but
rather confusing.

But the chronology of all this!  What a mess. We are told that, in a false story, Sir Phillip's wife died in 1938 and he left for Europe (1938, then, was actually when he committed his wife and told falsely people she was dead.)  But wait, Mad Mrs. L, as I will keep calling her, is stated to be about 75.  

So, let's say she was born in 1892, making her about Christie's age.  She got pregnant and had her abortion at 17, so that was around 1910.  Then we're told she became involved with a gang of crooks, when she was known as Killer Kate.  Then she dropped that and was a ballerina (!) for a while.  Then she married Sir Phillip.  Then she started murdering children.  Then she was put away in 1938.  

She would have been, by that time, about 46 years old.  She might have been married to Sir Phillip for twenty years, say.  The murders must have started in the 1920s or 1930s.  But one of the villagers tells Tuppence that the child murders took place about two decades earlier.  Since the novel is set after 1965 (that's a year mentioned in the book), this would have been after World War Two, after Mrs. L. had been institutionalized.  So how would she have committed the child murders?  Or were there more child murders later, after her child murders?  It's implied that Alice and Amos Perry, who live at the Canal House, have some hold over them and that Amos might have been the child murderer.  

Which brings us to the gang activity.  There is still an active gang of robbers in the area, hiding valuables in old houses.  Tuppence finds an old doll in the fireplace of the Canal House, which turns out to be filled with diamonds.  But Killer Kate aka Mad Mrs. L. was involved with crooks too.  That would have been like in the 1910s!  Was a present-day gang using the Canal House to hide loot, or was the Canal House used by Killer Kate's gang too?  What a coincidence, like Tuppence actually having glimpsed the same house, the Canal House, that was pictured in the painting that Mad Mrs. L. gave to Tommy's Aunt Ada.  

It's all very confusing, as characters in late Christies say....

Maybe some of my readers can help me out here!  


  1. I have to read this one again. I regularly re-read the first three Tommy and Tuppance books with enjoyment, but tend to not revisit the two late ones, as my younger self wasn't that interested in the issues related to ageing. But as someone fast approaching 70 myself now, I might read it with a different point of view.

    1. I'm rereading At Bertram's Hotel and there's lots there about aging and nostalgia for the past. My opinion of this one actually goes up each time, though parts of the plot are wooly, like Miss Marple's knitting.

  2. I do enjoy Betram's. As you say, the mystery plot isn't that strong, but I enjoy the atmosphere and Miss Marple. In fact, I think I like all of the Miss Marple novels and almost all of the short stories, in various ways. However, there are some Poirot novels and story collections that I don't really enjoy. The Big Four for example.

    1. I've reread about two-thirds and there are no great flaws, I think, if you accept the book for what it is. The criminal plot is a bit wild and woolly in the Edgar Wallace way, but it's all very interesting as late Christie characters say. There's much more narrative control than there is in Thumbs. I think Christie still had pretty good narrative control still though Endless Night.

      When I was a kid Bertram's bored me, I recall. It wasn't a classic mystery with a dead body in an early chapter and a penultimate chapter drawing room exposition with all the gathered surviving suspects.