So far, and considering just how many books she wrote (I have loads more to explore), my favorite Agatha Christie mystery remains Death on the Nile. However, The Moving Finger, which I finished just before the holidays comes in a very close second and is by far my favorite Miss Marple mystery. It's a toss up which sleuth I prefer as I like them both, but I decided a while back I would read all the Miss Marple mysteries in the order they were written. I was thinking it would be fun to see how the character of Miss Marple develops, but to be honest so far she seems sort of static. Perhaps that's not surprising though, since she is an amateur detective and a mature one at that. You might even call her an armchair detective really since it's through her shrewd intelligence and ability to read people and understand human nature that she solves crimes. The detecting is left up to the, well, the detectives.
I was a little surprised to note that The Moving Finger was published in 1943, because it's an almost playful story. Evil may lurk below the surface, but there's something very fresh about the characters, especially the main characters Jerry and Joanna Burton. There is a wry humor to the storytelling and I kept thinking how if Alfred Hitchcock had filmed the story it would be something along the lines of The Trouble with Harry. I was happily reading along and enjoying myself immensely when I realized that I was halfway through the story and Miss Marple hadn't even made an appearance. How could that be? Isn't she the star of the show? She's not so much the star of this story, but she does in the end steal the show. I was never worried that she wouldn't solve the crime.
The title of the book refers to one of the lines from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, "the Moving Finger writes; and having writ, Moves on...", and the moving finger in this case is the author of a series of poison pen letters sent to the residents of the small village of Lymstock. The latest victims include both Jerry and Joanna, who are brother and sister but the letters imply they are actually something more but have lied about their relationship. Nasty and wicked business. And hardly a single villager is immune to receiving the letters.
Jerry and Joanna are Londoners, but Jerry is nursing injuries from a plane crash he received as a RAF pilot and Joanna is trying to mend a broken heart. The two have retired to Lymstock for a little peace and quiet, but instead they find themselves in the middle of small-town gossip (gossip being a favored sport in small towns and villages the world over). It all starts with the letters that they discover are rampant in Lymstock. So insidious are they that the wife of the local solicitor kills herself after accusations are made bringing her fidelity into question. So much for peace and quiet.
Scotland Yard becomes involved when they send a handwriting specialist to Lymstock. All clues point to the letter writer being a woman, and so all eyes turn to the women of Lymstock. Who could it be? The owner of Little Furze who has rented her home to the Burtons? The vicar's meddlesome wife? Maybe the governess who takes care of the solicitor's children? And if one death isn't tragic enough, a murder is then committed. Jerry takes an interest in solving the crime, usually ending up at the wrong place at the wrong time and getting in the detective's way. But the clues don't add up in this perplexing business. That's when Miss Marple is called in.
Agatha Christie mysteries are such great puzzles, and The Moving Finger is no exception. She's a dab hand at the fine art of creating a good red herring. What makes this particular story even more satisfying are the fine characterizations and the side stories. Both Jerry and Joanna become romantically involved with village residents. Joanna is marvelous, a chic Londoner and I could just imagine her sticking out like a sore thumb in Lymstock.
"Joanna is very pretty and very gay, and she likes dancing and cocktails and love affairs and rushing about in high-powered cars. She is definitely and entirely urban."
Jerry becomes involved with a young woman who seems a misfit compared to Joanna, but a misfit who undergoes a transformation by story's end.
I was curious what sorts of reviews the book received upon publication, but found only a very short blurb in the New York Times from October of 1943.
". . . Agatha Christie leads suspicion from one to another along her subtly skillful path. Needless to say her story is swift-moving and highly original: one of the better productions by a writer whose work is always good."
Apparently this was one of Christie's own favorites. It has been adapted to TV in 1985 with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple and then more recently in 2006 featuring Geraldine McEwan. I'm hoping to get my hands on one or both of them and I imagine this must be a fun adaptation to watch. Sleeping Murder is the next chronological Miss Marple book, written around 1940, though it was actually meant for later publication (it was stored in a vault in case Agatha Christie didn't survive the Blitz?) and didn't appear in print until 1976 after Christie's death. I'm unsure which book to pick up next, though I think it will be A Murder is Announced, which was published in 1950. Any Agatha Christie fans who know the correct order? In any case I think I am ready to pick up another Miss Marple mystery and don't want to wait as long as I did between my last two books. Then again maybe I should pay a little attention to M. Poirot soon (really want to read Murder on the Orient Express, too).