THE BOOK Fontana 1968 pp 191
This is a typical Tom Adams cover of the earlier, sparer type, featuring a decomposing blackbird lying on the sheet music to Sing a Song of Sixpence.1 The yew berries are used to create taxine, the poison used to kill ‘the king’.
It is easy to take Tom Adams for granted, but his 1960s Fontana covers are the most distinctive paperback covers ever produced, anywhere, and they have not been bettered before or since. This is a classic example.
The book is dedicated to Bruce Ingram, ‘who liked and published my first stories’. Bruce Ingram was editor of The Sketch in 1923, and it was he who suggested that Agatha Christie should write some short stories featuring Hercule Poirot.
Rex Fortescue and a man named MacKenzie discover a potential goldmine in East Africa – the Blackbird mine. When Rex later returns to England, he announces that the mine is worthless, and that MacKenzie had died in Africa, having contracted a tropical disease.
Twenty years later, the by-now rich businessman Fortescue’s peace of mind is disturbed by the repeated appearance of dead blackbirds around his house, Yewtree Lodge. Soon afterwards, he dies in his office, from a poison that had been administered to his breakfast. Some rye is discovered in his jacket pocket.
Within a day, there are two further deaths at Yewtree House – those of Adele, Rex’s wife, poisoned whilst taking tea, and Gladys, the parlourmaid, strangled in the garden. A clothes peg is found clipped on to Gladys’ nose. Gladys had been an orphan, trained in domestic service by Miss Jane Marple. When Miss Marple hears of her death, she travels to Yewtree Lodge to see if there is anything she can do about it …
Yewtree Lodge is described by its housekeeper Mary Dove as a house without scruples; all the inhabitants are ‘really quite odious’.
The Fortescue family are a typical group of Christie grotesques – the unscrupulous swindler Rex; his much younger, gold-digging second wife Adele; the sly goody-goody son Percival and his unhappy wife Jennifer; the ne’er-do-well son Lancelot; and the defiant daughter Elaine. Making up this unhappy tribe is Rex’s first wife’s sister, a slightly demented old lady who never leaves her attic rooms but knows everything that is going on (and disapproves of all of it), and the two spineless suitors of Adele and Elaine (Vivien Dubois and Gerald Wright).
What is interesting about this story is that the person right at the heart of it is the parlourmaid Gladys. Servants are rarely important figures in Agatha Christie, still less suspects, but this somewhat gormless, adenoidal, unattractive girl provides the clue to the whole mystery. At the end, her story brings tears to Miss Marple’s eyes (another extremely rare occurrence).
The greyness and snobbery of post-war austerity Britain is very much to the fore, and when Rex is taken ill there is an interesting sideline about how to access the new National Health Service (introduced five years before).
A NOTE ON THE NAMES
Rex’s first wife had been a long-term (self-proclaimed) invalid with an obsession about Tennyson’s poem The Idylls of the King. She had named her sons Percival and Lancelot after two of the most prominent knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, and (strangely) her daughter after Elaine of Astolat, the un-requited lover of Lancelot.
Agatha Christie doesn’t stop there – Percival is married to Jennifer (a modern form of Guinevere), and Vivien is the name of a character who betrays Guinevere. Her memory of Tennyson’s poetry is reflected in a few of her later works.2
Rex Fortescue’s office debates how to summon an ambulance for him under the new-fangled National Health Service system:
‘It has to be the right hospital’, Miss Somers insisted, ‘or else they won’t come. Because of the National Health. I mean. It’s got to be in the area.’
Someone suggested 999 but Miss Griffith was shocked at that and said it would mean the police and that would never do. For citizens of a country which enjoyed the benefits of Medical Service for all, a group of quite reasonably intelligent women showed incredible ignorance of correct procedure. Miss Bell started looking up ambulances under A …
The office staff relate to the police that Mr Fortescue had been behaving strangely:
‘Most unlike his usual manner. Why, when the office boy had to go to his grandmother’s funeral, Mr Fortescue called him in and gave him a five pound note, told him to put it on the second favourite and then roared with laughter.’
This is most unlike Christie’s ‘usual manner’ too – an actual joke!
Miss Marple discusses the orphan Gladys:
‘She was very keen on men, poor girl. But men didn’t take much notice of her and other girls rather made use of her.’
‘It sounds rather cruel,’ said Pat.
‘Yes, my dear, said Miss Marple, ‘life is cruel, I’m afraid. One doesn’t really know what to do with the Gladyses. They enjoy going to the pictures and all that, but they’re always thinking of impossible things that can’t possibly happen to them.’
Miss Marple could not have cared less about the dead Rex and Adele Fortescue, but is absolutely determined to get justice for Gladys.
While many of her characters seem to come from central casting, Agatha Christie could write some splendid dialogue for them. Here is an extract from a quite insightful dialogue between Inspector Neele and the seemingly half-witted Mrs MacKenzie at a private sanatorium:
‘Nobody knows where my husband died.’ said Mrs MacKenzie. ‘Nobody knows how he died or where he was buried … All anyone knows is what Rex Fortescue said. And Rex Fortescue was a liar!’
‘Do you think there may have been foul play?’
‘Foul play, foul play, fowls lay eggs, don’t they?’
‘You think that Rex Fortescue was responsible for your husband’s death?’
‘I had an egg for breakfast this morning,’ said Mrs MacKenzie. ‘Quite fresh, too. Surprising, isn’t it, when one thinks that it was thirty years ago?’
A foreign student of the history of social attitudes in (some parts of) England between 1920 and 1970 could do worse than starting with Agatha Christie’s books. Here, Miss Marple finds a village parallel for Jennifer Fortescue in Mrs Emmett, the bank manager’s wife:
She did not belong to the old guard of ladies in reduced circumstances who lived in neat houses round the church … Mr Emmett, the bank manager, had undeniably married beneath him and the result was that his wife was in a position of great loneliness since she could not, of course, associate with the wives of trades people. Snobbery here raised its hideous head and marooned Mrs Emmett on a permanent island of loneliness.
A happy childhood was hugely important as far as Agatha Christie was concerned.3 Here is Pat talking about hers:
‘I had a lovely childhood in Ireland, riding, hunting and a great big, bare draughty house with lots and lots of sun in it. If you’ve had a happy childhood, nobody can take that away from you, can they?’
By contrast, the other members of the household had terribly unhappy childhoods.4 Pat is about to face trials of her own, but Miss Marple knows that the resilience built into her by childhood experience would enable her to come through them.
The returning colonial Lance Fortescue rails against the Mother Country, as exemplified by his brother: 5
‘I’m sick of this country, and of the City. I’m sick of little men like you with their pin-stripe trousers and their black coats and their mincing voices and their mean, shoddy financial deals.’
His wife Pat, however, gets to see another side of it as she sits with Miss Marple:
‘With the fire and the lamps and you knitting things for babies… It all seems cosy and homely and how England should be.’ ‘It’s like England is,’ said Miss Marple. ‘There are not so many Yewtree Lodges, my dear.’
SWIGATHA RATING 7/10
An enjoyable romp – but it feels a bit churned out: the nursery rhyme series was beginning to pall, and we seem to have met many of the characters before. Still, the story offers some interest for those studying Britain around the time of the Coronation of its Queen, Elizabeth II, who is still on the throne as this is being written.
Miss Marple puts in a memorable, if extremely brief appearance; the scenes featuring her are wonderful. The suspects are uniformly dislikable, so all the reader’s sympathies are with Gladys (as they were meant to be). This was one of my most cherished swigathas when I was a boy, but one could not claim it as one of her best.
There is also the first sign of decline. A scene between the Inspector and Lance (Chapter XXIII, scene II) seems to have been randomly inserted and is never followed up.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
1953 was the last year for which Agatha Christie produced more than one crime novel. She had become increasingly interested in writing for the stage following the successes of Witness for the Prosecution and The Mousetrap. She turned increasingly to Miss Marple for her detective fiction: after just six appearances in the first 54 titles, Jane made a further six in the next 18.
There have been three – one for the BBC in 1984, one for ITV in 2009, and one for Russian TV (see image at the top – it translates as The Secret of the Blackbirds; Sing a Song of Sixpence is not a Russian rhyme, so heaven knows what Russian readers and viewers make of the plot).
The BBC’s ‘Hickson Marple’ is excellent: it has a very strong cast, including Timothy West as Rex and Tom Wilkinson as Inspector Neele, and a particularly moving performance by Annette Badland as Gladys.
1 The first three lines of this nursery rhyme provided Agatha Christie with three titles – see the Appendix chapter Title Quotes.
2 For example, The Hollow, Taken at the Flood, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, While the Light Lasts
3 Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, opening line:
One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is to have a happy childhood. I had a very happy childhood.
4 See the Appendix chapter Old sins have long shadows: Childhood and a Pocket Full of Rye
5 Other returning colonials who are similarly unimpressed include Anthony Cade in The Secret of Chimneys, Luke Fitzwilliam in Murder is Easy, Stephen Farr in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas …