By the Pricking of my Thumbs

THE BOOK   Fontana 1971  pp191

The Tom Adams cover is focused on a doll found stuffed in a chimney, which proves to be a crucial part of the story. It is a very appropriate cover for a book which features a deranged serial killer of children. There has always been something eerie to me about broken dolls.


Tommy and Tuppence visit his Aunt Ada in her nursing home. Tuppence is thrown out of the irascible old lady’s room. While waiting for Tommy to come out, she meets Mrs Lancaster, another inmate. The latter inexplicably asks Tuppence: ‘Was it your poor child?’ apparently referring to someone walled in behind a fireplace.

Aunt Ada dies soon afterwards and amongst her effects is a painting of a house by a canal that haunts Tuppence with memories of having seen it before. The painting had been given to Aunt Ada by Mrs Lancaster, who is no longer staying at the home when Tommy and Tuppence collect it.

Intrigued, and with Tommy away, Tuppence sets out to find the house.


The title is a quote by one of the witches in Macbeth:

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes

There is an old superstition that tingling in the fingers (or other bodily reactions) presaged something bad about to happen. In the play, the ‘pricking’ is the witch’s reaction to the arrival on the scene of Macbeth; in the book, Tuppence feels a shudder of fear in the company of Julia Lancaster, but misunderstands the reason for it. 


Tommy and Tuppence are as Tommy-and-Tuppence-y as ever, with their habit of reliving their old cases again to the fore. Once she has set out on her own, Tuppence becomes a much less annoying character as she probes the spooky atmosphere of an out-of-the-way village, and reaches out to any inhabitants who remember a time long gone.

It is an enjoyable read; there is a great deal of gossiping about the past along the way, much of it repeated, but there again that is surely what one might expect.

Then Tommy returns, and all of a sudden we are on the trail of a gang of master-criminals that appears to have been in operation for at least fifty years. The story goes a bit haywire from then on.

When children and old ladies feature prominently in the later Agatha Christie stories they rarely conform to type: children are never innocent (and are often murdered, as in this story) and old ladies are never ‘fluffy’, but menacing and murderous (again, as in this story). 


Something similar to the following exchange also occurs in two other Christie novels:1

“I see you’re looking at the fireplace.”
“Oh. Was I?” said Tuppence, slightly startled.
“Yes. I wondered – ” she leant forward and lowered her voice, “- excuse me, was it your poor child?”
Tuppence, slightly taken aback, hesitated.
“I – no, I don’t think so,” she said.
“I wondered. I thought perhaps you’d come for that reason. Someone ought to come some time. Perhaps they will. And looking at the fireplace, the way you did. That’s where it is, you know. Behind the fireplace.”
“Oh”, said Tuppence. “Is it?”
“Always the same time,” said Mrs Lancaster, in a low voice. “Always the same time of day.”

This time at least it proves germane to the plot.  I sometimes wonder whether the author was haunted by some broken dolls of her own past.

There is a great deal of rambling conversation in this story. Here, Sir Philip Starkie bewilders Tuppence (and this reader) with his own adaptation of a famous quotation from Peer Gynt when describing his wife:  

Who was she? Herself? The real one, the true one
Who was she – with God’s sign upon her brow?
Did you ever read Peer Gynt, Mrs Beresford?”
He went to the window. He stood there a moment, looking out – Then he turned abruptly.
‘She was my wife, God help me.’

This is an indication to me of an author with old ideas still buzzing around her head, ideas that beg to be included in the story, even if doing so corrupts the logic and flow of it. 2

Whoever was editing these late stories must have been frightened of upsetting her.


This is the eeriest swigatha, with a horrific protagonist. It has the perfect title and some good opening chapters, but tends to drift from then on. It is still worth reading, but just that one reference to Peer Gynt symbolises a loss of control in comparison with her heyday that is evident throughout.


Having re-introduced Tommy and Tuppence after a break of more than a quarter of a century, Swigatha brought them back for one last outing in her final book, Postern of Fate. By then, sadly, she had almost literally lost the plot.


The ITV series Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple adapted this book, with Geraldine McEwen as Miss Jane Marple joining Tommy (Anthony Andrews) and Tuppence (Greta Scacchi) for the ride.  There is an amazing cast of bit-part players – Steven Berkoff, Claire Bloom, Bonnie Langford all playing tiny roles – but June Whitfield steals the show. The screenplay takes amazing liberties with the original – Tuppence is portrayed as an alcoholic – but at least they had the good sense to drop the sub-plot about criminal masterminds and jewel thieves. 

The wording on the Russian poster at the top of this page on the right translates as “By the snapping of my fingers”. It is advertising a Russian version of a French adaptation of the ‘book of the same name’ by Agatha Christie. It calls it a ‘criminal comedy’, which I suspect is an all-too-apt description of this production. The French title is on the bottom of the poster: ‘my little finger told me…’  So here we have a Russian overdub of a French version of a book written in English. What better way to show Agatha Christie’s global presence!


1 Sleeping Murder and The Pale Horse

2 Peer Gynt is a play in verse by Henrik Ibsen.

Over 20 years previously, in The Hollow, Agatha Christie had quoted the original, as Henrietta Savernake dumps a clay model of a face that she had been working on in the bin and considers death and personality: ‘Where am I, myself, the whole man, the true man? Where am I with God’s mark upon my brow?’

As quoted in The Hollow, the quote from Peer Gynt is relevant; it illuminates character and explains attitude. Its mutated presence here is unexplained and obscure.