Tuesday, 24 March 2015

By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie


published 1968

By the Pricking of my Thumbs 1


The door opened so suddenly that he nearly fell backwards. A woman stood on the doorstep. At first sight Tommy’s first impression was that this was one of the plainest women he had ever seen. She had a large expanse of flat, pancake-like face, two enormous eyes which seemed impossibly different colours, one green and one brown, a noble forehead with a quantity of wild hair rising up from it in a kind of thicket. She wore a purple overall with blotches of clay on it, and Tommy noticed that the hand that held the door open was one of exceeding beauty of structure…

She led him through the doorway, up a narrow staircase and into a large studio. In a corner of it there was a figure and various implements standing by it. Hammer sand chisels. There was also a clay head. The whole place looked as though it had recently been savaged by a gang of hooligans.

 
observations: Various people led me to re-read this book: when I wrote about The Secret Adversary recently, with my routine complaints about Tommy and Tuppence, respected blogfriends Sergio and Daniel both recommended this one as being a better book featuring the pair. 

Meanwhile Lucy Fisher made the valuable point that Tuppence (in the photo on the entry) should really have her cloche pulled down over her eyes, for reasons of tension, disguise, secrecy and of course fashion. She has demonstrated this for us:


By the Pricking of my Thumbs 3And so I was delighted to come across this in Thumbs, an elderly General reminiscing:
Cloche hats, they used to wear at one time… Had to look right down underneath the brim before you could see the girl’s face. Tantalising it was, and they knew it!
I feel he would have liked Lucy.

The book is annoying for this reason: it’s got some great ideas, great characters, and some surprises. It creates a very sinister atmosphere, and a real sense of fear. But it keeps losing its way and degenerating into long rambling pointless conversations. Tuppence talks at length to a character called Mrs Copleigh:
‘there was no chronological sequence which occasionally made things difficult. Mrs Copleigh jumped from 15 years ago to 2 years ago to last month, and then back to somewhere in the 1920s…. Mrs Copleigh just put in a lot of things which have made everything more difficult. I think she’s got all her times and dates mixed up too.’
You wonder is she a subconscious substitute for Mrs Christie: this is a fair description of the book and everyone in it. And, as Robert Barnard points out in his excellent book on Christie, A Talent to Deceive, when you look back you find that 90% of the information Tuppence gathers is completely pointless, never explained, and serves no purpose in the book. And ‘mixing up times and dates’ – let’s look at the bizarre fact that Albert – who cannot be less than 60, and has lived with T&T all his adult life - is suddenly given a wife and small children.

It’s a shame because this could have been one of the greats: even with these shortcomings, it is a very entertaining and mysterious read. The house at the centre reminded me of the one in Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair – and Christie describes it very well. The scene with the jackdaw down the chimney was memorably discomfiting, as was the old lady saying ‘Was it your poor child behind the fireplace?’ The book is about old people, which makes an interesting change. The sudden jacking up of tension and creation of atmosphere comes and goes, and suddenly there’ll be something irritating: eg Tuppence is knocked out and suffers from concussion and amnesia, and thinks she is 18 again. But then suddenly she’s all right and normal, with no mention of the incident.

In the excerpt above, ‘At first sight Tommy’s first impression’ is surely a phrase that should have been edited. I can’t decide if ‘the hand… was one of exceeding beauty of structure’ is a really terrible phrase or a good one….

The top picture is of American sculptor Betti Richard: it’s from the Smithsonian, which has a fascinating collection of photos of sculptors, artists and writers.









27 comments:

  1. Moira - Some of this one is, I think, very good. Some of it, though, isn't, as you say. And I hate to be the one to say it, as big a Christie fan as I am, but Postern of Fate, her last Tommy/Tuppence novel, suffers from similar (and other) problems. Shame too because that one (like this one) has some great moments in it. In my humble opinion, I liked N or M? the most of the Beresford novels, but that's just me.

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    1. Postern of Fate is pretty much a disaster. Definitely agree that "N or M?" is the best of the T&T ones, but I do find a lot to enjoy in Pricking.

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    2. Thanks both. Having re-read 3 (Secret Adversary, N or M? and this one) over the past year or two, N or M? does win first place.

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    3. Also, not so entirely unusual that a 60 year old man would have small children - my father would have been 4 years old when my grandfather hit 60, and he has an even younger sister.

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    4. Of course not impossible, but I think your family was unusual! I have just been at a 60th birthday party, with many people of that age or thereabouts, & there was not one person within ten years of having young children - grandchildren were more under discussion.
      And AC passes no comment on the fact that T&T are only a couple of years older than Albert, but their children are grown up and gone....

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  2. Interesting, Moira. It's the Tommy and Tuppence books that I never reread. I just never took to the pair as detectives.

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    1. Just how I feel Sarah, but I'm glad I have finally re-read them (for a variety of reasons) recently. Though probably still won't do Postern of Fate again....

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  3. There are good bits in both Pricking and Postern, and they include themes that meant a lot to her, but yes the plots are hopelessly muddled and repetitive. They illustrate her idea that truth will come to light if you just listen to people rambling on for long enough.

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    1. Yes exactly - there are more good bits than I was expecting, and she still had some good tricks up her sleeve. I'm not sure that listening to people rambling on is ideal for a book though - especially for an author who always kept it reasonably short in her previous works...

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  4. I do like the sinister atmosphere of By the Pricking of My Thumbs (good title) and it is one of the less irritating T&Ts. I remember enjoying N or M?
    Love Lucy in the cloche!

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    1. She looks splendid doesn't she? Yes, great title and great atmosphere - the good bits are really well done.

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  5. Very glad you at least half-enjoyed it - I was fascinated by the fable-like atnosphere and there is a strong undercurrent of dreamlike strangeness that gives it an unusual power - and as you say, gerontology doesn't get much of a look in when it comes to this kind of detective fiction.

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    1. Sergio I enjoyed it much more than I was expecting, tbh, so am grateful for the encouragement to read it again! I think I had wrongly dismissed it in my head. I love your description of the undercurrent, that is exactly right, and yes, it is powerful.

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  6. Moira, I'm not a fan of Tommy and Tuppence but I'll be reading it as part of my reading of Christie's novels. Maybe, I'm too hung up on the precision-driven Poirot.

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    1. Are you doing them in order Prashant? Because this is quite a late one -there'll be a lot of good stuff on the way.

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    2. Moira, I started reading them in order and then stopped after the first few books as other novels took precedence. My reading wavers like that.

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  7. I think I'd sooner prick my eyeballs than read this one, Moira. Hoh hum, I've woken up grumpy.....

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    1. Go on, you have to do some Christie sometime! Though if you were doing just one, probably not this one....

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  8. I have difficulties with Christie -- so far as I'm concerned, she's the bread in a white-bread sandwich. On the other hand, sometimes comfort food like white bread is just what I need, and that's when I pick up a Christie. Tommy 'n' Tuppence are for me the least favorite of her series; they're so twee I gag.

    All of this is preamble to the fact that I vaguely remember quite enjoying this one. Perhaps it was because of the setting; perhaps, even, it was because of characters like Mrs. Copleigh, because she rings very true to me (and reminds me of my old friend Kathleen who must by now be long dead).

    Of course, in the unlikely event that I reread the book tomorrow, I may decide it's a stinker!

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    1. I remembered it as being tiresome (I think I was pairing it with Postern of Fate - no-one seems to have a good word for that), and so had a pleasant surprise when I re-read it for the first time in years. Low expectation is often the key to enjoyment!

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  9. An excellent, and very fair assessment. For all its faults, it's definitely worth a read.

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    1. Thanks Martin for the kind words. Yes, I was definitely glad I picked it up.

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  10. I am sure I shall read this eventually and probably like it just fine. Can't remember if I read it before, just remember that I read and liked some of the Tommy and Tuppence novels.

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    1. There is plenty to enjoy in this one, especially if you like T&T, but you've got a good few years of Christie to get through first if you're continuing to do them in order!

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    2. I am reading each series in order, so if I concentrated on T&T I could get there sooner, but I won't. It will be years, unfortunately.

      Skipping to another subject, I am now reading Life after Life by Atkinson and enjoying it, though feeling a bit disoriented.

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    3. It IS disorientating - I hope for you, as for me, the good bits make it worthwhile. I loved that book, as you know.

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