By: Agatha Christie
About the book:
The shocking thing about Rex Fortescue’s murder was that the contemptible tycoon wasn’t knocked off sooner. But when two less-deserving souls fall victim to the killer, Miss Jane Marple is engaged to detect. The only link appears to be buried in a not-so-innocent verse. So what’s the rhyme and reason behind the playful hint? The answer draws the shrewd sleuth into the heart of a family secret – and an increasingly menacing game that’s anything but child’s play.
No one could create puzzlers like Dame Agatha Christie. A Pocket Full of Rye is so jam-packed with red herrings, Christie could’ve taken the story towards a half dozen or so different resolutions (at least!). The victim, Rex Fortescue, was a thoroughly unlikable man, and the dysfunctional family he leaves behind are, for the most part, equally unpleasant. The incredibly competent Inspector Neele is assigned to investigate the case, and what at first seems like a “routine” poisoning case soon grows into a veritable maze of lies and misdirection – beginning with the curious discovery of rye in Rex’s pockets. When Rex’s much younger widow is subsequently poisoned while taking tea, and the maid is found murdered by the clothesline, Neele struggles to find the connection between these seemingly random crimes.
Miss Jane Marple barely appears in this novel, but her scenes are critical in revealing the killer’s identity. She’s the catalyst that helps Neele connect the threads of these seemingly random killings. I was quite impressed with Neele’s character – for my money he’s one of Christie’s most interesting inspectors. He’s extremely intelligent, intuitive, and knows how to read people. Most importantly, he knows how to use a person's tendency to underestimate him. He’s not one of those investigators who must have every clue handed to him by the “civilian” or “amateur” sleuth. Christie could’ve written more novels featuring Neele’s character and I wouldn’t have complained at all.
Christie incorporated rhymes or famous quotes as clues in her mysteries on more than one occasion (Poirot’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe or Tommy and Tuppence’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs, to name just a few). Pocket probably isn’t one of my favorites – the pool of suspects is relatively limited after all. But Christie throws so many misdirections and possible motives into the setting of this dysfunctional, very English, household that it’s a delight to spend a few hours with Neele and Marple sorting through the red herrings in order to reveal the culprit.
Book vs. Film:
I was a little shocked, actually, by how faithful the most recent film adaptation of A Pocket Full of Rye is to the original book. Whole sections of dialogue from the novel made it into the script almost verbatim. Matthew Macfadyen absolutely nailed the role of Inspector Neele. He perfectly captures the right balance of Neele’s intelligence and dry, almost awkward sense of humor. The only alterations that immediately come to mind is the omission of Miss Ramsbottom’s character (Rex’s sister-in-law), and increasing the presence of Miss Marple just a bit, since her presence is so minimal in the novel (i.e., in the film Marple discovers the newspaper article about uranium deposits in East Africa, while in the novel Neele is the one who connects that article to Lance’s lies). You can read my review of the film A Pocket Full of Rye here.