In future, when I am planning a 20 Books of Summer list, I should definitely only include books that I already have in my possession. Just like In the Maharaja’s Household, The Death of Nancy Drew has yet to arrive in full (I’ve received the first few instalments). It’s getting replaced with more crime, at least, this time the third Tommy & Tuppence novel by Agatha Christie. By the Pricking of my Thumbs finds Tommy and Tuppence “elderly”, though by the standards of 1968 rather than today – many characters refer to seventy as if it represents proper old age, so I am guessing that the Beresfords are in their early sixties. Tommy is a couple of years away from retiring, and Tuppence is a slightly bored housewife. At the start of the novel, the two of them go to visit Tommy’s unpleasant Aunt Ada, who lives in Sunny Ridge nursing home. A few months later, Aunt Ada passes away, and this sets off a series of events that, taken together, make up an unusually dark, creepy Christie.
According to my perusal of Goodreads, this novel is considered to be far from Christie’s best, but I loved it. My great affection for Tommy and Tuppence probably helps – I think Tuppence is one of my favourite Christie characters – and we get an interesting update of their life in By the Pricking of my Thumbs. After the sour note of the romance between Robert and Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls, it was wonderful to see a relationship based on mutual love and respect between a couple who – even after forty years of marriage – have remained best friends and partners. Their gradual approach to old age is depicted very well. Christie would have been in her early 70s when writing this, and I think that Tuppence’s frustration with being unable to do everything she used to without getting forgetful or tired is very believable. Unlike both Poirot and Miss Marple, the Beresfords are pretty active in their crime solving (their books often tend towards thrillers rather than puzzle mysteries), and it’s somehow satisfying to see an amateur detective who has to have forty winks after a hard morning’s investigation. This novel also hangs a lampshade on how inappropriate “Prudence” is as Tuppence’s given name, which made me laugh.
Something that I find personally difficult in books* is the presence of nurses engaging in bad nursing, even if only by today’s standards. The matron at Aunt Ada’s nursing home doesn’t appear to have heard of patient confidentiality, which is now deeply enshrined in the NMC Code that all registered nurses have to follow. Watching her fork over stacks of information about the health conditions, various fancies, and even the contact details of residents made me extremely stressed. When I worked on a ward, I literally had nightmares in which I gave out information to the wrong person, and woke drenched in sweat. This is not Agatha Christie’s fault, and someone who isn’t a nurse would probably not be bothered by it – but if I am to give an accurate review of my experience listening to this novel, I have to bring it up. The whole novel is entangled with a nursing home that I do not consider to be doing its job properly.
In terms of the mystery at the heart, it’s certainly true that this is not one of Christie’s most carefully worked out. She drops loose ends and doesn’t pick them up again, and everything is so convoluted that it stretched my credulity. I am used to suspending my disbelief for murder mysteries, but this pushed it to its very limits. However, what Christie lacks in plot here, she makes up for in character, and in the setting. The canal house and small village where most of the novel takes place really came to life for me – I could easily see the setting, and even feel the chill from the empty fireplace when appropriate. The beautiful, sunny house contrasts excellently with the bleak undercurrent of the plot. The tone is pretty dark for Christie – it’s not quite And Then There Were None, but I do think it’s up there with Endless Night, one of my favourites by her. Of course, it’s entirely possible that this owes a lot to Hugh Fraser’s excellent narration of the audiobook, but even so I enjoyed it hugely. Despite its flaws, this – unlike several of Christie’s more brilliant early career puzzles – is a novel I can easily see myself reading and enjoying many times in the future. That’s wonderful, as it gives me hope that I will also enjoy the much-maligned Postern of Fate when I finally get there.
There’s my summing-up, then: if you only read Christie for the puzzles, then this probably won’t satisfy you, but I will almost always recommend her work for one reason or another, and this is no exception. I wouldn’t suggest this as a starting point for Tommy and Tuppence, not least because it makes regular reference to their previous adventures, but if you are sold on them as characters, you will almost certainly like this one too.
*Books and films, actually. Watching Knives Out was a very stressful experience for me.