BOOK (1953)

Queen of the whodunit at her best

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 9:46am

A Pocketful of Rye

by Agatha Christie

Collins Crime Club

During the course of a long and fruitful writing career, Agatha Christie produced a remarkable canon of literature - according to her estate, the number of her books moved sits just behind the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare.

Numbers aside, there is nothing like being embroiled in one of Christie's classic whodunits. Just when you think you've successfully sidestepped the well-laid traps, picked up a few clues, brushed aside numerous red herrings and started preparing your case, in comes the stubborn Belgian Hercule Poirot or the unassuming Miss Jane Marple to really set things straight.

Some critics accused her of churning out cardboard characters and writing wooden prose, but nobody wrote a mystery story quite like Christie. As a child in Devon, she spent a lot of time alone in the gardens and woods surrounding her family home in Ashfield, describing the trees, flora and fauna as "full of terror, secret delights, mystery … and violence".

The adolescent Christie had a sense of the dark and macabre, and with her reportedly endless array of imaginary friends, her fertile mind seemed destined for literary greatness. She certainly knew how to go about committing murder, especially if it involved a touch of arsenic, a lace of cyanide or - in the case of A Pocketful of Rye - taxine, a little-known poison found in the leaves of the yew tree, easily procured and lethal.

Christie worked as a nurse during the first world war, which introduced her to drugs and medicines, but it wasn't until the second world war when she worked as a pharmacist at University College Hospital in London that she started to understand the potency and complexities of various potions and poisons.

By the time Christie wrote A Pocketful of Rye in 1953, there was a certain ease with which she dealt with the regular plot themes of greed, jealousy, infidelity and familial mistrust amid the English upper-middle classes.

When businessman Rex Fortescue dies suddenly at his office the finger is immediately pointed at his young trophy wife. As Inspector Neele investigates the case, there are more deaths.

As always, it's the astute Miss Marple who solves the mystery - this time to the sound of the nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence.

Oliver Clasper