The Moving Finger

Author: Agatha Christie

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1942

I read it: April 2014

the moving finger

On our wedding night we stayed in the Agatha Christie Suite at the Rivertown Inn in Stillwater, Minnesota. It was awesome, easily the most extravagant place I have slept in overnight. It was not just decorated, but designed, and no expense was spared. The theme was Murder on the Orient Express, so there was the conductor’s hat on the coat rack, and the curve of the doorways evoked a round train car, and ragged suitcases were stacked off to the sides. (Don’t worry—it had all the modern amenities as well.)

For reading material, there were a few history and photograph books on trains, and at least two collections of Christie novels. The one on my side of the bed was a brightly colored series of Miss Marple mysteries. While regretting having just precious hours in the room and not entire days in which to curl by the fireplace and read, I wanted to at least crack into one of the eminent author’s work. I chose the slimmest novel of the group, figuring I’d be more likely to finish it if I could find my own copy. And sure enough, the next day at Black Letter Books in downtown Stillwater there was a nice handsome copy waiting there just for me.

So, The Moving Finger. What a refreshingly odd experience after Orient Express (my first Christie). Instead of a story about a detective on an intense crime scene, here we start with a Mr. Burton spending several months in the sleepy town of Lymstock, along with his sister. They are the new folks who slowly learn town personalities and gossip, and something else peculiar: an ongoing occurrence of nasty letters being sent to various recipients throughout the village. It was “a peaceful smiling happy countryside—but down underneath something evil.” Burton eventually befriends the police inspector, who likes having the protagonist around because he doesn’t know people all that well and therefore has a fresh perspective.

Christie is funny and witty, and Burton being a regular citizen is a nice hook. He is only of average intelligence, so he pieces together things as best he can, and never seems many steps ahead of the reader. There’s some existential musing as he struggles with his intuition: “How much do we know at any time? Much more, or so I believe, than we know we know! But we cannot break through to that subterranean knowledge. It is there, but we cannot reach it.” And then, after the crimes turn more serious, “Where do one’s fears come from? Where do they shape themselves? Where do they hide before coming out into the open?”

Into this realm of almost-knowing, enter deus ex Marple to nudge things along. She arrives surprisingly late in the story, and although the solution to the mystery rests on her keen mind, she is more interested in coaxing it out of Mr. Burton. He talks himself through it even as he’s not quite sure whether to believe it or not. Miss Marple teaches her audience (fictional and real) that simplicity is the key to solving these kinds of things, and she effortlessly elaborates the motives of the crimes.

There’s one thing that keeps me uneasy: the title. There is no literal finger of any significance in the tale, unless it is loosely associated with the hand that is responsible for the anonymous letters to the townspeople. Or perhaps it is the finger of accusation, invisibly turning like a weathervane toward one face then another, as the citizens suspect each other more with each passing day. I just shivered imagining myself in that quiet countryside. Keep me here instead, away from suspicious eyes.

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