By The Pricking Of My Thumbs
First Published: By The Pricking Of My Thumbs. London, Collins Crime Club, 1968.
I Read: By The Pricking Of My Thumbs. New York, William Morrow, 2012.
Series: Tommy & Tuppence
Summary: Tommy & Tuppence journey up to visit Aunt Ada, a visit which gives little joy to any of the participants. While there, Tuppence chances upon another elderly lady who asks her the strangest question, “Excuse me, was it your poor child?”. Startled (since there are no kids at the home and Tuppence’s are grown) Tuppence doesn't think much of it, until Aunt Ada passes away, the odd woman disappears and a painting is left behind, leaving Tuppence to wonder if there is more going on than meets the eye with her odd old woman.
Review: I enjoyed reading this book quite a bit. Tuppence and her antics made me laugh; they kind of reminded me of my husband and I. In any case, by a crazy random happenstance I actually read two books in chronological order, completely by accident! By The Pricking Of My Thumbs directly follows Endless Night in Christie’s canon of works. While Endless Night is a menacing, atmospheric thriller with a diabolical twist, By The Pricking Of My Thumbs is a far lighter thriller which felt I related to far more readily than Endless Night or some of her other works.
How did I relate to pair of middle age former spies and their spinster aunt? For starters with this quote, “With the choice of getting well or having brimstone and treacle to drink, you choose getting well every time.” (pg.20). This line reminded me vividly of my yearly bouts with bronchitis during my childhood. It was a vicious cycle: I’d get sick, my folks would take me to the doctor and he in turn would prescribe some medicine. Now you must be wondering what’s wrong with that? You received proper medical care. It wasn’t the care which is the issue but the cure. While I didn’t have to take brimstone - thank goodness! - I was given Ampicillin.
Back in mid-seventies/early eighties, Ampicillin was not prescribed in the lovely pill form it has now. At that point, the mechanism for delivering the antibiotic was via a thick pink liquid -- which I swear was one part fruit punch, one part sludge and two parts yuck (I swore this was the punishment for getting an upper respiratory infection around the holidays). The liquid had to be kept in the fridge, shaken vigorously before use (seriously, if you didn’t Tums has nothing on this stuff for chalkiness) and nothing but time could cleared up the coating it left behind on your tongue (I tried everything, Seven-Up, jam, pudding, and in one desperate moment a washcloth, my mother was not amused). Seriously it has been thirty years since I’ve had to take this stuff and I still loathe, despise, detest this bubblegum colored concoction.
So when I read this line in By The Pricking Of My Thumbs it all came flooding back to me! I swear I got better at the threat of having to take the pink stuff! So Aunt Ada’s axiom seems to bear some fruit apron reflection.
On a side note I had never heard of brimstone and treacle before reading this Christie thriller and I didn't think it sounded particularly pleasant. When I looked it up it didn’t sound any better. I think I might have gotten off easy with my nasty pink stuff. Brimstone and treacle refers to a syrup composed of sulfur and molasses, which was administered to children as a cure-all in Victorian times (and evidentially in Aunt Ada’s youth around the turn of the century). I cannot image molasses does a very good job in covering sulfur’s lovely rotten egg odor & taste. So perhaps I was too hasty in my thinking my childhood medicine was the absolute worst thing under the sun. (What really added the icing on the cake in my thinking that brimstone & treacle being worse than the pink stuff, it was featured in the Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby, where evidently the boys had to take their portion of the medicine all in one swallow or they were beaten. Fun times.)
This was just one way in which I related to this particular Christie thriller; others included strategies for dealing with cantankerous (read grumpy) elderly relatives, chatty strangers (telling you all kinds of stuff you never needed to know), investigating a painting with unknown origins (seriously this really did happen in our family) and adventures you find yourself in that only your spouse will ever believe really happened! The frothiness which drove me to distraction in N or M was tempered in this book, which was something I worried about when starting my second Tommy & Tuppence novel. By The Pricking Of My Thumbs was the perfect book follow up to Endless Night.
“If anybody over the age of sixty-five finds fault with you...never argue. Never try to say you’re right. Apologize at once and say it was all your fault and you’re very sorry and you’ll never do it again.”(pg. 18) Replace 65 with 80 and I thinks Tuppence might be on to something!
“Albert went away to release the chicken from its possible fate of cremation in the oven.” (pg. 146) Just struck my funny bon. Who hasn’t burnt something in the oven?
Random Fact: The central crime in this particular thriller is the disappearance of an elderly woman from her care home. Several different variants of this plot device are repeated throughout this book to good advantage, I think. This type of crime in a Christie novel inevitably leads one to remembering that Christie herself has been part of a similar event. In By The Pricking of My Thumbs there is a scene where Tuppence wakes up in a hospital and does not remember her proper married name, instead she recalls her maiden name and is registered under that one, again not unlike what happened during the missing eleven days of Christie’s life. This book was written fifty years after the events of 1926, so perhaps this was an oblique reference meant to tease her audience a bit about their fascination with her real life mystery.
Christie is not the only artist to have vanished over the years. However, she’s arguably the most famous. I think this fame/infamy stems from the fact that she steadfastly refused to talk about what happened with anyone (I think this really was the best course of action, there was no real way to come out of that situation smelling like a rose) plus the fact she was found alive and well.
I think had Christie vanished and never been found, her legacy might be similar to one of these four artists who all went missing with a small body of work to their names.
Barbara Newhall Follett, an American novelist (a child prodigy), published two critically acclaimed novels and was expected to go far in the field of literature, until she walked away from her home and marriage with thirty dollars in her pocket at the age of twenty-five and vanished. This was back in 1939, and in the seventy-five years since, no one has found a single clue to where she went or what ultimately happened to her.
Everett Ruess, a writer and an artist who created wood cuttings and linoleum prints of natural landscapes, set out into the wilds of Utah in 1934 and was never heard from again. Most believed Ruess died shortly after he posted a letter to his brother in November - either by dying in an accident of some sort or was murdered. A small hope flickers on the idea he might have fallen in love and settled down away from city lights (he did not enjoy urban environments) and became a hermit. This theory is put forth from time to time but most experts tend to discount this idea. In 2009 the discovery of remains in an unmarked grave in the area where Ruess was last known to be led to speculation that he’d finally been located. Unfortunately DNA tests and dental records showed the body wasn’t his and the mystery continues on.
Connie Converse was a singer/songwriter who was active in the New York folk music scene during the nineteen-fifties. She had several successful shows, but ultimately was unable to land a record deal like many of her contemporaries. Giving up on her dream she left New York and went to work as an editor of a small journal. Then just before her fiftieth birthday in 1974, she packed up her VW beetle and left her home in Michigan to “start over out west”. You know what happened next: no one has heard from her since then - her family has alternately believes that she made a fresh start in another city or committed suicide (as she was depressed when she left) but no definitive answer is known.
Lastly there is the performance artist Bas Jan Ader who vanished in 1975 attempting to complete a piece called In Search of the Miraculous. Part of the art included sailing across the Atlantic but after three weeks into his journey all radio contact with him ceased and his battered and partially submerged boat was found off the coast of Ireland ten months later. Ader’s body was never recovered and in a strange twist the boat was stolen shortly after it was salvaged. This theft lead to quiet speculation as to whether the artist actually perished at sea. Again no one really knows.
If Christie had never been found (or turned up on her own) her legacy might be similar to these other four artists - one of obscurity. They all occupy a much smaller position of influence in their discipline than she (in theory) would have, if their careers hadn’t stopped all most before they started. Similarly Christie’s career would have only spanned six novels, and The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd would have been her swan song so to speak. While Ackroyd is brilliant I am not sure it would have sustained the position she now occupies as The Queen Of Mystery (she went on to pen over 48 books after her eleven day walkabout).
While By The Pricking Of My Thumbs doesn’t break her silence about her personal eleven day vanishing act, I think it was her way of laughing about it.
Cheating: Nope! I am still going strong!