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January 2002
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Is it your poor child, my dear?

Recently I have been rereading Agatha Christie mysteries. It chanced that I read By the Pricking of My Thumbs and then almost immediately afterwards read Sleeping Murder. Thus it was that I noticed a peculiar thing.

By the Pricking of My Thumbs is a Tommy and Tuppence mystery. Early in the book they visit a nursing home. Chapter 2 is entitled "Was it your poor child?" On page 24 there is the following:

"Yes. I wondered -" she leaned forward and lowered her voice - "excuse me, was it your poor child?"

Tuppence, slightly taken aback, hesitated.

"I - no, I don't think so," she said.

"I wondered. I thought perhaps you'd come for that reason. Someone ought to come sometime. Perhaps they will. And looking at the fireplace, the way you did. That's where it is, you know. Behind the fireplace."

In Sleeping Murder, the final Miss Marple mystery, the heroine, Gwenda Reed, visits a mental home. On page 104 we have:
Giles and Gwenda were shown into a large airy sitting room with cretonne covers patterned with flowers. A very charming looking old lday with white hair came into the room holding a glass of milk. She nodded to them and sat down near the fireplace. Her eyes rested thoughtfully on Gwenda and presently she leaned forward towards her and spoke in what was almost a whisper.

"Is it your poor child, my dear?"

Gwenda looked slightly taken aback. She said doubtfully:

"No - no. It isn't."

"Ah, I wondered." The old lady nodded her head and sipped her milk. Then she said conversationally:

"Half-past ten - that's the time. It's always half-past ten. Most remarkable." She lowered her voice and leaned forward again.

"Behind the fireplace," she breathed. "But don't say I told you."

Somewhat later I reread The Pale Horse. On page 34 the same scene turns up again:
... But I remember being sent once with a message to a doctor at a mental home and I was shown into a room to wait, and there was a nice elderly lady there sipping a glass of milk. She made some conventional remark about the weather and then suddenly she leaned forward and asked in a low voice:

'Is it your poor child who's buried there behind the place?' And then she nodded her head and said, 'Twenty-ten exactly. It's always the same time every day. Pretend you don't notice the blood.'

It is a peculiar bit of business. In By the Pricking of My Thumbs the scene is part of the plot; in Sleeping Murder and The Pale Horse it is simply an irrelevant incident. The scene is more elaborately portrayed in By the Pricking of My Thumbs. In each case, however, the elements are the same: The little old lady is sipping milk; she uses the phrase "your poor child"; there is the mention of the child being buried behind the fire place; and the time of the daily event is mentioned.

Christie was not above reusing plots and settings. This scene, however, is striking because it is so bizarre. Christie's prose, no matter how ingenious, is bland with no great inventiveness. They do not jar you with the unexpected. I speculate that the scene records something that happened to her in real life, that it struck her, and that she used it in her fiction.


This page was last updated January 1, 2002.

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