A Pocket Full of Rye
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|9 November 1953|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||192 pp (first edition, hardback)|
|Preceded by||After the Funeral|
|Followed by||Destination Unknown|
A Pocket Full of Rye is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on 9 November 1953, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. The UK edition retailed at ten shillings and sixpence (10/6) and the US edition at $2.75. The book features her detective Miss Marple. Like several of Christie's novels (e.g., Hickory Dickory Dock, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe) the title and substantial parts of the plot reference a nursery rhyme, in this case Sing a Song of Sixpence.
When upper middle class businessman Rex Fortescue dies after drinking his morning tea, the police are called in to investigate. The cause of death is eventually confirmed as poisoning by taxine, an alkaloid poison obtained from the leaves or berries of the yew tree [in reality, the "berries" or arils are considered non-toxic as they don't contain taxine. However, the seeds inside contain a high concentration of taxine and are poisonous if chewed]. His wife is the main suspect in the murder, until she also is murdered, after drinking tea laced with cyanide. Going on the only clue, a pocket full of rye found on the victim, Miss Marple begins investigating. Marple realises the murders are arranged according to the pattern of a childhood nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence.
The next to be murdered is a maid named Gladys with whom Miss Marple was acquainted. She knew Gladys to be romantic and gullible. The other maid, Ellen, was hanging out the washing when she found Gladys' body all mangled up in the clothes line with a peg on her nose. The younger Fortescue son, Lancelot, suddenly arrives from Kenya with his new wife. The older son, Percival, admits that his father was senile and ruining the business. Miss Marple discovers that the use of the rhyme in the crimes was to point the finger at an old dealing of the Blackbird Mine, in which old Fortescue was suspected of having killed his partner, MacKenzie, and swindled the mine from his partner's family. The mine is in Kenya. Thinking that one of the two MacKenzie children is responsible, Miss Marple has figured out that Jennifer Fortescue (Percival's wife) is the daughter of Mackenzie, which Jennifer admits. She also takes responsibility for placing dead blackbirds near Rex at various times to remind him of his past crimes. Jennifer's involvement, however, turns out to be a red herring.
The murderer of the second two victims is Lancelot Fortescue. He discovered that the Blackbird Mine was valuable and wanted to inherit it, and so he met and romanced his scapegoat Gladys. Going by the name of "Albert Evans", he talked her into joining the Fortescue household and administering the poison in Rex's morning marmalade, telling her that it was a truth drug and fabricating a story about needing old Fortescue to tell the truth to clear his name for something that he had been falsely accused of. Then he killed Gladys as she was never more than his dupe but her continued existence posed a threat to him. He also killed his stepmother, Adele, so the inheritance would go to him and his brother.
Literary significance and reception
Philip John Stead in The Times Literary Supplement, 4 December 1953 wrote that "Miss Christie's novel belongs to the comfortable branch of detective fiction; it never harrows its readers by realistic presentation of violence or emotion or by making exorbitant demands on their interest in the characters. Crime is a convention, pursuit an intellectual exercise, and it is as if the murderer of the odious financier did but poison in jest. The characters are lightly and deftly sketched and an antiseptic breeze of humour prevails. It is a pleasure to read an author so nicely conscious of the limitations of what she is attempting." He concluded, "Miss Christie has a reputation for playing fair with the reader who likes to assume detective responsibility, and also for being one too many for him. In the present case it may be felt that the hidden mechanism of the plot is ingenious at the expense of probability, but the tale is told with such confidence that (like murder itself, in this pastoral atmosphere) it does not matter very much."
Maurice Richardson in The Observer (15 November 1953) posited, "Not quite so stunning as some of Mrs Christie's criminal assaults upon her readers; the soufflé rises all right, but the red herrings aren't quite nifty enough. But how well she nearly always writes, the dear decadent old death-trafficker; they ought to make her a Dame or a D. Litt."
Robert Barnard: "Super-stockbrokerbelt setting, and quite exceptionally nasty family of suspects. (Christie usually prefers to keep most of her characters at least potentially sympathetic as well as potential murderers, but here they are only the latter). Something of a re-run of Hercule Poirot's Christmas (loathsome father, goody-goody son, ne'er-do-well son, gold-digger wife, etc.), but without its tight construction and ingenuity. And the rhyme is an irrelevancy. Still, a good, sour read."
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
"A Pocket Full of Rye" was the fourth transmitted story in the BBC series of Miss Marple adaptations, which starred Joan Hickson as the elderly sleuth. It was first broadcast in two parts on 7 & 8 March 1985. Despite remaining faithful to the novel, apart from giving the title as "A Pocketful of Rye", the characters of Mrs MacKenzie, Gerald Wright and Elaine Fortescue did not make an appearance. In the end the murderer dies in a car crash, while there is no such thing in the novel.
- 1953, Collins Crime Club (London), 9 November, Hardcover, 192 pp
- 1954, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), Hardcover, 211 pp
- 1955, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 186 pp
- 1958, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
- 1964, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, 191 pp
- 1981, Greenway edition of collected works (William Collins), Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-231681-1
- 2006, Marple Facsimile edition (Facsimile of 1953 UK first edition), 3 January 2006, Hardcover, ISBN 0-00-720852-9
The novel was first serialised in the US in the Chicago Tribune in forty-two parts from Monday, 11 January to Saturday, 27 February 1954.
- Czech: Kapsa plná žita (A Pocket Full of Rye)
- Dutch: Een handvol rogge (A Handful of Rye)
- Estonian: Taskutäis rukist (A Pocket Full of Rye)
- French: Une poignée de seigle (A Handful of Rye)
- German: Das Geheimnis der Goldmine (The secret of the gold mine)
- Greek: Ενα άλλοθι για τρία εγκλήματα (One alibi for three crimes)
- Indonesian: Misteri Burung Hitam (The Blackbird Mystery)
- Norwegian: Sort knekt (Black Jack)
- Portuguese (Portugal): Centeio que Mata (Rye that Kills), Um Punhado de Centeio (A Handful of Rye)
- Portuguese (Brazil): Cem Gramas de Centeio (A Hundred Grams of Rye)
- Spanish: Un Puñado de Centeno (A Handful of Rye)
- Swedish: En ficka full med råg (A Pocket Full of Rye)
- Turkish: Porsuk Ağacı Cinayeti (Yew murder)
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (p. 15)
- John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (pgs. 82, 87) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- John Robertson (14 February 2013). "THE POISON GARDEN website". Retrieved 21 February 2013.
- Cope, R.B. Toxicology Brief: The dangers of yew ingestion, Veterinary Medicine, 1 September 2005.
- The Times Literary Supplement, 4 December 1953 (p. 773)
- The Observer, 15 November 1953 (p. 10)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (p. 203). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Holdings at the British Library (Newspapers – Colindale). Shelfmark: NPL LON LD3 and NPL LON MLD3.
- A Pocket Full of Rye at the official Agatha Christie website
- Tayna chyornykh drozdov (Russian: 1983) at the Internet Movie Database
- A Pocket Full of Rye (1985) at the Internet Movie Database
- Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008) at the Internet Movie Database