By the Pricking of My Thumbs
Dust-jacket illustration of the first UK edition
|Cover artist||Kenneth Farnhill|
|Publisher||Collins Crime Club|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Pages||256 pp (first edition, hardcover)|
|Preceded by||Endless Night|
|Followed by||Hallowe'en Party|
By The Pricking of My Thumbs is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie and first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club in November 1968 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in the same year. The UK edition retailed at twenty-one shillings (21/-) and the US edition at $4.95. It features her detectives Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.
Youthful in two Christie books written in the 1920s, middle-aged in a World-War II spy novel, and here elderly, Tommy and Tuppence were unusual in that they aged according to real time, unlike Miss Marple, whose age remained more or less the same from the first novels in the 1920s to the last in the 1970s.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
The novel is divided into four books.
In Book 1 Tommy and Tuppence Beresford visit Tommy’s aunt Ada in a retirement home called Sunny Ridge. While Tommy talks with his aunt, Tuppence has a conversation with another resident, Mrs. Lancaster. Mrs. Lancaster unexpectedly says 'Was it your poor child? There behind the fireplace.'
A few weeks later Aunt Ada dies of natural causes. When they return to the home after the funeral to make arrangements for Ada’s possessions, they find that Mrs. Lancaster has suddenly departed. The matron tells them that a relative called Mrs. Johnson took her away. Tuppence suspects there’s more to it and tries to find the relative but the trail turns cold. One of the items Aunt Ada had left is a painting of a house by a river. The picture strongly reminds Tuppence of a house she once saw and immediately liked. The painting was supposedly given to Aunt Ada by Mrs. Lancaster.
In Book 2 Tommy is away for a few days, so Tuppence starts looking for the mystery house on her own. Eventually she finds it in a small village called Sutton Chancellor. It turns out that the house is divided in a peculiar way, front and back. The back side is rented to a middle-aged couple called the Perries. The front part has been vacant for years. Tuppence meets with the people of Sutton Chancellor. There is an elderly vicar, a talkative B&B landlady called Mrs. Copleigh, and a Miss Bligh who seems to run the parish.
Under the pretence of house hunting she tries to get more information about the house. Mrs Copleigh tells her a grim story about a spate of child killings some years ago. Then she fails to return home on the arranged day. A few days later Tommy gets a call from a hospital near Sutton Chancellor where Tuppence has been brought with severe concussion.
In Book 3 Tommy does some investigation on his own and finds that the painting was done by an artist called Boscowan. Tommy shows Mrs Boscowan the painting and she notes that there’s a boat in the picture that should not be there. Apparently the painting was altered at some point. Puzzled by this, Tommy gets a call from the doctor of Sunny Ridge. There have been some deaths that the doctor finds odd and he is worried about possible foul play. Tommy talks to an investigator friend, Ivor Smith, who hints that the house in Sutton Chancellor might have been used as a safe house for a criminal gang. He then finds a hidden letter from aunt Ada, in which she suspects that there is malice in Sunny Ridge.
In Book 4 Tuppence has recovered and they set out to investigate the mysterious house. They find an old doll that turns out to contain uncut diamonds. A party is arranged in Sutton Chancellor. Sir Phillip Starke, the local landowner, and Mrs Boscowan are invited. Tuppence gets the impression that Sir Phillip knows more about the whole affair. The next day Tuppence goes to the vicarage and confronts Miss Bligh, who she suspects was the one who hit her on the head.
Alone, she goes to the mystery house and to her surprise finds the missing Mrs Lancaster. She takes Tuppence to a secret part of the house and proceeds to tell her life story. After her child was aborted against her will she became unhinged and started killing children. The remark in Sunny Ridge hinted at this. One of the other residents had recognised her so had to be silenced. Miss Bligh, posing as a relative, resettled her into a new home. After her candour, Mrs. Lancaster then attempts to kill Tuppence.
Tuppence is saved just in time. It is revealed that Mrs Lancaster is actually the wife of Sir Phillip Starke. He had covered up her insanity and the crimes she committed. He was assisted in the cover-up by Miss Bligh, his former secretary and confidante. Tommy and Tuppence then return home.
Literary significance and reception
The novel is dedicated "to the many readers in this and other countries who write to me asking: 'What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence? What are they doing now?'"
Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) in The Guardian's issue of 13 December 1968 admitted that, "This is a thriller, not a detective story, and needless to say an ingenious and exciting one; but anyone can write a thriller (well, almost anyone), whereas a genuine Agatha Christie could be written by one person only."
Robert Barnard: "Begins rather well, with a vicious old aunt of Tommy's in a genteel old people's home, but declines rapidly into a welter of half-realised plots and a plethora of those conversations, all too familiar in late Christie, which meander on through irrelevancies, repetitions and inconsequentialities to end nowhere (as if she had sat at the feet of Samuel Beckett). Makes one appreciate the economy of dialogue – all point, or at least possible point, in early Christie."
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
The novel was adapted into a television movie in 2006 as part of the Marple series starring Geraldine McEwan even though Christie did not write Marple into the original story. The plot was altered with Tommy away on military intelligence business abroad, and Tommy's part of the story was re-written for Miss Marple. Tommy was portrayed as a self-important strong male, while Tuppence was portrayed as a maudlin alcoholic who carried a hip flask and who was resentful of her husband's success; she too was going to be signed-up by MI6 but who had then not been able to fulfil this ambition as she was pregnant with their first child. Tommy and Tuppence were played by Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi. The time in which this adaption is set is somewhere between the late 1940s and the early 1950s, but unclear and slightly inconsistent: a US B-17 (which left the UK soon after the war and was out of US service by 1949) overflies the village, yet US airmen wear the blue USAF uniform introduced in 1949, and there is also a 1951 Festival of Britain poster in the village shop.
- 1968, Collins Crime Club (London), November 1968, Hardcover, 256 pp
- 1968, Dodd Mead and Company (New York), 1968, Hardcover, 275 pp
- 1969, Pocket Books (New York), Paperback, 208 pp
- 1971, Fontana Books (Imprint of HarperCollins), Paperback, 191 pp
- 1987, Ulverscroft Large-print Edition, Hardcover, ISBN 0-7089-1571-X
- 2000, Signet (New York), Paperback, ISBN 0-451-20052-7
- Chris Peers, Ralph Spurrier and Jamie Sturgeon. Collins Crime Club – A checklist of First Editions. Dragonby Press (Second Edition) March 1999 (Page 15)
- John Cooper and B.A. Pyke. Detective Fiction – the collector's guide: Second Edition (pp. 82, 87) Scholar Press. 1994. ISBN 0-85967-991-8
- American Tribute to Agatha Christie
- The Guardian, 13 December 1968 (p. 10).
- The Observer, 17 November 1968 (p. 28)
- Barnard, Robert. A Talent to Deceive – an appreciation of Agatha Christie – Revised edition (p. 189). Fontana Books, 1990. ISBN 0-00-637474-3
- Mon petit doigt m'a dit... (2005) at the Internet Movie Database