Literature / The Moving Finger

Jerry and Joanna Burton, brother and sister from London society, take a country house in idyllic Lymstock so that Jerry can rest from injuries received in a wartime plane crash. Just as they are getting to know some of the town's rather strange inhabitants, they receive an anonymous letter accusing them of being lovers, instead of siblings. They are told that these anonymous "poison pen" letters have been circulating widely around the town, making various accusations that are unpleasant, but inaccurate. The situation takes an ugly turn when a woman commits suicide after receiving a letter, and the police move in to investigate.

A Miss Marple novel by Agatha Christie. The title is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, as well as a reference to Beshazzar's Feast in the Book of Daniel.

One of only two Christie novels in which the American edition substantially differs in content from the original British (the other is the Poirot novel Three Act Tragedy). The American version cuts out much of the incidental description and character development, focussing more tightly on the mystery.

This work contains examples of:

  • Absence of Evidence: Mrs Symmington's poison letter was a plant, and poor Agnes realised that the letter did not come through the letter box.
  • Abusive Parents: Of the emotionally abusive kind. Megan's mother and step-father usually ignore her, and it's observed by Jerry Burton and others that Megan's presence upsets what would have been a traditional nuclear family. It is evident that Megan feels this.
  • Adaptational Angst Upgrade: The ITV version turned Jerry's injuries into self-inflicted ones from a failed suicide.
  • Advertised Extra: Miss Marple herself only has a handful of scenes and doesn't even appear until about the final third of the novel.
  • Bluffing the Murderer: As engineered by Miss Marple. Megan agrees to be The Bait.
  • Brother-Sister Team: Jerry and Joanna Burton.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Dr Griffith is bumbling and awkward when faced with Joanna's bold, flirtatious, big-city personality, and his idea of courting is showing her pictures of diseased internal organs. He impresses the hell out of her when, as she's faked interest in medicine, he takes her along on a difficult case.
  • Camp Gay: Mr Pye, who is alluded to be gay, is also described as "abnormally feminine," can recognize makeup brand when seeing it on Joanna's face, and is included by the police as a suspect even though they insist, on experience, that the culprit must be female.
  • Driving Question: Who is sending these letters? But as Miss Marple points out, this was the wrong question.
  • Fair Play Whodunnit: Averted. While plenty of clues are dropped, the most crucial one, the one that explains the motive for the murder of Mrs. Symmington, is only revealed at the end of the story. It turns out Mr. Symmington was in love with Elsie Holland, and killed his wife so he could be with her.
    • It is hinted at and implied a couple of times (though only that... this is Agatha Christie, after all) the first is Jerry's reaction to Elsie Holland herself - he's been absolutely oblivious to the fairer sex, to Joanna's disbelief and slight worry. But one look at Elsie (described more or less as the physical embodiment of Helen of Troy, but minus the charisma) and he's shocked back to life. But she's a live-in nanny... for a man who seems completely oblivious to this. More importantly - as the Inspector lampshades and Miss Marple states in her summation - this beautiful, single girl doesn't get an anonymous letter (and in the normal run of this sort of thing, she should have received one of the very first). The only reason for this is that the letter writer cares for her deeply. Given that Elsie is unattached, what reason would a man have for hiding his interest in her, other than he's married? And the nearest available married man is her employer.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Jerry and Megan.
    • However, while Jerry proposes to Megan without them having been on an actual date they have known each other for a good six months at this point. Not to mention, after her mother's murder Megan comes to stay with the Burtons, during which she and Jerry have several long philosophical chats, with more implied. Basically, at the time of the proposal, the two concerned have actually got to know each other very well - just not on a romantic basis.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Jerry Burton.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: From Jerry's point of view.
  • I Choose to Stay: Jerry and Joanna both end up marrying and settling down in Lymstock.
  • Important Character, Important Evidence
  • Little Old Lady Investigates: Obviously, as a Miss Marple novel.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Mr Symmington. Also, to a lesser extent, Miss Griffiths.
  • Never One Murder: Poor Agnes.
  • Never Suicide
  • Ripped from the Headlines: In story. Mr Symmington got the idea of poison pen letters from a couple of other publicised cases, as a way to make his wife's murder look like suicide.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Megan.
  • The Unfavorite: Megan, very obviously.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: After Megan's mother is murdered and her stepfather is arrested for the crime, no mention is made of who would take care of her two young half-brothers.
    • Technically, Megan would be their next-of-kin, unless their father's will stated otherwise, which is probable, especially as he'd probably be surprised to think of Megan being married within that year. However, it's implied that- as with most boys of their class at the time- they will be spending most of the rest of their childhood at boarding school.
      • When Jerry's playing eye-witness to Megan's faux-blackmail/Playing The Bait, he watches an exchange between Symmington and Elsie; Symmington says he's already arranged for his older son to start the next school term at his Alma Mater, but he's going to wait another year (or even two) to do the same for his younger son... presumably, so that Elsie will stick around long enough for him to be out of socially-enforced mourning and give him the opportunity to court and marry her - which is what he committed two murders for.
    • While it's pretty clear that Megan doesn't care or feel much affection for her mother or stepfather (for good reason), there's no indication that she feels the same way about her half-brothers. I'm pretty sure the narrative mentions that she frequently has tea with them and Elsie... and who else would look after them on Elsie's days off? Granted, some of it may be lack of any friends her own age (honestly, it seems like Megan is the only young adult of her social class in Little Lymstock!) but there's no reason to think that Megan and Jerry wouldn't be happy to have the boys stay with them during their school holidays.