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.
- 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: 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.
- First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Jerry Burton.
- Everyone Is a Suspect: From Jerry's point of view.
- I Choose to Stay: Jerry and Joanna came to Lymstock so that Jerry can recuperate from his injuries. The initial plan was to stay only for 6 months, but both eventually marry and settle down in the village.
- 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.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: In the Marple adaptation Jerry Burton, in the words of his sister, came through the war with flying colours but seems to find the peace utterly defeating. It's all part of the post-war setting of the series and the general air of Adaptational Angst Upgrade.
- The Unfavorite: Megan's mother and step-father have children on their own, and her parents clearly prefer them over her.
- 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.