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Literature / A Pocket Full of Rye

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A Pocket Full of Rye is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, published in 1953.

Businessman and all-around Jerkass Rex Fortescue takes a sip of tea in his London office and promptly dies. When he is discovered to have been poisoned by taxine, which takes a few hours, suspicion shifts from the office workers to his household, where he had breakfast. That household includes Rex's Gold Digger Trophy Wife Adele, his wimpy but dutiful son Percival, Percival's unhappy wife Jennifer, and Rex's daughter Elaine, who is the only one that cares that Rex is dead. Domestic staff includes Gladys Martin, the dimwitted parlor maid, and Mary Dove, the housemaid who seems to know more than she's telling. The household grows when, very soon after the murder, Rex's Black Sheep younger son Lance returns from a long sojourn in Africa.

It's an Agatha Christie novel so there's Never One Murder, and a subsequent one draws the attention of Miss Jane Marple. Miss Marple finagles her way into an invitation to the Fortescues' household to ensure justice is done.

The book was made into a Russian film, Tayna chyornykh drozdov ("The Secret of the Blackbirds"), in 1983, and has been adapted twice for television, first as a two-part episode of BBC's Miss Marple series in 1985, starring Joan Hickson in the title role; then on ITV's Marple starring Julia McKenzie in 2009.


  • Affair Letters: Adele Fortescue was having an affair with one Vivian Dubois. She kept his letters in her desk, in what the police thought was a rather obvious secret drawer.
  • The Alibi: The killer had the perfect alibi for killing Rex - he wasn't in London at the time of the poisoning. He arranged for a patsy to do the poisoning for him.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Discussed. One of the reasons Miss Marple comes to suspect Lance Fortescue of being the murderer is because his wife has a tendency to fall for rather ethically challenged men. Her first husband, Don, was a "arrogant, insubordinate" pilot who died in the Battle of Britain and whom she doesn't think could have handled peacetime. Her second husband was an aristocrat with an unsavory reputation who committed suicide before the law could catch up with him. Her third husband is the Black Sheep of the wealthy Fortescue family at the heart of the book's plot. In fairness to Pat all three seem to have treated her beautifully.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Fortescues, described by their housekeeper as 'really all quite odious' - Corrupt Corporate Executive Rex, his Gold Digger wife Adele, hypocrite Percival, and Black Sheep Lance. The most likable member is Elaine, who's the only one to show any real grief when her father dies.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing:
    • Prim, pure, slightly sinister Mary Dove, the housekeeper. She's actually a crook in league with a gang of thieves who have a system of robbing wealthy houses soon after Mary Dove leaves her position at each house.
    • Lance implies it's his stiff, boring, reliable brother Val who actually forged the cheques which saw Lance cut off from the family business all those years ago. Lance is lying, and despite his superficial charm and dashing good looks, Lance is every bit as bad as everyone always thought and worse — he's the one who poisoned his father, forged the documents that let him back into the business, strangled Gladys Martin after leading her astray (in the guise of her supposed boyfriend Albert Evans), and poisoned his stepmother Adele before she could inherit. Played with in that in his mind, he was doing it all so that he could turn over a new leaf for Pat.
  • Black Sheep: Lance Fortescue, who was turned out of the family business for (supposedly) forging cheques and moved to Kenya; as the story begins, he's on the verge of returning. Subverted in that Lance's daring but shady dealings put him closer to his father than any of his siblings, but that wasn't good for business and his recklessness got him caught.
  • Blackmail: Mary Dove takes the opportunity to blackmail Jennifer Fortescue for planting the blackbirds throughout the house. The very rare case of a blackmailer in a Christie novel who isn't killed off. Presumably it helps that Jennifer, despite her father being a man Rex Fortescue apparently let die in Africa, isn't the killer and was only playing on her father-in-law's guilt, as well as the fact that Mary was made to return the money.
  • Connect the Deaths: The killer is following the nursery rhyme "Sing a song of sixpence." Miss Marple eventually figures out that it's a ruse to conceal the real motive.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Rex Fortescue is a self-made man who's gone from Rags to Riches since emigrating to England, but has also come under heavy scrutiny for his business practices. While he's never been charged with anything, many of the deals he's struck have only been barely this side of the law.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Rex Fortescue is said to be suffering from "general paralysis of the insane", that is, erratic and megalomanic behavior and the onset of dementia. He's nearly wrecked the family company. The book never mentions that the underlying cause of this disease is syphilis.
  • The Ditz: Gladys the maid, called a stupid, unattractive girl by everyone, even Miss Marple. It... doesn't end well for her — taken in by Albert Evans, she plants the taxine in Rex Fortescue's marmalade, believing it's a Truth Serum, and, too fearful of going to the police, is strangled before she can talk.
  • Driven to Suicide: Pat Fortescue's previous husband, Lord Frederick Anstice, died by suicide several years before the story starts, shooting himself before an inquiry into his race horses could uncover unspecified misdeeds.
  • The Dutiful Son: Percival Fortescue makes a dull, respectable showing against his dashing younger brother Lance, the family Black Sheep who was kicked out of the family business years ago.
  • Family Theme Naming: The Patriarch Rex Fortescue started by changing his own name — he's said to have emigrated from eastern Europe, and the patronym -escu is common in Romania. "Rex" is Latin for king, and Rex seems to have gone out of his way to seek out associations with the King Arthur legend: he named his sons Lance(lot) and Val (Percival) and his daughter Elaine (of Astolat, as appearing in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and "The Lady of Shalott").note  Val would then go on to marry a woman named Jennifer (Guinevere).
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: Percival Fortescue met his wife Jennifer when she nursed him through pneumonia. Played with in that Jennifer didn't fall in love with him, but took advantage of his feelings as his father had caused hers to go bankrupt and she believed she could take revenge by marrying him and inheriting his father's money.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Lancelot and Percival Fortescue. In Lance's words: "I blew my pocket money, he saved his. I had disreputable but entertaining friends, Val made what he called 'worthwhile contacts.'" Percival went to work for the family business, while Lance filched cash from the business and got kicked out of the family.
  • Foreshadowing: Towards the end, Inspector Neele reads a newspaper story about "uranium deposits in Tanganyika." That turns out to be part of the motive—the supposedly worthless Blackbird Mine has a lot of uranium, and Lance wants the mine.
  • Forgotten Trope: "Uranium fever", a counterpart to Gold Fever from the early days of the atomic age, where uranium deposits and uranium mines were a common trope. It's part of the motive: the Blackbird Mine didn't have gold but it turns out that it had a lot of uranium, Lance knows this, and he wants it.
  • Gold Digger: Rex Fortescue's second wife Adele only married him for his money, and spends her days out shopping or at golf with other men. Mary Dove describes her as "on the lookout for big money."
  • Hand Wave: The ending reveals that Lance got Gladys to administer the poison by tricking her into thinking it was truth serum—ok, sure. But how did Lance manage to get Gladys to dump loose rye grain into Rex's pocket? Miss Marple basically shrugs and says that somehow, he must have.
  • Hypocrite: Val, for all his protests, must be complicit in his father's less honest business decisions on some level. He's too involved in Consolidated Investments to be as ignorant as he claims.
  • I Have No Son!:
    • Lance was disowned after forging his father's checks. Whenever Lance came up in conversation, Rex Fortescue would say "He's no son of mine."
    • Then Mrs. MacKenzie says "I have no daughter" because she thought her daughter Helen was insufficiently dedicated to the cause of revenge against the Fortescues.
  • Info Dump: Inspector Neele's interview with Miss Griffith at the office sketches out the members of the Fortescue family. Then his interview with Mary Dove fills in some detail, like how Val is stingy and Adele is a Gold Digger.
  • Ironic Nursery Rhyme: "Sing a song of sixpence" used as the pattern for three murders.
  • It's Personal: Miss Marple knew Gladys Martin, and gave Gladys her first job in service after Gladys left her orphanage. She comes to Yewtree Lodge to find justice for Gladys.
  • Mystery Magnet: Miss Marple's tendency to get involved with murder cases is a theme throughout the books, but in this one she directly discusses it with Inspector Neele.
    Miss Marple: I don't know how it is, but I so often seem to get mixed up in the things that are really no concern of mine. Crimes, I mean, and peculiar happenings.
  • Naturalized Name: Rex Fortescue's surname was originally Fontescu, reflecting his family history in Central Europe. He changed it to seem more British.
  • Never One Murder: A common Christie trope but unusual in how early the murder comes. Adele Fortescue is found poisoned less than halfway through the book, and Gladys is found dead in the backyard just four pages later.
  • Noodle Incident: It's said that Rex Fortescue didn't just swindle his partner MacKenzie out of the Blackbird Mine, Rex somehow "left him to die." How this happened isn't explained.
  • Nursery Rhyme: "Sing a song of sixpence", quoted at length after Miss Marple figures out that the murders fit the pattern of the rhyme. This turns out to be a deliberate effort to confuse the issue, making a conventional Inheritance Murder seem like something more convoluted and strange.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Rex Fortescue threatens to cut off his daughter Elaine without a cent if she marries poor schoolteacher and avowed communist Gerald Wright. Elaine would have married him anyway, but Gerald was only interested in Elaine for her money and promptly dumped her. At least until Rex died, leaving Elaine a large amount of money... Interestingly, Miss Marple is convinced the marriage will turn out well, as she sees the gold-hunting groom as a man who will respect and be kind to the woman who made his dreams (a school) come true where he'd resent a poor girl marrying for love for ruining his life.
  • Proof Dare: When Inspector Neele accuses Mary Dove of being Ruby MacKenzie, Mary challenges him to prove it, "if you can." It turns out that she isn't Ruby, although she is a crook.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: The elderly and extremely blunt Miss Ramsbottom. When Pat says her second husband killed himself, Miss Ramsbottom says "Your fault?".
  • Sexual Euphemism: Inspector Neele implies this when informed that Adele Fortescue is "playing golf" with Vivian Dubois, but nobody knows which golf course they went to.
  • Sexy Secretary: The narration describes Miss Grosvenor, Rex's secretary, as "an incredibly glamorous blonde". There's office gossip that Miss Grosvenor and Rex are lovers but the narration clarifies that they are not, that Rex hired Miss Grosvenor as eye candy (since he already has a Gold Digger of a Trophy Wife) to help with business negotiations by confusing the other side. Lance is disappointed when he comes to the office and finds that Percival has replaced Miss Grosvenor with a much less attractive (but cheaper and more competent) secretary.
  • Shout-Out: Inspector Neele describes Miss Dove as "The admirable Miss Crichton", a reference to the exceedingly competent butler of James M. Barrie's play The Admirable Crichton.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Lance and Pat play chess, marking them off as more intellectual than the rest of the Fortescue family.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Rex is killed by taxine mixed into a jar of marmalade, as he was the only person in the household who ate it. Adele was killed by potassium cyanide dropped into her cup of tea.
  • Title Drop: Inspector Neele wonders how Rex Fortescue came to have "a pocket full of rye." The title is dropped again when Miss Marple makes the connection to the nursery rhyme.
  • Trophy Wife: Rex Fortescue went out and married Adele, a hot babe thirty years younger than he was. It worked out as well as it usually does, with Adele carrying on an affair with her golf partner.
  • Unintentional Final Message: After she gets back home, Miss Marple receives a letter that Gladys wrote and mailed after Rex Fortescue was killed and mere hours before she herself was murdered, but which was accidentally delivered to the wrong address. It makes Miss Marple cry, but it also contains a photo of Lance with Gladys that will be useful in getting the murderer convicted.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: The Blackbird Mine was considered worthless when first assayed because it didn't have any gold. True, it doesn't have gold, but it does have uranium - something that wasn't all that valuable when the mine was first assayed before WWII, but is priceless in the fifties.
  • You Know Too Much: Gladys was killed to prevent her from revealing that Lance was her suitor, Albert Evans.